House debates

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer Safeguards) Bill 2009

Second Reading

12:38 pm

Photo of John CobbJohn Cobb (Calare, National Party, Shadow Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) Share this | Hansard source

The Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer Safeguards) Bill 2009 is not small pie; it is not something that you can ignore easily. It involves amending five different acts and it is very complex. Yet the government wants this legislation rammed through in just a few weeks. I find that absurd. Before we can make a decision about Labor’s telecommunications bill, the government needs to give us more information about what its broadband proposal is. We are being asked to pass a bill intrinsically connected to the NBN, and in doing so give unprecedented powers to the ACCC, before we know how the NBN rollout will occur. It would be reasonable for us to wait for the implementation study for the government’s proposed National Broadband Network, which is not due until February next year.

The government wants to force Telstra to structurally separate, whether willingly or unwillingly, and the government is in a mighty hurry to do that. Labor’s 2007 election policy was:

Labor will ensure that Telstra’s wholesale and retail functions are clearly distinct within the company …

They did not indicate before the election that structural separation was on the table, and there is no mandate for the government to do so.

Telstra is negotiating at the moment with the government about models for separation of its retail and cable networks. These negotiations are reportedly progressing constructively and they should be allowed to run their course. The government cannot build its NBN without Telstra, so it is desperately trying to force Telstra’s hand one way or another, but shareholders, employers and customers look like wearing any fallout that might accrue from it. We do need to consider the impact of any changes on shareholders, because they should not be attacked or be the losers by the government’s agenda. We need to respect the rights of the 1.4 million shareholders.

We must oppose any attempt by the government—and this, I think, is an enormous issue, particularly for regional Australia—to abolish the universal service obligation through its associated legislation and give the minister responsibility for determining what should not be in the USO. We do not want to see the USO being subject to the whims of the minister of the day.

The Nationals will assess our attitude, as we do with our coalition partners for any new model for telecommunications in Australia, on the basis of whether it will deliver quality services and technology to our regional Australians. We support measures to increase competition and consumer protection in regional areas, but we do not know if this bill will achieve those things.

I cannot forget in all of this that when we were in government we signed off on a deal with OPEL which by now would have delivered to 98 per cent of Australia, including regional Australia, modern telecommunications in the form of broadband. We still have no idea what the government’s NBN is, but it is aiming for something like only 90 per cent of Australia. Regional Australia might be the beneficiary of this, but when? It certainly will not be in 2009—if ever. When will it be? When the government announced this policy earlier this year, or was it late last year, even then it was talking about another five or six years before regional Australia seriously got a look-in. The government has already reduced the proposed coverage of its NBN network from 98 per cent to 90 per cent, as I said; who is to say it will not fall further? Certainly, a very large part of my electorate would be excluded from this. All the small towns would be excluded. Maybe a few big towns would be beneficiaries, but certainly the rest of my electorate would not be.

The cost of the Labor scheme has blown out from $4.7 billion to $43 billion, so regional Australia is not a good deal. We have lost $2 billion out of the Future Fund. We have lost nearly $2 billion from the OPEL deal—$1 billion from government and nearly $1 billion from Optus and Elders. That money is now going to be spent on the whole of Australia rather than on just regional Australia.

The coalition fully recognise the importance of universal access to fast, affordable and reliable broadband. That is why we went to the Australian people with the OPEL scheme. But Labor cancelled that network, which would have seen new services delivered this year to around 900,000 underserviced premises. Let us remember that our plan was nearly $1 billion, with $958 million in government money and $1 billion from the private sector. Rudd’s plan is $43 billion, and it leaves out eight per cent—


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