Senate debates

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer Safeguards) Bill 2009

Second Reading

Debate resumed from 26 October, on motion by Senator Wong:

11:25 am

Photo of Nick MinchinNick Minchin (SA, Liberal Party, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

In relation to the second reading debate on the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer Safeguards) Bill 2009, pursuant to a contingent notice standing in my name, I move:

That so much of the standing orders be suspended as would prevent me moving that further consideration of the bill be made an order of the day for five sitting days after the government response to the National Broadband Network Implementation Study is laid on the table.

In speaking to that motion I note that the government has had significant notice of this matter. In seeking the suspension of standing orders we are asking that the Senate be allowed to consider the urgency of this bill before the second reading debate commences. In our view this will allow full and detailed debate about the urgency of this bill and more detailed consideration of the government’s claims that this bill should be considered before its response to the NBN implementation study.

It is the coalition’s view that this bill is entirely related to the NBN. The NBN is mentioned some 150 times in the explanatory memorandum and in the second reading speech. Therefore, we do not believe that this bill should be considered in advance of the NBN implementation study. The Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, whom we make welcome in the chamber, has, frankly, used the guise of the NBN study to avoid providing the Senate with any detail whatsoever about his proposed broadband network. According to the minister, the implementation study will determine how much consumers will pay for services, which areas will be covered by fibre, the share structure of the company that operates the NBN, the total taxpayer contribution, when the rollout will commence and how long it is going to take. He refuses to provide any detail on these aspects in advance of the implementation study, but he now expects the Senate to support a bill—a quite radical and far-reaching bill—that is intrinsically connected to the NBN and, frankly, would not be here in the absence of the NBN and the conclusions of the implementation study, which is costing taxpayers some $25 million. We were told that that study would be delivered to us last month. The implementation study in and of itself will no doubt make recommendations about other legislative amendments to support the rollout of this NBN.

As we have said consistently throughout this debate, the bill is intrinsically linked to the NBN. It is, frankly, about blackmailing Telstra to cooperate with the NBN. As we know, the only way the NBN will ever be viable is through this avenue. It is evident throughout the explanatory memorandum and the second reading speech and is consistent with everything that the minister has been saying since this bill was introduced. It has only been since the minister realised that the Senate’s return to order for the production of documents could have an impact on his plans to force Telstra’s breakup that he has all of a sudden changed his tune and tried to claim that this bill has absolutely nothing to do with the NBN, which only he would believe. He should have thought of that before he crafted a bill which is based on a discussion paper about the NBN and before he framed the entire debate about this bill in the context of the NBN.

As David Forman, no great friend of the coalition but CEO of the Competitive Carriers’ Coalition, told the Senate inquiry into the legislation:

If you suggested to me that the NBN was likely to succeed in the absence of this legislation, I would suggest that that is a pretty big bet.

Those are very accurate words.

Labor’s attack on Telstra is a form of legislative blackmail that we believe can only be seen as an admission that its new NBN policy cannot be implemented without effectively renationalising Telstra’s fixed line network. Labor cannot afford to have its NBN compete with Telstra. It wants its NBN to be a majority government owned monopoly and this legislation is aimed at forcing Telstra to participate, even though it has indicated it is in good-faith negotiations with the government. I would urge the Senate to support the suspension so that a thorough debate about the urgency of this bill can occur before we commence the second reading debate. Nothing in this bill is urgent. The consumer measures do not commence until 1 July 2010, so this bill can be dealt with in the next session of the parliament. The appropriate time for the Senate to consider these matters is when we have some more certainty about the NBN rollout and after the government has tabled its response to the $25 million NBN implementation study. Until that study is completed and the government response is tabled, we in the Senate should not be asked to consider the structure of the telecommunications sector going forward, which is what this bill is all about when the government states that the structure will be altered by the decisions relating to the NBN. So I do urge the Senate to support this suspension so a full debate can proceed about the timing for the consideration of this bill.

11:31 am

Photo of Stephen ConroyStephen Conroy (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

The government does not support Senator Minchin’s proposal to suspend standing orders. How many bites of the cherry can you have? The Senate has already voted to allow this bill to proceed. But this is nothing new. After 11½ years of doing nothing and 18 failed broadband plans, those opposite have spent the last 2½ years avoiding having a policy in this sector. There is a good reason why they have been avoiding having a policy; it is because they have not got one. We had Senator Minchin in charge of this portfolio for nearly 18 months. There were 180 press releases and not a policy in sight because he has not moved from his sycophantic position of doing whatever Telstra asks. That is what the previous government’s position was and that is what the position of the current opposition is—‘Whatever Telstra and Sol Trujillo tell me to do, that is what I will do.’ Nothing has changed.

