Thursday, 25 November 2010
Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer Safeguards) Bill 2010
I think it is quite appropriate that Senator Back finished on Odgers and the role of Senate committees in scrutinising bills, because it is worth reminding senators opposite that this bill was the subject of a Senate inquiry some time ago. It is appropriate that complex legislation that has long-term effects be subject to such scrutiny by the Senate, and I, for one, believe that opposition senators were afforded every opportunity to participate in that inquiry.
With regard to the assertion from those opposite that this issue has lacked scrutiny, I remind them that, when the opposition had full control of the Senate, they constituted the Select Committee on the National Broadband Network. That committee made no fewer than four reports to the Senate through the course of the introduction of the National Broadband Network and during the phases when greater detail about the network was coming to light, including, importantly, on the implementation study, which did make a series of observations about the nature of the network, and on the absolute relevance of the cutting-edge technology being deployed in terms of fibre to the home. Indeed, the committee provided much information about the crossover point on the financials with regard to the rollout and returns and revenues to NBN Co. So, no fewer than four reports were delivered.
Senator Macdonald at one point chaired the committee and Senator Fisher also chaired the committee. In fact, the committee was structured so that the opposition had a full and clear majority at every step of the way. So the opposition had the perfect opportunity to extract the information they wanted, and they were able to have access to those who put together the implementation study as witnesses providing evidence to the committee.
When you come in here and make a song and dance about not being able to access information—and we also had Senator Back’s immature reference to the dictionary definition of ‘arcane’—it is clear that this is a filibuster. The opposition does not have anything substantive to say about the National Broadband Network and, more importantly, the structure of our telecommunications industry, which is the subject of this bill. It is disappointing that the contributions are so light on in their actual interest in the policy at hand, given that the rhetoric that has been thrown across the chamber is about wanting more information.
Another thing I would like to mention is the way in which the opposition are presenting their issues. They are making a lot of stuff up. Every speaker has used a different number, in terms of billions of dollars, so very clearly they are trying to create a fear campaign. Senator Back used a figure of $50 billion, which has no bearing on the issue we are discussing at all. They are just making it up and doing scribbled numbers on notepaper in front of them to generate a campaign of misleading information to put into the public arena. If the opposition had good intentions to scrutinise this bill and scrutinise the government, they would not only support this amendment—
Let me read it again. Senator Ludlam has moved an amendment on behalf of the Greens to add these words to the objectives of the act:
The availability of accessible and affordable carriage services that enhance the welfare of Australians.
No-one is arguing with that, yet senators opposite not only do not address the issue of the benefits of accessible and affordable carriage services but continue to throw misleading statements into this debate.
I will take that interjection because the whole idea is that this is going to be an affordable network. If you knew anything about the structure of the telecommunications industry you would know that the reason affordability is an issue for us is that, under the former government, telecommunications costs in this country were among the highest in the OECD. This was because the former government—the coalition, the Liberal Party—did not care enough about the economic relevance of our telecommunications infrastructure and the importance of affordable connectivity to our future economic and social wellbeing. If they had, conceivably we would have had stronger competition in the retail market and that would have forced telecommunications companies to invest in fibre infrastructure. The fact is that the coalition government themselves created the preconditions for the need for a National Broadband Network that will serve this country’s economic and social needs in the future.
The former coalition government were negligent in their management of telecommunications policy. To be negligent in telecommunications policy means you are negligent in economic policy, because so many of our future prospects for economic growth rely on telecommunications infrastructure. The digital environment resolves the issue of geographic isolation and allows our participation in a whole range of markets, including important services markets like financial services and those creative industries that sit on the back of the digital environment that the NBN will provide. Colleagues, it is important to understand that we have significant strengths as a country in all of these areas. The constraints on our sectors to expand their export offerings to grow our economy and create jobs have been caused by the former government through their neglect of our telecommunications infrastructure. The NBN is designed to resolve those constraints and make the most of the opportunity for economic expansion.
I would like to address some other matters—in particular, the lack of courtesy in the chamber at the moment. Nothing is more discourteous to the Australian people than to refuse to actually debate the substance of the bill at hand and address pretty straightforward amendments like this one so that we can get to the next one—which, interestingly, is an amendment to be moved by the opposition. But, so far, we have seen no intention from the opposition to vote on this first, very straightforward amendment—it was moved by the Greens, and the government have indicated that we are supporting it—so that they can move to their own amendment. What does that tell you about the tactics that are being perpetrated across the chamber? What it tells me is that the discourtesy we are experiencing from the opposition is because they are not interested in debating the issue.
I feel compelled to address the misleading statements that have been made. Senator Back and other coalition senators have said that the fibre technology is not future proof. That is not true. It is the best technology. If you want to spend money on infrastructure, putting fibre in place is absolutely the best way. We have run through the issues in this chamber about the capacity constraints of wireless. We have run through the issues about the degradation of bandwidth, the more people that subscribe through a given tower. We understand there are technological developments. But the world jury, all the telecommunications experts, concur that a fibre-to-the-home network is the most future proof technology and it is worth saying again and again and again. Upgrades in technology can be built into the system, and this is why it is future proof, at either end of the fibre. You do not need to roll out new fibre. As far as we can foresee, the fibre-to-the-home technology is absolutely spot-on and worthy of the investment we are making. Senator Back said that somehow in eight years time this technology will be outmoded. That is not true. To say in here that it is outdated is just shallow, spurious and misleading to the Australian people. This opposition needs to be called to account—and I would be happy to play this role, as we no doubt hear further contributions from those opposite.
Finally, I want to talk about Western Australia. My experience with Western Australia comes from those many long-suffering residents who are attached to a system of network technology called pair gain systems. Whether it is about the Wanneroo exchange or an exchange in one of the outer metropolitan areas of WA, I still get emails from people who cannot get a broadband service. They are on the waiting list for an ADSL service and are completely and utterly frustrated because of the capacity constraints of the existing copper network. We know and they know that the only permanent solution to the problems of the existing network is to build a fibre-to-the-home network. So I find it fascinating that Senator Back and others come in here and use the west as an example. These people have been so riddled by a depleted copper network that they are fed up, and frustrated. For those home based businesses in WA—and, let us face it, it is a significant growing economy—if you do not have a reliable high-bandwidth connection to your home you cannot run your business from your home. You cannot do it. And what about the old copper long tails, out of town? If you are a business trying to function and set up in an industrial area you cannot run your business if you cannot get a reliable high-bandwidth connection,. This is the fact of the matter in the 21st century. The NBN is the only technological solution that will resolve this problem—not just for homes but for the small businesses and home based businesses right around this country, who cannot even start thinking about it until they can guarantee that connection.
When I visited Narooma many years ago I learnt a lesson about what the National Broadband Network offers Australians. I talked to an engineer who was trying to use CAD software, computer-aided design software, for an engineering firm in Melbourne. His home of choice was Narooma. It is a beautiful town. He was not able to connect with his employer in Melbourne because there was not an adequate high-bandwidth connection available at that time. Just imagine if all Australians had an affordable high-bandwidth connection. It would allow them, if they so chose, to run their businesses and interact with their employers from wherever they chose to live. There is no more compelling reason for investing in national infrastructure. We do not want to discriminate. We want to make sure all Australians benefit from this. Only the National Broadband Network, with its fibre-to-the-home technology, is capable of providing this profound opportunity for everybody in this country.
I note at the outset that the government has clearly made a very strategic decision on the handling of this legislation. It has pulled off the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy and sent in Senator Lundy because Senator Lundy is at least able to ad lib and give a speech without looking at her laptop all the time about the concepts of the government’s proposed NBN legislation. It is certainly a very smart move by the government to pull Senator Conroy away from this legislation and to move in Senator Lundy. I congratulate Senator Lundy for putting on display today all of her passion, expertise and commitment to this portfolio. In the last week we have witnessed the Gillard government sending in the Minister for Finance and Deregulation, Minister Wong, to run a bit of a check-up on Senator Conroy, to run a bit of an independent review, because the government is clearly having second thoughts about this whole NBN process. We now have this pincer movement—with Senator Wong on one side and Senator Lundy on the other side—and they are holding up Senator Conroy in the face of battle.
Essentially, Senator Lundy has just said: ‘Trust us—we’re from the government. These are the assertions we’re making about the NBN. Just take our word for it.’ The reality is that the government have not demonstrated that their proposal is the best way to achieve faster and more affordable broadband. That is what this debate is all about. In fact, under the Rudd government, the then Minister for Finance and Deregulation, Lindsay Tanner, was just about bragging about the fact that they were not going to do a cost-benefit analysis—they were not going to go out of their way to demonstrate that this was the best value for money and the best way of ensuring faster and more affordable broadband for all Australians. Of course everyone agrees with the object of this amendment. Senators on this side agree with the concept that we want faster and more affordable broadband. That is not at issue; nobody disagrees with it. The question is whether the government’s proposal of the pursuit of a project that is now worth $49.5 billion and already has an overrun of $6½ billion is the most effective way to deliver faster and more affordable broadband for all Australians.
