Thursday, 18 November 2010
Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers
That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Digital Productivity (Senator Conroy) to questions without notice asked by Coalition Senators today, relating to the National Broadband Network.
Earlier this morning viewers of the Sky Early Agenda program were treated to a rare moment of comedy when Senator Stephen Conroy was debating my friend Senator Barnaby Joyce.
Dougie, you are my favourite socialist but I never listen to you. They were debating the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer Safeguards) Bill. Senator Conroy, with all that command and authority of his portfolio for which he is so famous, asserted again and again, ‘The National Broadband Network is not even mentioned in the bill that’s being debated before the parliament,’ at which point Senator Barnaby Joyce, who knew a lot more about the bill than did Senator Stephen Conroy, tugged him politely by the elbow and said, ‘Excuse me, there it is.’ At that point, Senator Stephen Conroy’s face blanched. As the saying goes, you had to be there. In fact, the National Broadband Network is referred to not once but 62 times in the bill. But this minister is so in command of his portfolio and speaks with so much authority about the issue that he was not even faintly aware of what was in his own legislation.
Today, in answer to questions, including the question from me, Senator Conroy repeatedly asserted, ‘It is not unreasonable for the cabinet to consider the NBN business plan before it is publicly released,’ ignoring the fact that yesterday the Senate resolved to direct the minister to lay that document and another document, the implementation study, on the table of the Senate by yesterday, and he has refused to do so. He is in open defiance and contempt of an order of the Senate.
This minister is in charge of the biggest infrastructure project in Australian history. On the government’s estimate it is worth $43 billion, which in present values is six times the size of the Snowy Mountains hydroelectric scheme and more than 100 times the cost of the Sydney Opera House. Yet this minister is so incompetent that he has become a laughing stock in the industry, a laughing stock among the commentators and a laughing stock among his colleagues—not just coalition senators but Labor colleagues as well, as anybody who listens to the gossip around these corridors well knows. This minister is a lightweight who is in charge of $43 billion worth of taxpayers’ money. Because of his incompetence, he is not fit to be a minister of the Crown; because of his contempt for the Senate he is not fit to be a senator; yet the Australian people have $43 billion, on a conservative estimate, tied up without the parliament even being able to scrutinise the business plan or the implementation study. Furthermore, there is a committee of this parliament, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works, whose specific statutory remit is to examine major public works and this legislation contains a provision expressly excluding the NBN from scrutiny by the parliamentary public works committee without establishing an alternative scrutiny mechanism.
There we have it: a minister who defies with contempt an order of the Senate so as to conceal from scrutiny the business plan and the implementation study, who refuses to do a cost-benefit analysis, who legislates to prevent the parliamentary public works committee from scrutinising the program and yet who does not even know what his own legislation contains. Australia is in dangerous waters when a minister with so much public money under his control is so far out of his depth.
There is one thing I want to agree with Senator Brandis on from his contribution: whenever Senator Joyce is on Sky News it is a comedy show. It is a comedy show every time he is on. That is why Senator Joyce, who is being lauded here by Senator Brandis, was sacked from an economics shadow portfolio. The guy that you tell us is so great was sacked by your leader from an economics portfolio. The comedy is there every time Senator Joyce makes any comment anywhere in the media.
Senator Conroy is the senator and the minister who has actually delivered progress on a national broadband network. We had over a decade of the incapacity of the coalition and its failure to deliver anything on this issue of fundamental importance to the future of Australia. The difference between Labor and the coalition is clear: when it comes to the National Broadband Network we know what is required for the future of this country. We know what is required to build the nation. We know what is required to drive productivity in this country. We know what is required for health, e-health, the future of universities, education, sustainability and aged care, underpinned by the National Broadband Network, which you could never deliver. You had no competence to deliver it and no idea how to go about it. Who delivered it? The Labor Party and Minister Conroy. We are delivering for the nation and for regional Australia. We are delivering the equality of opportunity and access that the coalition would deny regional Australia.
What do we see on the other side? We have all the geniuses and experts who for over 11 years in government could deliver nothing. You are nothing more than carping critics. You are looking for short-term political tactics at the expense of the national good. You are prepared to put your perceived political advantage before this nation. You are prepared to deny Australian business, schools, hospitals and universities access to the best technology. In my view, you are just modern-day Luddites. You are the Luddites of politics; you are Luddites in terms of where we are going in this country. Some of you even have a personal philosophy against modern technology. You want to retain the copper network and not go with modern technology. You are modern Luddites—what a joke you lot are. We are dealing with what Rupert Murdoch identified as the biggest problem.
When you have broadband—real broadband—where you get, say, 20Mbps of data into your home, it changes everything.
In Australia, we only have a couple of million people on broadband and they don’t even get 1Mb. I think it’s a disgrace.
