WWDA Submission to the Legislation Committee for Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts on the ‘Telstra (Transition to Full Private Ownership) Bill 2003’


The Telstra (Transition to Full Private Ownership) Bill 2003 (the Bill) proposes to amend the Telstra Corporation Act 1991 to provide a framework for the sale of the Government’s 50.1 per cent equity in Telstra Corporation Limited, leading to full private ownership. The Bill gives the Commonwealth the flexibility to use a wide range of approaches to conduct the sell down of Telstra either through a single tranche, several tranches or other approaches such as placements. The Senate has referred the provisions of this bill to the Committee for inquiry and report by 30 October 2003. This document is WWDA’s response to the Telstra (Transition to Full Private Ownership) Bill 2003. Copyright Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) 2003.


1. About Women with Disabilities Australia (WWDA)

Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) is the peak organisation for women with all types of disabilities in Australia. WWDA was established in 1994, and became incorporated in 1995. It is a federating body of individuals and networks in each State and Territory of Australia and is made up of women with disabilities and associated organisations. WWDA is run by women with disabilities, for women with disabilities. It is the only organisation of its kind in Australia and one of only a very small number internationally. WWDA is inclusive and does not discriminate against any disability. WWDA is unique, in that it operates as a national disability organisation; a national women’s organisation; and a national human rights organisation.

Women with Disabilities Australia (WWDA) is a national voice for the needs and rights of women with disabilities and a national force to improve the lives and life chances of women with disabilities. The objectives of Women with Disabilities Australia (WWDA) are:

  • to actively promote the participation of women with disabilities in all aspects of social, economic, political and cultural life;
  • to advocate on issues of concern to women with disabilities in Australia; and
  • to seek to be the national representative organisation for women with disabilities in Australia by: undertaking systemic advocacy; providing policy advice; undertaking research; and providing support, information and education.

WWDA is managed by a National Management Committee, which is made up of women with disabilities and which is elected each year at the Annual General Meeting. The members of WWDA are actively involved in the decision making processes of the organisation. All programs and activities conducted by WWDA are in direct response to the identified issues and concerns of women with disabilities in Australia. WWDA is a registered charitable organisation with Public Benevolent Institution status which means that donations made to the organisation over $2 are tax deductible.

Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) is at the forefront of support and advocacy, with, and on behalf of, women with disabilities in Australia, both individually and collectively. WWDA’s major roles, functions, and activities include (but are not restricted to):

  • Provision of direct practical assistance and advocacy to individual women with disabilities;
  • Provision of systemic advocacy for women with disabilities collectively;
  • Research and policy development;
  • Project development and implementation;
  • Addressing the issue of empowerment and women with disabilities, both individually and collectively;
  • Quality Improvement

Key areas of focus for the work of WWDA have been to raise awareness of the needs of women with disabilities in relation to key government policy areas, and in particular to address:

  • the disadvantage of women with disabilities in relation to access to information and communication technology (ICT);
  • violence against women with disabilities and to effect policy change in relation to relevant services;
  • the human rights abuse of women with disabilities who are sterilised without consent;
  • the development of leadership and mentoring skills amongst women with disabilities;
  • the need for representation of women with disabilities on government, industry and service-related advisory committees, reference groups and other consultation processes;
  • the need to strengthen the network of women with disabilities at state, national and international levels.

2. The Position of Women With Disabilities in Australia

Women with disabilities are identified as being one of the most marginalised and disadvantaged groups in Australia. They are disadvantaged relative to women in general and to men with disabilities.

