Thursday, 22 October 2009
Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer Safeguards) Bill 2009
Work with me, Parliamentary Secretary. No government sets out to do nothing. We may always want more, but the Australian public expects the government members of the day to move past these very juvenile attempts to rewrite history.
The Howard government did deliver on many fronts. In my electorate there have been some improvements in mobile phone access over the past decade, but it does remain one of the biggest issues in my community. The additional towers that were established under the previous government’s Black Spot Program and allowed extended coverage throughout many parts of Gippsland have made it possible for service to be delivered to some areas that companies would never have justified servicing on a purely commercial basis. This effectively subsidised coverage has improved safety in my region.
As the parliamentary secretary is well aware, in terms of the most recent bushfires, coverage in emergency situations is a most critical issue for us in the electorate of Gippsland. On that point, I reflect on the need for improved mobile phone coverage in the future in terms of emergency services coverage. I already have spoken today on the new early warning system for natural disasters. I give credit to the government for undertaking that. I believe it has made a $15 million contribution to Telstra to pursue that agenda.
It is timely that the parliamentary secretary who has been involved in the bushfire reconstruction effort is in the chamber, because I believe it is important that we take the next step in the new national warning system. I understand that in the first stage it will be able to deliver voice messages to landlines and text messages to mobile phones based on their billing addresses. But I believe that, in the future, to deliver the real benefits to locals and visitors to Gippsland the system needs to progress to the next stage of delivering text messages to mobile phones based on the actual location of the phone at the time. That is the aim that I believe the government is pursuing. I understand the state and federal governments are both keen to pursue those as future stages of the agenda of a national early warning system. It is a real challenge.
Unfortunately, many areas in my electorate where the mobile coverage is poor are also those areas that are most exposed to the bushfire risk. I have sought additional funding from the federal government to deal with some of these black spot issues going forward. Areas in the Latrobe Valley were some of those that were directly impacted by the bushfires of Black Saturday and the earlier fires at the Delburn complex in the Boolarra area. There are areas right around Latrobe Valley where remarkably, in small towns only five, 10 or 15 minutes from major Latrobe Valley centres, the mobile phone coverage drops out. There are difficult issues to contend with. Further east, geography provides many obstacles to improved mobile phone coverage, but we are going to have to deal with that difficult terrain and we will probably need to subsidise services to those areas in the future if we are going to improve community safety and get the full benefits of any national early warning system.
I wrote to the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy in relation to this issue. The response I have received gives me no confidence in relation to legislation before the House today and the ongoing issue of telecommunications services to regional areas—whether it be mobile phone coverage, in this instance, or the future National Broadband Network. In his response to my concerns about the township of Mallacoota, one of the towns identified as a bushfire priority risk by the Victorian state government, he said:
The Australian Government appreciates the importance of mobile telephony to Australians. However, the decision to provide mobile phone coverage is primarily a commercial matter for mobile phone carriers. In making the decision to extend coverage to a particular area, a mobile phone carrier will consider a range of factors, including site availability, cost structures, likely levels of demand from users and overall economic viability of the service.
That message is fairly clear, I believe, but it is primarily a commercial matter and the minister has no intention of implementing a black spot program to assist. I think that draws us to the very point of the legislation before the House today. The issues facing regional communities are that, with the rollout of the National Broadband Network and broader mobile phone coverage, the carriers will quite naturally go to where the profits lie. I fear that there will be people at the end of the line who will miss out completely. That is my greatest concern with the legislation before the House today.
I do not want to pretend for a second that I am some sort of Telstra cheerleader, and I am not going to stand here and pretend that everything is fine in regional Australia or in my own electorate of Gippsland. I am not even going to try to defend Telstra’s record, particularly under the reign of the previous chief executive. I think there was an appalling lack of judgment at times by Telstra in relation to its handling of its regional customers. But I am a realist, and I want to know that under the government’s plans regional areas will actually be better off.
Those opposite have attempted to ridicule speakers from this side of the House who have sought to delay the progress of this legislation to make sure we get it right. I have a great deal of sympathy for the view of delaying it until we get it right. The government does not have a clear mandate for this policy position. Only a few months ago the minister was quoted as saying he had no intention of forcing such a separation upon Telstra, and it has never been put before the Australian public. To the best of my knowledge, it has never been Labor or coalition policy.
Having said that, I am not as hardline as some others about the broader issue of structural separation. I do believe we need to take steps to drive competition, particularly into regional areas. Telstra, as I have mentioned previously, has not always behaved appropriately in the best interests of its regional customers. I am hopeful that the new CEO, David Thodey, will be keen to address that situation. I had the opportunity to meet with Mr Thodey earlier this week and I was heartened by his comments and his attitude towards his regional customers. I believe that we may see a change of direction in that regard. I have been very critical in this chamber of Telstra’s handling of the user charge of $2.20 it applies to customers who pay their bills with legal tender across the counter at various agencies. I believe the point I made to Mr Thodey in that regard was well taken. I believe that Telstra may in the future take a more charitable view of its customers, particularly its older customers and those in regional areas.