That is what Murdoch said about the coalition—you were a disgrace. Your absolute hypocrisy on this issue is a disgrace. (Time expired)
About two weeks after the last election our Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, was a very relieved lady. She was very relieved because somehow she had been able to scrape back in. She had been able to hold on to that seat of power. No doubt inspired by that relief she made the promise of a new era of openness and transparency in government. She was going to let the sunlight in. But what have we had? We have had a Prime Minister who has taken Australia to where the sun does not shine. We have a Prime Minister who is not committed to letting the sunlight get in. We have a Prime Minister who leads the most secretive government in the history of the Commonwealth. We have a government that is always desperate to cover up yet another example of incompetence, waste and mismanagement, and which is always bending over backwards to make sure that the Australian people do not get an understanding of what they are actually up to. This government does not want to let any sunlight in. This government wants to lock us all up in a small dark room and let no daylight in whatsoever.
We have had order after order of the Senate seeking information in relation to the NBN—and not just seeking information but directing the government to provide the information to the Senate so that the Senate can make appropriate decisions and appropriately scrutinise what the government is proposing. If it is such a good deal—if this NBN is such a good program—why would the government not come forward with that information? What have they got to hide?
Of course we are talking about 43 billion taxpayer dollars that are to be spent on a program with very questionable merits—to be very generous in my description of it. We are talking about 43 billion taxpayer dollars, potentially. Up to $43 billion—
That is what your advertising said during the campaign—the government was investing $43 billion in the NBN program. However much it is—whether it is $26 billion or $43 billion—it ought to be properly scrutinised. That is the job of this parliament: to properly scrutinise the proposals that are being put forward by the government.
Minister Conroy was bragging very arrogantly about the fact that the House of Representatives defeated the referral of this particular proposal for scrutiny and review to the Productivity Commission. He was bragging about the fact that the Senate did not enforce the requirement to get access to certain information by delaying consideration of certain legislation. I just remind the minister that he has lost vote after vote—seven of them in total—with this Senate insisting on information about the details around the NBN proposal. If the minister wants to start playing this game it is 7-2 against him.
Of course this is not an isolated incident. We have had the secrecy around the Building the Education Revolution fiasco—the $16.3 billion in waste and mismanagement—and we have had the secrecy around the mining tax, with revenue estimates bouncing around on the basis of changes in secret assumptions—detail the government is not prepared to release. At some point the Senate will have to make a decision. We will have to make a decision as a Senate about whether we will continue to allow this government to treat us like a doormat. This government is treating us with contempt. We are seeking information repeatedly through a well-established procedure: the order for the production of documents. The government repeatedly ignores these requests for information without properly providing explanations as to why it is not in the public interest to provide that information.
I appreciate the initiative that was taken by crossbench members in the House of Representatives and the Greens, including a procedure of referring these sorts of disputes to the Information Commissioner for his arbitration. I regret that the Information Commissioner, erroneously I believe, expressed the view that he did not have the power to deal with this. I hope that he will reconsider that view in light of advice from the Clerk of the Senate and also in light of a motion that is proposed to be passed by the Senate sometime next week.
Ultimately, the Senate will have to decide whether we are serious about enforcing our will. Even if the Information Commissioner makes a particular decision one way or the other, if we want to insist on information then we have to make a decision on whether as a Senate we want to enforce our will, and that may well have to include forcing the government to delay dealing with legislation until such time as the Senate has obtained the information that it is after.
There is widespread acceptance throughout Australia that the federal government’s National Broadband Network is critical infrastructure that needs to be rolled out around Australia. Indeed, in many places there is great excitement about the fact that it is being rolled out. It is obvious now, of course, that the opposition does not believe Australians deserve to have access to technology of the 21st century, and it continues to dither from one failed plan to another.
The NBN will lift Australia to the top of the broadband rankings and allow us to compete with countries like Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong. Using fibre technology it will deliver 100 megabytes per second to 93 per cent of Australian premises, while those outside the footprint will receive next-generation satellite and wireless service.
It is very clear that the coalition is happy to stay in the past, where things move slowly, where broadband lags behind and where Australia will fall even further behind—in fact, where the coalition left us after 11½ years in government. They had 11½ years in government and that is where we were left. The coalition went to the election with a cobbled-together policy to deliver broadband with a patchwork of old technologies that would have left Australia falling further behind the rest of the world. They had 19 failed broadband plans, and now we understand they are developing the 20th broadband plan.
The government commissioned expert independent advisers McKinsey and KPMG to conduct a detailed implementation study of the NBN, which undertook detailed modelling of the revenue and costs that could be expected from the project given the government’s objectives. The government released this study on 6 May 2010. After eight months of detailed analysis, the implementation study confirmed that under a range of realistic scenarios the NBN Co. will have a strong and viable business case. It also confirmed that the project can be expected to generate a return of six to seven per cent and that the government can expect to generate a return on its investment to cover its funding costs. NBN Co. has finalised its three-year corporate plan and its 30-year business plan, and the company submitted its plan on 6 November 2010. The government is currently considering the document and will make a range of information from it publicly available in due course.
