Senate debates

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer Safeguards) Bill 2010

Second Reading

Debate resumed from 17 November, on motion by Senator Feeney:

That this bill be now read a second time.

12:32 pm

Photo of John WilliamsJohn Williams (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am very pleased to notice that Minister Conroy is present in the chamber. I thought he might have been hiding under a log or something.

We all want faster broadband and good regional services. There is no argument about that, but the questions we have are about Labor’s history on telecommunications. Last time I spoke on telecommunications I highlighted the issues of the Hawke-Keating government when they did away with the analog mobile phone system, which was a really good system. The clarity was terrific and, living in the regional areas, the reception was great to 30 or 40 kilometres. The analog system was like the EH Holden. EH Holden was a great Australian made car. I have several 1964 EH Holdens. But spare parts for the EH Holden became harder and harder to get. It was likewise with the analog system. We saw the demise of the analog system and the introduction of the digital mobile phone system, which, frankly, was just hopeless in regional Australia.

It was up to the coalition, especially my colleagues in the National Party, to push for the CDMA phone system to give us that further coverage. We are just not close to towers in many areas around regional Australia. Then we moved on to the NextG system, which I think is working very well. It is terrific to think that, in my case—I have a broomstick aerial off my mobile phone—I can drive from areas like Inverell in northern New South Wales and to Adelaide, some 1,800 kilometres away, and not be out of reception for longer than two or three minutes. You go through some very sparse country when you travel from Cobar to Wilcannia to Broken Hill. You do not see a lot of built-up areas in those regions, I can assure you. I think that, overall, the majority of the people are happy with the mobile system. There are certainly black spots and people are frustrated that they still do not have a mobile signal in many areas, especially around the hills and heavily timbered areas, where mobile reception can be hard to get, but in general there has been a huge improvement in mobile telephone reception with literally hundreds and hundreds of towers established, especially over the period of the coalition government with its funding and help with that.

But here we have a $43 billion plan put forward by Senator Conroy and the government. You would not blame us for questioning the whole plan when we look at the government’s history on the rollout of their programs over the last three years. The pink batts program was a disaster and had to be guillotined before any more mistakes were made. The serious issue with that, of course, was the death of four installers, which was a tragedy in itself. But 190 houses also caught fire. It was a system in which people were rorting, gouging, not doing the job properly and not possessed of the professional know-how for installations. It was a way to simply get hold of government money, whether it be taxpayers’ money or borrowed money.

Then we went onto the Building the Education Revolution. It was a $16.2 billion plan and the first buildings that come to mind are the two classrooms that were installed at the Manilla Central School near Tamworth. They were demountables brought in on a truck. It will cost you $1.8 million to build six very good brick veneer houses, but for $1.8 million the Manilla school got two demountable classrooms brought in on a semitrailer—nothing else. How could you waste so much money on two demountable classrooms costing $900,000 each—$1.8 million for two classrooms—when we know that it will cost $1.8 million to build six comfortable brick veneer or perhaps even solid brick four-bedroom homes? We question how the money was spent. I could go on and question the Greens Loans scheme, which was another disaster, and now we are faced with this legislation in which the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Conroy, and the government are proposing to spend $43 billion on rolling out fibre to the home.

Let us go back to the government’s original plan—$4.7 billion, from memory, for fibre to the node. That was the plan that Minister Conroy was first going to roll out, even to the stage where he did not think about the $30 million spent on a tender for fibre to the node. That was $30 million wasted, down the tube—more money wasted. It was frightening to see, when I checked out the federal government’s website last Friday, that the federal government’s gross debt was $172 billion, having grown more than $10 billion over September. This money has to be paid back with interest, and now we are looking at a $43 billion plan that someone has dreamt up for running fibre to the home through 93 per cent of Australia’s residences and businesses. Of course, the seven per cent missing out, the 1½ million people or more, will be in regional areas.

This plan for fibre to the home is being offered for free. In Armidale, in northern New South Wales—from which I catch a plane frequently as, unfortunately, we no longer have an aerial service to Inverell—it has been offered for free in the last couple of weeks, but people had to opt in. People had to contact NBN Co. and say, ‘Yes, please give me free fibre to my home,’ yet people were not doing that. The local newspaper pleaded: ‘It is free. Please sign up for it. Get it now for free.’ They ran stories saying, ‘You must get on to this now because if you don’t you are going to miss the free boat.’ But people did not sign up for it; NBN Co. had to plead with them to take it up for free.

In Tasmania there was also an opt-in situation. If Tasmanians wanted free fibre to the home they had to contact NBN or the authorities. People did not take it up. Why did people not take it up? Because it was not the biggest issue on their minds. Their attitude was: broadband service, great, but the hundred megs download is not the biggest fish to be fried. So in Tasmania the state government had to change the regulations so that people were automatically hooked up unless they opted out. People were simply not taking up a free fibre-to-the-home offer with a very cheap internet connection on a trial basis, so the government had to act to get people to hook up to it. This is a concern.

If we look at the figures from South Korea and Japan that have had fast broadband and hundred megs downloads for some 10 years, we see that around 30, 35 or 40 per cent of people have hooked up to the fast broadband after 10 years. Most are happy with the 12 to 20 megs download, which is obviously cheaper. The big question is: who wants it, who is going to connect to it and who is going to use it? Where is the business plan? Surely, when you invest in anything you look at a return.

One very good thing about improved broadband services is for medical procedures in regional areas. I will give an example of a person who has been in the bush for most of their life working on a property, living at somewhere like Wilcannia or Tibooburra in far western New South Wales. This person notices a spot on their arm or their face—something I am pretty conscious of. The person thinks about the sun from their younger days and wonders if this might be that accursed cancer known as melanoma. This person goes to the nurse in their small community and the nurse puts the camera on the spot, perhaps rings a retired skin specialist living in Sydney and says, ‘Turn on your computer and please have a look at this spot.’ The retired skin specialist says, ‘Yes, I will do that instantly,’ and perhaps asks the nurse on the telephone to zoom in a bit closer. This is a great thing for regional Australia, but how much download is required? The answer is: four megabytes to run that sort of system. A few weeks ago Telstra had the cameras and the screens in Parliament House and told us that four megabytes is required for those medical procedures, not a hundred. Telstra’s new wireless broadband offers 44 megs downloads. So, with improvements in wireless broadband, we can have those medical procedures carried out right around rural and especially remote Australia, which I think will be excellent. But you do not require 100 megs per second download to carry out those medical procedures via videoconferencing.

