Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Rural Aussies Fear Being Unlinked If Prime Minister Wins Saturday's Election, He May Privatize Telecommunications. Rural People Want Service Guarantees First

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Rural Aussies Fear Being Unlinked If Prime Minister Wins Saturday's Election, He May Privatize Telecommunications. Rural People Want Service Guarantees First

Article excerpt

"Distance is as characteristic of Australia as mountains are of Switzerland." Thus begins Geoffrey Blainey's famous 1966 opus, "The Tyranny of Distance." In it he argues that distance - from Australia to other continents, and from point to point within Australia - was a central factor in shaping this country's history.

Were he writing today, he might have spoken of the paradox of distance: Rural areas that stand to benefit most from new communications services are the hardest to serve. Rural residents have been among those most worried should Prime Minister John Howard be reelected tomorrow and proceed with plans to privatize Telstra, the national phone company.

"We've been told we should hitch our rural businesses to the global network and sell on the Internet," says Margaret Smith, national president of the Country Women's Association, from her office outside Canberra. "But when it takes 23 goes to get a one-page fax across 100 kilometers ..." Her voice trails off in despair. If adequate customer-service guarantees aren't in place, further privatization of Telstra "could be a disaster for rural and remote people," Ms. Smith says. She fears a repeat of what happened after banks were fully deregulated: They pulled out in droves. Debbie Strachan of Wantabadgery, New South Wales, says "life just doesn't work anymore" without these electronic appurtenances. She's not that far outback, either. She's less than 30 miles from Wagga Wagga, which she proudly describes as "the largest inland city in Australia." The issues here are familiar in other countries selling off their phone companies, such as Germany, France, or Spain. But they have an especially sharp profile in this island-continent nation, where 8 percent of the population is spread across 80 percent of the land area. Market forces simply don't work as well in rural areas, many people say. …

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