This country has suffered. This country has fallen behind the rest of the world. This country has fallen behind our near neighbours. Our children are getting a worse education. Our health sector could be massively improved if we had decent broadband infrastructure in this country. This opposition has sought to delay at every stage. They are exposed as being a pack of frauds when it comes to wanting to deliver a broadband policy. They do not have one and we are seeing yet again an attempt to delay, obfuscate and obstruct. This is an opposition that blocked 41 bills last year, which is the record. There have been 110 years of this parliament and they set the record for blocking bills last year.

Opposition Senators:

Opposition senators interjecting

Photo of Stephen ConroyStephen Conroy (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

We have certainly pulled at a scab there. They are trying to pretend that they have accepted in some way the result of the last election. Get over it. You lost the last election and you are not in government. Let this government govern. Scrutinise and suggest amendments; that is fair. But you have opposed 41 bills, which is a record. Senator Minchin says it is not urgent, but that is what he said six months ago and what he said three months ago. With this bill due to be enacted on 1 July this year he is still suggesting that it should be held over because he believes that the implementation study is relevant to this bill. The implementation study is about the ongoing business plan for NBN Co.

Photo of Christopher BackChristopher Back (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

What business plan?

Photo of Stephen ConroyStephen Conroy (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

You will be wiping the egg off your face soon enough, Senator Back. This bill is about the structure of the telecommunications sector. Many of those opposite privately support the structural separation of Telstra, but they are led by the dinosaur Luddite at the front table who is just clinging to his legacy where he helped to introduce a privatised monopoly, the world’s most vertically integrated monopoly, with almost no regulation just so he could fool a few shareholders by pumping up the dividend stream and look after the sale of Telstra. He had no policy about the future of the telecommunications sector and no policies about what was best for consumers. It was simply about what Senator Minchin could hang on his wall and say, ‘I flogged off Telstra; look how much I got for it.’ That is all he is defending. He has no policy position on the future structure of the telecommunications sector. Put aside that Senator Minchin’s own bill said, ‘Let’s have a review two years after privatisation.’ Guess what? It is two years hence. The government has decided that we believe this is the best structure for the future benefit of Australians and for the future benefit of all telecommunications consumers. Those opposite should be exposed as the frauds and charlatans they are. They have not had a broadband policy for 13 years and they are standing here as the emperor with no clothes. Their sole achievement was to flog off Telstra for as much as they could get for it.

Photo of Steve HutchinsSteve Hutchins (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Before we go to you, Senator Ludlam, I would remind senators that all interjections are disorderly but, if you are going to be disorderly, you have got to go back to your own seat.

11:36 am

Photo of Scott LudlamScott Ludlam (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

This is quite clearly a rerun of the debate that we had late last year when we were discussing whether or not the government would hand over the documents that were produced in the course of the original RFP going back nearly two years now. There was a debate and a lot of argy-bargy at the time about whether those bills were relevant to the Telstra debates or not, or whether they were more strictly relevant to the NBN debate when we finally get to that at some stage.

I remind the chamber that at that time the government eventually established a Senate inquiry into these kinds of deadlocks—when the Senate orders production of documents and the executive says, ‘No, you can’t have them; you’ll just have to trust that we’re withholding them in the public interest.’ The government came back with an incredibly unsatisfactory position on that, joining with the opposition. At no stage since then have we seen the original RFP documents that were produced in the course of the government assessing whether or not it would proceed with its original intentions or go with an NBN project 10 times the scale.

At the time, however, the Senate agreed that the Telstra debate could proceed. That debate was originally scheduled for October and now, in early March, the debate still has not gone ahead. The government is negotiating with Telstra behind the scenes, with no checks and balances whatsoever, no role for any other party and no public scrutiny. I and many people in the industry believe that at some point we are going to be presented with a fait accompli. The debate on the Telstra bill may become redundant if it is delayed for too much longer.

Senator Minchin, who moved the procedural motion today which would effectively block any further debate on the Telstra bill until the implementation study is handed over, has a very strong point. The government last year, in many comments during Senate estimates hearings and at other times, answered any questions relating to the NBN, or indeed this debate, with, ‘Wait till you see the implementation study; all the answers will be in there.’ We were informed last year, and again a couple of weeks ago, that the minister alone will decide whether or not that implementation is ever made public. My understanding is that they have received it, they are reading it and they are making their minds up as to whether or not it will be provided to the parliament. Of course they should provide it to the parliament—it should have been provided to the parliament at the same time it was provided to the government—if they are expecting us to assess a public commitment to the NBN of upwards of $20 billion.

We do not support this further attempt to block debate of the Telstra bill. I believe that this is all a delaying tactic. The implementation study should absolutely be tabled. We will be moving an order for the production of documents this afternoon to ensure that the study is tabled in full and that that information is provided to the public and the rest of the industry so that we can get an idea of what we are actually assessing and what we are going to be expected to debate when we get to the NBN bills.