  • There are 1.8 million women with disabilities in Australia (approximately half of the 20% of the Australian population who have disabilities). There are more women with disabilities in the older age groups, most notably those 79 years onwards.
  • Of the 1.1 million people with a profound or severe core activity restriction, 616,000 are women with disabilities (56%). Among older people with disabilities, the rates of severe and profound disability are markedly greater for females.
  • Women with disabilities are less likely to be in paid work than other women, men with disabilities or the population as a whole. Men with disabilities are almost twice as likely to have jobs as women with disabilities.
  • Women with disabilities’ participation rates in the labour market are lower than men with disabilities’ participation rates across all disability levels and types.
  • Women with disabilities earn less than their male counterparts. Fifty-one per cent of women with a disability earn less than $200 per week compared to 36% of men with a disability. Only 16% of women with a disability earn over $400 per week, compared to 33% of men with a disability.
  • Women with disabilities are less likely than their male counterparts to receive a senior secondary and/or tertiary education. Only 16% of all women with disabilities are likely to have any secondary education compared to 28% of men with disabilities.
  • Women with disabilities are substantially over-represented in public housing, comprising over 40% of all persons in Australia aged 15-64 in this form of tenure. Women with disabilities are less likely to own their own houses than their male counterparts.
  • Women with disabilities pay the highest level of their gross income on housing, yet are in the lowest income earning bracket. Some women with disabilities pay almost 50 per cent of their gross income on housing and housing related costs.
  • Women with disabilities have a consistently higher level of unmet need than their male counterparts across all disability levels and types. Women with disabilities are less likely to receive appropriate services than men with equivalent needs or other women. 60% of recipients of disability support services funded under the Commonwealth/State Disability Agreement are men with disabilities.
  • Access to telecommunications is a major area of inequity for women with disabilities in Australia. A national survey in 1999 found that 84% of women with disabilities are restricted in their access to telecommunications. 49% of women with disabilities are restricted by issues of affordability; 76% by poor design of telecommunications equipment; 20% by lack of training; 20% by lack of information; and 18% by discrimination.

Explanation of the above statistics is given in Appendix 1.


3. Background to addressing the disadvantage to women with disabilities in relation to ICT

Since the late nineties, WWDA has been concerned that the development of ICT is occurring in such a way as to restrict many women with disabilities from having equitable access to it. To investigate the use of ICT by women with disabilities, WWDA has undertaken two studies:

1. “Telecommunications and Women with Disabilities”, WWDA, 1999.
2. “Telecommunications Use by Women with Disabilities in remote, rural and regional Australia”, WWDA 2001.

In seeking to address these inequities, WWDA has representation on a number of government and non-government telecommunications consumer advisory bodies [1]. (WWDA is supported in this by the Commonwealth through the Consumer Representation Grant Program of the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts [DCITA]).

The WWDA platform in telecommunications is for ICT information, services and equipment to be designed to be accessible and available to women with disabilities at affordable cost. In addition WWDA encourages all sectors of ICT industry to consult people with disabilities in the inaugural stages of design, and the incorporation of universal design features in equipment. Further WWDA promotes the ideal of maximising connectivity of all ICT equipment.

Connectivity is defined as “access, ability and affordability” [2]. Access includes the ability to gain physical access to equipment and have access to assistive equipment to enable its use. Importantly access includes ‘Any-to-Any connectivity’ where design of new ICT services and equipment must be done to maintain compatibility with assistive equipment. Ability includes having the physical and cognitive ability to use the equipment or be aided by assistive equipment to do so; and in the case of Information Technology includes training issues (rate of learning, class size, access to venue). Affordability involves the capability of someone accessing ICT to do so without incurring substantial cost relative to income.


4. Response to the Telstra (Transition to Full Private Ownership) Bill 2003

WWDA believes that the transition to full private ownership of Telstra would not be in the interests of the people of Australia, and would have a particular negative effect on people with disabilities, people in low income groups and people in remote and rural Australia.

Telstra’s current position is as the Primary Universal Service Provider (PUSP). It owns most of the fixed line infrastructure in Australia, and has the major market share in fixed line, domestic long distance, international calls, mobile and internet access. Once privatised, Telstra could capitalise on this advantage in an anti-competitive way. Therefore from a consumer point of view there is no advantage. Telstra’s current domination of the ICT sector can be used to advantage to provide better services and pricing and to enhance its broadband coverage. Moreover, as a private company there will be profit/shareholder pressures which could have a detrimental effect on many of Telstra’s current obligations to undertake non-commercially viable activities. WWDA believes that ICT is an essential service, an asset for all Australians and as such Telstra as the major carrier should remain in majority Commonwealth control.

WWDA’s concerns extend to the following specific areas:

4.1. Disability Equipment

Many people with disabilities require assistive equipment to enable them to access ICT. At present, under the Universal Service Obligation (USO), Telstra is required to provide reasonable access to the standard telephone, payphones and digital data services. WWDA is concerned that all competitors in the market should be required to also provide Disability Equipment to customers.

