Monday, 22 November 2010
Questions without Notice
My question is to the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, representing the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy. Why is universal broadband vital reform for Australia? What indications are there of confidence from business and parliamentarians that the National Broadband Network will deliver significant benefits to the Australian economy?
I thank the member for Parramatta for her question. Indeed, there are many signs of confidence out there in the National Broadband Network. This is no surprise because the studies show that innovation from ICT is the biggest, single driver of business productivity. The Centre for International Economics has found that high-speed broadband could lift national economic output by 1.4 per cent. NBN does have the confidence of key players in business as well as in parliament. Peter Strong, the Chief Executive of the Council of Small Business Organisations, said: ‘We want it, we need it.’ The CEO of Primus Telecom, Ravi Bhatia, said of the NBN: ‘Consumers want it, businesses want it, and the industry wants it.’
I am also asked about parliamentarians and their response and whether they have shown confidence in the NBN. On day one, Senator Barnaby Joyce said: ‘This delivers a strategic infrastructure outcome.’ He was straight out of the blocks in support of the government’s plan for the National Broadband Network. The member for Bradfield in a previous life said: ‘I believe the possibilities are extremely exciting.’ But of course there is an even greater sign of confidence in the National Broadband Network, and that is the member for Wentworth’s 5.4 million reasons—5.4 million shares in a company, Melbourne IT, which stands to benefit from the National Broadband Network. There is a great Australian saying: ‘Put your money where your mouth is.’ Well, the member for Wentworth’s money is heading towards the NBN but his mouth is heading in the opposite—
Mr Speaker, I rise on a point of order. The Leader of the House is asking to lead us to a position where we would believe something about the member for Wentworth which I believe offends standing order 90 and impugns members and suggests improper motives. I suggest it is a very clear breach of standing order 90 to suggest improper motives on the part of members of the House. He is suggesting something that is quite clear to us all, and I would ask you to—
Mr Speaker, I rise on a point of order. Standing order 90 states:
All imputations of improper motives to a Member and all personal reflections on other Members shall be considered highly disorderly.
I put it to you that suggesting improper motives on behalf of the member for Wentworth is highly disorderly. He is continuing to do so, and I ask you to rule it out of order.
The inability of the House to concentrate on something that is going to raise the temperature of the emotions within the House concerns me. I have indicated to the Manager of Opposition Business that I will listen carefully, on the basis of his point of order, to the response of the Leader of the House. I think that, if he really has carefully listened so far and he is worried about impugning, there could be other interpretations. When I advised the minister that I would listen carefully, he started to say that he was going to quote from the manager or director of a certain company. I will listen carefully to the quote.
Mr Speaker, further to the earlier point of order: it is pretty clear that the Leader of the House, at the behest of the Prime Minister, is making a personal attack on the member for Wentworth. He obviously has not taken into account your injunction. That is our point. You admonish the Leader of the House to be directly relevant to the—
The Leader of the Opposition will resume his seat. I think I have taken enough submissions on this. In a previous question, maybe tongue-in-cheek, the actions of the member for Wentworth in a similar vein were said to have been in support of a position, hardly impugning. I know that this might be difficult but this is a robust chamber. I desire that there is less debate in responses. That is something that, hopefully, in the review of the new procedures, the Procedure Committee might take up. The minister has the call.
… with government investments in next generation high speed networks occurring around the world—including Australia with the NB—I believe we are about to witness another wave of online growth in the coming years which will create new services, new business models, enhance productivity, and deliver new wealth.
That is a stunning endorsement from the CEO of Melbourne IT, one which I concur with completely, and clearly so does the member for Wentworth. I am reminded of the scene from All the President’s Men where Deep Throat is talking to Robert Redford playing Bob Woodward. They are talking about what happens if there is not quite a ring of truth. Deep Throat gives some good advice, and we take this good advice when people are assessing how fair dinkum people are about the NBN. He says this: ‘Follow the money, always follow the money.’
