Thursday, 25 November 2010
Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer Safeguards) Bill 2010
We are still waiting for an answer from the opposition, who are the movers of the amendments to the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer Safeguards) Bill 2010 on sheet 7004. I think that the question at hand deserves to be answered because, as I said, we have heard many unrelated contributions this afternoon and I am not surprised my colleagues feel compelled to respond to some of them. I have responded in detail as to why these amendments are not necessary, including the so-called ‘gun to Telstra’s head’ that is the subject matter of the amendments before us.
As I said before, there is no longer an automatic prohibition on the acquisition of spectrum if Telstra does not structurally separate and divest its interests in its HFC network and Foxtel. The government has been at great pains to amend the bill to ensure that Telstra has sufficient regulatory certainty to take a firm proposal to its shareholders to structurally separate by allowing Telstra to acquire specific bandwidth spectrum. I placed all of this on the record before. I am interested in a response from the opposition as to why they want to persist with these amendments. I think it is very clear they do not need to and I think we deserve an opportunity to get their response.
I also think it is timely to revisit the whole issue of the detail of the regulations we are discussing. Contrary to everything the opposition have said in the chamber today and their associated attempts to delay the discussion of this legislation, they have taken the approach of depriving the chamber of a detailed conversation about the amendments. We are now asking the opposition to justify their amendments, given the government has responded to the concerns they expressed. In the absence of that, I feel the responsibility to further expose the political motivations of the coalition in how they are handling these bills. I revert to comments made by Senator Joyce earlier in the week. The comments were not made during a debate about the bill. They ought to have been, but the comments were on a motion that the coalition moved to talk about the NBN, even though they did not want to discuss the actual bill. In that contribution by Senator Joyce earlier in the week, I confess he was a little provoked by government senators who were challenging him across the floor about the shallow nature of his contribution. But Senator Joyce did Australia a great favour, and today I want to thank Senator Joyce for telling the people of Australia that the coalition’s motivation for their opposition to these bills actually has nothing to do with structural separation.
We know the National Party were advocates of structural separation because they knew it would respond to some of the anticompetitive elements, aspects and characteristics of telecommunications in Australia under which their constituents have suffered. No, what Senator Joyce shared with all Australians and us in the chamber was that their opposition to these bills and to NBN Co. was about bringing the government down. He stated on the record that he thought the only reason Labor was in power was the NBN. Whether that is true or not, I know that it was the subject of some discussion during the period of negotiations and the formation of the minority government, but I have no doubt that it was a significant policy in the minds of Australians when they voted. Frankly, it is a policy that the vast majority of Australians want and need. In this chamber, Senator Joyce made very clear their opposition to these bills was not about the detail and it was not about this feigned protection of the competition structure. We know that is not true because our structurally separated wholesale only National Broadband Network with fibre to the premises addresses all of those concerns. But we know that Senator Joyce has a propensity to fly off at the hip and he really did let the cat out of the bag for the whole of the coalition.
Every time we come into this chamber to discuss the telecommunications bills, I remember it took us 5½ hours of actual procedural debate to bring this bill on that we find ourselves now debating amendment by amendment. I think it is also very important to understand, as far as Senator Joyce’s contribution here today goes, that he tried to purport that somehow the government was being negligent and the competitive provisions around handling the agreement with NBN Co and Telstra were somehow deficient. He knows full well that section 577BA specifically authorises certain conduct for the purposes of section 51 because NBN Co and Telstra do need to make an arrangement that will make the implementation of a National Broadband Network that is wholesale only, fibre to the premises, independently regulated and open access function efficiently. We know that it was the coalition that argued so strongly in the public domain for an arrangement to occur whereby Telstra and NBN Co came to such an agreement. It is hypocritical for them to then criticise the very provisions of the Trade Practices Act that are designed to manage that agreement between NBN Co and Telstra so effectively. Senator Joyce’s attempts to make cheap points on this issue are thoroughly exposed by the fact that once the answer was provided he had nowhere to go but to stand up and hoot and holler.
I would like to reflect on my colleagues’ contributions and the contributions of those opposite. It is frustrating for the government to have to endure misleading contributions by members of those opposite through the course of this debate. We have heard all sorts of big numbers bandied about and, despite more realistic figures being released into the public domain today, we have had no fewer than four different speakers from the coalition continue to use not only the $43 billion figure but higher figures—$50 billion, $53 billion, $57 billion, I think I heard at one point, I cannot remember—which they are making up. Information about the likely cost of the NBN is clearly on the public record, so to continue to bandy those higher figures around is irresponsible, misleading and unconstructive to the debate.