The government had much to gloat about in the OECD report, which was released a couple of weeks ago, except when it came to the National Broadband Network. The OECD said, ‘You are going to commit yourself to fibre to the home; what about new technologies in the future?’ We have seen technology advance and change so much over the last 15 to 20 years. Madam Acting Deputy President, if I were talking to you 20 years ago and you had said, ‘It will not be all that long until you will be able to pick up your phone and take a photo of Senator Guy Barnett’—which would have been a thrilling photo of course—‘and send it to your niece in London in a matter of seconds,’ I would have said, ‘Come on! That’s a fairly big exaggeration.’ Of course, that is what you can do today—the technology has advanced enormously, which is a great thing.

When I was in my previous business, I remember that a man came into my shop in a rather angry state saying how things were not up to scratch as far as telecommunications go. I said to him, ‘Well, it would have been great if we had had mobile phones back in the days when our soldiers were at Gallipoli; they could have sent a text message to their mum to say, “Hey, everything’s okay; I am still alive,”‘ but they did not, unfortunately. We have advanced so far.

So here is the $43 billion plan. Minister Conroy’s first dream of this program was to get $22 billion from the government and $21 billion from the private sector. I wonder what happened to the $21 billion from the private sector. Why was it not forthcoming? There is a pretty simple answer to that: because they probably would never ever see a decent return on their investment. That was the end of the road for the $21 billion of private money, so now the government is basically forced to foot the whole bill. People often talk about taxpayers’ money but I always refer to it as ‘borrowed’ money, more additions to the $172 billion gross debt we face as I speak. Where is the return on investment? Where is the business plan? First of all, if you were one of the senators sitting on the crossbench and you wanted to sign up to a seven-year confidentiality clause, you might have got a look at it. But then the government said, ‘We’ll sign you up for three years,’ and then it came down to two weeks. How fair dinkum are they when they say to Senator Xenophon and others: ‘We will sign you up to a confidentiality clause that you cannot squeak about and we will show you the business plan’? That is outrageous. Let us see the business plan.

Where is the Productivity Commission’s inquiry into all of this? People like Independent Tony Windsor, who has been a strong supporter of the National Broadband Network, said, ‘No, we do not need a Productivity Commission report, and did not vote for it. We wanted a Productivity Commission inquiry into the carbon tax, the very tax about which, prior to the election, our now Prime Minister, Ms Gillard, said, ‘There will be no carbon tax under my leadership.’ The point is that Ms Gillard is no longer the leader. It is the Greens that are leading the country. Their fingerprints are all over every policy coming forward, whether it be same-sex marriage or the carbon tax. It is the Greens that now have control of the government. They are even exerting more pressure with regard to the privatisation issue for the government’s plan later on. The Greens are the big stick here and they now have control of people like Minister Conroy, and I am sure he is very pleased about that. So where is the Productivity Commission’s inquiry? ‘No, it is not necessary.’ It is the biggest infrastructure spend in the nation’s history—$43 billion—but we are told we do not need a Productivity Commission inquiry into it to see what the cost-benefit is for all Australians.

Let us just do some quick figures. Let us say that it comes out at $40 billion—and I know that Minister Conroy is a very good man on figures when it comes to adding up debt. We would need a gross return of, say, $5 billion a year. On $40 billion that is a 12 per cent return. With a gross return of $5 billion you would need five million people hooked up to it at $1,000 per year. I do not know how many houses there are and Australian businesses—perhaps 12 million—so we would have to look at a 40 to 50 per cent take-up rate on the 100 megs download, on the big-picture one. We are still not too sure what it is going to cost. But a $5 billion gross return is $1,000, if you can get that take-up, then add on the retailers supplies and you would be looking at $1,500 a year per household. Who is going to do it? Very few, in my opinion. So what is the take-up? What does the government expect to have? Some figures thrown around show 90 per cent. You would have to bribe everyone to get it out to 90 per cent.

The point I make is this: where is the cost-benefit analysis? We are spending $43 billion. People are saying to me in regional Australia, ‘What about our roads?’ The rain of late has been terrific, and I do hope it stops for the next few weeks so we can get the harvest in; it is a real threat to the magnificent crops we have seen in many areas, especially in New South Wales. But it is doing an enormous amount of damage to the roads. What about our roads? What about our hospitals? What about our aged care facilities? What about our rail system? I am sure that the Melbourne to Brisbane train line would not be in the interests of people like Minister Conroy because the more truckies are on the road, the more truck drivers there are in the union—the Transport Workers Union. So perhaps there will be more supply there. I remind the minister about the blue card issue that was put forward in the Fair Work Bill amendments, where they wanted all the truckies to sign up to the blue card, which could be printed only by BLUECARD, based in Western Australia.

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

Madam Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order about relevance. I am loath to interrupt this stream of consciousness but I know that, deep down, Senator Williams supports this bill. Surely it can’t be too hard to speak for 20 minutes against the bill. I know he actually supports it and really wants this to happen but there is the question of relevance—truckies, blue cards and the Fair Work Bill is straying a little widely.

Photo of Claire MooreClaire Moore (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Minister. There is no point of order. As senators know, there is a wide range of debate in this place.

Photo of John WilliamsJohn Williams (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Exactly. That is a case of the pot calling the kettle black when it comes to the point of relevance. Recalling question time over the last couple of years, I do not think Senator Conroy has ever directly answered a question that has been asked of him. Now he is here with a saintly halo around his head saying, ‘You must be relevant.’ There are wide terms of reference in this debate, as you pointed out, Madam Acting Deputy President. I will continue on.

The point I make is: with this $43 billion spend, where is the business plan? That has been hidden away. It was hidden to give to some if they signed up to confidentiality. Where is the Productivity Commission’s cost-benefit analysis? No, that is not forthcoming. People are simply being hoodwinked into signing onto it, as they have had to do in Tasmania with the opt-in, opt-out changes. People in Armidale in northern New South Wales have been begged to hook up to it, as the stories in the paper show. Hence the thing I say is that we can do a lot better with this sort of money and still have good broadband services. We can still carry out those medical procedures, we know, with four megs of download, not 100. Telstra has seen it. The point is: with the waste of money on top of this debt, when are we ever going to pay it back?

12:53 pm

Photo of Guy BarnettGuy Barnett (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I stand today to speak on the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer Safeguards) Bill 2010 and to make some observations with respect to the government’s processes and also with respect to the rollout of the National Broadband Network in Tasmania and the refusal by this government to release its business plan. It has also refused a cost-benefit analysis. What we now know about the rollout in Tasmania is that the joint venture with the Tasmanian government and Aurora Energy to roll out the National Broadband Network has collapsed.

