Senate debates

Thursday, 24 March 2011

National Broadband Network Companies Bill 2010; Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (National Broadband Network Measures — Access Arrangements) Bill 2011

In Committee

4:00 pm

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for the Murray Darling Basin) Share this | Hansard source

I wish to speak on this. There is an important question here for the minister to answer before we get into whether or not the bills should be considered as a whole or how we consider these two bills. That question is whether we have all of the amendments, all of the information and all of the detail before us here and now so that we can go through this. The challenge to you is for you to stand up and say that there will no more government amendments tabled during the course of this debate and no more amendments to government amendments from the government during the course of this debate. The challenge is for you to say that you have settled with this thing, these bills that you have been going on with since November last year when you first introduced them into the other place. That was on 25 November last year. You have had all of the time since then to get these bills right—all of those months.

This week, the bills were listed for debate on Monday—the beginning of the week. We came in here and started that debate. Then, presumably with your instruction, Minister Arbib adjourned that debate. We have not come back to it until this point in time. So the rest of Monday went by, Tuesday went by and Wednesday went by. Late on Wednesday, we were provided with the reams of amendments that your government is proposing to make. There are 28 pages of amendments across the two bills—hundreds of them in total—for us to consider. You have insisted that the Senate consider these bills today and, if need be, tomorrow, the day after and so forth. We want to be certain that these bills and amendments will be the bills and amendments that we will be considering. We want to be certain that there is no way that you are going to come in here and present further amendments. If you are going to do that, we might as well go through and consider each bill clause by clause.

More significantly, as I advocated during the discussion of hours, we would be wiser to simply refer these bills, and these amendments in particular, back to the legislation committee to let the stakeholders have their say to ensure that you have it right, because—quite clearly—to date you have not got it right. If you had got it right in the first place, you would not have had to amend one of these bills and reintroduce it subsequent to the first introduction in 2010. If you had got it right in the first place, you certainly would not have had to introduce 28 pages of amendments in the last couple of days.

These are the questions for you, Minister: have you settled the whole thing? Is this it? Will there be no further changes? Should we say, ‘Let us not debate it now; let’s wait until you get your house in order’? I want to know, and I think that every senator deserves to know, whether the government has its house in order on this issue now. This is important.

This is a $50 billion package. I know that you love to take people to task on that, Minister, but we all know that, when you consider government’s direct equity into the NBN Co. and the debt-raising activities that the NBN Co. will have to undertake and the payments that the NBN Co. and the government will ultimately make to Telstra, we are talking about a sum that reaches beyond $50 billion. This is a vast project. These bills have vast implications, implications for how the NBN Co. will work, how it will be scrutinised in future, whether it will be subject to the FOI Act—and we know that you are seeking to provide sweeping exemptions there—and whether it will be subject to the full scrutiny of this parliament. We already know that you are seeking to exempt it from the scrutiny of the Public Works Committee.

These bills have vast implications for the operations of the telecommunications market and the NBN Co. in particular. Will it be the wholesale only provider that you claim it will be? Will that be the case? If not, we need to get to the bottom of why not, of who they will be able to provide services directly to and why you think that breaching the wholesale only provider promise is justified. We will need to get to the bottom of why you think that you can go back on your word in that regard and set the NBN Co. up as a potential retail provider as well. We need to go back and find out what implications that will have for the operation of the telecommunications market in this country and whether or not you will be starting the NBN Co. off on the path of potentially being another vertically integrated telecommunications company, but one with a government legislated and mandated monopoly in the fibre space. We need to know whether you will be taking us back many years in this space because of your failure to get this right. These are vital issues and questions.

We need to understand whether these amendments will, as is being alleged, wind back the capacity of the ACCC to have decent oversight of critical things such as how the NBN Co. discriminates on price to its retail customers, how the NBN Co. bundles services or discriminates on the bundling of services to its customers and how the NBN Co. decides on points of interconnection. Will the ACCC have full and strong oversight in this regard or have you taken a step back to weaken it? These are questions that arise out of the amendments that you have tabled. They are questions that arise from the bills that are under debate. But, from what we understand, you are still trying to make your mind up as to whether this is the final equation—whether you have it all bedded down now or whether we are going to see further iterations as this debate goes on.

If we are going to see further iterations, it is just not good enough for this debate to go on. Every senator who has an interest in this deserves to be able to start this debate knowing exactly what the government is proposing and having a clear idea of what it is that you intend for this parliament, this Senate, to decide upon with these bills. You are the government. You are meant to be in charge of this agenda. So far, you have failed miserably in that regard. You came in here during the debate on the hours and proclaimed, as did Senator Ludwig, the vital importance of getting these bills through to allow the deal—the already delayed deal—with Telstra to proceed.

That deal has already been delayed. It may be at risk of further delay—I do not know—as a result of this legislation. But, if it is, there is nobody to blame but yourself and your government. You are masters of your own destiny in this regard. And, as I emphasised at the outset, these bills were first introduced way back in November last year. You have had not just days to get your house in order on this, not just weeks to get your house in order; you have had months to get your house in order on this. Now you come in here, on the last day of the last week of this session, and try to extend the hours—as you have successfully done—and expect us to roll through all of these amendments, of particular substance, to your legislation and expect, in some way, for the Senate to be happy. Well, we are clearly not happy about it. What we will be even less happy about is if we get halfway through this debate and discover that—wait, there are more amendments from the government; wait, there are more things that you need to fix up with your own legislation. Or, potentially, most amazingly, will be the likelihood that you will come in here with amendments to some of the amendments in your 28 pages of amendments. That is quite likely because, given the way you have got it wrong so far with the drafting of these bills, given the fact that you have seen it necessary to move these 28 pages of amendments, there is every likelihood that you are going to find, as this debate goes on—as no doubt will be pointed out in your consultations and discussions with industry stakeholders outside this building who are worried about these changes and who are concerned, like senators, that they have not had a chance to adequately consider these changes—that there are flaws and there are problems. That will push you into potentially having further amendments.

We think that it is not unreasonable for the Senate to expect to see the government’s final position at the start of the committee debate, that it is not unreasonable for us to know that you have actually got your house in order, made your mind up, locked it all in and settled where you are going at the start of the committee debate. So before we move on to this procedural motion about whether the bill be taken as a whole, I have one simple question, Minister: will there be any more amendments? Can you rule out bringing any further amendments to these bills into this chamber during the committee debate?

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