Senator Lundy tells the chamber: ‘Trust us—we’re from the government. We’re telling you that this is future-proofed technology; we’re telling you that this is the best way to go, so just take our word for it.’ But I remind the chamber and people around Australia that this government was not able to give away $2½ billion worth of pink batts. Even the then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, apparently told caucus that that was one of the great failings of the government. The government could not give away $2½ billion worth of pink batts for free, so how can we trust them with a $49.5 billion project sight unseen?
The fundamental problem of this government is their total incompetence, because that drives everything else. There are incompetent ministers on the front bench and ‘zombies’ on the back bench. In saying that, I am quoting Senator Cameron, a very authoritative source. Senator Cameron knows a zombie when he sees one, and he has identified the whole Labor backbench as zombies. These are not my words; these are Senator Cameron’s words. We are in a circumstance now where there is a combination in the government of incompetence and zombiism, and what happens? When they stuff up, they have to cover it up. Everything they do is driven by this need to cover up their stuff-ups. That is where the secrecy and the cutting of corners again and again come from. That is what got the Rudd government into trouble and why the then Prime Minster eventually lost his job—fundamental incompetence could no longer be swept under the carpet.
Essentially, the process that ran this morning was a demonstration of all of the fundamental problems of this government. They knew that they wanted to bring this legislation on. They knew that they wanted to run a gag motion. They knew that they wanted to vary the hours for debate. They knew that they wanted to stop us from even having debate on the gag motion. But were they ready? No, they were not. As we were debating a motion to suspend standing orders this morning, people were busily drafting the motion behind the doors—they did not even have their paperwork ready. They were not even ready to apply a gag, just as they were not ready last night.
Today is an incredible day in the history of the Greens’ contribution to parliamentary democracy. In years gone by, Senator Brown always prided himself on occupying the high moral ground in his scrutinising of governments, whoever those governments were. In seeing his smile from one ear to the other while jumping up to move the gag motion last night, his absolute pleasure in trying to cut down debate, his anger when the move failed last night and his enthusiastic attempts to limit debate on this important legislation today, we have also seen a significant shift in the way the Greens contribute to Australian political life. Senator Bob Brown has demonstrated that the Greens are now a party of power. They are the ones who are running this government—they are the ones who are in charge—and what happened last night and today is an indication of the sorts of things that will happen from 1 July next year, when they are going to be totally in charge. At least now there is still a little bit of restraint—Senators Xenophon and Fielding have to be on board for some of these little power games. Graham Richardson would have been proud of what Senator Bob Brown did last night and today.
Today I asked some questions of Senator Wong. One of them was: ‘Why does the government say that this project cost $37.5 billion when, according to the summary business case, it actually cost $49.5 billion?’ Before Senator Wong could even jump to her feet, Senator Conroy was jumping out of his skin and interjecting like mad, trying to run the line, ‘You cannot add together capital expenditure and operating expenditure’ and ‘It is inappropriate to add those figures together.’ That might well be the case if the NBN was a company that was actually generating revenue, but the problem is that the NBN has no money whatsoever. The NBN is starting at ground zero. The NBN is going to be fed entirely by taxpayers’ money, borrowed money or by money that is coming from bonds or other means.
The reality is that, according to the summary business case that has been released, $35.7 billion will go to NBN Co. as total capital expenditure and $13.8 will be spent as part of the Telstra agreements for decommissioning and infrastructure payments by June 2020. That is $49.5 billion. So on the table now is $6½ billion more than the figure we were given as the worst case scenario figure. That is black and white; I am not inventing this. This is in the summary business case that Julia Gillard, the Prime Minister, was shamed into releasing last night in order for the government to be able to get this process underway today.
This week we have had the revelation—it is not something the government has volunteered—that the Minister for Finance and Deregulation, Penny Wong, commissioned an independent review to check up on Senator Conroy. The minister for finance did what ministers for finance should be doing; she wants to make sure—to the extent that she can—although it is a bit late in the process for her to be doing so, that the money put into this project is well spent.
The problem, though, is: what happens if this independent review says the business case does not stack up? We will have already passed this legislation. Why have an independent review of a business case, which would seem to suggest that the government has some second thoughts and concerns, if you do not leave yourself room to move depending on the outcomes of that review? If there is no capacity for this parliament to make decisions depending on the outcomes of the independent review, why have it at all? It is a waste of money, isn’t it? Why should the Senate make a decision in relation to a business case which still has not been released when we do not know whether the independent auditors that have been asked to look at it actually agree that it is a legitimate proposition?
Senator Lundy tells me, ‘Trust us—we’re from the government.’ Julia Gillard, the Prime Minister, does not trust Senator Conroy, because she has asked Senator Wong to commission an independent review. She has asked Senator Wong to check what Senator Conroy is up to. If the Prime Minister and Senator Wong cannot trust Senator Conroy, why should the Senate trust him? Why should we be making decisions on this sort of legislation, with $49.5 billion at stake, without having the benefit of some third-party endorsement that says either, ‘Yes, this business case stacks up,’ or, ‘No, it doesn’t’? All we have is the government’s word for it, but we know that the government itself does not think that it quite stacks up. Why otherwise would we be having this independent review?
There are all these issues and additional questions that emerge from the business case summary that was released. The summary states:
The equity requirement from Government based on our current plan is $27.1bn.
For ‘government equity requirement’, read ‘taxpayers’ dollars invested in the system that is going to be set up’. That is what this is: $27.1 billion in required government equity is essentially the share that taxpayers have to put in now. Furthermore, what does ‘current plan’ mean? How many plans are there? Are we going to have a plan this week, a plan next week, a plan in January and a plan in March? How often do these plans get adapted? When I asked that question of Senator Wong, she was not prepared to entertain it at all. Why make a business case that says, ‘We need $27.1 billion if we do what we are telling you today that we want to do’? What is the import of the word ‘current’, Senator Lundy? I would be very interested to know what that word means in your business case summary. Is there an intention to have another plan next week, in January, in February and in March? How much beyond $49.5 billion will it go?
Other speakers in this debate have very clearly laid out the problems in terms of some of the expenses that have not been taken into account even in the summary of the business case that was presented to us. Government expenditure on the NBN has already increased by over $1 billion since the implementation study. The government, as I have just mentioned, says that on current projections it will need to provide $27.1 billion for the NBN to be viable. It used to be $26 billion; now it is $27.1 billion. What is it going to be next week and the week after? If this keeps going up at $1 billion a month, where will it end? I am sure that Senator Lundy, who has been put in the position of having to defend the indefensible because of the incompetence of Senator Conroy, will probably find it difficult to answer some of these questions.
The next problem is that there is absolutely no guarantee that the price of broadband will decrease. Page 21 of the business case summary states it very clearly:
… NBN Co. anticipates being able to reduce real prices for all products and nominal prices for all products, except the basic service offering …
The basic service is 12 mbps. Most regional and remote areas will receive the basic service, as they will rely on satellite and wireless broadband. They face the prospect, as Senator Lundy well knows, of real price increases. Maybe Senator Lundy, living in Canberra, is not so worried about the real price increases that people in rural and regional Australia will face. It is very comfortable living in Canberra when you are close to the centre of power, where all the federal decisions are made about spending taxpayers’ dollars.
There are many other problems and issues that I would like to raise, but I am conscious that Senator Xenophon, who was so kind as to organise a coffee for me, has something to contribute to the debate. I will defer to him.
I think Senator Cormann’s coffee may be cold by now. If I may speak to the amendments we are dealing with—that might be a radical notion at this stage of the debate—I indicate that I will be supporting Senator Ludlam’s amendment, one of the premises of which is:
… the availability of accessible and affordable carriage services that enhance the welfare of Australians.
After all, that is what it is about. It should be about ensuring the maximum benefit for consumers and small businesses. It has huge benefits both at a social level and in the potential for productivity in this nation.
I secured a number of undertakings from the Prime Minister as a result of meetings that I had with her on the afternoon and evening of 23 November and some subsequent discussions on the morning of 24 November. As a result of that, the Prime Minister provided me with a letter. I think it is important, for the benefit of transparency, that that letter be tabled, which I will seek leave to do in a moment. It was an open letter; it was not a confidential letter. I do not think the government would have any difficulty with that. It is consistent with what the Prime Minister has previously said in relation to this, and I am grateful for the details it contains.
