Subscriber Trunk Dialling Call Zones

About this Item
SpeakersCrittenden Mr Paul; Armstrong Mr Ian; Beamer Ms Diane; Hartcher Mr Chris; McManus Mr Ian
BusinessUrgent Motion

Page: 5141

    Urgent Motion

    Mr CRITTENDEN (Wyong—Parliamentary Secretary) [3.50 p.m.]: I move:
        That this House:
        (1) notes that Australia's outdated and illogical STD call zones are a major disincentive for business to move to regional areas, and cost local jobs;

        (2) further notes that the current STD call zones were determined in 1960, when areas like the Central Coast, south-west Sydney and the North Coast had much smaller populations;

        (3) observes that Telstra has announced a review of STD call zones; and

        (4) calls on Telstra to bring in fairer STD call zones for residents of the Central Coast, Illawarra, North Coast and inland New South Wales.
    Most people in Australia would be aware of the phrase "tyranny of distance" as it is applied to transport and communications in this vast continent we inhabit. The sheer breadth of this continent, geographical differences and climate variances pose problems for distance communications. Some of those issues remain to be resolved, and that is the topic of this debate. Ann Moyal's book Clear Across Australia. A History of Telecommunications contains the central hypothesis that communications have been evolving over time in this country, especially during the second half of the twentieth century. It was not until 1975 when the Whitlam Government established a separate Department of Communications, which, if my memory serves me correctly, was headed by James Spigelman who more recently became the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New South Wales, that this issue was dealt with in a holistic manner.

    Debate on this topic relates specifically to the fact that in the 1960s, subscriber trunk dialling [STD] zones were established. Unfortunately, no account has been taken of Australian population and demographics changes that have obviously occurred since that time. In human terms, 20 years denotes a generation; however, the debate taking place in this House reflects the fact that after 40 years, a period which denotes two generations, people are yet to see a full overhaul of the anachronistic call zone system. The call zones were established when the new subscriber trunk call system was introduced, accompanied by multimetering to monitor and work out call charges. Rather than people having to go through several operators to reach their ultimate destination, STD callers were able to dial directly by using area codes.

    In the 1960s, STD zoning was based on demographic studies of population as well as technical standards and predictions of new developments. The standard set in the 1960s has remained constant to the present. According to Ann Moyal, the community telephone plan, which was produced by planners and announced to the Federal Parliament by the Postmaster-General on 1 September 1959, made history in forming the foundation of an integrated and automatic telephone service which is still in operation. Therein lies the problem. Telstra has announced a zoning review project. The closing date for submissions is 31 May. It is important that the people of regional and rural New South Wales be given a voice and that the problems they experience be considered in the consultation process being undertaken by Telstra.

    On the Central Coast, where my electorate is located, many business cannot be established in the area or relocate there because of STD call charges. When I phone from my electorate office at Toukley to access a government department in Sydney, as is very often the case, I incur STD call rates, and that is a financial impost upon the State Parliament. Charges affect businesses similarly. When I need to dial into the Parliament House server from my home at Noraville, the charges are calculated at STD rates because I have to dial a number that has a Sydney prefix. The present system is anachronistic and simply does not make sense.

    Submissions to the Telstra review will be accepted until the end of May. I believe it is important for as many members of this Parliament as is possible to place their views before the review committee. I hope that a copy of this debate will be forwarded to the review panel to ensure that a fair representation of the views of the members of this Parliament is before the review committee. Even Telstra admits that the cost of maintaining country telephone infrastructure is less than 0.1¢ per call. The area codes are outdated and illogical, and should be completely abolished. Failing that, the zones should be redrawn to reflect the reality of population growth and the need to encourage regional business development.

    In 1960, Australia's population was 10 million people and Liverpool and Blacktown were outer suburbs of Sydney. Campbelltown and Penrith were semirural areas, and Gosford was a full three hours from Sydney by car. Since the 1960s, the world has moved on. Penrith is now as much a part of greater Sydney as is Drummoyne or indeed Double Bay. Gosford and Wyong are in categories similar to Penrith and Campbelltown, yet families in Wyong, Penrith and Campbelltown still pay inflated time-charge calls that were set four decades ago to pay for phone lines that were built shortly after I was born.