Before I talk about the collapse and the implications and consequences of that collapse, I would like to place on record my astonishment that the government would refuse to release the business case for this $43 billion, the biggest infrastructure development project ever undertaken by a government in Australian history, and would refuse to undertake a cost-benefit analysis. It is a disgrace. The fact that they are hell-bent on pushing this legislation through without revealing that information and making it available to members of the Senate in this place and, indeed, to the public is, frankly, a national disgrace. They have obviously offered the Independents and senators on the crossbench a sneak preview of the business plan, and they initially offered it on the basis of a secrecy commitment—a confidentiality agreement—that would last for seven years. How absurd is that? Senators and members in this parliament are meant to be representing members of the community—members of the public—and acting in the best interests of their communities and of this great country, Australia, and they are to be bound by this government with a confidentiality agreement which was to be for seven years. How absurd! How disgraceful! It shows how out of touch the government are. They are just not connected. I hope that their heads hang in shame for that and that they stand up and reveal the fact that they are ashamed. They should apologise.

With respect to the National Broadband Network, yes, I have been quite vocal in Tasmania on behalf of the constituents down there about the waste and mismanagement that have been a feature of the rollout in Tasmania. For example, the broadband project has been run back to front. Firstly, the government announced in a media release on 7 April last year that the cost of the program would be $43 billion, but the planning had not been done; they did it on the back of an envelope. This is the concern that I have and that I know others have as well. How did they know the cost? What went into the cost? What was it made up of? That is a staggering amount of money.

Let me just tell you what the $43 billion equates to in broad terms. It is about the market value of Telstra at the time—of course, Telstra has now diminished in value as a result of this government’s efforts and actions—it is twice the annual defence budget and it is almost as much as the federal government spent on health just last year. So there is the equivalence for a $43 billion spend. It is big money, such as we have not seen before in this country. It is over $4,000 per household—closer to $5,000 per household—in your taxes, in your money. That is how much you are putting in, members of the Australian public, to make up that $43 billion. So it is not coming free. If you make international comparisons with other countries around the world, it is up to 100 times what they are paying in other countries around the world. There are the examples of Singapore, the USA, the UK and various European countries. So it is a great shame that the government have gone hell-bent down this path without proper analysis, without a cost-benefit analysis and without a proper review.

Of course the devil is in the detail, and we have been standing up on behalf of our constituents saying, ‘No, we want to know which way you’re taking us, where you’re going to spend the money and why.’ What business would spend its future earnings without thinking about the return on investment? The government commissioned the McKinsey-KPMG report for $25 million—which is not a bad consultancy, is it? You would want to get a good return for your funds invested there. Nevertheless, let us hope the report was well appreciated, because we know that that report says that they need a take-up or sign-up rate of between 80 and 90 per cent. That is very significant indeed. What we know and what the minister, with Mr Quigley, has revealed in Senate estimates under extreme pressure from the opposition and indeed others—I was there asking these questions—is that in Tasmania the sign-up rate is one in 10 to date, or 10 per cent. That Senate estimates meeting was on 19 October, and those were apparently the figures to 30 September, so we would hope they have improved; the government would want them to have improved. But clearly the government is expecting a sign-up rate of between 80 and 90 per cent.

I am happy to comment further on that. Clearly, the mismanagement and maladministration of the process to date has been something shocking. We do know that there will be significant challenges to be faced with the rollout in Tasmania. Let’s have a look at Tasmania and the rollout of the NBN in Tasmania. We know that the current sign-up rate, based on the latest information, is 10 per cent.

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

It is 11 per cent.

Photo of Guy BarnettGuy Barnett (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It has gone up to 11 per cent.

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

It has always been 11 per cent.

Photo of Guy BarnettGuy Barnett (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

You are saying it was always 11 per cent. Thank you for that. We have the exact figures of course which are on the public record in answer to questions from me and indeed from others in Senate estimates. Let me see what the exact figures say: 561 services have been ordered for 436 premises with only 262 active connections as at Senate estimates on 19 October. They are the figures.

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

That’s over a month ago.

Photo of Guy BarnettGuy Barnett (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

That is what is on the public record and this government refuses to keep us fully informed. The minister interjects and says ‘That was over a month ago.’ Indeed it was. What are the latest figures? Minister, why do you not reveal that information, why do you not tell us exactly where we are up to?

Photo of Claire MooreClaire Moore (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Barnett, that was through the chair wasn’t it?

Photo of Guy BarnettGuy Barnett (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It was through the chair, I thank you, Madam Acting Deputy President, for noting that. With respect to the collapse of the federal and state governments’ joint venture with Aurora Energy, that has happened. There has been a collapse. It has been abandoned and now that is on the public record. That news, in my view, proves that the rollout is a shambles. There has been no legitimate business plan in the first place in Tasmania and it raises serious questions in my view about the commercial viability of the project in Tasmania. I have been raising these questions about the NBN rollout in Tasmania since its inception but the government has refused to answer the questions.

The minister is sitting here; he could stand up and answer all of the questions that have been put to him and make it clear. He could come clean and put it on the record. We know that the Tasmanian NBN Company was commissioned in August 2009 with much publicity and fanfare. There were lots of newspaper front-page stories and all the media in Tasmania were involved—TV, radio, the whole works. There was a lot of publicity with Premier David Bartlett on the basis of the soon-to-be established joint venture between the federal and state governments and the state owned utility Aurora Energy. That was in August last year, more than a year ago. After more than a year of meetings there has been no progress. In fact not only has there been no progress, it has been canned. The joint venture to roll out the NBN in Tasmania has collapsed. It has been canned.

What we do know based on a company search that I have undertaken is that at least three directors have resigned or not been reappointed. They lasted one year. Guess when they concluded their appointment? Mark Kelleher and Sean Woellner concluded on 21 August. Funny that; it is a familiar date—21 August was the date of the federal election. Daniel Norton, who I respect and admire—as I do Mark Kelleher—ceased on 31 December last year. You have five directors—let me make it clear, based on the last company search—and only one of those directors of the TNBN Co. physically lives in Tasmania. You have Doug Campbell who is from the mainland, Jody Fassina—who I know is a colleague and friend of Senator Conroy—who says that his address is Tolmans Hill in Hobart, but we know that he lives in Sydney—

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

That is not true.

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

That is not true.

Photo of Guy BarnettGuy Barnett (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

If that is not true, I will accept that. You say that he lives in Hobart full time. Thank you, Senator Conroy. Then we have Greg McCann from Wynyard, Alison Terry from Perth, Western Australia and Jean-Pascal Beaufret has just been appointed on 27 August 2010. I did not see any public announcement about the appointment of Mr Beaufret. I know it has been in the public arena, but there was no announcement and I wonder why. Why is the registered office of NBN Tasmania based in Melbourne at the head office of NBN Co. Ltd on level 43, 60 Elizabeth Street, Melbourne? Why is the previously registered office in Canberra? This is meant to be a Tasmanian entity and Tasmanian joint venture discussions are meant to have started in August last year. It seems now that the federal government says it will go it alone in Tasmania without the support and equity involvement of the Tasmanian government.