However, I am not persuaded that the implementation study is essential to proceed with the Telstra debate. We have been ready to proceed with this debate since last October. We will not be supporting this motion. We will, however, be looking forward to coalition support for an order for the production of documents so that the implementation study is provided and put in the public domain, where it firmly belongs. But I do not support that should being used as a delaying tactic to continue to put off the debate on Telstra, which I believe we should have had—whatever you believe about the merits of the bill itself—late last year, not in March.

11:40 am

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise in support of Senator Minchin’s motion. It is incredible to expect that the Senate is going to consider quite an important structural issue for Telstra without the key ingredient, the study. The study needs to be tabled for us to consider properly the implications of the legislation that Senator Conroy insists he wants to discuss. Senator Conroy has had the opportunity on a lot of earlier occasions to introduce this legislation and he has failed to do so. It is typical of the mismanagement of the agenda by the government throughout this entire term of parliament.

It would be no surprise to those listening and those who read Hansard that the mismanagement of the program has been raised by us, by the minor parties and by the Independents on numerous occasions. It highlights the inadequacy of the number of sitting weeks that this chamber has been forced to again this year, after we have indicated to the Senate on countless occasions that the government needs to set a sitting agenda well in advance. We are on the record for the past two years saying: ‘Set the calendar early. Have a sufficient number of sitting weeks, not the minimal number we have this year and also had last year.’ Last year and this year we have the lowest number of sitting weeks outside an election period since the Second World War. It is atrocious. The legislation keeps building up. Senator Conroy wants his legislation through the Senate. He wants it discussed in a timely manner, yet he cannot organise the program. He cannot convince his colleagues to have sufficient sitting weeks in the year to consider these matters.

Worst of all is that Senator Conroy will not let us see a report which millions of dollars have been spent on and which is really at the core of this issue. It is a simple request. I think when members of the public look at this they will wonder why a government has decided to introduce legislation which has a major implementation study and not to table that study. Does the government have something to hide? Has the government realised that this implementation study might not necessarily have supporting comments for the government? All we need is simply to see that implementation study. That will assist the Senate with its deliberations.

For those reasons, for the reasons articulated by Senator Minchin and for some of the reasons that Senator Ludlam and the Greens have articulated—I am surprised we do not have more concrete support for this motion—it is important that we do not consider this bill until such time as the study has been presented and tabled. It is just logical. Why have a study at all if it is not going to be used in the deliberation about the legislation? That does not make sense.

Photo of Stephen ConroyStephen Conroy (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

You’re a hypocrite. You’ve announced you’re voting against the bill; it doesn’t matter what’s in the study.

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Conroy needs to table the study. Once the study is tabled, we can have due consideration of this legislation.

11:44 am

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Employment Participation, Apprenticeships and Training) Share this | | Hansard source

I also rise in support of the motion moved by our leader, Senator Minchin. This is an extraordinarily secretive government. This is a government that was elected on the promise of increased accountability and transparency. Everything was going to change on the election of the Rudd Labor government. Instead what we have experienced again and again is secretive government. I have experienced it myself as the chair of the Select Committee on Fuel and Energy. You would know very well, Mr Acting Deputy President Hutchins, how for months and months we were trying to get hold of a copy of modelling that had been commissioned by the government and was held by the Treasury. We were wanting to get access to some information that was critically important for us to scrutinise the government’s flawed emissions trading scheme.

Now here is yet another example. Here is Minister Conroy completely mismanaging his portfolio. In fact, if I were Minister Conroy I would start worrying about the shadow of Greg Combet coming in from behind. Look at the track record of this government in the communications portfolio. The shadow of Greg Combet I can see is starting to worry the minister. Look at him.

Photo of Stephen ConroyStephen Conroy (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

You should worry about your tie.

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Employment Participation, Apprenticeships and Training) Share this | | Hansard source

Here we have got a $43 billion plan for the National Broadband Network, and when I say plan I am being very generous, because all we had was a couple of dot points on the back of a beer coaster. As the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, and Senator Conroy were supping in the Air Force jet flying somewhere between Washington and Perth perhaps—no, the Prime Minister does not spend much time in Perth. Perth is a place that the Prime Minister has not really discovered on his map yet. But here was Minister Conroy supping with the Prime Minister and he only had a beer coaster to write up a few dot points on how they would roll out this $43 billion plan for the National Broadband Network.

It is critically important, as the minister has said, that we properly scrutinise this legislation. The National Broadband Network implementation study is a key ingredient for us to do our job in this Senate. Of course we should delay further consideration of this legislation until the government has finally come clean with the report that the minister clearly is desperate to keep secret. What has the minister got to hide, I would ask you, Mr Acting Deputy President? If the minister was so keen to get this legislation progressed, if he was genuinely interested in getting this legislation progressed, he would have by now complied with the request that has been put forward by the Senate on a number of occasions. Maybe it is part of the minister’s secret plan to actually delay this legislation further. Maybe he is sitting on this implementation study because it suits his purposes to slow the continuation of this legislation through the Senate. Who knows what the minister’s true intentions are.

