Tuesday, 21 August 2018
I grieve for the state of communications policy and regulation in Australia, which languished for almost five years under this current Prime Minister when he was Minister for Communications and under his hapless successor, Senator Mitch Fifield.
Today, Labor moved a motion of no-confidence in the Turnbull government. Labor has no confidence in this Prime Minister or his divided, dysfunctional and out-of-touch government. This Liberal-National government is in the depths of an identity crisis. They stand for nothing other than their own political survival. This is clearly demonstrated in the communications portfolio, as it is in other portfolios. In the communications portfolio, the Liberal-National government has made promise after promise to save their political skin, only to break these promises one by one. They promised their second-rate National Broadband Network would be delivered sooner, and it would be faster and cheaper. But it's slower, later and more expensive. It costs more and does less.
They promised there would be no cuts to the ABC or SBS yet they've cut around half a billion dollars from public broadcasting. These savage cuts have seen jobs lost, services shut down and a reduction in Australian content. But it's not just the litany of broken promises; this Liberal-National government has failed to lay out a comprehensive vision for media and communications in Australia. They have had almost five years to come up with a plan for communications and they have failed to do so. They have failed because they have no principles, no conviction and no vision.
It is quite clear that this government do not even believe in a national broadband network. On something as fundamental as ubiquitous high-speed broadband connectivity, this government do not even have a clear discourse on why we need it or what we're going to do with it. This government do not believe in public broadcasting. They attack the ABC and SBS at every turn with budget cuts, as well as with a raft of unnecessary and vindictive bills, reviews, inquiries and complaints. The attacks are financial and ideological. The Minister for Communications is a serial complainant to the ABC about its content and management affairs. The minister is a card carrying member of the IPA, a group that actually advocates privatising the ABC and SBS and, as it was recently revealed, the senator has even made a private donation to the IPA. What's more, earlier this year, the Liberal Federal Council went so far as to vote overwhelmingly to privatise the ABC.
This government do not believe in media diversity. Their biggest achievement in the name of media law reform has been to junk a key media diversity safeguard despite the fact Australia has one of the most concentrated media markets in the world and it's about to get a lot more concentrated. Rather than safeguard the public interest in media diversity in our democracy, this government did what they always do: they looked after the top end of town with the repeal of the two-out-of-three rule for cross-media control. But they didn't do it on merit. No. They had to scrape the votes in the Senate by doing all manner of backroom deals, including an attack on the ABC with Pauline Hanson's One Nation and the grant of a whopping $30 million of taxpayer funds—uncontested!—to Fox Sports.
What the Turnbull government hasn't deliberately lied about or set to destroy, it has delayed and stymied with inaction. Take spectrum reforms, as one example. This is a sector estimated to be worth around $177 billion to the economy over 15 years. In May 2014 the then Minister for Communications announced a review of Australia's spectrum policy and management framework. So long ago was this announcement made that the link to the then minister's media release on the department's spectrum reform webpage takes you to the PANDORA archive. The release has been archived, just as it seems this current Prime Minister will soon be archived himself.
Over four long years later, we have not had a bill to reform spectrum introduced into parliament for debate, let alone seen the release of the second exposure draft of the radiocommunications bill for consultation. The lack of drive and vision on spectrum reform is matched by this government's lacklustre approach to 5G. All this government has produced is a directions paper and yet another working group that doesn't even seem to report on its progress.
And take audio description on free-to-air television. In five long years this government has achieved nothing for blind and low-vision Australians who desperately seek audio description as a basic human right. This government's Audio Description Working Group has gone nowhere. The final report of that group was delivered in December last year, and still no action from government.
I now turn to the National Broadband Network. Back in 2013, the then communications minister, now the Prime Minister, promised to deliver the National Broadband Network for $29.5 billion, with the rollout to be completed by the end of 2016. He made this promise under the false pretence that switching to copper and HFC would be faster and cheaper. The results have been a debacle, absolutely mirroring his prime ministership. As it stands, his second-rate NBN is $20 billion over budget and four years behind schedule, symbolic of a Prime Minister who has failed every key policy test he has faced. It's not just bad political judgement that he's got; it's bad policy judgement.
The multi-technology mix has not been faster or cheaper. It's slower and more expensive, it costs more to maintain and it generates less revenue. It delivers slower speeds. It's less reliable. It's more exposed to wireless competition. And consumers and taxpayers are worse off. All this because the former Prime Minister ordered the now Prime Minister to destroy the NBN, and he was too weak to say no. What a shambolic and dysfunctional lot this government are. They have no conception of the public interest, no guiding principles and no positive aspirations for how we use technology and connectivity to make this country a better place, to make Australians more included and to improve the quality of life for each Australian regardless of where they live or work.
And not content with creating a digital divide with technology in the fixed-line footprint, the Liberals are now looking to create a digital divide based on price between city and country. Over the past 12 months we've seen household broadband prices come under pressure on a number of fronts. Firstly, under this government, NBN Co has set the same wholesale price for 12-, 25-, and 50-megabit per second plans. This has the effect of increasing entry-level broadband prices. Secondly, the government is seeking to introduce a $7-a-month broadband levy on non-NBN networks. Labor has made it clear that it considers the levy to be poorly designed, and the need to consider it in this parliament is highly regrettable. Labor will not oppose this levy outright, given the poor state of the economics of the multi-technology mix, but it's just another example of this government saying one thing and doing another.
Thirdly—and the most important thing I'd like to mention on this front—the step to increase pressure on broadband prices occurred last week. Last Wednesday, before a hearing of the Joint Standing Committee on the National Broadband Network, NBN admitted it planned to charge regional Australians on the fixed wireless network $20 more per month than a customer on the same speed who lives in the city. That is an extra $20 per month that regional consumers would have to fork out. Simply put, a regional Australian could pay 44 per cent more than someone in the city for the same speed of 50 megabits per second.
The morning after this revelation Labor held a press conference and called for the hike to be dropped, because the NBN was supposed to bridge the digital divide, not create a new one. It's notable that the ABC reported that after Labor's press conference NBN Co modified the online version of their opening statement to add a passage that did not exist in the original statement and was not said at the hearing. Within the space of 24 hours, the minister's claim that the regional broadband price hike was simply under consultation was falling apart at the seams. One thing is clear, Australians cannot afford another term of broken promises and ineptitude from the Liberals and the Nationals when it comes to the communications portfolio. They have no vision for Australia and no understanding of what is needed in this vital policy area.