The current arrangement whereby wholesalers can give their customers access to the Telstra Disability Equipment Program is not entirely satisfactory. Naturally, Telstra charges wholesalers for this service on a cost recovery basis, and this cost may then be passed on to consumers who subscribe to the wholesaler’s service. If this is done it has the potential to make the cost of equipment from non-Telstra providers more expensive for consumers with disability. This restricts the provider choices for people in this group.

WWDA urges the Commonwealth to legislate for the development and dispensing of ICT Disability Equipment to be done by a separate government entity, most suitably through DCITA

4.2. ICT Equipment

Similarly, WWDA urges the Commonwealth to actively promote:

  • the incorporation of universal design features in ICT equipment;
  • consultation with people with disabilities at the inaugural stages of development of ICT equipment; and
  • ‘Any-to-Any’ connectivity is maintained with the development of ICT equipment.

These initiatives need continued support from the Commonwealth to members of the Australian Communications Industry Forum (ACIF), and more importantly to providers which are not yet ACIF members.

4.3. Universal Service Obligation

WWDA believes that competitor carriers and service providers have been allowed to enter the ICT market without being obliged to consider the needs of special groups.

WWDA cannot see how a privatised Telstra could be required to adhere to the USO if its competitors are not so constrained. This seems to be an inbuilt anti-competitive feature. Yet it is essential for the equitable delivery of ICT services to special groups, and to remote, rural areas.

In addition the USO needs to be updated to include provisions for standards of broadband delivery; fixed line internet delivery, and mobile phone service and network coverage.

Whilst the Bill carries provisions for Telstra to maintain its obligations as the PUSP, WWDA believes that all carriers and service providers should have similar obligations. WWDA believes that some form of carrier licence conditions, similar to the USO should apply to all competitors.

4.4. Infrastructure

WWDA believes that Telstra has a natural monopoly on the fixed line network in Australia. As it is not feasible to separate the infrastructure from the service components of Telstra, competitors would always be at a disadvantage in having to purchase access to the infrastructure.

For this reason, WWDA opposes the privatisation of Telstra.

4.5. Mobile Phones

WWDA believes that the USO needs to be updated to include conditions for the provision of adequate and accessible mobile phone services to all Australians.

There is a need for better mobile network coverage both in urban and remote, rural and regional Australia.

However WWDA believes that expansion of coverage needs to be done in an environmentally acceptable way. Providers need to share antennae so that a minimum number are needed.

Once again the provision of coverage in non-commercially viable areas cannot be done in a competitive way, and could lead to piecemeal provision of services, where Provider A services Area A, Provider B wins the contract for Area B and the two areas have incompatible networks.

For this reason, WWDA opposes the privatisation of Telstra.

4.6. Payphones

WWDA believes that the payphone market has been opened up to other suppliers without USO constraints being imposed. Moreover the market is inherently non-competitive with exclusive contracts being let to one particular supplier on one particular area, eg. a shopping complex.

Further, the provision of payphones in non-commercially viable areas will fall increasingly to Telstra. At the same time it is likely that Telstra’s market share in the commercially viable areas will decrease. The former service is likely to suffer as pressure for returning profit to shareholders increases.

For this reason, WWDA opposes the privatisation of Telstra.

4.7. Rural, Remote and Regional Australia

WWDA believes that there is no guarantee that services to rural remote and regional Australia will continue to improve under a privatised Telstra and privatised ICT market. The pressure to deliver profits to shareholders will preclude proper spending on non-commercially viable areas. Despite having regulatory reviews of services there will be a gradually widening gap between the qualities of services to these areas compared to those provided in urban Australia. There will be no incentive for competitors to enter into such areas.

For this reason, WWDA opposes the privatisation of Telstra.

4.8. Financing Sale and Use of Proceeds

WWDA is wary of the proposed method of sale, especially with respect to the creation of a hybrid-security issuer company as a wholly owned Commonwealth company, which will allow the Commonwealth to appropriate money to issue the hybrid securities. This strategy seems to have too great a margin for error if the 4-5 year fixed dividend is set at an incorrect level. It could mean that the anticipated profit then would not be realised.

WWDA is concerned that the anticipated revenue from the sale (of a minimum) of $30 billion will do little to help Australia’s development in the long term. The government bodies which will need to be put in place to regulate the market, and ensure equitable access to all Australians will also erode this profit. It is speculated that in the long term there will be a cost to government from the full privatisation of the ICT market.