I also think that in providing those unconstructive comments we need to go to the heart of the confidence in this technology. I have been on many inquiries. I am even sick of saying that because people know how many inquiries my colleagues, the opposition and the crossbenchers have participated in over the years. But to come in here and assert that fibre is not the technology of the future or that somehow it will be outmoded in just a few years, as Senator Back did, is irresponsible in the extreme. It is unfortunate because what it tells the people of Australia is that you have a government, on the one hand, committed to the detail, to an elegant market structure that is structurally separated, addressing the vast majority of concerns about anticompetitive behaviour, and an opposition, on the other hand, that cannot even grasp the fundamentals or the facts and mount a debate or an argument.
In addition, they have also been incredibly inconsistent in the way they present their arguments. On the one hand, they say there should be less regulation. They fail to acknowledge that a structurally separated market allows for less regulation because so much of the competitive structure in stimulating competition at the retail level is dealt with by virtue of structural separation. They fail to grasp that most basic point and mount an argument for less regulation. We heard today, I think it was Senator Trood who came in here and mounted an argument to say that we were re-regulating with these bills. Clearly there is an absence of knowledge such that I think inevitably, unfortunately, the people of Australia who are listening to this debate can only conclude that people are not properly briefed and that we do not take our work seriously. I think from the contribution of senators opposite that it is reasonable that some people draw that conclusion about the opposition.
I think the other feature of this debate over many, many years has been that we all know where we needed to end up with structural separation. Senator Xenophon made a strong point in his presentation earlier about unscrambling the egg. It is difficult when the egg that we are unscrambling is about decades of regulation in trying to regulate a structurally imperfect industry. It is incredibly hard to do that but, because of Labor’s commitment and understanding of the importance of a national economic infrastructure for the future, we have been able to do it with our NBN policy. It is complex and there are some big issues to grapple with, but we are doing it step by step as we progress the National Broadband Network policy.
This is one piece of legislation. There will obviously be others. This one deals with the structural separation issues and takes into account, as the coalition demanded, the issues around the NBN Co. and Telstra agreement. I cannot fathom, as I said, why they would oppose it given it is such an important step in addressing all the things they feign to be concerned about.
That is where we go full circle back to Senator Joyce’s arguments. It is not about telecommunications, it is not about internet connectivity, it is not about bandwidth; it is about senators opposite thinking that they have a right to govern. They cannot get over the fact that our excellent NBN policy may have been a factor in determining our visionary policy for the whole of the nation. The visionary nature of this policy sits at the heart of regional Australia too. I note with interest that the coalition would send their regional spokespeople in to say that this is going to abandon the needs of regional Australians, and it is going to cost too much.
The fact of the matter is that regional Australia needs high-bandwidth services. The businesses, commerce and the farmers will tell you about the latency problems with their satellite connections. So we do need an investment in the next generation of satellite to soak up and address the demands of those on farms. But we know that regional Australia’s needs will be served by the NBN, whereas no policy under the former coalition government addressed these concerns.
Back to the coalition amendments that are currently before us: they are amendments that are addressing a problem that no longer exists. So I say to those opposite: have you considered withdrawing your amendments given that I have explained in detail that we have responded to them so comprehensively? Do you think that, in your efforts to amend this bill, by addressing the facts of the matter you might have been motivated to restore even a smidgeon of credibility to the stance that you are taking on this bill? I think the reasonable observation of commentators who are following this debate is that your representatives contributing to the debate not only have little understanding or knowledge about the history, background and nature of the industry structure and how it relates to competition but care little for the crucial economic and social infrastructure that the National Broadband Network will provide. I think it is unfortunate.
I am glad Senator Joyce has come back into the chamber, because I was talking early on about Senator Joyce and about how grateful we are to him for letting the cat out of the bag. But it is not about the merits of this legislation and how it relates to the structure of the telecommunications industry; it is, in fact, about the political tactics of a desperate opposition who want to try and stop the passage of a piece of legislation that, in general, is symbolic of the NBN and looks at some of the aspects of the relationship in the Telstra and NBN agreement and how it responds to the competition framework. It addresses many of the issues in relation to the structure of the industry, and I think it is a very important piece of legislation to progress the framework in which the NBN will function in the future.