How much money has been invested to date in the joint venture—firstly, by the federal government, secondly, by the Tasmanian government and, thirdly, by Aurora Energy? What arrangements did they undertake? What contracts did they sign? What terms and conditions applied to those contracts? Come clean, spill the beans, put it out into the public arena. Do not be closeted and set up another secret confidentiality agreement with these key parties. Come clean and tell the Tasmanian public and the Australian public what has happened. This collapse is clearly an embarrassment. The abandonment of the joint venture is an embarrassment to both governments not just the federal government.

The federal government says now it will negotiate contracts and arrangements directly with Aurora Energy for them to undertake work. I would like to know what terms and conditions will apply to those contracts. If they have already been signed, please reveal them. If they have not been, we would like to know what arrangements will be put in place with Aurora Energy. The minister here will no doubt be able to stand up, respond to that, and come clean and tell the Senate and the members of the public. That is what we would like. We would like that rather than this cloak of secrecy around the NBN rollout.

I would like to know: what is the cost of the NBN rollout in Tasmania to date? It is on the public record that I have asked that question and I cannot get a response from the minister or the government. What is the cost to the Tasmanian taxpayers and Australian taxpayers for the rollout to date? What is the cost for the rollout to be completed and the equity injection to date? These questions must be answered. We know there has been a $37 million contract signed for the NBN stage 1, but that is only part of it and the minister needs to come clean.

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

Do you know what this bill is about?

Photo of Guy BarnettGuy Barnett (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Indeed I do. The minister must come clean and reveal the information. The bill makes many references to the NBN, unlike your interview on Sky News which was a big embarrassment for you, Senator Conroy. I wouldn’t be digging this hole for yourself because you are way down deep in the hole. You are going to have to dig your way out because on national television you embarrassed your good self. I know it was a humiliation.

Photo of Claire MooreClaire Moore (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Barnett, I take it those comments are through the chair.

Photo of Guy BarnettGuy Barnett (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Those comments are through you, Madam Acting Deputy President, and I thank you for interposing that comment. What are the ISPs being charged by the NBN Co. in Tasmania? Do you know how much it is? What are they charging down there? Hands up? Senator Fifield, do you know? No idea? Is it $30 or $60 a month? Is it $20 a month? No, it is free.

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

It’s free!

Photo of Guy BarnettGuy Barnett (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is a free service to the ISPs in Tasmania for the rollout. This is a great business plan they have, isn’t it? And this will continue through to 30 June next year. Then, of course, the ISPs put on special deals for the consumers of $30 a month or $60 a month. They think they are heroes. They are signing people up for a year or two years. Please, be careful; watch out when you sign.

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

Come on, name the bill!

Photo of Guy BarnettGuy Barnett (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Conroy, we got that information out of you at estimates; it was like getting blood out of a stone but we did manage to do that. That is the concern that we have.

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

What’s the name of the bill?

Photo of Guy BarnettGuy Barnett (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Conroy, there are many, many things that I am concerned about with this bill and with the rollout of the NBN. You are getting very sensitive now—through you, Madam Acting Deputy President—as a result of these observations and the criticisms that have been made because you do not have the ability to stand up and answer these questions. You are refusing to do that.

What about new housing estates? We know that developers are being forced to pay under this new arrangements that the government is bringing in. What about the $43 billion cost: will there be any blowouts? We know what the unions have to say; we know there negotiations taking place and no doubt the government will roll over and the costs will blow out.

I want to ask about the black box for connection to homes in Tasmania. Originally it was a cost to the homeowner, to the householder. One constituent in Midway Point in Tasmania has had the dickens of a trouble trying to get his NBN connected. It was an absolute shemozzle. He is so embarrassed for and on behalf of the government that it has taken him weeks and weeks and then into months to get it all connected. What about the cost of the black box?

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

What’s his name?

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

The member of the Liberal Party?

The Acting Deputy President:

Order! Minister, will you stop shouting across the chamber.

Photo of Guy BarnettGuy Barnett (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

You should contact him—through you, Madam Acting Deputy President—and solve his problems. Likewise, up in Smithton, Ian Heathorn has problems. These constituents are all around, Minister, and—through you, Madam Acting Deputy President—you need to come clean and help fix these problems. In terms of the cost of the black box, the government has changed its business plan and has now agreed through the NBN to pay for the black box as well. What about those people who have already purchased a black box: will they be reimbursed?

Photo of John WilliamsJohn Williams (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

No, they’re suckers!

Photo of Guy BarnettGuy Barnett (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

They may very well be, Senator Williams. And they will be very unhappy suckers because this is a cost that Australians into the future will not have to pay but they have paid in the past. So what we have is one big shemozzle.

The collapse of the joint venture in Tasmania will be on your own head, Minister. You need to come clean and make it clear what future plans you have and put on the record exactly what has occurred to date. That is what we would like to know. I would also like to acknowledge the good effort of iTWire. Gee, they have been on the ball. They have been really sharp and have picked up on many of the concerns of the public. They have noted the lack of a business case. They have noted the collapse of the NBN Co joint venture in Tasmania. I want to acknowledge their good work.

Minister Conroy has said the Tasmanian rollout of the NBN is ‘on time and on budget’. He has said that many times. Well, how would we know? There is no time line and there is no budget. Nobody actually knows. He is making it up. It is nonsensical and ridiculous. There is no veracity or foundation behind that comment, so how can he be believed? So when will the minister reveal the budget? When will he reveal the business plan? When will he undertake and release a cost-benefit analysis? Those are some very important points. I am very happy to rest my case. I thank the Senate.

1:13 pm

Photo of Mary FisherMary Fisher (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

What is the hurry with the Senate consideration of this so-called competition and consumer safeguards bill? What is the hurry when this government is in zero hurry to provide stakeholders with a copy of the business case? A copy of the business case could at least inform the business underpinnings of what this bill seeks to implement. What is the hurry, Minister? In particular, what is the hurry when the government is in no hurry to produce a business case? What is the hurry when the minister informed us at Senate estimates in May that there was apparently no relationship between this bill, the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer Safeguards) Bill 2010, and the construction of the National Broadband Network? We know that this bill is in fact all about the NBN. We know that this bill is a stalking horse to force Telstra’s hand to participate in the National Broadband Network because, without Telstra’s participation, the government’s vision of its National Broadband Network cannot come to fruition. We also know that this bill is about to giving a preferred space to deals done between NBN Co. and others to implement the government’s NBN dream, because it proposes to exempt those deals from what would be and should be normal scrutiny by the ACCC in terms of competition.

