Monday, 21 March 2011
National Broadband Network Companies Bill 2010; Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (National Broadband Network Measures — Access Arrangements) Bill 2011
In this debate, and it is a debate, there is one aspect of the contribution by Labor Party members with which I agree, and that was when Senator McEwen said that this legislation was typical Labor government legislation. I agree with her entirely. It is dysfunctional, it is uncosted, it is not planned and it is ad hoc. We hear from Senator Ludlam, the other part of the Labor-Greens coalition that runs this country at the present time, that the National Broadband Network Companies Bill 2011 that we are all here debating is not actually the bill we are going to vote on. Senator Ludlam knows, and I am glad that he let the cat out of the bag, that the bill is being amended as we speak.
So what are we supposed to be debating here when the bill has provisions that none of us, not even Senator Ludlam, have even seen? That is typical Labor Party legislation—I could not agree more with Senator McEwen. When it is a bill dealing with a commercial enterprise introduced by a minister who has had completely nil experience in commercial activities, you can only shake your head and say, yep, it is a typical Labor enterprise. Senator Conroy is a lovely fellow—a truck driver, I think he was. Certainly he worked with the Transport Workers Union. I suspect Senator Sterle would probably disagree that he was ever a truck driver. But his experience in dealing with business is obviously very limited. The whole course of this bill typifies that.
Senator McEwen also said that this discharged a Labor Party promise before the 2007 election. Hang on, Senator McEwen: if you go back and have a look at exactly what the Labor Party promise was before the 2007 election, it was to deliver a fast broadband service for a cost of $4.7 billion. That was the commitment—$4.7 billion. What are we up to now? It is $55 billion, by best estimates. Senator Cameron was talking about some lesser figure, but they conveniently forget that, to get this up and running, in addition to the dodgy figures being promoted as the cost of the NBN they are going to pay Telstra anything from $11 billion up to, as I read in a report the other day, some $16 billion. I notice that in the weekend press Telstra are now not even saying they are going to be part of the deal. Remember, this was all to be done by 1 July. I see Telstra are not even having their meeting now until perhaps, at the earliest, September. So we are going to fiddle around not knowing exactly what this is going to cost the Australian people.
Senator Ludlam referred to the children in the gallery and said that they will benefit substantially from a fast broadband network. We all agree that everybody in Australia wants a fast broadband network, but we want a network that people can afford. Someone has to pay the $55 billion. Before our Senate inquiry into this, people came to us starry eyed, all keen for the NBN, and when you asked them whether they knew how much it was going to cost and who was going to pay for it they looked a bit crestfallen and said, ‘Well, no, we just want it; we know it is going to be good.’ Of course it is going to be good—any fast broadband network would be good. In fact, if the coalition had won the 2007 election, this network would be up and running now at a cost of $5 billion, which would have meant that the students and the mums and dads could afford to pay for it.
We do not know what the mums and dads of these students watching this debate are going to have to pay for this NBN, because it is $55 billion—but remember the Labor Party promised $4.7 billion. That has blown out by some $50 billion. What is worse, the Labor Party promised they would get a commercial return on that $55 billion, and they would pay back all the money that they would have to borrow to get it. It just does not make business sense. That is why the Labor Party has refused to get a cost-benefit analysis done. If it is so good, why oh why wouldn’t Senator Conroy get a cost-benefit analysis done? It would prove to the world what he has been saying. He says yes it is good and yes it is affordable. The best way of demonstrating that is to get an independent cost-benefit analysis done. He has continually refused to do that, and that in itself demonstrates that this will not be cost effective.
Senator Cameron and Senator McEwen both raised the old class warfare arguments that the Labor Party is so good at: ‘We are looking after the poor people. We are giving this fast broadband network. It’s not just the rich companies that will be able to have the fast broadband.’ That is all part of the Labor Party’s socialist class warfare mantra—which, I might add, nobody else in Australia follows these days, apart from the Greens. How can you get affordable broadband to all Australians when you have a $55 billion price tag on it, one which they guarantee they will make a commercial return on? Of course, promises by the Labor Party are completely irrelevant these days. We all remember how the Prime Minister, two days before the last election, hand on heart, hand on the Bible—I don’t think she uses a Bible, so whatever she believes in—said, ‘There will be no carbon tax under a government I lead.’ What do we have now? A carbon tax. So how can any promise of the Labor Party be accepted?
Senator McEwen spoke about Tasmania. The Tasmanians are going to start to find out what the cost of the NBN is. Sure, it has been operating for about a year now. But there has been no charge for the NBN. It has been given to them for free in Tasmania. Even then, the number of people signing up to the NBN has been disappointing from the government’s point of view.
The National Broadband Network Companies Bill has been very clearly explained by both Senator Birmingham and Senator Fisher. The clear fallacies in the bill, the inadequacies in the bill, have been pointed out. The volume discounts are causing great concern, as is the suggestion that enterprises like ACTEW will be prejudiced in their current economic and business case by this bill, which simply has not been thought through. As Senator Ludlam said, trying to defend his mates in the Labor Party, ‘I am sure they did not intend it.’ But that is just typical of the Labor Party. All of these things are done. Nobody looks through them, nobody thinks about them, and we find a bill that is being amended as we speak, as we are debating it. We do not know what it is going to be. The Labor Party and the Greens might know what it will be, although Senator Ludlam confessed that not even he knew. So what are we doing here debating something that is still being written?
