Monday, 21 March 2011
National Broadband Network Companies Bill 2010; Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (National Broadband Network Measures — Access Arrangements) Bill 2011
I do apologise, Mr Acting Deputy President. Through you: Senator Macdonald might learn something. The simplest explanation is one of purpose of the NBN. The primary overriding purpose of the National Broadband Network being publicly owned is to serve as an open-access, wholesale telecommunications provider to the entire Australian population. When it screws something up, the taxpayers have the right, through us, to call the company’s management before budget estimates committees and to amend its parent acts, including the ones that we are debating today, to bring it back into line. That is a degree of democratic control over the NBN Co. on behalf of not just the rest of the industry and its potential competitors but all Australians, and that is something that we should not give up lightly.
As soon as you privatise it by law, its primary purpose becomes to maximise its return to shareholders. It will do this by doing what Telstra did—leveraging the benefits of its incumbency into other markets. It will explore scope creep. It will push the boundaries. And that is why you did not hear a market outcry when the Greens got these provisions into this bill last year—in fact, quite the reverse. Coalition senators in particular might be interested to note the number of market players who have supported the protections against automatic privatisation because it protects their interests, because they do not want to be dealing with another Telstra situation. Telstra should never have been privatised, and what we are doing here partly fixes that mess.
The provisions that we put in, recognising that we cannot bind a future parliament to do one thing or another, were to remove the expectation of privatisation. It is not automatic anymore. That process will be initiated as a decision of the government of the day. Previously in the exposure draft we had an automatic privatisation process that rolled out that would automatically sell our interest down. That has gone. We wanted the Productivity Commission to conduct a public interest test and to feed their work into a joint parliamentary committee for report on the costs and benefits of the sale. Imagine assessing whether it is in the public interest to sell down our stake in the NBN Co. We think that is worth doing. The third thing that we proposed was that any sale should be submitted to a vote in this parliament so that the Australian people through their representatives, no matter how one-sided the numbers might appear on the day, can at least have their voices heard. That was all that we could realistically do, and I still find it amazing that some commentators and coalition MPs panned the idea of even doing a public interest test to assess whether the sale was a good idea or not. We think that is sensible.
To close, I think a couple of points are in order. The fact is that the network itself is a physical piece of infrastructure: it is glass and steel, it is powered by coal and it is transmitted through holes in the ground. We might imagine that cyberspace is some kind of ethereal realm or some frictionless virtual world that kind of frees us from the physical bonds of gravity and makes the whole place sustainable. But let us remember that this technology is embedded in quite prosaic fossil-fired technology. We need to see the same kind of ambition, vision and indeed risk-taking that we are seeing in telecommunications policy applied to the energy and transport sectors. When that happens, we will know that we have turned the ship and that we are truly on the way to a post-carbon economy. Instant telecommunications to anywhere in the world can be a big part of that vision, but only if we front up to the fossil underpinnings of the internet and do not pretend that it is somehow divorced from the rest of the world.
Probably the less I say about coalition opposition to this project the better. I think it is part of the quite destructive obstructionism that has characterised the Abbott era. Opposition spokesperson Malcolm Turnbull has brought a sharp and quite technologically literate critique to the project and he has certainly made the debate much more interesting. But pretending that wireless can compete with fixed fibre and offering nothing up by way of an alternate policy except a bucket of money to hand out to commercial providers and hope that they serve up decent service in the bush I think is a welcome confirmation that the Greens and the House Independents did the right thing in backing Julia Gillard over Tony Abbott last year.
Finally, to pick up some of the threads that I introduced at the outset, in wondering what Australians would do with a national broadband network I want to open up some larger questions. There is an undercurrent out there that is wondering, justifiably, why we would want to blow tens of billions of dollars on faster video streaming. I have seen it declared that the killer application for the NBN will be nothing more than IPTV, video streamed, faster, on demand from anywhere at any time, and that that is the bandwidth demand that justifies bringing glass fibre to your door. I strongly disagree. In fact, if I thought that was the case I probably would have advised my party room to vote against this package and everything that has come before. That world view that the internet is just about faster and more diverse television recalls the very early days of television in which presenters sat awkwardly in front of the camera and read radio scripts because that was the medium they knew and the audience was familiar with. I think this is another one of those moments. The internet is not like more channels of television, because it is fundamentally not a broadcast technology. Potentially it can actually do profound things to our democracy. Let us remember one thing that it will start to do, which is blur the boundaries of the nation state, because the whole planet is coming online. Australia is an extremely wealthy nation and we have our digital divide here. There is a planetary digital divide that is even more profound. But the number of internet users worldwide doubled between 2005 and 2010, and there are now nearly two billion people online. That is tremendously exciting. Of those, 400 million speak in Chinese. This connects us to the planet in ways which I do not think we are quite prepared for.