WWDA believes it is not in Australia’s best interest that the proceeds of the sale be used to retire debt, as is proposed.

For all the above reasons, WWDA is opposed to the privatisation of Telstra.

4.9. Foreign Control

WWDA believes that the restriction on ownership, including a limit on foreign ownership imposed by the Telstra Corporation Act 1991 will not be sufficient to prevent a high degree of foreign ownership in a privatised Telstra. Similarly, the proviso that the Director must be an Australian citizen is a token limitation, since a prospective director could take out citizenship.

WWDA believe that buyers in this third sale will be large corporations, and predominantly multi-national or foreign-owned companies.

Since all ICT competitors are foreign controlled, WWDA opposes the privatisation of Telstra. It is essential for Telstra to remain Australian, and remain a predominantly Commonwealth entity.

4.10. Regional Telecommunications Industry Review Committee (RTIRC)

The Bill provides for the establishment of the RTIRC to regularly review regional, remote and rural services. It is proposed that this committee consist of a Chair and two others on a part-time basis. WWDA does not believe that this set up will be adequate to ensure that services in regional, remote and rural Australia continue to improve, and keep pace with improvements in urban Australia.

For this reason, WWDA opposes the privatisation of Telstra.

4.11. Regulation

WWDA believes that the loss of ability to regulate the operation of a privatised Telstra will be detrimental for all Australian consumers. The Bill provides for the removal of Freedom of Information Regulations once the Commonwealth ownership is less than 50%. At this stage, Telstra would also be freed from a range of specific reporting, accountability, employee occupational health and safety regulations relevant to Commonwealth-related activities and responsibilities.

This would lead to further erosion of the quality of ICT services in non-commercially viable areas of operation. For this reason WWDA opposes the privatisation of Telstra.

4.11. Effect of Privatisation

WWDA believes that the overall effect of privatisation is to shift the emphasis from efficient delivery of services for consumers to economical delivery of services to maximise profits for shareholders. The continual hunt for the latter will inevitably lead to staff cuts, as we are currently seeing with the privatised Commonwealth Bank. No matter what rhetoric is put forward as justification, significant staff cuts cannot be achieved without comparable cuts in services. In addition, the current trend for disproportionate remuneration for company executives will also erode the funding available to development and delivery of services.

For these reasons, WWDA opposes the privatisation of Telstra.


5. Conclusion

WWDA believes that there are no justifiable or valid reasons for the Transition to Full Ownership of Telstra now or at a time in the future.


Appendix One: The Position of Women With Disabilities in Australia

The principal source of population data for disability comes from the Australian Bureau of Statistics Disability Surveys, which have been conducted in 1981, 1988, 1993 and 1998. Due to the ABS user pays system, the only material which is easily available from these surveys is that which has already been published, and the published material does not necessarily provide the depth of information required. For example, very little disability data collected by the ABS contains gender breakdowns. Similarly, the major publications published by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare ‘Australia’s Welfare’ and ‘Australia’s Health’ contain data on people with disabilities in Australia, but tends to focus on age breakdown and disability type rather than gender breakdowns.

The limited statistical information on gender and disability which is available is spread over a wide range of services and sources, and has not been collected together by governments to give a cohesive picture of the status of women with disabilities.

Other Sources: Anderson 1996; Frohmader 1998; WWDA 1998; WWDA 1999, ABS 1999, ABS 1993, AIHW 1998, AIHW 1999, AIHW 2000, Currie 1996, Brady & Grover 1997, Temby 1997, Cooper & Temby 1997, Horsley 1991, Binstead 1997, Rutnam, Martin-Murray & Smith 1999, Warburton et al 1999.


Endnotes

[1] Australian Communications Industry Forum Disability Advisory Body; Telstra’s Disability Forum (WWDA Representative is permanent Co-Chair), Disability Equipment Program Consumer Advisory Group, Consumer Consultative Council (Brisbane); and the Blind Citizens of Australia’s Telecommunications Disability Consumer Representation Project.

[2] Bridging the Digital Divide: a study into connectivity issues for disadvantaged people, Rooksby.E, et al., prepared for ACT Information Management by the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics (Charles Sturt University), 2002