What I want to place on record is that this is an incredibly secretive government and the Australian people should be very concerned about the lack of transparency and accountability that again and again is demonstrated by this government. We have seen it when they kept secret the studies and the underlying information to the economic modelling on Labor’s flawed ETS and we see it again here. Labor expect the Senate and the Australian people to take them on trust even though again and again they have demonstrated that we cannot take them on trust. We are quite right and we urge the Senate to follow our recommendation that this legislation should not be further considered.

Photo of Mitch FifieldMitch Fifield (Victoria, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities, Carers and the Voluntary Sector) Share this | | Hansard source

Pull your socks up, Stephen.

Photo of Stephen ConroyStephen Conroy (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

His tie is in his socks.

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Employment Participation, Apprenticeships and Training) Share this | | Hansard source

The minister can sit there and laugh and not take it seriously. Matters of accountability and transparency are obviously not very important for Minister Conroy. I can see that he is very amused by this debate going on at present. But I say it again, as I said before: this government was elected on a promise of increased accountability and increased transparency. We think that the government should actually start to follow their words with action. This government is all talk and no action. If this government was serious about increasing accountability and transparency in government, if it was serious about open government, it would support the call that has been made again and again by the Senate and table the National Broadband Network implementation study. (Time expired)

11:49 am

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary Assisting the Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

The mockery, derision and jokes from the other side of the chamber really underline their approach to an issue that is going to affect 1.4 million Telstra shareholders and 22 million Australians. It goes to the very heart of the competence of this minister. If you look at his management track record, he is meant to be a right-wing factional boss from Victoria and he was so incompetent that he had to merge it with the hard extreme Socialist left faction in Victoria and now plays second fiddle to his mentor, Kim Carr. You are a second-fiddle minister. There is no doubt about that and we know it, because your handling of this affair has been appalling and abominable. Whilst we are talking about this and sticking up for the people of Australia, you are there making jokes and laughing about people’s ties. You need to pull your socks up because you have failed at the most basic level of supplying the appropriate information so that this Senate can decide and discuss and debate this very important legislation. That, might I say, was cobbled together on the back of an envelope to spend $43 billion. You and your mentor, Kim Carr—no, he was not there, it was your other uber-boss, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd—between complaining about air dryers and sandwiches, you and he came up with a plan for a $43 billion tax spend that you have not even got prepared. You are not even prepared to table the implementation study.

At any level, putting aside your disgraceful partisan politics in this, you can only consider the Australian people would turn more from their government when they are going to spend $43 billion of taxpayer funds. They are going to try and offload half of that commitment to an unsuspecting telecommunications industry, and they have not even got the gumption to tell us who is going to miss out, where it is going to start and who is going to be included in this timeframe. They want us to decide on this important legislation without the adequate consideration of the documents and the information that the government has brought to their attention. The question can only be why. What are they trying to hide? Are they trying to cover something up? It is a reasonable series of questions the Australian people deserve to know the answers to. And when those questions are put to the minister, what do we get? More derision, more guffawing at the impertinence of those on the other side to question the very fabric of this minister’s intentions.

I have a concern: after wasting $30 million on their first tender process, which failed, and now spending a further $25 million dollars on an implementation study, which they are not prepared to share with the Australian people or the opposition parties, who are expected to hold a government to account, this government is trying to hide from the light of scrutiny. They are like cockroaches under a fridge—when you move the fridge, the cockroaches scurry everywhere. There is one master cockroach and we all know who that is, and there are junior cockroaches. We have an example of one in Minister Conroy. I do not like to cast aspersions but he is scurrying from the light of day, he is scurrying from scrutiny and transparency. He knows that his policies are deeply and desperately unpopular, not just with the Australian people but on his own side as well. We know that because this man wants to spend billions and billions of taxpayer funds on a broadband system but he will not tell us where it is going to start, where it is going to finish, who is going to miss out and how it is going to work. He is not prepared to tell us that and he is going to spend tens of millions of dollars trying to slow the internet down by filtering, which I know is deeply unpopular. He is facing a lot of grief from Senator Lundy and others who are rebelling against him. We will see how this goes.

It is an extraordinary minister who is so unconfident in his own ministerial portfolio that he is not prepared to put forward the documents which are necessary for a reasonable and rational decision to be made. If we cannot examine the documents, if we cannot make a reasonable assessment on behalf of the Australian people, we have to say no. That is what Senator Minchin’s motion is about—suspending standing orders so that full scrutiny can be applied. (Time expired)

Question put:

That the motion (Senator Minchin’s) be agreed to.

Sitting suspended from 12.02 pm to 4.00 pm