However, I do note that the letter is dated 23 November, which on my reckoning was Tuesday. It is now 25 November. I can assure the chamber—and I want to make this absolutely clear—that this letter was only received by me yesterday around lunchtime. I just want to make it clear that, whilst the letter is dated 23 November, it clearly refers to discussions that I had with the Prime Minister. It says: ‘I am writing after our discussions yesterday.’ Those discussions actually took place on 23 November. So there has been a mix-up with the date, and I think that can be confirmed through the Prime Minister’s office. In the interests of transparency, I seek leave to table that letter so that it is on the public record.
Thank you. I so tender that letter. I also wish to indicate for the benefit of the committee as a whole that I and my staff have been working around the clock on a number of amendments—and I again thank Evelyn Ek for her work on this. I will be replacing the amendments that I have filed with another set of amendments. Some I will be withdrawing for the purpose of expediting the resolution of the committee stage, because Senator Ludlam is moving almost identical amendments—and I would join with Senator Ludlam, if I could, in terms of co-sponsoring his amendments.
I have had extensive discussions with the minister’s office and the Prime Minister’s office as well as other agencies, such as the ACCC, in relation to the amendments that I will be moving relating to transparency and greater accountability for consumers. An appropriate set of amendments has been struck in relation to that. I would have liked to have gone further, but I am trying to be pragmatic and realistic in relation to those amendments. These amendments go to the issue of transparency.
I note that the government has agreed to establish a joint committee on the National Broadband Network to provide progress reports every six months to the parliament until completion of the project. To quote from the Prime Minister’s letter:
The composition of the committee will mirror the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit and it will report on the roll-out process, report against the final business plan, assess risk management processes and look at other matters. The committee which determines a relevance to its deliberations ... The committee will commence its work from 1 July 2011 and draw on any relevant material from previous committees.
It was also made clear to me by the government that, in addition to the voting members of that committee, all members can be participating members of that committee. I would like to get clarification on that from the government so that it is put on the record. It does not have to be now, but I would like this clarification during the course of this committee stage.
It was made very clear to me that, if a senator or member who is not a voting member wants to attend that committee to ask questions about particular concerns for their constituents or on behalf of their electorate, they will be able to do so. The government also indicated—and, again, Senator Lundy may wish to confirm this—in my discussions with Senator Wong that the Productivity Commission will receive the appropriate resources it needs insofar as it will be advising this committee, which I think is useful in terms of transparency.
Senator Macdonald and others have made the point that this summary of the business plan—the 36-page summary—is not much chop. I respectfully disagree. It does give an additional degree of information that was not there in the public arena. I was not prepared to take a confidential briefing—a briefing that meant that I would have had to stand up in this chamber and say, ‘I know things about the business plan but I can’t tell my colleagues about it.’ I thought it was important that the opposition and the public could have access to that information.
That was not part of the deal, I reassure you, Senator Ronaldson. So that is where it is at in relation to the process issues. As to the issue of the structural separation of Telstra, I think the government does have a difficult task. Some coalition senators, in their heart of hearts, will acknowledge that the way that Telstra was privatised and structured—with one of the highest levels of vertical integration anywhere in the world for a telco—has been bad for consumers and bad for the development of telecommunications in this country. I think the government has had an invidious task of trying to unscramble the egg.
I should also say that Telstra was quite upset with some of the amendments I have proposed—screaming blue murder, in a sense, saying, ‘This will be the end of us if there are strong competition principles.’ I would like to remind Telstra that I do not think that there are any Telstra representatives or members for Telstra in this chamber or in the other chamber. The parliament has a job to do in the interests of all Australians. I understand the difficulties involved. I understand that David Thodey, as the chief executive officer of Telstra, has had a rocky time lately. We saw what the chair of the Future Fund did last week, as he is entitled to do. I think it indicates that there is an opportunity here to structurally separate Telstra. It has not been smooth sailing for the Telstra board. David Thodey, to his credit, has been much more engaging than the previous CEO of Telstra. That has been a good thing for public policy in this country.
I think the imperative is to structurally separate. The issue of the NBN legislation is a separate issue. Whilst the two are interlinked, what will happen next year in terms of the whole NBN Co. legislation is a separate issue. I have been upfront with the government and they know that I will reserve my position on that legislation in terms of the consumer safeguards and ensuring the greatest degree of transparency and competition in the marketplace so that consumers can get the best benefit and also ensuring a continual level of transparency and scrutiny for the project through some of the mechanisms described.
I indicate that I support Senator Ludlam’s amendment. I am hoping that my amendments will be provided shortly. My office has prepared explanatory notes—not explanatory memoranda—in relation to those amendments to assist my colleagues. Given the time available and given the process, I thought that was the right thing to do. Again, I thank Evelyn Ek for that. I hope she will still be working for me after this week from hell for my office. I am looking forward to further stages of the committee’s deliberations on this bill.
There is a new set of amendments, on sheet 7005 revised, that I do not think has been circulated. Senator Macdonald asked me for a copy, as did the member for Wentworth, the shadow minister, and I gave them copies immediately. Hopefully they are on their way. I am doing all I can. I hope my colleagues and Senator Ronaldson and Senator Macdonald can understand that my office has been in long discussions, particularly with the government and the ACCC, to ensure that the amendments that have been put up are workable and practical in the context of what I am trying to achieve.
I am not actually speaking to that. We are very keen to progress this debate. It is an important piece of legislation. The opposition has some very sensible amendments that we want to move. I am conscious that no more of my coalition colleagues want to speak on the Greens amendments. Perhaps Senator Ludlam has a response to the questions that were asked, although he was out of the chamber when they were being asked, so I suspect he will not be able to. If he did that, then we could actually vote on Senator Ludlam’s amendments.
We are still getting new amendments as we speak. Senator Conroy suggested that we have had a year to look at this, but, here we are, a minute before voting and we are still getting new amendments. Clearly, we have not had a year. In fact, we have not had a month, we have not had a week, we have not had a day. We will end up having about half an hour to look at the amendments as they come in. I am not being critical of that except to say that Senator Conroy’s hyperbole about having had a year is clearly false.
I urge the Senate to deal with Senator Ludlam’s amendments so that we can move on to the coalition amendments, which are listed next, and then, hopefully, we will get to Senator Xenophon’s amendments, which seem interesting. That is the course of action I urge upon the Senate.
Just to recapitulate: the coalition will not be supporting Senator Ludlam’s amendments, but we are very keen to progress this debate. We do not want to filibuster and keep this debate going in the way the Labor Party have been proceeding. We want to move on. We are very keen to do that. I am looking forward to moving our amendments. We will not be dividing, unlike the Greens, who divide on everything and waste so much time in doing that. We will not do that, because we are very keen to make sure the Senate has the maximum amount of time.
I will speak very briefly. Since I gave Senator Macdonald a hard time for wasting the time of the chamber, I will speak very briefly in response. If Senator Macdonald or, indeed, any other coalition senator had asked me genuine questions about these amendments and what they contribute to the bill, I would have been very happy to take them on, but the opposition has engaged in six or seven hours of questions—or pointless, rhetorical flourishes disguised as questions—which could more properly be submitted to the minister, I suppose, because they go to the overall objects of the legislation and the matters that we are dealing with writ large. If the opposition were keen to ask about matters arising from either this amendment or others—I have about six pages to move during the course of this debate—I would happily, as would others, sit here all night to take those questions, but Senator Macdonald had no intention of engaging on the merits or otherwise of these amendments and that is why I left the chamber when I did.
I commend these amendments to the Senate. I find it a bit puzzling that the opposition and a number of coalition senators congratulated me on how wonderful these amendments are before telling me that they would not be supporting them—
by leave—I move opposition amendments (1) to (17), (24), (33) to (40), (43), (45) to (57), (64) and (65) together:
(1) Schedule 1, before item 1, page 4 (line 5), omit the heading (Act name).
(3) Schedule 1, item 6, page 5 (lines 2 to 5), item TO BE OPPOSED.
(4) Schedule 1, items 11 to 15, page 5 (line 22) to page 6 (line 19), items TO BE OPPOSED.
(5) Schedule 1, item 17, page 6 (lines 27 and 28), omit “, 577CD or 577ED”.
(6) Schedule 1, item 17, page 6 (lines 29 and 30), omit the note, substitute:
Note: Section 577AD deals with an undertaking given by Telstra.
(7) Schedule 1, item 18, page 7 (lines 1 to 6), item TO BE OPPOSED.
(8) Schedule 1, item 19, page 7 (lines 10 and 11), omit “, 577CD or 577ED”.
(9) Schedule 1, item 19, page 7 (lines 12 and 13), omit the note, substitute:
Note: Section 577AD deals with an undertaking given by Telstra.
(10) Schedule 1, item 21, page 7 (lines 18 to 23), item TO BE OPPOSED.