Senator Ludlam talked, as did the Labor Party contributors, about freedom of information, about making this public and open and accountable. After all, this is not some private company’s money. This is not some investor’s investment in a commercial enterprise. This is the money of every single Australian taxpayer. Every mum and dad in Australia has an interest in how this money is being spent. We are entitled to know how it is being spent by this group that wants to be faceless, that wants to hide behind the veil of commercial-in-confidence. What can be commercial-in-confidence when you are running a monopoly? You do not have anyone to compete with. You are there on your own. It does not matter what people know about your business; they cannot take advantage of it because you are a monopoly—you are the only one in the business. That is what we are ending up with under this typical socialist Labor Party legislation. It is a monopoly business which is going to run telecommunications in Australia.
The Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee examined this bill. The government wants this enterprise to be a monopoly. Of course, the Greens have never made any secret about the fact they want the government to always own it, because they believe in socialism, in government ownership of enterprises. The Labor Party used to, but they got out of that 20 or 25 years ago. But they are being brought back into it now, because it is now the Greens, led by Senator Brown, who run this government. They want governments to own commercial enterprises, but they will not have any competition. So who cares about commercial secrets?
We said to a number of witnesses: ‘When you deal with a monopoly, don’t you run the risk of going back to the old PMG/Telecom days when Australian telecommunications were light-years behind the rest of the world? That was because a government monopoly ran our telephone system.’ I can remember when, in the old days, you would turn a handle on the telephone and about five different people on the party line could pick up the phone. That was the state of telecommunications when the government last had a monopoly on telecommunications in this country.
We have progressed because there has been competition. The competition out there is fierce and that is why we are getting all of these new technologies. Because the Labor Party is being urged by the Greens—and I know a lot of Labor Party people do not agree with us; I do sympathise with them, but the Greens are calling the tune—we will have this monopoly that will not be subject to any competition. What will be their incentive to get with the latest technology? There will be absolutely none. They will just charge what they like and make whatever profits or losses they like. They will not have to compete with anyone at all. Why would they invest in new technology? Why would they be bothered? Of course they will not be bothered, and the chances of it ever being privatised are slipping by the day. As my colleagues on this side have pointed out, it can only be privatised if that great business brain Senator Conroy or whoever follows him in this field—it will be someone with equally good private business expertise I am sure, and I say that cynically—certifies that it is fully operational and complete. Of course that will never happen. It will never be complete, so it will never be privatised. The Minister for Finance and Deregulation—currently Senator Wong, with a great commercial background—will have to certify that market conditions are suitable.
There are a lot of good people in the Labor Party. I love them all. But you cannot say that they are great businessmen. Their background in coming here is either the union movement or working for another politician. Yet these are the people who are going to tell us when market conditions are suitable—now come on! This is typical Labor Party socialist legislation.
You have only got to look around. When we all leave this place and go out into the real world, when parliament is not sitting, we talk to young people who wander around with their laptops. We even do it ourselves. Sorry; where is the NBN fixed-line connection to them? Everyone, except parliamentarians these days, seems to have these iPad things which are even lighter and smaller than laptops. I cannot see the NBN being connected to them either.
Clearly, there are new technologies coming in all the time. I have got no idea what they are going to be, but people out there understand that day by day, almost hour by hour, there are new technologies coming. People are flocking to them. They do not include fixed-line NBN work. They include all of the latest things that are happening in competition in an industry that is very competitive. So what is happening in Australia? We are going to be locked into $55 billion of investment that the taxpayers will have to pay for—not the Labor Party, not the NBN executives, not all those people who think it is a good idea but don’t want to pay for it—while the industry will have moved on. Technology will walk around Australia. We will have a government monopoly running the show, as we did back in the old Telecom days, which does not have to make a profit, does not have to compete and does not have to get up with the latest, and Australia will be taken back again.
There were a lot of other things that came out of the Senate committee inquiry into this bill that I would like to debate. Unfortunately, time is going to beat us again in this debate. Perhaps we will have some opportunity in the committee stage of the debate. I am not sure if Senator Xenophon, who I see has just entered the chamber, is aware of this. Senator Xenophon, save your time. Do not bother debating this bill, because we learnt five minutes ago from the Greens section of the government that there is new legislation being written as we speak. What we are supposed to be debating I am not quite sure about. Senator Ludlam himself even said, ‘I can’t really say too much because the legislation is not before us.’ What are we doing here? Again, I agree with Senator McEwen. It is typical Labor Party socialist legislation—completely dysfunctional, completely unthought through, completely without even a modicum of business or commercial honesty.
We went through the issue of the retailers. Of course, the whole thing was that the NBN was going to be wholesale only. That is falling apart as we speak, again because Senator Conroy had no idea about all of these issues which, if he had gone out to the industry, they could have told him about. It certainly came up in the Senate committee hearings. The Labor Party are now rushing back at the last hour, as we speak on the bill, after it has already been passed by the other house of parliament—a great lot of scrutiny they did over there, obviously! The government is amending the bill again. That is typical of this whole sorry saga of the NBN.
The $4.7 billion we were promised by the Labor Party before the 2007 election is now some $55 billion. You cannot go back in history, unfortunately, but if the coalition had won that 2007 election the NBN—fast broadband to every home in Australia—would be up and running today. It would be almost 12 months old now and it would be there at an affordable price, taking account of the existing networks that had been put in place by the existing providers. It would have been a competitive network that would have ensured that Australians could expect that we would keep up with the latest technology in the future. But here we are debating a bill entrenching a government monopoly, with provisions that not even the Greens part of the government are currently aware of. They have no idea of what the legislation is. It will be another rush job done on the run, and that will mean that we will end up with all the same sorts of problems that we have seen in the past with this NBN fiasco that has been thrust upon us by the Labor Party at a cost of $55 billion. Senator McEwen, I certainly agree with you: it is typical Labor Party legislation.