We do know that this bill is about the National Broadband Network, despite the protestations to the contrary of the minister and the government. We also know that this minister told us at Senate estimates that this legislation, and the other legislation yet to come—of which there is quite some—is irrelevant to the construction of the National Broadband Network. Minister Conroy, who is trying to look totally uninterested because he does not want to hear his words spoken back to him—I guess I might do the same, Minister, if I were you, but I am kind of pleased that I am not—

Photo of Claire MooreClaire Moore (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator, I just remind you not to address the minister directly in your speech.

Photo of Mary FisherMary Fisher (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Madam Acting Deputy President, I stand appropriately corrected.

The minister told us at Senate estimates on 25 May:

The NBN Co. is currently being built around Australia as we speak.

He went on to say:

The National Broadband Network is commencing and being deployed irrespective of whether or not legislation is passed or not passed by parliament. It does not require parliament to pass it.

Minister Conroy said that in May. Then when I asked:

Is the legislation irrelevant to the building of the NBN?

He said:

Yes, completely.

So why the hurry? Why the hurry from this minister? Why the hurry for this legislation from this government, when this minister says that this legislation—

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

It’s been 12 months that you’ve been blocking this bill in the Senate!

Photo of Mary FisherMary Fisher (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Minister Conroy—alive at last. When this minister says that this legislation—

The Acting Deputy President:

Senator Fisher, I am interrupting you because I remind you, after reminding you earlier in your contribution, that you do not address the minister directly in your speech.

Photo of Mary FisherMary Fisher (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you once again, Madam Acting Deputy President, for that appropriate reminder.

Why the hurry, when Minister Conroy and the government are in no hurry to release the business plan? Worse than that, they are in no hurry to subject this National Broadband Network to any scrutiny at all. They are in no hurry to prove to the Australian people that there is any transparency or that there is any accountability in this National Broadband Network, in which the Australian people are de facto bedfellows with the government whether they like it or not. For a $43 billion spend of taxpayers’ money—as Senator Williams says, borrowed money—the Australian people have been forced into bed with the government, and by the government, in every step of the rollout of the National Broadband Network.

It is with contempt that the Australian government is treating the Australian people not only in refusing to release the business case but also in continuing to refuse to do a cost-benefit analysis, and also refusing to release the government’s response to the $25 million taxpayer funded implementation study. We certainly know what we have not got, other than a government that seems to think, as the member for Wentworth has said, that with the National Broadband Network the end will justify the means.

We do have a government which somewhat successfully, but wrongly, portrayed the opposition during the previous election campaign as effectively broadband sceptics or broadband deniers. They got to the eleventh hour when that tactic almost worked with the emissions trading scheme. The government almost succeeded in the fraud that would have been the emissions trading scheme by little more than an argument that effectively shut down those who dared to question it by calling them sceptics and deniers. They thought, ‘Well, that tactic worked before—almost. But we have learned the lesson of that one: change leaders. Now, with the National Broadband Network let’s go the same. Anyone who dares question our way,’ says the government, ‘will be shown the highway by telling the Australian electorate that the opposition, in particular, are broadband deniers and broadband sceptics.’

The Australian people will come to realise—and maybe they do not at this stage—that we will do everything we can to see to it that the Australian people have proper access and greater access to fast and affordable broadband. But we do not believe that the ends justify the means without some proof.

I go back to what the government could do, given that we do not have a cost-benefit analysis. We have an implementation study that says that, based on a raft of assumptions, this National Broadband Network can be built, but there is no proof that those assumptions will come to realisation. Indeed, in documents that the government thus far has not disclosed, we expect that there will be severe criticism of some of those assumptions and questioning about whether or not they will come to fruition. So we have an implementation study that says that, based on a raft of assumptions, this National Broadband Network can be built.

But we still do not have the government’s response to the implementation study. What does the government actually think about that 25 million buck spend thing? If you listen to the minister, he would have us believe that probably the government can give us its response to the business case by blacking out the bits it does not want us to see earlier than the government can give us its response to the implementation study. It has had the implementation study for way longer than we are led to believe that it has had the business case. Why the reversal of the order?

It is pretty interesting and perhaps not entirely coincidental that there has been selective leaking of what are supposed to be some key observations in the business case. Isn’t it funny that they are favourable to the government? Perhaps the minister, in his speech, might indicate whether or not these leaks are correct observations from the business case because I presume that, by now, he has read the 400 pages of it. It was reported by Michelle Grattan in the Age on 20 November that there are some ‘general points’ that could be made on the business plan. Firstly:

The National Broadband Network could be built in a way that provided an internal rate of return higher than the current long-term bond rate.


The business plan projected that prices would fall over time.

There are two things about those two observations. How cute is it that it ‘projected that prices would fall over time’? Well, indeed they should, because over time consumers should be taking up this national broadband network. The Australian people would expect little else—hoorah, big whoop! As for the comment, ‘The National Broadband Network could be built in a way that provided an internal rate of return higher than the current long-term bond rate,’ let us revisit the implementation study and let us recall that that implementation study deliberately, in my view, predicted a modest return of six per cent—yes, the current bond rate. Firstly, what private sector investor would bother investing in a project as risky and as unknown as the National Broadband Network for a six per cent return? They can get that on deposit at a bank. How modest was the six per cent rate of return? Experts provided evidence to the Senate Select Committee on the National Broadband Network about the curious fact that the implementation study used the internal rate of return, which the business case says is supposed to be better than the long-term bond rate.

How curious it is that the implementation study used the internal rate of return, to start with, because most economists—of which I am not one, Madam Acting Deputy President, you will be very pleased to know—as I understand, having had it explained to me, would have expected the implementation study to use a thing called the weighted average cost of capital to determine at the end of the day what should be the profit of the National Broadband Network. But, no, I am told by people qualified in these things that those who use a skewed and unusual internal rate of return do so because they want to skew the end point; they want to get to six per cent.

Also, this government wanted to ultimately avoid the prospect, I am told by the economists, that there could be a negative net present value with the National Broadband Network. If there was a result of anything worse than the zero net present value from the National Broadband Network when the government wants all of these private sector investors, who is going to invest in an asset that has less than a zero net present value? I understand from my economic experts that, by utilising the internal rate of return, the implementation study could realise the six per cent outcome, ensuring that it was a better than zero per cent result in the net present value. Thank you for your indulgence—or perhaps not—in getting Economics 101. The point about that is there should be nil surprise if the business case actually says that the NBN could be built in a way that provided an internal rate of return higher than the current long-term bond issue. Show us the business case, Minister, in its entirety so that the Australian people can really judge what is happening here.