(11) Schedule 1, item 22, page 7 (lines 27 and 28), omit “, 577CD or 577ED”.
(12) Schedule 1, item 23, page 7 (lines 31 and 32), omit the note, substitute:
Note 1A: Section 577AD deals with an undertaking given by Telstra.
(13) Schedule 1, items 24 and 25, page 8 (lines 1 to 8), items TO BE OPPOSED.
(14) Schedule 1, item 26, page 8 (lines 12 and 13), omit “, 577CD or 577ED”.
(15) Schedule 1, item 27, page 8 (lines 16 and 17), omit the note, substitute:
Note 1A: Section 577AD deals with an undertaking given by Telstra.
(16) Schedule 1, items 28 and 29, page 8 (lines 18 to 25), items TO BE OPPOSED.
(17) Schedule 1, item 30, page 9 (lines 5 to 24), omit section 577, substitute:
577 Simplified outline
The following is a simplified outline of this Part:
- Telstra may give an undertaking about structural separation.
- The undertaking comes into force when it is accepted by the ACCC.
(24) Schedule 1, item 30, page 14 (lines 32 and 33), omit subparagraphs 577AA(1)(c)(vii) and (viii).
(33) Schedule 1, item 30, page 35 (line 26) to page 44 (line 24), Divisions 3 and 4 TO BE OPPOSED.
(34) Schedule 1, item 30, page 44 (line 29), omit “, 577C or 577E”.
(35) Schedule 1, item 30, page 46 (line 4) to page 52 (line 2), Division 6 TO BE OPPOSED.
(36) Schedule 1, item 30, page 52 (line 7), omit paragraph 577M(1)(a).
(37) Schedule 1, item 30, page 52 (line 8), omit “another”, substitute “a”.
(38) Schedule 1, item 30, page 53 (line 20), after “control of”, insert “a telecommunications network if”.
(39) Schedule 1, item 30, page 53 (lines 21 and 22), omit paragraphs 577Q(1)(a) and (b).
(40) Schedule 1, item 30, page 53 (line 23), omit “if:”.
(43) Schedule 1, item 31, page 70 (line 18) to page 75 (line 28), Part 10 TO BE OPPOSED.
(45) Schedule 1, item 36, page 76 (line 16), omit “, 577C or 577E”.
(46) Schedule 1, item 36, page 76 (line 18), omit “Note 1”, substitute “Note”.
(47) Schedule 1, item 36, page 76 (lines 20 to 23), omit notes 2 and 3.
(48) Schedule 1, item 38, page 77 (line 7), omit “, 577C or 577E”.
(49) Schedule 1, item 39, page 77 (line 17), omit “, 577C or 577E”.
(50) Schedule 1, item 39, page 77 (line 19), omit “Note 1”, substitute “Note”.
(51) Schedule 1, item 39, page 77 (lines 21 to 24), omit notes 2 and 3.
(52) Schedule 1, item 74, page 87 (line 26), omit “, 577C or 577E”.
(53) Schedule 1, item 93, page 94 (line 7), omit “, 577C or 577E”.
(54) Schedule 1, item 96, page 95 (line 12), omit “, 577C or 577E”.
(55) Schedule 1, item 102, page 96 (line 13), omit “, 577C or 577E”.
(56) Schedule 1, item 107, page 97 (line 28), omit “, 577C or 577E”.
(57) Schedule 1, item 113, page 100 (line 18), omit “, 577C or 577E”.
(64) Schedule 1, item 249, page 194 (line 28), omit “, 577CD or 577ED”.
(65) Schedule 1, item 249, page 195 (lines 1 and 2), omit subparagraph 572E(4)(b)(iv) .
The coalition has always been very keen to progress debate on this bill and to establish some principles and conditions that can improve what we think is generally a very bad bill that holds a gun to the head of Telstra Corporation.
These amendments remove those gun-at-the-head provisions which the bill contains. The bill gives ministerial discretion to bar Telstra from bidding for next generation 4G wireless spectrum via a disallowable instrument. As I have said in this chamber before, that is the sort of legislation you would expect to see in communist Russia: ‘We won’t let a commercial company bid for next generation 4G wireless spectrum unless you do what we tell you to do in relation to other matters. That is, you have got to sell your copper network to NBN. If you don’t do that, we’re going to penalise you by saying that you can’t bid for the next generation 4G wireless spectrum’—which is a very valuable asset which Telstra, like everyone else, should have the ability to bid for. The government would threaten Telstra, saying, ‘Unless you agree with everything we say, you can’t bid. You’ll be the only Australian who can’t bid for this.’ That is the sort of dictate that you would get from communist Russia of old. Our amendments will remove those provisions of the bill which provide ministerial discretion.
Our amendments will also remove the gun-at-the-head provisions of the bill which threaten Telstra with being forced to divest its high-frequency coaxial cable—the HFC pay television cables—or its 50 per cent interest in Foxtel if it does not voluntarily structurally separate in ways acceptable to government. This is legislation that would be unheard of in most other democratic countries of the world. It is the Labor government saying to a commercial company operating in Australia—a businessman, so to speak—‘Unless you do what we, Big Brother the government, tell you to do, we are going to make you divest your pay television cable and your 50 per cent interest in Foxtel.’ That is un-Australian, undemocratic and the sort of thing you would not expect to find in any legislation in any democratic institution anywhere in the world.
These amendments are moved together for drafting reasons, largely so that consequential changes to the bill are consistent. While the government claims that the proposed deal between Telstra and NBN Co. render these amendments unnecessary, we actually believe that, at a philosophical level, this approach to obtaining agreement to the change of structure from private entity is absolutely indefensible.
These are worthwhile amendments. I could go on at some length about them, but I am aware that Senator Cash wants to speak to the amendments and perhaps elaborate on them. So I will not take further time of the Senate in line with my view that we should be progressing this and getting through the amendments as quickly as we reasonably can.
I have got a few things to say about these amendments, and I think it is very important for all those in the chamber to understand that coalition amendments (1) to (17), (24), (33) to (40), (43), (45) to (57), (64) and (65) relate to spectrum and undertakings about hybrid fibre-coaxial networks and subscription television broadcasting licences. I know that was difficult to discern from the previous speaker, but I think it is important clarification.
These amendments are not necessary. There is no longer an automatic prohibition on the acquisition of spectrum if Telstra does not structurally separate and divest its interests in the HFC network and Foxtel. The bill has been amended to give Telstra sufficient regulatory certainty to take a firm proposal to its shareholders to structurally separate by allowing Telstra to acquire specified bands of spectrum unless the minister determines otherwise in a legislative instrument—in other words, unless a legislative instrument is debated in the chamber.
The bill does not require Telstra to divest its interests in Foxtel but still provides a framework for Telstra to voluntarily divest its interests in Foxtel and its hybrid fibre-coaxial cable network. In the event that Telstra does not proceed with structural separation, the minister could take into account Telstra’s ownership of Foxtel and HFC networks in determining whether to use the powers in the bill to prevent Telstra from acquiring certain spectrum to address Telstra’s power in telecommunications markets.
I think it is important to note in this regard that the bill is about the structure of the telecommunications industry, and it is absolutely the purview of this parliament to legislate on behalf of all Australians to ensure that the structure of the industry is able to respond to the long-term interests of end users as outlined and to do so quite effectively. These amendments are not necessary. The concern that the opposition is putting forward has been addressed in the bill and is no longer the case. We will be opposing the amendments because they are no longer necessary.
The government claims that these amendments are not necessary. The government also claims that the proposed deal between Telstra and the NBN Co. renders these amendments unnecessary. The problem I have with that is based on the lack of information that the government has given the Senate to date. We have been placed in a situation where we have to move these amendments. Having listened to the minister’s excuses as to why the Labor Party will not be supporting the coalition’s amendments, I am not reassured. This is all about accountability and transparency. I was also in the chamber earlier, listening to comments from Senator Ludlam regarding the opposition’s attempts to properly scrutinise this legislation that will actually result in the biggest spend of taxpayers’ money on infrastructure that Australia has ever seen. Senator Ludlam criticised the opposition for taking the time to properly scrutinise the legislation. So I have to say that the question the Australian people are entitled to ask is: when will the Greens grow up? When will the Greens mature as a political party and understand that the spending of such a huge amount of taxpayers’ money requires a full and comprehensive analysis. I will tell Labor and I will tell the Greens: that is what responsible government is all about.
Responsible government is something that we on this side of the chamber know all about. Responsible government is when a government are able to show to the people of Australia that they are good economic managers. What does that actually take? We proved that you can return a surplus. You can also, if you are prepared to take tough economic decisions, eliminate debt. That is something that those on that side of the chamber will never, in their wildest dreams, be able to stand in this place and say. When you are responsible economic managers, as we are on this side of the chamber, you actually understand what type of analysis needs to be undertaken to ensure that taxpayers’ money is properly spent. I am going to quote my colleague Senator Ryan here. As he has often said about the Labor Party, but it applies equally to the Greens, they have never seen a taxpayer’s dollar that they cannot spend, and then some.
