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Last updated: September 12, 2005 4:30 pm

Telstra sell-off bills inch their way into law

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Legislation to sell the Australian government’s 51.8 per cent stake in Telstra is inching its way through parliament after the opposition Labour party failed on Monday to extend the debate.

The legislation, in five drafts, is expected to go to a vote on Thursday as the government seeks to persuade wavering allies of the merits of the bills.

Central to the delay is uncertainty over a A$2bn (US$1.5bn) fund aimed at improving rural telecoms services, created to win support for Telstra’s sale from the government’s National party coalition partner. 

Barnaby Joyce, a National party senator, wants the total fund to be assured in cash before voting for the bills. Earlier drafts allocated the A$2bn from a combination of Telstra shares and cash. But ministers have agreed to dip into budget savings to start up the fund.

“The government has available to it reserves available to be transferred into the communications fund,” Nick Minchin, finance minister, told parliament. Once the bills are approved, the government has pledged to transfer the funds.

Mr Joyce has not endorsed the revised legislation. “Now I think we will just keep our own counsel about which way we are going to go on this,” he said. “I think when you rush it, you start making mistakes. Seeing as we have uncovered a couple of things of concern, I think we should sit back and have a closer look at the legislation before we vote for it.”

John Howard, prime minister, has pressed for a speedy vote. “This is an issue that has been debated inside the government parties, it has been debated in the community, it’s been reported into, it’s been trawled over and analysed now for nine to 10 years, and the time has come for parliament to make a decision.” 

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