The minister will resume his seat. The Manager of Opposition Business—sit down. The two members that are standing may as well sit down too. The House will come to order. Those in leadership positions about parliamentary procedures on both sides will set an example and they can take that admonishment as a warning. When a member comes to get the call at the dispatch box, and I am trying to get the House to come to order, I do not expect him to then prattle on across the table. I call the Manager of Opposition Business on a point of order.
Mr Speaker, I regard the last three words of the answer of the Leader of the House, which was clearly designed to impugn the member for Wentworth, as highly disorderly—we all knew what was coming; we all know the movie—and I ask you to demand that he withdraw it.
The next person that interjects will be out for an hour if they have not been warned. If they have, they will be named. I have the dilemma that I did not hear, but I will ask that the minister withdraw. He can then continue if there is some time, but I am not sure what has happened now.
My question is to the Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth. What benefits will the National Broadband Network bring to schools, and what is the government doing to maximise these opportunities for Australian students?
The National Broadband Network is going to give every school in Australia access to high-speed broadband. The fact is that a national broadband network delivering decent speeds will be terrific for students and for teachers. It will be terrific for students because they will get the opportunity to learn and cooperate with each other and to access resources from around Australia and, indeed, from around the world. For example, students in regional and remote Australia can use the NBN to get access to specialist teachers that they might not otherwise be able to access—music teachers, vocational education teachers and language teachers. They will also have the opportunity to get immediate feedback from those teachers with live, interactive videoconferencing. This kind of learning is just not possible without the type of high-speed access that the National Broadband Network will provide. Imagine a class in Alice Springs being able to interact in real time with a class in Hobart—broadening their horizons and learning from one another. Students will also be able to link up with other resources, such as from the collection of the Australian War Memorial or NASA. All of these possibilities will deepen the learning experiences that students will have and will be available to students no matter where they live.
Faster, more reliable broadband will also naturally be of great benefit to our teachers, supporting this government’s agenda of improving teacher quality, by enabling them to understand the professional issues that are in front of them and to get the additional learning that they need through virtual workshops and virtual seminars. Sharing the best in teacher resources will greatly help our teachers as well.
Access to a computer is critical with the National Broadband Network. That is why the government is investing over $2 billion over seven years to achieve a one-to-one computer to student ratio for years 9 to 12 by the end of 2011, with a delivery, importantly, of over 345,000 computers to secondary schools and approved funding for over 740,000 computers. Computers are changing the way that kids learn. Imagine how much more impact this will have once students are hooked up to the NBN. As well, we will make sure that Australia’s first-ever national curriculum is fully online. Again, teachers will have the opportunity to use the NBN to access all kinds of teaching resources to support them in teaching the national curriculum.
Finally, we are investing some $40 million in a digital strategy for teachers and for school leaders. This is providing teachers with the ICT skills that they will need so that they can better set up learning in their classrooms. Incidentally, for country teachers and principals, in particular, the NBN will be of huge benefit. That is something I know members of this House agree with and understand. The fact is that, with a computer in the classroom and the NBN at the front door, schools will be well prepared to meet the challenges of the 21st century and we will give every school the opportunity through this resourcing to be a great school.
My question is to the Prime Minister. I refer the Prime Minister to her own assessment of what she learnt from the 2010 election result where she stated:
… leadership requires boldness, patience and methodical work.
That means opening up our national debates to more Australians, to build stronger understanding of and consensus for policy initiatives.
Why isn’t the Prime Minister allowing a national debate on the NBN by ensuring that all Australians are given access to the company’s business plan? Isn’t the Prime Minister’s double standard proof that the government has lost its way?
I say to the member that he will have access to the National Broadband Network business plan to inform a national debate. But I believe that debate should be based on facts. I believe that debate should be based on goodwill. I believe that that debate should be conducted with the national interest rather than an individual’s political party’s political interest paramount.