Because this bill and these amendments are of such a significant financial nature, and because of the significance of the economic incompetence of those on the other side of the chamber, I will take this opportunity, as brief as it may be, to raise the question of accountability and openness when it comes to spending taxpayers’ money. Accountability and openness in government require those who exercise power whilst performing the functions of government to demonstrate in an open and practical sense that they are doing so with honesty, integrity, appropriate skill and judgment and that they have discharged their duty in a proper manner for the common good and in the public interest. Perhaps the worst aspects of dealing with the former Rudd government and the current Gillard Labor government are the lack of transparency and their adherence to secrecy, which has reached the stage of being almost all-consuming and dominating the Gillard Labor government’s agenda. The current Labor government and the current Prime Minister are unable to accept that secrecy in government breeds suspicion and suspicion breeds mistrust. That mistrust in the Gillard Labor government is extremely well-placed.
Every senator, as an elected member of the Senate, has fundamental constitutional and other rights conferred upon them which they are entitled to exercise in this chamber. There is no doubt that as a senator you have a fundamental right as an elected person to ask questions. Not only that; you are entitled to receive considered answers to those questions. That is something that the government and, in particular, the relevant minister would know nothing about. To enable the discharge of a senator’s constitutional duty, it is critical that the government answer the substance of the questions and the various issues that are raised. It is not good enough for a minister to come into this place and give an answer to a senator that seeks to avoid the very question that has been asked. It is not good enough for a government or the relevant minister in this case to refuse to answer questions, to refuse to table documents as required by the Senate and, in doing so, to reinforce the culture of secrecy that the community believes exists amongst this government. That is what we have seen in relation to the NBN: a complete lack of information being provided to the people of Australia and, indeed, to the Senate. That is why the coalition are moving so many amendments to this legislation. The reason we are moving them is that we cannot trust those on the other side.
When the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, was elected, one of the promises that she made to the Australian people—and we can clearly see that it has been broken in relation to the current legislation—was that she would open the windows and ‘let the sunshine in’. That was reported in the Sydney Morning Herald on 7 September—after the election—in an article with the banner headline ‘Let the sunshine in’. The article continues:
The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, says her minority government will be held to higher standards of accountability as a result of the deal struck with the independents.
… … …
“We will be held to higher standards of transparency and reform and it’s in that spirit I approach the task of forming a government.”
I refer to Senator Ludlam’s comments today in the chamber, in which he effectively criticised those on this side of the chamber for attempting to properly scrutinise this legislation. You are part of a government that the Prime Minister says will be held to higher standards of accountability. Again, on 7 September—at which time it was clear to the Labor Party that, now that they had formed this deal with the Independents, they would be in government—she said:
… let’s draw back the curtains and let the sun shine in, let our parliament be more open than it was before.
Today we are trying to scrutinise the biggest ever spend of taxpayer money on infrastructure in this country and we are being criticised.
It did not take Prime Minister Gillard very long to break her pre- and post-election promise that she would be subject to higher levels of accountability, that she would run a government that was open and transparent. This piece of legislation is the perfect example of the entrenched culture of secrecy on the other side. On an almost daily basis, this government makes out that it is transparent and accountable. Yet members of parliament on this side of the chamber come into this place day after day and ask questions of the minister about the NBN legislation, and we are given nonanswers.
In fact, it has got to the stage where the Labor Party will not even ask the relevant minister questions about the NBN. Any questions they have on the NBN they conveniently redirect to a minister in another portfolio—because they know that the minister is unable to answer any of our questions, which are legitimate, about this legislation.
I can hear the ‘zombies’ bleating like sheep on the other side of the chamber. Go back to zombie land; go back to where you came from. Any claim or assertion by this government that it is being transparent and accountable on the NBN is nothing more than hollow and cynical media spin that is undermining the democratic processes in this country.
This Senate is entitled to be properly informed. Relevant information about interests or issues that come before this parliament should be made available to us. In relation to this legislation, it is not.
The Gillard Labor government is a government that is full of pathetic excuses—and it has a lot of sheep in it that continue to bleat on the other side of the chamber. If this government was truly serious about winning, in the proper manner, the support of the parliament for its legislation, it would have been open, accountable and transparent from day one.
Instead of this, the government has provided today to the Australian taxpayer—after backing away from requiring certain senators to sign a seven-year confidentiality agreement in relation to any information they might be given on the NBN business case—what they like to call a ‘summary’ of the NBN business case. We all know it is actually a few scraps of information with some warm, fuzzy words and pretty little pictures. They deign to call that a ‘summary of a business case’! Australians are entitled to know the full details of the business plan for the spend of their taxpayer dollar. This government has a track record of being negligent when it comes to economic policy. It is incumbent on those on the other side to show the people of Australia exactly how they intend spending an inordinately large amount of taxpayer money.
I will be reasonably brief; I just thought I should address directly the coalition amendments that we are considering. I suppose I cannot help myself, but I want to provide a brief response to Senator Cash after that unusual little outburst. I have no difficulty whatsoever with the coalition providing scrutiny.
Perhaps the issue here is what we might define as ‘scrutiny’. Reading big slabs of Odgers Australian Senate Practice at us is not scrutiny. Tying us up with two or three hours of procedural blocking tactics is not scrutiny.
Opposition senators interjecting—
I will address my remarks to the coalition’s amendments. So far the coalition has failed to do that, but I am happy to address them and acknowledge that they have been put up in good faith in an attempt to improve the bill. I think Senator Macdonald used the phrase ‘gun to the head’, or it might have been Senator Cash. To a large extent these arguments, if they were ever genuine or relevant, probably are now moot and really have been set to rest. Telstra has made an agreement since the first iteration of this bill was drafted and debated briefly late last year and early this year. We now have a heads of agreement with Telstra and we have some quite substantive amendments to this part of the bill that make the gun to the head argument somewhat redundant.
Telstra have been working the building during the past couple of weeks urging people to pass the bill—and pass it as quickly as possible. It should also be acknowledged that the gun, if ever there was one, is holstered, shall we say, in the present version of the bill. It can only be placed at the company’s head by a legislative instrument, which this parliament may disallow. I hope that coalition senators are willing to acknowledge that if the minister was seen to be abusing this power of forced divestiture of some of Telstra’s assets it could be brought back to this parliament. That is a disallowable instrument and it is probably appropriate that it should be. That is an amendment to the second draft of the bill that we would support.
The incentive remains important though. The notion that Telstra would simply voluntarily structurally separate and that that was something they might be planning on doing anyway—giving up the market power that arose from its vertically integrated monopoly status—is quite clearly mistaken. I will quote Telstra’s own remarks on this point, from a couple of years ago now, from Mr Quilty at the Senate select committee that has been mentioned once or twice in this debate so far. On 11 November 2008 he said:
There is no doubt in the mind of Telstra management, and all of the analyst reports concur, that further separation of Telstra is not in our shareholders’ interests. We simply cannot contemplate it.
That was the situation that this government faced. The previous government—for the 12½ or 13 years under the coalition government—did nothing about this apart from privatise this entity and then watch it run amok and exercise its dominant market power as a vertically integrated monopoly. It is quite clearly its directors’ legal obligation to do so for the benefit of its shareholders. What an extraordinary change in the past two years from Telstra.
The current version of the bill, from my reading of it, also provides that Telstra may not need to divest itself of its HFC and Foxtel assets in order to retain access to 4G wireless spectrum. That now becomes discretionary; that is no longer automatic and again that is an amendment that we support, particularly in the context of the heads of agreement that was signed some months ago.
If the minister is satisfied that the structural separation undertakings sufficiently addresses the extent of Telstra’s market power, then that divestiture is no longer mandatory, it becomes discretionary. Hopefully this gives the coalition some comfort that the intention is not to protect NBN from fixed line competition, but it is rather to address Telstra’s horizontal integration. And in any case, if the government is not able to reassure parliament on this point, we can disallow the legislative instrument that permits the government to move what has been seen as quite a substantial intervention in the operations of a private company.
So we will not be supporting the coalition’s amendments. I would be delighted if any of the coalition senators want to actually address the subject of their amendments because perhaps there are merits there that would be worth pointing out to the chamber, and might even change somebody’s mind. But if they are simply going to be reading big slabs of Odgers at us until late into the evening, I will continue to call them on it because such a thing can in no way be considered scrutiny of a bill. It is quite simply wasting people’s time.