What else do we not have? We should not be surprised that we do not have the complete picture when this bill, in large part, is about keeping out of the picture deals between NBN Co. and others to deliver the NBN and about keeping them out of scrutiny by the ACCC. So we should not really be surprised. What else do we not have? We do not have Minister Conroy’s response to or compliance with the Senate order made last Thursday that he at least produce three sets of documents over the weekend just gone and by yesterday. It was a motion put up by me that the Senate passed resulting in a Senate order. All he had to do was produce three documents. Firstly, he had to produce the red book as it relates to the National Broadband Network and, in particular, to produce the bits of the red book that are currently blacked out without them blacked out so that they can be read. We would like to see what are expected to be NBN Co.’s observations about and now qualifications of certain key recommendations in the implementation study—that is, NBN Co. no longer agreeing with some of those recommendations. Minister, what we wanted to see, and all we wanted to see, was the red book, the advice to incoming government, with the bits that are currently blacked out not blacked out so that they could be read.

Secondly, we wanted to see yesterday, had you complied with the Senate order, the document showing how the government chose the first release sites that are rolling out around the country. Why, for example, on the minister’s say so, were the first and second phase release sites in Tasmania, starting off with Scottsdale and Midway Point, chosen on the basis of engineering advice, yet the first and second release sites on the mainland were supposedly chosen, according to NBN Co.’s annual report, on different sets of criteria including community acceptance criteria?

How were those first sites chosen? That is what we wanted to know for each and every site, and all we wanted to know. That is what the Senate ordered Minister Conroy to provide to the Senate yesterday and he failed to do so. Each and every one of those documents must be in existence. They must have been approved by the minister. We know that the first release sites and first-stage release sites in Tassie are happening, and the second phase release sites in Tassie and the second-stage release sites on the mainland have all been announced. The decisions have been made, made, made. Presumably, there were some criteria—let us see them.

The third document that the minister failed to provide to the Senate yesterday was the ACTU heads of agreement, which the minister says can reassure the Australian people that there will not be a wages blow-out in the construction of the National Broadband Network. What is the big deal about the ACTU set of enterprise bargaining principles? The minister told us in the Senate last Monday, 15 November:

... we have an agreed set of EBA principles. They have now been signed and agreed by the ACTU, coordinating right through with the CEPU and a range of other unions—

et cetera, and then he went on to say:

They have been signed off and agreed and there is no suggestion at all that there would be a wages blow-out.

Well, Minister, let us see them. Each of those three sets of documents existed—the red book, the basis for the government’s choice of the first release sites, and the ACTU’s supposedly signed and agreed enterprise bargaining principles. All the minister had to do over the weekend just gone was ask someone to press the green button on the photocopier. That is all. Unlike the spurious bases for rejecting calls for the business case, which the Prime Minister is now somehow foisting home and interconnecting with the points of interconnection, for added confusion, those three sets of documents existed.

I note that the minister is departing the chamber. I presume he is feeling rather shame-faced and is now going to press the green button on the photocopier. I look forward to delivery, Minister. In respect of the ACTU enterprise bargaining agreement principles, Minister Conroy attempts to say that there will not be a wages blow-out in the sector because NBN Co. has already signed its enterprise agreement with its workers. Big whoop! That covers some 400 workers. They are not the workers who are going to be rolling out the National Broadband Network across the country. They are not part of the supposed 25,000 and, if they are, that is going to leave 24,600 places still to be filled. They are not part of that workforce and, in any event, NBN Co’s workplace agreement only covers that workforce for four years, and the minister says that the NBN will take eight years to build. There is way more to unravel in that wages story and, unfortunately, the Australian people will simply have to watch this place because this government is refusing to provide any sort of proof that it has any method to its National Broadband Network madness.

Unless and until the government makes some effort to deliver accountability and transparency, there is no hurry and no haste for this Senate to consider this legislation or any other legislation related to the National Broadband Network, because on Minister Conroy’s very own say-so it is irrelevant to the build of the NBN. Thank you very much, Mr Acting Deputy President McGauran.

1:33 pm

Photo of Alan FergusonAlan Ferguson (SA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise also to speak to the government’s Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer Safeguards) Bill 2010. I would commence my remarks by repeating a short portion of what the shadow minister said when he was speaking to this bill in the other place. He said:

The 100 megabit per second fibre-to-the-home objective of the government has become little more than a religious devotion utterly unconnected from economics or market reality. To justify a $43 billion taxpayer investment, as the minister has done, on the basis that it will be used ‘in 20 years time for things that we do not know about’ is reckless in the extreme. In 20 years time most of the equipment in the NBN will have been replaced, some of it several times.

It reminds me of an inquiry that I embarked upon in the Senate in the late 1990s, just after the current minister came into this place. That inquiry, done by the economics committee, the report of which was entitled Telecommunications towards the year 2000, was a very comprehensive inquiry. We went all around Australia. In the outback of Western Australia I remember flying into small township called Cue and also another one of the places in the Murchison Shire where I think there were 19 or 26 ratepayers—I cannot remember which—when we were looking at their requirements with regard to telecommunications towards the year 2000. We went all around Australia and it was a marvellous inquiry, looking at the needs of Australians.

There was only one problem. By the time we brought our report down, some 18 months later, all of the evidence that we had collected at the beginning of the inquiry was out of date and no longer relevant to telecommunications. The changes in telecommunications were so vast and things had moved on so quickly that in fact things that we had found so important in 1998 by 1999 had become irrelevant—something like the current minister may become if he continues on the line that he is currently continuing on in relation to the NBN.

One of the major reforms that has happened—certainly the major economic reform over the last 25 years—has been government, particularly the federal government, getting out of business, not getting into business but getting out of businesses. They have been privatising businesses where governments are in business, ensuring that there is a level playing field, or as level as possible, so that the private sector can compete, which they certainly could not do in years gone by. So what on earth is the government doing here in relation to the National Broadband Network? It is turning back those 25 years of history by establishing a great big new government monopoly and then using the power of the parliament to legislate in a way that will prevent other parties with fixed line networks from competing with that monopoly. We are really turning back the economic reforms of the past 25 years with what is being proposed by the government in relation to the National Broadband Network.

