Coonan defends opposition to Telstra sale

The NSW Farmers' Association released a survey today showing 80 percent of farmers are opposed to the full sale of Telstra.

The survey claims telecommunication services in rural Australia are abysmal and more than half of respondents reported unreliable and inferior services.

The survey has been released at a time when the federal government is putting the finishing touches on legislation to sell its remaining 49 percent stake in Telstra which is expected to raise around $30 billion.

Federal Parliament is expected to start debating full privatization in early August which would give the sale the go-ahead next year.

Earlier today the Primer Minister John Howard held talks with the new Telstra chief executive Solomon Trujillo at Parliament House.

But NSW Farmers' Association president Mal Peters said the needs of rural NSW had been sidelined in the debate and claimed telecommunication services are a "bloody joke".

He said rural telco services are a basic human right but for those in the country sending an e-mail can take up to two hours.

"We are very concerned when we hear from the government that things are good enough, because very simply put they're not," Peters said. "We have a hell of a long way to go before they are up to scratch."

He said farmers still have patchy mobile phone coverage and limited, if any, high-speed broadband Internet services.

Farmers will not support the sale of Telstra, he said, until the government came up with some guarantees and tougher regulations to ensure rural consumers had a decent level of service after the telco is fully privatized.

Responding to the survey, Communications Minister Helen Coonan said the government has spent more than $1 billion on phone and Internet services in rural and regional Australia.

"Since the election I have travelled to 11 out of the 14 NSW electorates surveyed by the NSW Farmers' (Association) and a total of 43 communities across Australia, and while there are some legitimate concerns about services, on the whole I have had positive feedback," she said.

Senator Coonan said she would reintroduce legislation in August covering the issue of making sure Telstra's services in the bush were up to scratch. The legislation was previously blocked in the Senate by Labor and the minor parties.

Prime Minister John Howard also joined the debate today claiming the government's recent upgrades will pay off.

Howard said the solution to rural services doesn't lie in having a telecommunications company that is half owned by the government and half in private hands.

"Eventually, the absurdity of that arrangement has to begin to affect services, and that is one of the, if not the, fundamental reason we remain committed to the policy of the sale of Telstra," he said.

Howard said Australians were more interested in a guarantee about the future availability of technology upgrades "rather than having some rooted philosophical warmth towards total government or even majority-government ownership of a telephone company".

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