I am particularly interested in group 3 of these coalition amendments with respect to competition, ensuring the normal operation of the Competition and Consumer Act, and note also the group 4 amendments, merit review, regarding the reviews by the ACCC. They have a lot of merit. They make a lot of sense. The issue of procedural fairness in group 5 amendments are also very thoughtful.
But in the broad, what we have learnt today, as a result of the release of this flimsy 36-page summary of the 400-page business plan, is that the cost of the NBN to this country’s taxpayers is a global cost increase of $6.5 billion. You have the total capital expenditure on the NBN estimated at $35.7 billion provided the deal with Telstra goes through—and we will not know that for many months yet—and that Telstra deal will cost $13.8 billion. So you have the total cost being $49.5 billion, and that is up from the $43 billion. That is a huge increase, a huge impost on the taxpayers here in this great country of Australia.
One thing I do note in that summary document is the connection rates. In Tasmania, what we do know is that it is 11 per cent. Out of the 4,000 people in Midway Point, Scottsdale and Smithton, there has been an 11 per cent connection rate.
Yes, 11 per cent. It is not a very good record. Under the business plan they are expecting a signup rate of 69 per cent. Of course that is different again to the KPMG McKinsey report, for which the government paid $25 million, which had an 80 per cent signup rate. These figures are vastly different, and in Tasmania we know that so far it has been mismanaged. The maladministration has been something shocking with respect to the rollout of the NBN in Tasmania. I want to put on the record my strong support for the involvement of the Auditor-General to investigate the rollout of the NBN in Tasmania to date.
This government has injected—and this has been put on the public record many months ago—$100 million into the rollout in Tasmania and yet they refuse to say exactly how much the rollout has cost to date. They refuse to say the cost of the total rollout—what it will cost the budget. They refuse to say how much the federal government is putting in and how much the state government is putting in. Yet we heard last week that the joint venture agreement between the Tasmanian government, the federal government and Aurora Energy—the energy retailer in Tasmania—has collapsed. The minister has admitted and conceded it has been abandoned. That agreement was started in August last year when there were meetings to say, ‘We’re going to have this joint venture.’ They had this fancy, publicity-driven announcement with much fanfare and much media, saying, ‘Yes, this is a goer; it’s fantastic,’ and they got themselves on the front page. It is a hoax that has been foisted on the Tasmanian people. We have been used as a guinea pig for this enormous white elephant. This investment has been plagued with problems day after day from the start, with cost blow-outs, connection problems and dismal sign-up rates. They are just some of the problems affecting the project in the state of Tasmania.
Earlier last week, as I indicated, we were advised that the joint venture had collapsed. You have only 11 per cent out of the 4,000 homes around those three stage 1 towns. Only seven per cent, by the way, are actually active and operating. That is a very poor record indeed. Today we heard about the first school that was connected—again, with much fanfare by this government. Senator Conroy and Premier David Bartlett stand responsible. Premier Bartlett is up there today in Circular Head touting the merits of the program. The first school connected in Tasmania—in Smithton at Circular Head, north-west Tasmania—is reportedly having problems with reliability and connection speeds. This is public today. It has been referred to in this place. I commend the ABC for their report earlier today noting the concerns that have been expressed.
It has been a joke. Those responsible should hang their heads in shame with respect to the rollout in Tasmania to date. We have had problems with the Tasmania NBN board. Three directors were appointed. How long did they last? How long were they there for? They lasted one year. They were either sacked, terminated or their term expired. Some of them I know well and I admire. The principal place of residence, the registered company, is actually based at the NBN Co. headquarters in Melbourne. It is simply not working as was planned. It proves that they were not acting on any business plan; it was based on simply a few words on the back of an envelope, saying, ‘Let’s do it this way.’
This is a shameful display. What we need in Tasmania is an Auditor-General’s inquiry. Malcolm Turnbull and Andrew Robb have written to the Auditor-General. That letter was sent to him yesterday. I am on the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit, a very important committee. I hope that that letter is received positively and that that inquiry is undertaken as a matter of urgency. I do support these coalition amendments. I think they have great merit. I draw that to the attention of the Senate. I thank the Senate.
It is a great pleasure indeed to rise and support these amendments that are pressed on the Senate by the coalition. We do so because we think there is a very important principle involved here. When a government chooses to spend a great deal of taxpayers’ money—in this case perhaps $43 billion but in all likelihood a great deal more than that in light of what is in the part of this business plan we have seen. When a government spends so much taxpayers’ money it ought to be subject to scrutiny and it ought to be subject to oversight. It ought to be subject to the oversight of the parliament and it ought to be subject to the oversight of the agencies which have been established by governments over a long period of time to ensure transparency, to ensure that the objectives of the legislation are being achieved and to ensure that taxpayers’ money is being used for good purposes. That is what we have been aiming to secure and that is what these amendments seek to do.
These amendments seek to bring into the process from which the government has excluded them agencies such as the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. We are anxious to have this legislation looked at. We do this because we are highly sceptical of the capacity of this government to spend taxpayers’ money in a responsible fashion. We have many, many examples of absolute abject failure in this area. Let me just remind the Senate of the failings of the Building the Education Revolution program, a $1.5 billion blow-out; the Home Insulation Program, another $1 billion wasted; the laptops in schools program, a $1 billion blow-out; the broadband network first iteration, $4.7 billion, replaced now by a $43 billion plan; and the broadband tender process, $220 million or thereabouts. There is a list. Every senator in this place knows what this list contains and every senator in this place should be embarrassed by the consequences of it. This is not just an arcane idea. It is not just steps we ought to take because we want to feel warm and fuzzy about the way in which we conduct the nation’s business. There are some key principles here.
There are two issues that are raised by the need for scrutiny and oversight. The first is a sad observation about the place we have reached in this country with regard to this legislation. For 25 years a succession of governments have committed themselves to economic reform. They have committed themselves to reform which has produced higher levels of productivity in this country, and that has made Australia a much more competitive and effective actor in the international system. I think we have argued this point consistently: the progress made under that reform and the changes that have taken place over this 25-year period allowed Australia to come through the global financial crisis in the way it did.
Those were not just the reforms of the Howard government. In fact, one could argue reasonably persuasively that many of the most effective reforms, many of the reforms that actually made the difference, were those that took place under the Hawke and Keating governments. Those reforms introduced oversight and competition into Australia, where in the past, sadly, there had not been much. They enforced the principle that competition should be an elemental part of the Australian economy, and they set up the agencies which would be necessary for that to occur.
So we have had a process of reform over a long period of time which has been bipartisan. Yet the Rudd-Gillard government has now reached the point where it is retarding that process of reform. It is a sad commentary on the state of the nation, and, most particularly, on the capacity of this government to see the way forward into the future, that the government cannot appreciate that this piece of legislation, by excluding the scrutiny we seek and precluding competition—that is inherent in the way in which this bill has been drafted—will set back that process of reform.
All we need to do is to think about the way in which the mobile phone market has expanded as a result of competition, how it has affected prices and provided efficiencies in that overall market. That is an interesting example of the way in which competition, allowed to occur and properly regulated, can indeed produce a great deal of efficiency for the Australian nation.
But of course this is not an argument that just I am seeking to make. It is not an argument that is uncommon out there. I refer the Senate to what I thought was a very compelling article by Mr Michael Stutchbury which appeared in the Weekend Australian of Saturday, 20 November. He raised this question and made this point. The article is headed ‘Gillard at forefront of the slide back to the bad old days of regulation’. I would invite every senator—particularly government senators—to read this article and pay close attention to its contents—
and particularly you, Senator Lundy. You should pay close attention to its contents, because it actually provides a great deal of insight into the failures of this government and the consequences they are having for competition and productivity—most particularly productivity—in this country. In this article, Mr Stutchbury—eloquently, I thought—made this point:
Virtually none of the acceleration in real national income growth in the 2000s has come from productivity growth, which has slumped to the weakest on record.
He is making the point that we need to do more to improve productivity. And this is not just Mr Stutchbury’s view; he looks to a report by the OECD.
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development is a highly respected organisation. We all know that there have been frequent occasions when ministers of this government have come into this chamber and cited the OECD as an authority for the decisions which have been made—as a foundation, one of wisdom and insight, for the policy changes which they have introduced. So this is an organisation with street cred on not only this side but also that side of the chamber. In the article, Mr Stutchbury says:
… the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development says Labor must put the brakes on the NBN so it can rethink a business model that would stifle competition by imposing a government-owned fibre optic monopoly.
And the Productivity Commission has made an similar point. But, in the way in which it has introduced this legislation to the Senate and progressed the matter ever since it conceived this crazy idea, the government has sought to avoid the Productivity Commission scrutinising the legislation in ways which would be entirely appropriate.
