Thursday, 25 November 2010
Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer Safeguards) Bill 2010
It is a great pleasure indeed to rise and support these amendments that are pressed on the Senate by the coalition. We do so because we think there is a very important principle involved here. When a government chooses to spend a great deal of taxpayers’ money—in this case perhaps $43 billion but in all likelihood a great deal more than that in light of what is in the part of this business plan we have seen. When a government spends so much taxpayers’ money it ought to be subject to scrutiny and it ought to be subject to oversight. It ought to be subject to the oversight of the parliament and it ought to be subject to the oversight of the agencies which have been established by governments over a long period of time to ensure transparency, to ensure that the objectives of the legislation are being achieved and to ensure that taxpayers’ money is being used for good purposes. That is what we have been aiming to secure and that is what these amendments seek to do.
These amendments seek to bring into the process from which the government has excluded them agencies such as the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. We are anxious to have this legislation looked at. We do this because we are highly sceptical of the capacity of this government to spend taxpayers’ money in a responsible fashion. We have many, many examples of absolute abject failure in this area. Let me just remind the Senate of the failings of the Building the Education Revolution program, a $1.5 billion blow-out; the Home Insulation Program, another $1 billion wasted; the laptops in schools program, a $1 billion blow-out; the broadband network first iteration, $4.7 billion, replaced now by a $43 billion plan; and the broadband tender process, $220 million or thereabouts. There is a list. Every senator in this place knows what this list contains and every senator in this place should be embarrassed by the consequences of it. This is not just an arcane idea. It is not just steps we ought to take because we want to feel warm and fuzzy about the way in which we conduct the nation’s business. There are some key principles here.
There are two issues that are raised by the need for scrutiny and oversight. The first is a sad observation about the place we have reached in this country with regard to this legislation. For 25 years a succession of governments have committed themselves to economic reform. They have committed themselves to reform which has produced higher levels of productivity in this country, and that has made Australia a much more competitive and effective actor in the international system. I think we have argued this point consistently: the progress made under that reform and the changes that have taken place over this 25-year period allowed Australia to come through the global financial crisis in the way it did.
Those were not just the reforms of the Howard government. In fact, one could argue reasonably persuasively that many of the most effective reforms, many of the reforms that actually made the difference, were those that took place under the Hawke and Keating governments. Those reforms introduced oversight and competition into Australia, where in the past, sadly, there had not been much. They enforced the principle that competition should be an elemental part of the Australian economy, and they set up the agencies which would be necessary for that to occur.
So we have had a process of reform over a long period of time which has been bipartisan. Yet the Rudd-Gillard government has now reached the point where it is retarding that process of reform. It is a sad commentary on the state of the nation, and, most particularly, on the capacity of this government to see the way forward into the future, that the government cannot appreciate that this piece of legislation, by excluding the scrutiny we seek and precluding competition—that is inherent in the way in which this bill has been drafted—will set back that process of reform.
All we need to do is to think about the way in which the mobile phone market has expanded as a result of competition, how it has affected prices and provided efficiencies in that overall market. That is an interesting example of the way in which competition, allowed to occur and properly regulated, can indeed produce a great deal of efficiency for the Australian nation.
But of course this is not an argument that just I am seeking to make. It is not an argument that is uncommon out there. I refer the Senate to what I thought was a very compelling article by Mr Michael Stutchbury which appeared in the Weekend Australian of Saturday, 20 November. He raised this question and made this point. The article is headed ‘Gillard at forefront of the slide back to the bad old days of regulation’. I would invite every senator—particularly government senators—to read this article and pay close attention to its contents—