The member who asked the question comes to this parliament with some expertise in telecommunications. On the National Broadband Network, and some of his earlier writings, I would simply pose to him the following questions. Does he believe that the structural separation of Telstra is in the national interest? Of course it is. Does he believe that Australians having access to superfast national broadband is in the national interest? Of course it is. Has he absorbed all of the information already in the public domain about the National Broadband Network? The image he tries to paint that somehow there is not information in the public domain is entirely untrue. There have been detailed assessments undertaken by expert panels. We published the implementation study from McKinsey and KPMG—over 500 pages of analysis. We will publish the NBN business case. There is a live trial underway in Tasmania. There is a great deal of information to inform this national debate. And yet, with that great deal of information informing the national debate, and with more to come, what the opposition are really saying, when you strip it all down, is, ‘It does not matter what the information is, it does not matter what the facts are, it does not matter what the benefits are, we will demolish the NBN—full stop.’
Mr Speaker, I rise on a point of order on direct relevance. The Prime Minister was not asked about the opposition’s position; she was asked about when they would release the business case.
I was actually asked about informed national debates. Let me conclude by saying this: informed national debates need people interested in the facts; that is, people who have not locked in to negativity, wrecking, bitterness and putting political interest before the national interest. It requires people who are prepared to absorb the facts and think about the nation’s future. Unfortunately, the opposition—bitter, negative and determined to wreck—has locked in behind the slogan ‘demolish the NBN’ so the facts are entirely irrelevant to members of the opposition.
My question is also to the Prime Minister. I refer the Prime Minister to the offer to the Green and Independent members of parliament of a briefing on the NBN business plan. Why have the Green and Independent members of parliament been asked to sign confidentiality agreements of lengths that change by the hour—seven years, then three years, now two weeks? Isn’t the government’s attempt to gag Green and Independent members of parliament further evidence that the government has lost its way?
The National Broadband Network Co. has been working through it with members of parliament who are interested in the facts, briefing them on the facts. Given that there is commercial sensitivity about information that is in the National Broadband Network business case, it stands to very simple common-sense reasoning that some of this information is market sensitive. So the National Broadband Network Co. has been working with members of this parliament who are prepared to judge on the basis of the facts on the possibility of getting them briefings.
Of course, facts that the member who asked the question may be interested in have also been put into the public domain. In that regard I refer to a letter of 19 November signed by Mike Quigley, an expert in telecommunications, who is the CEO of the National Broadband Network Co. If the member asking the question is in any way interested in the facts, then she may be interested to know that the National Broadband Network Co., in its business case, will verify that the NBN can be built in a way which provides an internal rate of return higher than the current long-term government bond rate. What that means, of course, is that on its own, looking at the return of the NBN, it is a viable project. That is before you get to all of the economic benefits and all of the service delivery benefits. That means that in terms of the use of taxpayers’ money there will be a greater return than the long-term bond rate. That is, it is a better use of taxpayers’ money than investments that secure the long-term bond rate. So: viable—tick. The peak equity requirement of the project approximates that in the implementation study—and of course the implementation study is there in the public domain should the member want to read it.
The National Broadband Network Co. has verified that the total capital requirements are substantially below that predicted by the implementation study. That is good news. Of course, NBN Co. has verified that they have assumed a uniform national wholesale price. That is good news for responsible members of the parliament who represent regional constituencies and care about their access to voice services and internet services on the same basis wholesale-wise as the rest of the nation. And, NBN Co. has verified that the business plan projects that prices will be reduced over time. So to the member who asked the question, I would say to her that if she is truly interested she should have a look at the wealth of information in the public domain, absorb the facts from NBN Co. about what is in the national business model for NBN Co. and actually draw some conclusions based on those facts. But unfortunately I fear that the member who asked the question will not do any of that because she will follow the leader of the opposition down the road of wrecking, down the road of privileging his political interest over the national interest and down the road of being driven by the three-word slogan of ‘demolish the NBN’. Well, we will get on with the job, the patient work required to deliver this transforming infrastructure project for the nation.
I thank the member for Moreton for this question because he has had a keen interest in e-health initiatives for GP partners in his electorate and in northern Brisbane, one of the lead sites trying to make sure that they are well positioned and GPs are well positioned to take advantage of not just health reform but also the powers of the NBN.