Mr Stutchbury—eloquently, as I have said—goes on to make the point that:
… Labor’s NBN wholesale monopoly model legally kills off competition from Telstra’s existing copper network and its pay-TV cable while further limiting mobile cherry-picking.
He then cites the OECD. He says:
The OECD points to “multiple empirical studies” …
So this is not just something that has been thrown out as a wild possibility—something that is not necessarily relevant. He says that the OECD’s empirical studies:
… stress the pay-off from “competition between technological platforms”.
Here is an internationally respected organisation making a compelling case for the fact that, at the very heart of the productivity gains that we should be looking for in this country in the 21st century—particularly in the context of the introduction of new technologies—and at the very heart of the changes we make, we ought to have competition. And this bill absolutely denies that possibility; it denies us the chance to have that.
I think I heard earlier in the day my colleague Senator Ronaldson allude to—entirely appropriately, I thought—an article by Terry McCrann which appeared in the Courier-Mail this morning. Mr McCrann made a similar point about the costs and the failure to introduce competition into the network.
Mr McCrann’s credibility may not be very strong on the other side of the chamber, but there are other people who have a not dissimilar perspective. I cite once again the writing of Kevin Morgan in today’s Australian. Mr Morgan served on Kim Beazley’s ministerial committee on telecommunications reform. So, he is not a plant; he is someone who, one would think, has some credibility on the other side of the chamber. In his contribution to the debate, Mr Morgan asked:
Was it worth holding out for and is the sketchy outline of the NBN’s business case sufficient to warrant the independent senator, and indeed the Senate at large, supporting the passage of the most far-reaching changes seen in any telecommunications market?
He was asking the essential question. His answer is simple:
Scarcely. The summary adds little to our understanding of the economics of the NBN that is not already outlined in the $25 million McKinsey implementation study, other than to stress the importance to the NBN of an effective national monopoly.
As I have done in relation to Mr Stutchbury’s article, I commend this article to the Senate and, in particular, to those on the government side. Mr Morgan says that this $43 billion enterprise—or is it $50 billion or is it a greater amount of money?—if it works, will only have the capacity to return any money to the government because at its core is a monopoly. At the very core of this enterprise is legislation which precludes the thing which has made Australia competitive, the thing which has made Australia a strong economy in the context of a world where economies are failing. A commitment to reform by not just one government but a succession of governments has put Australia into a position of economic strength. At the very core of that, at the very least, has been a commitment to productivity gains and at the very core of those productivity gains has been the capacity of the economy to produce competition. That is what we ought to be thinking about as we pass this legislation, as we think about this legislation, as we contemplate the consequences of this legislation. We ought to be thinking about the consequences of depriving the telecommunications industry of competition. Competition is central to the progress we have made over the last 25 years and it allowed us to come through the GFC. (Time expired)
I would like to take a few minutes to respond to that contribution. I guess it is embarrassing to the opposition that the whole design of the National Broadband Network and the associated bills we are debating today is about the structure of industry. I think it is very important to understand that even the opposition spokesperson, Malcolm Turnbull, understands the relationship between structural separation and competition in telecommunications. The fact of the matter is that to structurally separate the telecommunications industry and build a wholesale-only, open-access fibre-to-the-home network to permit a competitive environment for retail service providers on that wholesale network is the absolute epitome of providing a competitive environment for telecommunications. In his contribution, Senator Trood lacked sufficient appreciation of a structurally separated telecommunications industry to even grasp the fundamentals of what we are debating today. Unfortunately, this is the character of the conversation that is occurring in this place.
I reiterate that we are investing in a National Broadband Network that will construct a world-class competitive environment. It is the model that nations aspire to but cannot have because of the way their incumbent telecommunications monopolies have embedded themselves in the market and protect their interests, in part, through a vertical relationship between wholesale and retail. The strength of our model is in fact the wholesale-only investment in the fibre-to-the-home network. Even a basic understanding of the debate before us today would have prevented Senator Trood and others from making such garbled presentations on the issues. This is the character of the debate. We are still waiting to hear a senator opposite address the opposition’s own amendments in any detail and with any understanding of the implications of the amendments or of what they are seeking to achieve. At the moment, there is basically a slogan about ‘removing the gun to Telstra’s head’. But, as I explained previously, that is not necessary anymore because of the changes that have occurred in the legislation.
I have undertaken to point out a couple of other points to expose the flaws in the arguments put by members of the opposition. Senator Trood’s speech was interesting because he tried to mount an argument that Labor was somehow responsible for reregulating not only the telecommunications sector but the economy in general. He put forward a fairly inconsistent presentation using quotes from the Weekend Australian as evidence of this reregulation. In fact, it is the opposite: by addressing the structure of the telecommunications industry in Australia we are able to resolve the mountainous regulation put in place by the former government, which attempted to over-regulate but found it very difficult—it was unsuccessful—because the industry structure had a vertical integration element that helped perpetuate the residual monopoly that Telstra had in our market, pushing the prices up.
These issues have been debated at length in this place for well over a decade. I remember well the telecommunications competition bills of 1997, which were the piece de resistance of the then new Howard government. I remember the mountain of legislation that sought to put in place what they claimed was the appropriate regulatory framework to stimulate competition. Senate inquiry after Senate inquiry demonstrated that the coalition’s attempt to regulate telecommunications failed dismally. Telstra was able to gain those regulations, retain its dominant position in the market and keep prices high. This was sustained because of the previous government’s motivation to help Telstra keep its price high in the interest of privatisation.
So I ask the opposition: get your speakers to come in here and address the issues at hand, the amendments that we are currently debating, with at least a basic understanding of what it is to structurally separate the telecommunications industry and the relationship that has with stimulating competition at the retail level, and we might be able to have a discussion that even listeners of this debate will be able to follow with some cohesion.
My final comment relates to mobile telecommunications and competition. There has been competition there, but the coalition cannot claim too much credit for that either. The competition in that sector was stimulated well before the Howard government and we have seen mobile telecommunications competition proliferate. So to argue that somehow there is an example in mobile telecoms and that this is analogous with what we need to do in the fixed infrastructure, the National Broadband Network, again exposes quite a hapless misunderstanding of what the regulatory environment of telecommunications needs to be. This is evidence of disjointed and inconsistent arguments being put by the coalition. I know they are poorly briefed, I know this stuff has a long history and I know it is subject to some quite detailed amendments being moved, but at least get your speakers to address the amendment.
I acknowledge the consummate knowledge of the parliamentary secretary on this facet. I have a couple of technical questions. In schedule 1, part 1, proposed sections 577BA (7), (8) and (10), with the statement that an action becomes authorised for the purposes of section (51)(1) of the Competition and Consumer Act, could the minister give an indication as to how those actions preclude a proper investigation by the ACCC as a deeming of compliance rather than actual compliance? Please tell me about that.
Could I recommend that Senator Joyce phrase the question rather than use the technical references in the amendments and address the issue at hand. Senator Joyce well knows that these changes do recognise the structurally separated nature of the industry and the arrangements that will promote competition, not restrict it, as he claims.
That is not an answer. I do not know quite what that response was. I direct you once more to the question, Minister. In proposed section 577BA, is there a deemed acceptance of section 51(1) of the Trade Practices Act, even though it might not necessarily be a compliance of section 51(1)?
I do have an explanation of how section 51 authorisation provisions in the bill will work. I will take the time now to respond to your question. Section 51 of the Competition and Consumer Act, currently the Trade Practices Act, provides that in determining whether a person has contravened part IV of that act certain matters must be disregarded, including anything specified in and specifically authorised by an act. So proposed section 577BA specifies and specifically authorises certain conduct for the purposes of section 51. These authorisation provisions are required due to the agreement that was reached between Telstra and NBN Co., as you well know, and the implementation of that agreement will provide for the progressive migration of services from Telstra’s copper and hybrid fibre coaxial cable networks to the National Broadband Network.
The purpose of authorising certain conduct under that agreement is that there could be scope for such an agreement to involve conduct by the two parties that could be argued to lessen competition when it is considered in isolation of the overall structural reforms delivered by the agreement. Therefore, in light of the role of the ACCC to consider the competitive impacts of the arrangements as part of its scrutiny of Telstra’s structural separation undertaking, the bill authorises the entering into of the agreement and associated conduct in the event that the ACCC accepts the undertaking. This will remove any need for a separate authorisation inquiry while still ensuring appropriate scrutiny by the ACCC of the agreement between Telstra and NBN Co., as set out in Telstra’s structural separation undertaking.
