Thursday, 22 October 2009
Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer Safeguards) Bill 2009
It is a really great pleasure to speak on the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer Safeguards) Bill 2009. I think it is a landmark bill, along with a range of other bills in relation to telecommunications, particularly in the area of competition and consumer safeguards, which is what this bill is about. As the previous speaker said, and as I am sure many other speakers will say, this has been a long time coming. It is about righting the wrongs of the past. It is about making good what ought to be in the marketplace for consumers today but has not happened because of a range of mistakes made by former governments.
It does take a lot of courage, a lot of will, to deal with these types of issues, because they are massive issues. They involve massive amounts of taxpayers’ dollars—into the many billions—and they involve dealing with some complex issues which are, as I said, costly but also very time consuming. They will take many years to correct. Nonetheless, it remains exceptionally important that we deal with those issues and that we do it as quickly as we can. I think this bill is as important as bills in any infrastructure area, be it roads, rail, ports—those vital pieces of infrastructure that drive our economy. Telecommunications is at the core of all of those. It is at the beating heart of our economy and the way that people interact and deal with each other on a day-to-day basis, be it on personal or business grounds, or in the context of health or education issues. There are a whole range of areas where people use telecommunications. So it is exceptionally important that this bill is here. It does tackle all of those very difficult issues.
The reality is that none of the difficulties, none of the problems that exist today, can be fixed without a government that is prepared to intervene, without a government that is prepared to tackle the difficult issues and to make the changes and reforms happen. We know from experience, from what we read in the papers and from comments by Telstra executives that it just will not happen without the hand of government—and that is what these bills are about. This government intends to make sure that the two great priorities in telecommunications—an open competitive market with fair competition, and innovative services that drive the economy—exist and that ordinary consumers are protected along the way and have competitive access to a range of services. We are ensuring that that takes place.
I want to get into the general discussions about the long road that has taken us to this point today. The road to developing a National Broadband Network, to delivering what is a critical piece of infrastructure for all of Australia, started a long time ago. But, since we were elected to government in 2007, Minister Conroy has taken the responsibility to actually deal with this and create a bill that will make this happen, which is taking place now. The Rudd government’s commitment has not wavered on this issue. If anything, we have been forced into a situation which leads us to today.
On 7 April this year the government outlined its commitment to roll out the National Broadband Network as a wholesale-only, open-access network that will drive more effective competition in the telecommunications sector. We know this because of the extensive consultations we have had with the sector. We know that it will lead to better outcomes for consumers and for business.
With that said, the transition is of course a critical period, particularly during the full rollout of the National Broadband Network, which will take some eight years, which is a long time. It is a long time by government standards and it is a long time in the sense that most governments only deal with the short time period of one term—a 2½- to three-year period. I always see it as courageous that a government actually tackles issues that span multiple parliamentary terms. It is very much in line with the view that we had in opposition, and it is certainly the view that I continue to have, that good governments plan for the long-term and make long-term decisions about the future of the economy and for consumers.
On 7 April the government announced its commitment to reforming the existing telecommunications regulatory regime. A discussion paper was released to allow for a full consultation process. The issues were similar to those raised in 2008, which saw over 80 submissions received. There was a very strong response in the most recent discussion paper, with 140 submissions received from a broad range of stakeholders pretty much covering the whole sector—the states, the territories, government, broadcasters, media companies, the ACCC, consumer groups, disability groups, business organisations, unions and consumers. There was a large variety of people making submissions and it covered the whole community, and their submissions are of course available.
After consulting for over 15 months and having received in total more than 200 submissions there was an overwhelming message that came through from every submitter and that is that the current regime simply does not deliver in this era. It falls down in a whole range of areas and that is why the government is now developing its package of reform bills. The reforms in the bill that we are currently discussing, and the process itself, are broadly consistent with the overwhelming majority of submissions, having also received extensive and detailed advice from the ACCC.
This issue has been around for a very long time. Most people will agree that structural separation, the separation between the wholesale and retail arms of Telstra, is very important and probably should have been dealt with right at the beginning. But perhaps because of the difficulties or the lack of will, or maybe the lack of foresight from the previous government, 12 years elapsed, which actually entrenched the current problems and the situation that we face today making it harder and harder and harder.