Wednesday, 26 March 2014
National Broadband Network Select Committee; Report
Regrettably, I rise today unable to support the report that has been tabled in this place by the chair of the committee. In doing so it is of grave concern that I require to put on the record what I have seen as an extraordinary abuse of parliamentary process and extraordinary abuse of the Senate processes, and particularly an abuse of our committee system for which this place is held in such extraordinarily high regard.
There are so many things I could point to that occurred during the course of the establishment of this select committee and the subsequent hearings and meetings and the conduct of the committee since it was first established. I will give a bit of background about the areas of my concern. This committee was originally supposed to be established as a joint committee between the House of Representatives and the Senate. My understanding is that there had been an agreement with the shadow minister for communications, Mr Clare, that the committee would be a joint committee, and for some strange reason at the eleventh hour we found that we had a select committee set up in the Senate, which gives the opportunity for the previous minister for communications to be able to prosecute the argument in relation to what I can only suggest is his defending the legacy that was left to this government of the NBN. I have to say I think it is almost defending the indefensible.
What we have ended up seeing is a series of different activities this committee has done which undermine the integrity of our committee system. There have been situations where right the way through all of the hearings we had three Labor members, three coalition members and one Green. During the allocation of time by the chair, time and time again the lion's share of the hearing time was allocated to Senator Conroy and a much smaller amount of time was allocated to the coalition. We had situations where witnesses were not called, we had some extraordinary examples when the opposition members were bullying witnesses. We saw a situation during the estimates committee when they were prosecuting this issue, where Senator Conroy actually called the general manager at the time or the chief executive, now the chairman of the board of NBN, a liar. The committee all the time insisted on constantly calling NBN officials at really short notice and the requirement for six, eight or 10 of them to be appearing time and time again so that we could keep prosecuting this issue about why the NBN was not proceeding in the manner in which Senator Conroy had originally decided that it would.
It just seemed to be that it was more of an argument about having to have fibre to the premises. There was no debate really in this whole exercise about the people of Australia during the committee hearings. Quite clearly I heard them—it is not reflected in the majority report but it is reflected in our report—time and time again saying they wanted high-speed, reliable and affordable access to the internet. But what we saw in the response in the report we got back is that if it is not fibre to the premises it is just no good. That is not what the people told us during the hearings; it is absolutely not what we were told during the hearings.
Back to the conduct of the committee, though. We had a situation where the terms of the establishment of the committee allowed only three senators to form a quorum. My understanding since I have been in this place is that it is usual practice with a quorum that you usually have one member from the government and one member from the opposition at least to make a quorum, and then possibly one other person to make up the numbers. But no, in the establishment of this committee we had a situation where three people could form the quorum, which meant the three Labor members could form the quorum. I draw to the Senate's attention to when the committee was first established and actually held hearings before the government even had the opportunity of being able to appoint members to the committee. So two hearings, I believe, were held. It was just an extraordinary abuse of the powers of this chamber; that the opposition and the Greens can vote for anything, regardless of whether it maintains the integrity of the Senate and the committee system in this place. I think that was quite an extraordinary situation to find ourselves in.
The thing that is probably as disappointing as anything else is the extraordinarily difficult position that these actions have placed the secretariat in. The secretariats, as we all know are not partisan in any way, shape or form, but some of the requests that were put on the secretariat of the NBN select committee have really put these people, I would suggest, in a particularly conflicted and difficult position. I draw to the House's attention the way this interim report was finalised.
Last Friday night, at half past five, with no notice or communication—although much had been promised—I found the draft interim report on my email. Obviously, in good faith, I believed that was going to be pretty much a true reflection of what the final report was likely to be. So I, along with my coalition colleagues on the committee, spent the entire weekend writing a report in response to the document that we received on Friday night.
I contacted and spoke to the opposition members on Monday and pointed out to them the fact that they had no recommendations or findings. We were told that we would be getting the findings this morning and that the report was to be tabled tomorrow. So we thought we had at least 24 hours in which to respond to the recommendations and findings in the report—which we thought was the report we had. This morning, we found out—or late yesterday we found out—that the report and the findings were going to be tabled this morning and the report was going to be put into the chamber this afternoon, as it has been.
When we got to the meeting this morning, the report of the chair bore no resemblance whatsoever to the report we were given last Friday. So we had spent the whole weekend and much of the week, in good faith, developing our dissenting report in relation to what we had received on Friday, only to find that the report was actually three times as big, so we had three times as much information to go through. We had to go and find the bits and pieces in the report that had already been referred to on Friday, plus this myriad other information. And we were given the sum total of one hour to prepare a true dissenting report for the document we received this morning.
There was much good and interesting stuff that came out in these hearings, but I draw these matters to the House's attention because I believe that the operations of the Senate and the Senate committees have been totally abused to try to achieve a political outcome, to prosecute a political position, by those opposite. And I think it is extremely disappointing. The people of Australia, I genuinely believe, just want exactly what I said the people at the hearings told us. They want fast, reliable and affordable access to their internet.
It has been very disappointing to see the goings on and the damage that has been done—games have been played in the process of getting absolutely nowhere. All I can say about not being able to support the chair's report and in support of the dissenting report is that I really hope that in the next few months, as we continue to the final report for the NBN, that maybe we can use this time productively so that we can get some good outcomes for the people of Australia. The people in regional Australia, where I come from, need to get this NBN rolled out. Let's stop wasting the time of NBN Co and of everybody else, on a political witch-hunt. Let's stop scaremongering and actually start doing what we are supposed to be doing here—that is, delivering a good NBN for all Australians.