Leader of the Nationals, Mark Vaile in Lismore.
Leader of the Nationals, Mark Vaile in Lismore.

Nationals boss in town


THE Nationals MP at the heart of a new row over Telstra arrived yesterday in Lismore, saying he did not want the Telco giant sold at all.

Barnaby Joyce ? the man who has given the Howard Government its majority in the Senate ? said he and the rest of the Queensland Nationals did not want Australia's biggest phone and Internet service provider sold out of Government control.

However, Senator Joyce said he would wear the sale, provided five strict conditions laid out by the Queensland Nationals at the weekend were met.

His stance drew the ire of Federal MP for Page Ian Causley.

He attacked Sen Joyce's stand, saying he should confine his comment to the party room.

Sen Joyce's comments came as the Nationals met in Lismore to discuss the sale of Telstra and other issues, and on the eve of a Northern Rivers visit today by new Telstra boss Solomon Trujillo.

Sen Joyce's conditions centre on a demand that people living in rural and regional Australia receive the same services at the same cost as people living in the capital cities.

If those conditions were not met, Sen Joyce said he would cross the floor and vote with the Labor Party, the Democrats and The Greens to block the sale.

Sen Joyce also dismissed Nationals Leader and Deputy Prime Minister Mark Vaile's plan to set up a telecommunications future fund, first proposed by Northern Rivers Regional Organisation of Councils president Ernie Bennett.

That plan, which Mr Vaile yesterday credited Cr Bennett for, would put at least $2 billion into an investment fund, the proceeds of which would be used to provide telecommunications infrastructure in regional Australia.

Cr Bennett said the $2 billion would generate about $100 million per year in interest, roughly the same amount the Federal Government had put into regional telecommunication services each year for the past nine years.

Cr Bennett yesterday agreed that the amount put into the fund may need to be higher, but Sen Joyce said the Government would be better off keeping a blank cheque for phone and Internet services in the bush.

"Currently our policy is that we (the Queensland Nationals) are opposed to the further sale of Telstra; but we're trying to work with our Coalition colleagues and protect the interests of regional Australia of which Lismore is a part," Sen Joyce said.

Mr Vaile backed his new senator's goals for Telstra, saying the Government was already working towards them through things such as the universal service obligation which requires phone companies to subsidise services in the bush and the future fund, which aimed to guarantee ongoing funding for regional phone and Internet infrastructure.

"The ability to maintain parity is a very important principal, which the Government is working towards," Mr Vaile said.

Sen Joyce said he had been elected by Queenslanders and he had to represent their interests and Queensland Nationals' policies.

Telstra Country-Wide managing director Doug Campbell said funding for regional services could not be maintained under existing government/industry arrangements.

Mr Campbell said the Universal Service Obligation Industry Fund, which takes a percentage of earnings from telecommunication companies for regional services, was not earning enough to maintain regional services.

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