    The only change to STD rates was in 1988 with the introduction of community calls which offered a lower time rate for neighbouring area codes. A call from Sydney to Penrith is a timed community call. A call from Sydney to Cowra remains a full STD call. I am sure that the honourable member for Lachlan, who is present in the Chamber, would not consider that to be very fair. Even in the 1960s the area codes were unfair. At that time, the then Federal Government simply drew lines on maps to set the zones. The celebrated example at that time was the Campbelltown timber yard which was situated on the border of two zones. When the timber yard extended its premises, the security gate at one end of the yard was connected to the Campbelltown exchange whereas the administration block remained in the Sydney zone. A call across a distance of 100 metres became an STD call. Understandably, most workers chose to open a window and simply shout what they had to say to the other end of the yard. If the boundaries were illogical in the 1960s, they are far worse presently. Currently, the zones are costing people jobs.

    Over the past five years the State Government has worked hard to encourage firms to move to the Central Coast. Time and again the same complaint is made, namely, why would a firm relocate to the Central Coast and force its customers to make STD calls to place orders? Moreover, why would a firm relocate to the Central Coast when that will have the effect of the firm's name being automatically deleted from the Sydney telephone book? I understand that if a firm wishes to place an entry in every Yellow Pages telephone book throughout Australia, it would cost approximately $200,000. That is certainly a tremendous impost upon firms. There are certainly alternatives available, such as technologically advanced web sites that can be established for approximately $1000, but the cost of Yellow Pages listings highlights the need for Governments to ensure that businesses in rural and regional areas of New South Wales are not disadvantaged.

    Some people might argue that a firm could establish a 1300 number for its customers. Obviously firms on the Central Coast that establish 1300 numbers for their customers would have to bear the additional costs for that service and the STD charges. Again that is not a solution to this problem. Why would a firm move to country or regional New South Wales when its customers in neighbouring towns 50 kilometres away have to pay STD rates to ring them? It is ridiculous that a family in Liverpool has a phone book that lists tradesmen as far away as Bondi but omits those in Campbelltown. Call zones are bad for business and they are bad for regional Australia. The time has come for a massive simplification to either abolish the codes or, at the very least, redraw them to reflect 40 years of population growth and changed community interests.

    Some honourable members take an interest in electoral redistribution and I confess I am one of them. Honourable members are aware that redistribution usually occurs every eight years and that community interest arguments are always placed before the commissioners. There have been a number of redistributions since 1960. It seems fair that a telephony redistribution that takes account of real community interest in 2000 should be conducted now specifically to address job growth in regional and rural New South Wales.

    Mr ARMSTRONG (Lachlan) [4.00 p.m.]: I have listened with some interest to what the honourable member for Wyong said about Telstra's STD area zones. The principle is obvious but the most important element in the cost of doing business in rural areas is transport. Communications are a cost but the majority of small businesses in country areas, and those that might be contemplating going there, find transport costs most difficult. This afternoon the honourable member talked only about communication costs, and STD zones in particular, but did not refer to the fact that the current Government has severely curtailed road funding and funding of the general transport infrastructure in New South Wales. That is one major reason there is not more relocation or expansion of existing country businesses.

    Today many successful country businesses are doing good work. For instance, National Engineering Pty Ltd at Young built the entire steelworks—some 6,000 tonnes of it—for the roof of the Olympic Stadium. National Engineering does a lot of its work internationally. Today it has engineers and consultants working from Singapore and it is competing quite adequately against all other competition. A jeweller at Condobolin, only 70 kilometres from the geographic centre of New South Wales, does all the guarantee work for Olympus watches Australiawide. He also does repair work for another 22 major jewellers from Melbourne in the south to Townsville in the north. Watches arrive in a bag by a courier every day, the work is done and then they are returned the following night. Most of the top-class purses made in Australia are manufactured at Tenterfield. Companies in the country are coping quite okay with the cost of communications but their common complaint is about transport, that is, the quality and safety of roads and the deterioration of road funding, particularly 3x3 funding, that has occurred in recent times.

    The honourable member for Wyong talked about the STD zones that were first introduced in the 1960s. Forty years ago there was an interesting telegraphic system. In those days most country people talked on party lines. We were on a party line with four people and it was always a matter of who could get on first. The party line rings were two shorts and a long or two longs and a short. Many stories were told by those who liked to eavesdrop and it was certain that if one had a problem everybody else knew about it very quickly. By the same token, if one was in trouble help would arrive quickly. In those days we maintained about nine miles of private line. We had a switch girl who was a great help from time to time. We have come a long way in forty years. We have a very sophisticated system.