I heard the minister say, in an interview on television, that of course this bill had nothing to do with the NBN. Well, as we are all well aware, he was totally embarrassed by Senator Joyce at that interview. He was embarrassed in a way in which I have not seen anybody else embarrassed for a while when it was pointed out to him that this bill before us mentions the National Broadband Network some 63 times—I think that is the figure, although I have not counted them myself. So the current minister’s attempt to divorce the National Broadband Network from this bill was a very good attempt, but it was one that certainly went nowhere.

In view of what I was going to say have been the answers to questions in this place in recent times but which I really have to say have been the lack of answers to questions, I could not help but be reminded of the current Prime Minister’s press interviews just after her government was formed. They were going to let the sunshine in. This was going to be a government of transparency. ‘We are going to tell the people all that they need to know in order to make informed decisions,’ they said. How things have changed, from those bold statements of the Prime Minister in relation to transparency, in a short couple of months. We have had the minister stonewalling, not allowing anything to take place which would give the parliament more information that might enable it to make an informed decision not only in relation to the bill before it but also in relation to the future telecommunications needs of Australia.

I was one of the lucky ones in my small country town: I had broadband that was delivered by the coalition. Sure, it is not 100 megabits per second but it is enough for me, and if we get to the stage of 100 megabits per second coming past my house—which is quite unlikely—I would not be taking it up anyway, and neither will the hundreds and thousands of Australian people be bothered. As we have found out in other countries around the world where high-speed broadband has been made available, people simply are not taking it up because of the expense. Besides that, there are very few people who actually require 100 megabits per second. I do not download movies, so I guess I am in the wrong generation, but I certainly have broadband—Internode are a wonderful service provider and I have nothing but compliments to pay to them—and that will do me, certainly for the foreseeable future.

I notice that we have Tasmanian senators in the chamber. Tasmania is where the national broadband rollout was started. I would be interested to know what the take-up is in Tasmania, in particular amongst people who have it going past their front door but who say, ‘I am not going to pay the extra that is required for my private residence to take up 100 megabits per second.’ In most cases such bandwidth is simply not necessary—and, as I have said, in other countries in the world the expectation of large numbers of people taking up the 100 megabits per second has not been realised.

The questions asked in this place in the past weeks have been an attempt to establish facts in order to allow impartial bodies to make some sort of an assessment as to whether this investment, which is the largest investment in taxpayers’ funds in infrastructure in our history, is a worthwhile idea or whether we are getting value for money. One of the problems we face is that out in the community the average person thinks that if the government is providing something, it does not cost anything. They are of the view that it costs nothing; the government is providing it. Little do many people realise that it is their money that is paying for this broadband network. Every taxpayer in Australia is footing the bill for this network and yet we are not allowed to know whether there are positive cost benefits relating to its establishment.

Many people, whilst they would like to have broadband, find out that it is going to cost $43 billion of their money and then have second thoughts. There is growing pressure in the community, especially in the business community, for a thorough cost-benefit analysis of the National Broadband Network to be made and for that information to be placed before the parliament so that people who are required to vote on legislation can make an informed decision. But this minister refuses point blank. This minister does not want members of parliament to have the information before them that is necessary and required in order to make a balanced judgment.

At a business leaders’ forum in early October we heard the chairman of ANZ say that the lack of a business case, and full publicity of that business case, is throwing a lot of doubt in people’s minds in relation to the level of expenditure. And why wouldn’t it? We are being asked to support the largest expenditure of taxpayers’ money—certainly since the Snowy Mountains scheme—before we have any idea of whether or not we are getting value for money. I understand people wanting broadband, particularly when they think it is not going to cost them anything, but there is more to us passing the sort of legislation that is in front of us—certainly the sort of legislation before us as far as Telstra is concerned, which will reduce competition rather than increase it.

We have the chairman of Wesfarmers—a big business, a big company in Australia—saying:

I’m not convinced, and feel it needs a cost-benefit analysis …

We have under-invested in infrastructure for the last 30 years, in road, rail, water. I just see this as another part of infrastructure that we need to go through, stocktake and prioritise. And I don’t know if it (NBN) will rank in priority.

Truer words were never spoken. Nobody is able to make a judgment on that issue without the necessary information in front of them to make it. The government has repeatedly refused to undertake such a cost-benefit analysis, often on the grounds of the cost of doing it or the delay that it might cause if it has to be done prior to the bill reaching its conclusion in this place. Well, when we are spending $43 billion—at least $43 billion—of taxpayers’ money, I do not mind a little delay. If I were spending my own money and it was a fraction of that amount, I would want to make sure that I was getting value for money. Why shouldn’t we require the government to ensure that it is getting value for money—not for its money but for the money of ordinary Australians, ordinary tax-paying Australians? They have a right to know whether or not they are getting value for that money.

The Labor government has refused to refer the NBN to its own, newly created specialist infrastructure agency, Infrastructure Australia. Why? Why would this government refuse to refer this network to its own, newly created specialist infrastructure agency? It defies all logic. This government thinks that it can spend money like a drunken sailor without knowing whether or not it is getting any value whatsoever for its dollars. It is okay to please the customer who does not think it is costing them anything—and that is the average taxpayer—but, when it comes to spending the hard-earned dollars of taxes paid by Australians, the government will not even refer the proposed National Broadband Network to its own specialist infrastructure agency.

When Labor’s infrastructure minister—Mr Albanese at the time—in January 2008 announced the establishment of Infrastructure Australia, it was tasked with ‘developing a blueprint for fixing and modernising the nation’s transport, water, energy and communications infrastructure’. Now, if this is not a major piece of communications infrastructure, I do not know what is. The minister himself said at the time:

Today’s announcement underscores just how serious we are about bringing in expertise from outside of government who want to contribute their energies to making our nation what it can be.

Yet the biggest infrastructure investment in our nation’s history is not being scrutinised by this body. Why not? Why did the minister not address in his second reading speech why the biggest infrastructure investment in our nation’s history is not being scrutinised by the very body that he set up? The then minister for infrastructure set up this body, yet the government refuse to use it.

When we talk about the Productivity Commission, we can say that it is the best possible organisation to ask: what are the implications of this project or what are the implications going to be? The Productivity Commission is staffed by experts who understand economics but also experts who understand the importance of factoring in non-financial costs and benefits, such as spillovers and the social consequences of various policy choices. Minister Conroy simply rejects this. Minister Conroy, in his bull-headed manner, wants to get this through regardless—regardless of whether senators know the information, regardless of whether the public know they are or are not getting value for money. The minister said:

… you could debate for 10 years and each person will have a different value that you plug into a model—

that is, to assess the NBN. That worries me even more, because currently the only view we have is the view of the minister. And, if the minister thinks he is the fountain of all wisdom when it comes to spending $43 billion of Australian taxpayers’ money on infrastructure, I would suggest that he might want to get a few opinions from some other people—people who are qualified in other fields, people who are qualified in assessing whether such infrastructure spending is good value for the Australian taxpayer.

