The Australian government will introduce legislation to sell its A$30 billion (HK$155.67 billion) controlling stake in Telstra this week, but will delay the sale because of prevailing market conditions and the telecommunications company's languishing share price. Communications Minister Richard Alston yesterday announced the government plan, the cornerstone of which is a A$181 million four-year package to improve telecommunications services to rural Australia to win parliamentary support of the government's coalition partner - the rural-based National Party. With Telstra shares at A$4.44 - down two cents yesterday in a lacklustre market - the stock is well below the $5.35 benchmark the government quoted in its recent budget as the floor price for any sale. Telstra, which owns Hong Kong mobile operator CSL and partnering PCCW in its Reach Internet joint venture, is still 50.1 per cent owned by the Australian government, which sold off shares in two tranches in 1997 and 1999. Telstra shares peaked at A$9.20 in 1999 and have been on a downward spiral since, along with other global telecommunications stocks. Investors in the second tranche have been particularly hurt by the fall, having paid A$7.40 for their shares. 'What we are seeking now is authority to sell. I'm not going to speculate on prices,' Mr Alston said yesterday. 'We've simply said we think taxpayers are entitled to get a fair return.' He also hinted the government could sell its remaining stake in tranches, to avoid flooding the market with an oversupply of shares. If the government did not proceed with the sale, Mr Alston said Telstra's 1.8 million shareholders would 'continue to face the uncertainty of having their shares devalued because of the threat of government meddling and politically motivated decisions'. While the opposition Labor Party is committed to oppose any further privatisation of Telstra, the fate of the legislation rests with four independent senators in the upper house of parliament, who hold the balance of power.