    The point of the honourable member for Wyong in relation to STD zones is well taken. There is no doubt that there are many anomalies. For example, in order for people within a few kilometres of a main business centre to access that centre they have to make a trunk-line call. That is an unnecessary cost and makes them less competitive than their neighbour who does not have to bear that cost. In the Lachlan electorate I cannot ring any other town without making a trunk-line call. I welcome Telstra's commitment to review the STD zones. The Government has to acknowledge its responsibility to govern New South Wales. Frequently the time of this House is used on federal issues. The people of this State have plenty of worries of their own and there should be far more debates about matters of public importance and matters of urgency on matters that concern New South Wales. The Government has a right to raise issues but that can be done in other forums. The time of this Parliament, which does not sit for many days of the year, is better used in debate of matters such as road funding and rail services across New South Wales.

    Whilst in recent weeks we have heard a lot about rail services from the Minister for Transport and the Premier there is very little visible improvement of rail services. The rail service booking system is more reminiscent of the 1950s than 2000. In recent weeks a number of travel link agencies in the Riverina in particular closed because of lack of commission through the difficulty of using the new computer system and the 1300 and 1800 numbers. Recently an agent in Ardlethan told me that he had to wait up to 50 minutes in order to make a $2 booking for concession-card holders, of which his commission was 5 per cent. That is not good economics if one runs a mixed business in a town such as Ardlethan. They are the sorts of issues that should be debated in this Parliament. The Government should tell us how it will improve its services rather than trying to play politics day in, day out on Federal matters in this Parliament.

    Government strategists in backrooms or wherever they might should remember during the 3½ years before the next election that the people of New South Wales are not dumb. They know when the Government is trying to avoid its responsibilities by continually raising red herrings about Federal issues. The Opposition will not oppose the motion and calls upon the Government to honour its own responsibilities. A review of those zones is necessary. If the Government is genuine about decentralisation, about expansion of country businesses, and about increasing the rural population, it will begin to honour its own obligations. The Government has been in office for a little over five years yet its success in decentralising Government departments is invisible. It is impossible to point to departments that have been genuinely decentralised. The largest decentralisation that has ever occurred in this nation or in the history of any government department took place under the previous Conservative government when the Department of Agriculture moved from Central Railway to Orange.

    I can assure the House that the costs of communications did not escalate after the department was moved to Orange. There were general efficiencies introduced into the management process, and new technologies were put into the buildings when the department moved to Orange. So the model has been proved to have worked from every point of view—productivity, culturally, client services, training, and giving country-based executives the opportunity for promotion within the department. So far, this Labor Government has failed to emulate that decentralisation program in any manner at all. We get from the Government rhetoric about positions being created, but we do not see people being appointed to those positions. When questions are asked in this House, time and again the answer is fuzzy. This motion is respected, but the State Government, under Premier Carr, is neglecting country people in the important areas of fundamental infrastructure, particularly when it comes to road funding and general transportation of goods and services.

    Ms BEAMER (Mulgoa) [4.10 p.m.]: The issue of STD call zones has plagued my area for a long time and is a matter on which we have had a continual gripe with the previous Federal Labor Government and the present Federal Government. We have spent a lot of time talking to Federal governments about the cost of telephone calls from Penrith, which is outside the Sydney zone, to the centre of Sydney. The area has welcomed the review of STD call zones, which have been a major impediment to business in the Penrith area. In the 1960s Penrith certainly was considered, as was Campbelltown, a country town. It was considered to be outside the metropolitan area. But St Marys, just a few kilometres away, was on the outer limit of the first zone that was drawn up for 02.

    Beyond Blacktown, Liverpool and Dural, the distant centres of Campbelltown and Penrith were considered rural. Obviously, that zoning is now totally out of date. Today more than one million people who consider themselves Sydney residents live outside the 02 zone. Penrith, Richmond, Macquarie Fields and Campbelltown are as much a part of Sydney as Bankstown or Strathfield. But, when it comes to running a business in Penrith, the business is not in the Sydney 02 zone. The zones decreed the Central Coast as one region, Lake Macquarie as another, that Nowra and Kiama were too far apart, and that Lithgow and Katoomba had nothing in common. By any measure, those assumptions are out of date.