The very point of referring the project to the Productivity Commission is that it would end the sort of subjective analysis we are seeing, because the Productivity Commission is strictly nonpartisan. I cannot say the same thing about the minister or about a lot of other people who have commented on it. But never in Australia’s history, never in the history of this federal parliament, has a government proposed to spend so much money with so little consideration or analysis. In my time in this place, in excess of 18 years now, I have never seen a government propose to spend this amount of money with such a minimal amount of analysis and without the rigorous analysis that can be provided by bodies such as the Productivity Commission or Infrastructure Australia, or other bodies that this government so proudly trumpets on other occasions. However, when it comes to this particular piece of infrastructure, the National Broadband Network, the government is blind to suggestions from outside. Senator Conroy—I cannot believe it—tried to justify the lack of transparency by claiming that putting the project with the Productivity Commission would be ‘too costly’; yet the Productivity Commission said it would be prepared to look at the NBN.

We have reached the stage where the government is now trying to establish this gigantic monopoly. It is so anticompetitive that the proposed telecommunications legislation which we are debating explicitly exempts the NBN from the Trade Practices Act. What has this government got to hide? We are talking about an eight-year, $43 billion project and yet this government has said that for us to do a business case will result in too much delay. I am amazed that this government has brought before us a project such as this. In effect, projects of this size and scale require necessary oversight and consideration to ensure that they are being carried out in the most effective and efficient way. The public deserve to be informed of how their money is being spent and whether or not they are getting value for money. I think it is about time the minister and the government came up with the answers to those questions.

1:53 pm

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

In rising to make a contribution to the debate on the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer Safeguards) Bill 2010 I note that the bill we are discussing is the very same bill that the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy maintains has absolutely nothing to do with the NBN. He said that on national television. It is hard to find a more humiliating moment for any individual minister of the Crown. Clearly, he was not across his brief, because this bill mentions the NBN 62 times—that is, 62 times more than the minister had read this bill. The only conclusion people can draw from his embarrassing humiliation on Sky News—at the hands of Senator Barnaby Joyce, I acknowledge—is that he had not even glanced at it.

This bill reminds us that, in spending money, our primary obligation is to the taxpayers of Australia. It is incumbent upon us to spend their money wisely, judiciously and to ensure that we are getting value for money. These are all things we cannot do because of the obfuscation by this minister and this government—a government that, as Senator Ferguson reminded us, said, ‘Let sunlight shine upon all the activities of government, so it is open and transparent.’ Clearly, that only applies to things it wants you to see. Repeatedly, the coalition and others have said, ‘We would like to see the business case for the NBN.’ We have not yet seen it. We have asked for a cost-benefit analysis. The government is refusing to do one, even though its own organisation, Infrastructure Australia, said, ‘All initiatives proposed to Infrastructure Australia should include a thorough and detailed economic cost-benefit analysis.’ And further:

In order to demonstrate that the Benefit Cost Analysis is indeed robust, full transparency of the assumptions, parameters and values which are used in each Benefit Cost Analysis is required.

So the government’s own infrastructure arm that has been set up has requested that this be done for major projects. The government are refusing to do it. It makes you ask the question: why would they set it up in the first place if they are not going to listen to the advice and the requirements of it? This project, I remind you, is the single biggest piece of infrastructure rolled out in this country, at a cost of $43 billion. And the government will not allow it to be examined critically. Repeatedly, we have asked the minister questions in question time about this. We get all sorts of stumbles and obfuscations. I asked a simple question: ‘When someone using the NBN rings emergency, and dials triple 0, will their location be readily identifiable?’ We could not get an answer to that. If the humiliation of this minister, his project and his plan needs any further example, let us just have a look at what the government are doing with Telstra.

They are paying Telstra $11 billion—$9 billion in cash to basically rip out their copper line network. They are then going to pay a further $2 billion to acquit them of their universal service obligation. That is so the NBN Co. can achieve some form of legitimacy. We know that it cannot survive in a competitive environment. It will only survive as a government monopoly, something that we in this place have spent decades fighting against. Even the Labor Party acknowledge that, when Telstra was sold, that it was a good idea to have sold it. That was one of their belated gifts to the nation that cost us billions of dollars. But one of the most humiliating things for this minister is when he was asked at estimates hearings—

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Shadow Assistant Treasurer) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Cormann interjecting

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

He is swimming naked, Senator Cormann! When the minister was asked who was going to maintain the copper lines he was forced, begrudgingly, to acknowledge that the government will have to pay $100 million, per year, for the next eight years to Telstra, on a subcontract basis, to manage the copper network that they are paying Telstra to pull out. This would be an absolute joke if it were not so serious, because the taxpayers’ money is involved. We have a $43 billion spend, with $11 billion in cash going to Telstra, and ongoing costs, as I just said, of $100 million a year—with no cost-benefit analysis, no business case and no transparency. This is a cobbled-together plan that cannot be sustained under any close examination. It was cobbled together, because we know—and I reminded the Senate of this yesterday—that the mark 1 broadband plan of the government did not engender any support out there in the market. It did not receive appropriate tenders. Importantly, Senator Conroy came in here with a one-page document from Telstra and said, ‘That is a tender,’ and then a few weeks later said that it was not a tender. So he hopped on Kevin 747’s plane—because that was the only time he was able to see His Majesty Kevin Rudd at the time—he sat with him, they got out an envelope and they both scribbled on the back of it. One wrote ‘broadband’ and the other one wrote ‘$43 billion’. This is what we have been shown up with today. It is an embarrassment; it is a humiliation. Senator Conroy is nodding. It has been caught on the camera, because he has been humiliated and embarrassed by this. It is quite extraordinary.

The coalition will be moving a number of amendments. Whether the bill will be supported will be subject to whether these amendments can get up. Without them, we have the monstrosity of a government monopoly that is taking taxpayers’ funds, scattering them around like confetti, which this government has a huge history of, and we have a list of failed ministers and programs on that side to prove it. But all of us on this side have an obligation and it is incumbent on us, whether or not the taxpayers like our politics, to ensure that the government is spending their money appropriately.

Government Senators:

Government senators interjecting

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

I can hear the groans from the zombies on the other side. Senator Cameron is groaning, because he is the original lobotomised zombie. He is grinning as well; it is nice that he still has a smiling gene in him. It is extraordinary that the government will not open up the NBN to transparency and scrutiny. And it is a shame.

Debate interrupted.