House debates

Tuesday, 30 November 2021

Matters of Public Importance


3:17 pm

Photo of Michelle RowlandMichelle Rowland (Greenway, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Communications) Share this | Hansard source

Going into the 2007 election, Labor took a policy to the Australian people that spoke to a smart future in which the transformational power of ICT would be harnessed for the betterment of all Australians, irrespective of where they lived or worked. But it also spoke to a decade of policy failures under this conservative government when it came to broadband, including when Telstra was privatised as a vertically integrated monopoly, entrenching the disincentives to invest and to engage in the best consumer welfare. They sold out the needs of rural and regional Australia. We had a litany of half-baked proposals that left Australia languishing as a broadband backwater in a region that was investing in fibre as the best form of communications infrastructure. Their hearts just weren't in it. If you needed any proof that absolutely nothing has changed since that time, we only have to look at eight long years of technological incompetence, cost blowouts and policy backflips to prove that their heads aren't in it either.

Nothing encapsulates proof of this more eloquently than the incoherent, rage-induced response by the minister opposite to the positive and well-received policy announcement by myself and the Labor leader recently to invest $2.4 billion, expanding fibre access to up to 1½ million additional premises currently relegated to a copper service under those opposite. It's noteworthy that up to 660,000 of these premises are in the regions. I think this media release is a timely reminder of why the minister opposite shouldn't be allowed anywhere near a keyboard when he's in a bad mood. There was so much tension in this media release you could've cut it with a butter knife, and even the shareholder minister, the Minister for Finance, wouldn't put his name on it. It was too much for even Senator Birmingham.

But let's be clear. It's difficult to know where to start with this rant of a statement by the minister on 17 November, but I'll give it a go. I'm going to start at the end. I want to remind members this minister, along with those geniuses Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott, abandoned fibre. They said their NBN would be a multitechnology mix incorporating copper and HFC. They said they'd deliver it quicker and cheaper. They said it would cost $29 billion and be finished by 2016. The price tag today is $57 billion and counting, and around Australia we've still got about 200,000 premises on copper that can't get the minimum broadband speeds required by law.

In September last year, in the most humiliating, wasteful, expensive policy backflip in the history of the federation, this minister announced—wait for it—that they would go back and they would build the fibre. After all that, what's the punchline? What's the punchline from this minister? What's his knockout blow in his last line? 'Only the Coalition can be trusted to deliver an upgraded NBN.' You can't make this up. Let that anti-logic sink in for a moment. It's the stuff of satire. It truly takes a unique lack of self-awareness to issue a statement like that. If we follow this statement to its illogical conclusion, the minister is arguing that only the Liberals can undertake a technology repair job that would not have even been needed if they weren't so incompetent to begin with.

Let's just be clear about what that is. I mentioned 660,000 premises in the region benefiting under Labor's policy. We've got this other pearler in the minister's media release:

It's clear that what Labor proposes here is more wasteful government spending of taxpayers money.

Let's be clear. In Labor's original proposal, 93 per cent of the fixed-line footprint would have fibre, not copper. Millions of additional premises in regional Australia have been relegated to copper under this minister, and this minister's view is that to upgrade those people to fibre is wasteful. I look forward to every rural and regional member opposite coming in to back in their minister. I look forward to the Liberal candidates for Eden-Monaro, Macquarie, Gilmore and Corangamite all coming out to back in the minister. I think I'll be waiting a while.

I'll tell you what else in our announcement speaks to the Labor mission. It's a modest one, but it makes a real change to the lives of children and their families. We know from ABS data that prior to COVID there were around 55,000 households in Australia that didn't have any access to the internet. For whatever reason, they had no access to the internet at home. The first time we actually obtained this data was during lockdown when we had remote learning going on, which became the norm for many of us. Schools, various state education departments, carriers and NBN Co intervened with mostly temporary solutions to help these students, and that's a good thing. I've heard firsthand about the difference that assistance made. But I tell you what: it's still estimated that there are around 30,000 households around Australia where there is still no internet at home, for whatever reason.

We have announced that Labor, working with NBN Co and the retailers, will give free internet access to those households for a year. We'll do that while we work on a long-term model. In some cases it might be quite bespoke, depending on the needs of those houses. Central to the Labor mission is equality of opportunity for everyone in Australia, regardless of your income, regardless of your postcode and regardless of what country you or your parents were born in. That is the Labor mission. We know Australians are looking to the future. We want to be better prepared in the new normals we have going forward—how we work, how we study. It speaks to Australians needing to have the best—not the substandard, but the best. We have got the substandard under this government. We are ranked 59th in the world for average broadband speeds. We are ranked 32nd out of 37 nations in the OECD.

I would put money on the minister's script, on what he is going to come and say in response to this. It's a document called 'same old talking points'. Consider this: the minister's response every time, just like he did only a couple of weeks ago, is to talk about 2013. Let's consider this: these tired old arguments have been systematically proven wrong over the past eight years on every single count. And consider this: we have Labor talking about the future and making it better, and all this government can do is talk about the past but neglect to mention all its failures.

We are talking about a future narrative here—how to make this national piece of utility infrastructure better for our needs in the post COVID world. It's very clear that COVID has demonstrated that reliable, quality, accessible high-speed internet is not a luxury or a nice-to-have. We said this all along: it is essential, 21st century, economic infrastructure. A future made in Australia requires the best-quality communications infrastructure. Optical fibre is the right technology to shape our future. We said this all along: do it once, do it right and do it with fibre. It's always been the right technology. It's not just about speeds; it's about our national story and asserting the kind of country we aspire to be. I tell you what: if Labor want to be a leader in the digital industrial century, not just a participant, we have to do better. That is our aspiration—a future made in Australia, a future shaped by the best-quality ICT.

We've known all along that the NBN is a critical piece of national infrastructure. But this tired, decade-old Liberal-National government can't be trusted when it comes to technology. They always get the big calls wrong on technology, just as they get them wrong in other portfolio areas—including energy. They always get it wrong. For them, it's always about short-term politics and never about the long-term progress of this country. That's why only Labor can deliver a better NBN and be trusted to shape our future the way it should be. (Time expired)


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