    In fact, the community of interest argument is now reversed. Telephone area codes routinely divide towns, not just in Sydney but, as the honourable member for Lachlan said, in country New South Wales. The electorate of Mulgoa is divided by that invisible line drawn by the late C. Davidson long before most of my constituents were even born. As a result, my own phone bill and those of most of my constituents outside the Sydney 02 zone are more than 20 pages long, listing every STD phone call made, whether my call is to my electorate office or to the city. Another consideration must be equity. The area codes were drawn to make sure families could stay in contact with businesses in neighbouring towns, even though those towns might be some distance away. The result was area codes where vast swathes of countryside included at least one major town, to allow farmers and others to ring local firms and order goods.

    Transport links and modern communication systems have destroyed this argument also. Where once it took two hours to travel from St Marys to the city, the journey now takes 45 minutes or less. A plumber in my electorate can easily service customers at Strathfield, Ryde or Double Bay. Small businesses must seek customers everywhere they can so that they can stay afloat. Yet businesses outside the arbitrary 02 zone cannot compete with Sydney firms. Their customers refuse to pay STD rates. Those companies are automatically excluded from Sydney telephone books. A Campbelltown firm has less chance of getting business from Liverpool than a North Ryde firm does. So that equity, so clear and simple in the 1960s, is another long-dead argument for Telstra's STD zones.

    STD zones were designed to return money to Canberra. In 1960, most non-Sydney telephone exchanges were manually operated, with a receptionist switching every call. Many country properties had no overland telephone connections at all. Appearing before the 1986 inquiry into Telecom services, the Telecom representative conceded that the cost of maintaining telephone equipment across Australia equated to 0.1 of a cent per call regardless of the distance it covered. This puts the lie to the argument that removal of STD zones will force a lower quality of telephone service on regional and rural Australia. I commend the motion to the House. I hope that Telstra sees fit, in the review of its STD call zones, to examine these anomalies.

    Mr HARTCHER (Gosford) [4.15 p.m.]: I can see merit in the argument that the STD zoning system needs to be revised. I speak especially from the point of view of my own area of the Central Coast. For a long time the Central Coast suffered the disadvantage of being close to Sydney yet not having the advantages of being part of the Sydney metropolitan area. In fact, I have campaigned from time to time on this issue, though it is a Federal issue. I have urged a review of it, as have my predecessors in the seat of Gosford. It is the policy of the Gosford District Chamber of Commerce that the STD zone should be the same as that of Sydney.

    I indicate to the House my support for a review by Telstra and the other telephone service operators of the zoning system. It is important that the Central Coast not be at a disadvantage and that its businesses not have a disincentive to development. a higher rate of unemployment, especially youth unemployment. The Economic Development Board and the Regional Development Corporation have strong policies designed to attract industry to the Central Coast, and we need to offer those businesses not only the advantages of a great location, reasonably priced land and convenient access to Sydney and Newcastle, but also a competitive advantage compared with Sydney. Of course, that includes facilities such as telephones.

    It is significant that there are other disincentives to business investment on the Central Coast. It is significant that the honourable member for Wyong, who delights in grandstanding as the defender of the Central Coast, never raises these matters. The honourable member for Wyong has moved two motions, both to do with Federal issues: one related to the impact of the GST on caravan parks, and the other related to telephones. He carefully avoids raising any State issues, such as roads, railway services, police services, schools, health or any matter that actually falls within his responsibility as the State member. Instead, he focuses on Federal issues.

    The honourable member for Wyong might believe that Michael Lee is a poor member and is not doing a satisfactory job—though it would be interesting to know what Mr Lee thinks of the focus of the honourable member for Wyong on Federal issues. Or, more likely, he is frightened to face up to his responsibilities as a State member to raise State issues on behalf of the people of the Central Coast, and especially those in the electorate of Wyong. I look forward to him raising a State issue in this Parliament. I have not heard him speak on a State matter for a long time. Notwithstanding that, he claims to be the resident expert on every Federal issue that comes before the Parliament.

    What is the honourable member for Wyong doing about police matters on the Central Coast? A serial rapist on the coast is causing grave concern to many people, but we have no word from the honourable member. The Central Coast has an ongoing road problem, especially in respect of road funding, but we have no word from the honourable member. We have problems associated with the delay, again and again, of the F3. Work in his electorate was delayed again only last week, as big trucks crashed at Ourimbah, and we had massive traffic buildups. But there was no word about those matters from the honourable member for Wyong.