There are areas where it will never be commercially viable for companies to invest in regional services. That is where I believe the Future Fund was designed to assist, along with the universal service obligation. As I indicated, I can see some merit in the position to help drive competition, but the process undertaken by the government must be appropriate to the circumstances. I fear that the government has held a metaphorical gun to the head of Telstra and its shareholders. Those opposite have discounted the arguments put forward in relation to the impact this decision will have on the shareholders of Telstra. I am not suggesting for a second that the interests of shareholders have to be our primary concern in this place, but they most certainly should be considered by us as responsible legislators. More than one million mum-and-dad shareholders will be affected by this decision, and I believe it is flippant and irresponsible for those opposite to just brush that issue aside.
It concerns me that we really do not have a complete understanding of all the issues in relation to this legislation. The reason we do not have a complete understanding is that the government simply has not done the homework or, if it has done the homework, it has not taken the people of Australia into its embrace and explained to them exactly what is intended. In a question in the House earlier this week the Leader of the Opposition asked the Prime Minister for more information on the National Broadband Network. It was a very pertinent question. The Leader of the Opposition asked:
How does the Prime Minister justify urging Australians to buy bonds in the $43 billion National Broadband Network, assuring them that those bonds would be a good investment, asserting that the National Broadband Network would be commercially viable and claiming its services will be affordable when the finance minister and, just a moment ago, the Treasurer have admitted that all of those statements were made without any business plan or cost-benefit analysis—in order words, without any reasonable or responsible basis for believing those statements were true?
In his answer, the Prime Minister, as he often does, sought to deflect attention to everyone but himself. He came out swinging in relation to the National Party. He said:
… the National Party in particular, surprises me, because so many Australians out there lack high-speed and effective broadband services.
There is no disagreement there, but under his own plan so many Australians will continue to not receive high-speed broadband services. The Prime Minister failed to mention that there was actually no business plan for this $43 billion National Broadband Network. I fear that the government is flying blind and it troubles me in relation to the legislation before the House at the moment. As I said at the outset, I am not interested in being obstructionist just for the sake of it, but I do have considerable reservations and support the delaying of this bill until the NBN implementation study is presented to the parliament. After two years of delivering absolutely nothing except empty promises, we can afford to wait for the findings of the $25 million study that the government has commissioned. I believe the House will be better informed in that regard with the findings of that study before it.
The government is asking me and other members to take what I believe is an enormous leap of faith. They are simply saying, ‘Trust us, everything will be okay; sure, we do not have a business plan for the $43 billion NBN program but you can rely on us.’ I am sorry, but I do not have that much confidence in this minister or in the government. We have already seen the National Broadband Network change remarkably in terms of the promises being made by this government. At first we had this fairytale about delivering fibre-to-the-node coverage to 98 per cent of Australian homes at a cost of just $4.7 billion. The Australian community should have signed up straightaway on that one. They were conned. The new promise is coverage to just 90 per cent of homes at a cost of $43 billion, but we really do not know where that figure of $43 billion has come from. It looks to me like it has just been some stab in the dark—a best guess. There is no business case or infrastructure plan that I have been made aware of. The promise has been downgraded to the extent that it excludes towns of fewer than 1,000 people. There are more than 1,000 towns, as I understand it, in Australia with fewer than 1,000 people in them and many of them are in the electorate of Gippsland.
I mentioned earlier that the NBN has the potential to deliver even greater benefits to regional areas than anywhere else, but many of the towns in Gippsland are simply not on the government’s radar, let alone in the government’s National Broadband Network plans. In all good faith to my electorate, I cannot support this proposition at this stage and I urge the government to wait until the implementation study is presented to the parliament.
One other aspect I would like to touch on is the confusion over the future of the universal service obligation under this bill. I take up the issue raised by the Leader of The Nationals on this matter. He highlighted that under this bill the legislated universal service obligation is abolished and it will be left to the whim of the minister to decide which services are provided. I do not believe this is good enough for regional areas. We have already seen the whim of the minister at work with the removal of the $2.4 billion Future Fund—an enormous betrayal of trust with regional communities. Before I can have confidence that this bill is in the interests of regional Australia I will need more information from this government in relation to its broadband proposals and how it intends to deliver those services to rural and regional communities.
There is a lot at stake for regional communities, as many people have indicated in their contributions to the debate before the House, because they have the most to gain from improved telecommunications services. The tyranny of distance is one of the main factors holding back the growth of regional communities and technology has the capacity to overcome a lot of those barriers. I believe that rural and regional Australians have every right to expect better telecommunications services in all its forms in the future. As the Leader of The Nationals correctly identified, a robust communications network will have a range of applications in regional Australia, both social and economic. It will create better health services, better education, and greater employment and business opportunities. I urge the government to take the time to get this right.
Finally, in the time allowed to me, I would like to refer to a media statement today from the shadow minister for broadband, communications and the digital economy. In his media statement, the shadow minister said:
Since coming to office the Rudd government has already: abolished the $2.4 billion Communications Fund, established by the Coalition for telecommunications upgrades in rural and regional Australia; cancelled the $2 billion OPEL project which would have seen fast and affordable broadband services delivered throughout under-served rural and regional areas this year; and is winding back the Australian Broadband Guarantee program which provides subsidised services for Australians living in under-served areas.
This government already has a dreadful track record and should not be believed when it says it is acting in the best interests of rural and regional Australia.
That just about sums it all up for me. The government has to prove its bona fides to regional Australians before it can reasonably expect us to support this bill.