May revolt over Telstra sell-off


NORTHERN Rivers councils want the Federal Government to protect the future of regional telecommunications services with a future fund-style project.

Northern Rivers Regional Organisation of Councils (NOROC) president and Kyogle mayor Ernie Bennett will today outline plans for a $4 billion package he says would protect regional phone and Internet services beyond the full sale of Telstra.

Called the Regional Development Fund, the package would operate along similar lines to Treasurer Peter Costello's future fund, which aims to set aside $124 billion by 2020 to cover public sector superannuation.

Based on a $4 billion pool of cash, possibly paid for by the proceeds of the sale of Telstra, the fund would be able to use interest from its earnings to pay for regional telecommunications infrastructure.

Speaking at a meeting in Sydney on regional telecommunications services, Cr Bennett will today urge 21 regional councils to join Northern Rivers councils in insisting on the fund as a prerequisite for the sale of Telstra.

Cr Bennett will tell the meeting that money from the sale not used for the fund should be spent on major national infrastructure projects, such as the Pacific Highway.

However, even with those demands met, Cr Bennett said he did not believe Telstra was ready to be sold.

He said greater broadband access and mobile coverage in the bush, and stronger protection for public service operations such as the Triple-0 emergency number, were still needed.

A spokeswoman for Federal Communications Minister Helen Coonan refused to comment on the NOROC plans, saying the Government would not consider allocating funds from the sale of Telstra until it was ready to sell the company.

She said the Government would sell its remaining stake in Telstra only when services in regional Australia were adequate, there was value for taxpayers as the major shareholder in Telstra, and the Senate passed the legislation needed to sell it.

At present, none of those conditions had been met, the spokeswoman said.

Federal Page MP Ian Causley declined to comment for this story.

Cr Bennett said the Regional Development Fund could be used to replace infrastructure in the future.

However, the fund's real value would be in paying for new infrastructure made necessary by unforeseen technology changes.

In such a scenario, without something like the fund in place, services to region- al areas would fall, he said.

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