    Train delays are causing thousands of people who are heading from the Central Coast to Sydney and Newcastle to be late every morning, but nothing is ever said about it by the honourable member for Wyong. Businesses on the Central Coast have problems with spiralling workers compensation rates. That is causing a great deal of concern, especially to small businesses, as they battle to meet workers compensation premiums; it is causing them to seek to shed labour. But we never hear a word about that from the honourable member for Wyong. We used to hear a great deal from the honourable member for Wyong about the ambulance station but that is no longer the case. He was interested in ambulance services when he was in Opposition but that interest has waned in recent times.

    The honourable member for Wyong has been caught out yet again as someone who relies on rhetoric but who never delivers on substance. He has nothing to say to the people of his electorate about the important issues that are facing them—unemployment, roads, law and order—or about their concerns that schoolteachers are not being properly remunerated by the Government. Nothing is said about those matters by the honourable member for Wyong, but he wants to do the job of the Federal member for Dobell. I affirm my support and the support of all Central Coast Liberals for a review of telephone zoning. We want competitive rates between Sydney and the Central Coast and jobs for our electorates. At the same time I draw attention to the total neglect by the honourable member for Wyong of every State issue that he was elected to pursue.

    Mr McMANUS (Heathcote—Parliamentary Secretary) [4.20 p.m.]: This debate gives us an opportunity to discuss an important issue. I commend the honourable member for Wyong for moving a motion which calls for Telstra to submit to a review which will result in the resolution of inequities which have been obvious in our community for 40 years. The resolution of those inequities will be a great benefit to the people of New South Wales. Although members of the Opposition are prepared to support the motion, they want to talk about other issues; they imply that the honourable member for Wyong does not deal with State issues. What issue is more important than saving money for the people of New South Wales?

    Like many other honourable members, for many years I have been faced with difficulties relating to telephone charges. When I represented the electorate of Bulli my electorate was split into two areas. My electorate office was located in Thirroul, which meant that people living in Engadine were in the ridiculous position of having to pay STD charges for the calls that they made to me. That position has now been reversed. My office is now located in Engadine and people living in the northern Illawarra are experiencing the problems that were experienced some years ago by those living in Engadine. They have to spend unnecessary money to contact their local member of Parliament.

    Telstra call zones were set in 1960. At that time the town of Bulli was a good two-hour trip from Sydney. A trip to Sydney for Bulli families was a rarity. All business was done with Wollongong firms. Times have changed. Regrettably, Telstra area codes have not, and they must be updated. In 1980 a grudging concession was given which enabled people in neighbouring areas to ring each other for lower fees, although the calls were still timed. That concession was nowhere near enough. We now have an opportunity to do something about it. In the past six months Telstra revealed that it made a clear profit of $2.1 billion.. After an investigation into telephone services, Telstra admitted that its maintenance costs amounted to 0.1¢ per call, regardless of whether people lived in Sydney or in Perth.

    Subscriber trunk dialling [STD] calls were introduced in the old days of PABX systems—a matter of which I am aware because in those days I was a night switch operator. Staffing of exchanges was necessary and the system was cumbersome, expensive and archaic. Today's modern systems mean that Telstra no longer needs to impose STD charges. No extra expense is incurred by Telstra if a family anywhere in New South Wales rings Sydney or Perth.. There is no obvious reason why Telstra has to charge a family in New South Wales $10 to ring Perth and 20¢ to ring Hurstville.

    I will highlight the harm that these codes do to thousands of pensioners, veterans and low-income families for whom every dollar counts. Areas outside the main STD zones are generally home for the battlers of New South Wales, and that situation applies to my electorate. In those areas we witness the unfairness of STD zones in the simplest way. A battling family in Penrith or Coledale pays STD charges to ring Sydney. A wealthy family in Double Bay or Lane Cove does not. Area codes affect those who are least able to afford to make STD calls. The people of Penrith, Campbelltown and Stanwell Park have to ring STD to reach Sydney, but the people of Double Bay do not.

    Another group that is hard hit by area codes are pensioners and veterans, most of whom have retired to regional New South Wales. There are more aged pensioners on the Central Coast than there are in any other region. The largest communities of veterans are outside Sydney and regional towns, which are the areas that are the hardest hit and the areas that Parliament has to try to protect. These codes can be changed only if Telstra is subjected to a review while it remains in government hands. We will not have an opportunity to do so once the Federal Government privatises Telstra. I support the motion.

    [Debate interrupted.]