I notice up in the gallery some of our GP friends from Geelong. Similarly, they are hoping to be able to be well positioned to make the most of the government’s investment in health reform but also to unleash the potential of the Broadband Network. Of course, our aim in combining these two important priorities for the government is that we do improve the access to health services in regional areas, that we reduce medical errors, and that we are able to train more doctors and nurses. The combined investments in the Broadband Network and health reform can have real results. In particular, regional patients will be able to get better access to specialists, particularly as the tele-health items come online for the Medicare Benefits Schedule on 1 July. Families will be able to see and talk to a GP at 3 am if that is the time when their child is sick in the middle of the night. In the future we will be able to use the technology and the changes to our health system to allow this. If you are from Perth and your doctor is in Perth but you have an MRI scan when you are on holiday in Cairns, you will be able to ask for that scan to be sent to your doctor in Perth so that you can follow up with the proper treatment into the future.
The new medical school opening in Darwin next year will enable Flinders University to train new students online, using the Broadband Network to get proper access. These sorts of investments are vital. I know he has already been mentioned but I suspect that Minister Grylls, a minister interested in regional development, will also be looking at the potential of the Broadband Network to deliver health services to a bigger part of our community in regional areas. In fact, pretty much everyone in this House, except those opposite, believes there is benefit to be had from linking health reforms with the National Broadband Network so that we can improve services provided to communities across the country. We are at a point in time when we have a choice as to whether we unleash the potential of technology to improve health services or whether we want to stand in the way of any change. On this side of the House we want to use the potential; unfortunately, on the other side of the House they simply want to stand in the way and block both of them.
Before calling the member for North Sydney, I say to the member for Herbert that he could be considered to be in contravention of standing order 65(b) in that he is conversing aloud while another member is speaking. He is so far away that it is a bit hard for him to interrupt the person, but he should be very careful.
If that means the opposition is going to scream and shout like a pack of schoolchildren, I will allow them to do that because any member of the opposition who has served as a cabinet minister understands what cabinet-in-confidence means. If they are so dismissive of cabinet-in-confidence, I would welcome the Leader of the Opposition saying, for example, ‘We could release every cabinet-in-confidence document of the Howard government.’ What a tale we would see about things like Work Choices. The shadow minister asked me about confidentiality. I assume he is genuinely interested, that this was not just an excuse to scream and shout and act like a child. Let me take him through it.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. I am being directly relevant to that section of the question which goes to the release of the NBN Co. business case. I will directly answer that question by explaining the process of release and the confidential matters that are within it. The government will release the business plan in December after the government has considered a key ACCC recommendation on how many retail companies will be able to plug into the network. Of course, we need to work through this decision which is the subject of an NBN Co. and ACCC public consultation process, which does not conclude until 30 November. The points that interconnect that decision, which that process relates to, will be made after the ACCC has delivered its advice to government on 1 December.
The Leader of the Opposition is asking: how is this about the business plan? Of course, this decision relates to the business plan. The points of interconnection decision will mainly impact on backhaul providers, on how and where they connect into the NBN, how the infrastructure they have already built will be affected and how deep into the network companies will be able to build their own infrastructure. Consequently, that is market-sensitive information. The member asked me: why do you not simply release the NBN Co. business plan? Because there are market-sensitive sections of it. I have just spelt out a section of market sensitivity.
We can tell from the reaction of those opposite on the opposition front bench that to them this is all just a game. Actually, they have no interest at all in receiving the business case. We will put it out. They will never really read it. They will go through it and look for one word they can put in a press release in order to justify their argument and demolish the NBN.
We thank the member for Wentworth for being so forthright in earlier interviews. It does not matter what the facts are, it does not matter what anybody finds, it does not matter how positive the National Broadband Network is; the Leader of the Opposition will always be opposed to it because he is pursuing a political game and not the national interest. You could not have a clearer display than you can see today in the kind of cheap political game this opposition is obsessed by.
Order! I believe there was still time on the clock, although I was not checking that. If there was time on the clock and the member for Sturt, even though he is warned by way of interjections, is assisting me by saying there was, I do not think I can accept such a motion. There was still time; the member had time. Such a motion can be moved only when the time has expired.