As the Prime Minister has made clear, NBN Co.’s business plan will be released in December. To do a formal cost-benefit analysis of the NBN would take many years and require many heroic assumptions, and you do not have to be Nostradamus to tell us what we already know—that Australia does need a greater investment in high-speed broadband infrastructure. The NBN is critical infrastructure that will connect our rural and regional centres back through our main cities and the wider world with world-class broadband. It will offer high-speed, affordable broadband services to all Australian homes, businesses, schools and hospitals, no matter where they are located in Australia. And I know that constituents in South Australia, particularly in Willunga, are very excited about their access to broadband. There is an overwhelming level of support: 84 per cent of people in Willunga in South Australia have signed up for a fibre connection in the mainland first release site. Other states have equally impressive results. (Time expired)
It is hard to follow the contribution of Senator Wortley, but I will do my best. Some years ago I coined the term ‘roosternomics’, which was to reflect upon the understanding of economics by those who had been described by Mark Latham as roosters—in particular Senator Conroy, who had a birdlike appreciation and understanding of economic issues. I thought roosternomics had died, but clearly it was resurrected today in the parliament in question time. Senator Conroy started with a twisted and tortured explanation of what a cost-benefit analysis is. One would think that a cost-benefit analysis would be reasonably easy to explain because you would talk about the costs and the benefits. But no; Senator Conroy started talking about profitability of businesses and things of that nature.
What strikes me as incredible about this government—and it has been confirmed by what Senator Wortley and Senator Doug Cameron have said—is the fact that they have their whole business practice upside down. It is back to front. They committed to a $43 billion program, a $43 billion rollout of broadband in this country, without having a business plan, which is only now going to be tabled, and without having an adequate and appropriate examination of whether it will be worthwhile. They still have not had that done. A cost-benefit analysis means: is the burden of debt that this country is going to be saddled with as a result of this infrastructure rollout going to be worth it for the benefits? Unfortunately, the government do not know that. They cannot do it. They cannot table a list of simple things such as the cost savings that they have trumpeted. I asked them about the permanent savings today, but Senator Conroy cannot talk about them. I have asked why he will not just get a cost-benefit analysis done. He will not do it; he says it is not necessary.
This is roosternomics at its finest. It is almost ‘ostrichnomics’; it is ‘put your head in the sand’ stuff. It is not even wanting to put your mind to the potential benefit that might be gained from going down a prudent path. If we want to know why the national balance sheet is in such bad shape at the moment, we have to look at how twisted and tortured this government are when they go about their policies. They have an extraordinary track record that I hope no government will ever match. We have had billions of dollars wasted in various programs: green loans programs, pink batts programs and solar panel programs. We have had a list of failed and flawed ministers. Senator Conroy is just joining that list now. But the amazing thing is that they are proud of their record. Pretty soon, when you lose a billion dollars here and a billion dollars there, it adds up to a reasonable amount of money. I find it extraordinary that they continue to justify it, while telling the Australian people: ‘Trust us. This is good for you; this is what you want.’
Even though people are taking up the 100 megabits a second, I am yet to see or hear of one person taking up Senator Conroy’s one gigabit per second—the 1,000 megabits per second that he said was going to be a thousand times faster than what people are getting now. These things are simply figments of Senator Conroy’s imagination. As I said yesterday, Senator Conroy and, of course, Senator Wortley, who was trumpeting about Willunga—and I notice that Senator Wortley did not acknowledge my interjection in which I asked if she had ever been to Willunga—I was speaking just yesterday to someone from Willunga who said that they cannot get the National Broadband Network in their street in Willunga. You think, ‘Gee, that’s a concern, isn’t it?’ when people cannot get it even though you are trumpeting it as the great example of how successful it is. It is appalling. I know they have had no response from their local member of parliament, either state or federal, because it seems that this government do not want to be accountable for their false and failed promises.
It is interesting that Senator Wortley is now chiming in that she has some names of people in Willunga. That is terrific; I am pleased that you know someone from Willunga. Perhaps you should get out there and visit them and ask them about their broadband.
The Australian people do deserve a more rigorous analysis of what is the largest rollout of taxpayers’ money that we have seen in this country. That is just a sensible thing to do. You do not have to play the politics of it. This is just a big deal that needs cross-examination and a critical examination of it. Why, then, is this government hiding from that and telling us it is in our interest to do it? If it is in our interest, prove it to us. Let the Australian people know how their $5,000 per connection is being used.
Question agreed to.