Under proposed sections 577BA(2) the bill authorises the giving by Telstra to the ACCC of a structural separation undertaking, a variation to a structural separation undertaking, a draft migration plan or a variation to a final migration plan. Furthermore, to allow for early preparatory work to commence in carrying out this historic structural reform of the telecommunications industry, the provisions under the proposed section 577BA also authorise certain matters before a structural separation undertaking comes into force. Please note, these are specifically proposed subsections 577BA(3), which provide that where Telstra and NBN Co. enter into a contract, arrangement or understanding prior to a structural separation undertaking coming into force, and the operative provisions in the agreement are subject to the condition precedent of a structural separation undertaking coming into force, then the entering into of that agreement by Telstra and NBN Co. is authorised. And if a written copy of the agreement was given to the ACCC by Telstra or NBN Co. before the ACCC had accepted the structural separation undertaking then conduct engaged in by Telstra and NBN Co. to give effect to that agreement is authorised after the structural separation undertaking has come into force.
Importantly, the requirement for the contract to be given to the ACCC—and I know this is specifically your area of concern and I think we have now addressed it—will allow the ACCC to scrutinise the agreements between Telstra and NBN Co. before the ACCC decides whether to accept the structural separation undertaking. Proposed subsections 577BA(4) and (5) also authorise certain matters before a structural separation undertaking comes into force. For the sake of completion I will continue, because these are specifically sections that provide that where Telstra and NBN Co. enter into a contract, arrangement or understanding prior to a structural separation undertaking coming into force and ‘the contract, arrangement or understanding contains a migration provision’, then the entering into of those agreements is authorised to the extent that the contract contains the migration provision and conduct engaged in by Telstra or NBN Co. in order to give effect to the migration provision is authorised unless the structural separation undertaking has been rejected by the ACCC or the structural separation undertaking has been accepted subject to the occurrence within a specified period of specified events and that period has ended without the structural separation undertaking coming into force.
It is important, I think, to clarify that a migration provision, which is defined under proposed subsection 577BA(11), relates to Telstra ceasing to supply services on its copper network or commencing to supply services on the NBN. In the situation where Telstra never lodges a structural separation undertaking, the authorisation of certain conduct will cease when an in-force functional separation undertaking is in place. This is set out under proposed paragraph 577BA(5)(g). This means that the authorisation will not continue once it is clear that Telstra is not proceeding with its structural separation undertaking. Once the ACCC has scrutinised and accepted Telstra’s structural separation undertaking and, if applicable, its migration plan and these arrangements have come into force, the legislation authorises certain conduct performed in order to comply with those documents.
Proposed subsection 577BA(6) and (10) authorise conduct engaged in by Telstra in order to comply with an in-force structural separation undertaking or an in-force migration plan. In addition, the acquisition of an asset by Telstra by a person specified by Telstra in an in-force structural separation undertaking is authorised under proposed subsection 577BA (7), where disposal of that asset is required in order for Telstra to comply with its structural separation undertaking. I trust you are following all of this, Senator Joyce. Where Telstra and NBN Co. enter into a contract, arrangement or understanding in order that Telstra complies with an in-force structural separation undertaking then under proposed subsection 577BA (8) the entering into of that contract, arrangement or understanding is authorised and conduct engaged in by Telstra or NBN Co. to give effect to that contract, arrangement or understanding is authorised.
For further clarity, under subsection 577BA (9) the minister is also empowered to determine by legislative instrument that the entering into of a particular contract, arrangement or understanding between Telstra and NBN Co. was required in order for Telstra to comply with an in-force structural separation undertaking. The purpose of this subsection is to provide certainty to both Telstra and NBN Co. by providing a mechanism for the minister to ensure that a contract falls within the scope of that authorisation. However, the minister’s determination under subsection (9) is a legislative instrument, so each house of the parliament can disallow the minister’s authorisation of the contract. This provides for appropriate parliamentary scrutiny of the minister’s exercise of this power.
Structural reform of the telecommunications sector, as we all know, is in the national interest, and these provisions take into account the ACCC’s role in considering the competitive impacts of the arrangements between Telstra and NBN Co. while also giving Telstra and NBN Co. the necessary certainty to move ahead with the agreed arrangements. I therefore hope, Senator Joyce, that this detailed response to your question, which is about clarity on the operation of section 577BA, satisfies your query and puts your mind at rest that there is nothing in this act that is cause for concern. The specificity of the provisions have now been outlined for your benefit. If you have any further questions, that is fine, but I think the detailed explanation has now been provided.
A detailed explanation was provided—but not by you. It was by the person who wrote that speech. The only part I disagreed with was your closing statement, which said, ‘I hope this puts your mind at ease.’ Because of your consummate knowledge in the subject matter, I want you to put, in your own words, whether you believe that the full coverage by the ACCC has been in any way inhibited by the provisions of this act as pertinent to the arrangement between NBN Co. and Telstra.
I think it is very important for Senator Joyce to understand that he now has an answer to the question he asked and yet he is seeking to play some kind of game in the chamber. Senator Joyce, you well know that the provisions of this bill are incredibly detailed. I have just read out a very formal response to a very specific question by you, and I trust it satisfies you.
As to the overarching satisfaction of this regime, it is built on a structurally separated National Broadband Network and I know for a fact that the National Party understands the importance of structural separation as far as resolving the many problems in the telecommunications sector are concerned. Indeed, it is in your constituents’ interests that we get the industry structure right. I recall several investments by the National Party in trying to respond to the question of appropriate competition, appropriate competitive policy safeguards and appropriate consumer safeguards, and I am absolutely flabbergasted that you come into this chamber opposing this legislation in the way that you do.
As I said, if you want to play silly games that is up to you. I think everyone listening to this debate will understand that your question has been fully answered and your query satisfied, leaving you absolutely no grounds to sustain your opposition on this particular point.
Quod erat demonstrandum, obviously. Minister, I am absolutely convinced that you have not got a clue what you are talking about. That was a remarkable nonanswer from a crowd who have not got a clue. They are clueless. A trained monkey could do as good a job as what we just heard then; probably better.
It is really simple. You believe that the full operation of the ACCC is impeded by the agreement between Telstra and NBN Co., or it isn’t? I am going to make it really simple for you, Minister: it is yes or no. It is a really simple answer. Just have a crack at it.
I have responded at length and in detail to Senator Joyce. He can stand up and say, ‘Answer my question.’ The question is the provision of the bill, and I have outlined it. So there is nothing more to say about it. I suggest Senator Joyce tries and addresses the actual amendments that are before the chamber. Are you going to bother doing that, Senator Joyce? I suspect not.
Let me remind the senator what the amendments are that we are actually debating. They are opposition amendments. The opposition claim there is a gun held to Telstra’s head around these issues. That is actually not the case. I responded in the opening remarks—if you had bothered to be in the chamber, seeing we’re playing that game this afternoon—as to why the opposition amendments are no longer necessary to address this specific point. We are yet to hear Senator Joyce address the opposition’s specific amendments. It has been a day for games; it is a day that is continuing with games from the opposition. As Senator Joyce well knows, the answer to his question was contained in my detailed response. I do not accept—
I have, at length. The answer is what I read out to you as to how those provisions of the act will operate to address how the agreement between Telstra and NBN Co. and the migration issues are going to be dealt with. Senator Joyce, come in here and hoot and holler all you like. We are trying to progress the bills. You are obviously the opposition’s latest tactic in delaying consideration of these amendments. I was going to say I do not think you are enhancing the credibility of the opposition, but you actually do not have any on these bills—hooting and hollering, throwing abuse across the chamber and demanding answers to questions that you have just received a complex answer to, which you perhaps do not understand.
I know the Hansard will be available in a few hours or so and you can review the response I gave to you. I think you know the answer is there and you are just coming in here to waste a bit more time. You can stand up again have a hoot and a holler, but it is not progressing the debate. I think it shows the ongoing immaturity of the opposition’s handling of these bills.
I know the answer is there; it is just that you do not know where it is. That is the whole point. You read out that whole palaver, when it was an extremely simple question: whether section 51 part (1) and the ACCC’s capacity for oversight over that, has been impeded, yes or no? You cannot answer it because you have not got a clue. All you can give is some babble that has been handed to you by the gentleman sitting immediately to your left. If you do not understand what on earth you are talking about, what on earth are you doing sitting there?
I will direct you back to some of the other things you said. You said there is a capacity to disregard. You also said it would be deemed to be a reduction in competition. You also talked about how it would be resolved by disallowance. One would presume that that would mean that the minister has a discretion which impedes the full and total operation of the ACCC in its ability to oversight section 51 part (1). I am trying to help you out with your own answer, Minister, because you are struggling a little bit.
Far from it. In fact, if Senator Joyce had any clue he would understand that I responded to him in the most comprehensive way possible. What I in fact did, Senator Joyce, was outline precisely what the bill does in relation to the provisions in those proposed sections for the ACCC to scrutinise and approve the competitive impacts of the agreement between Telstra and the NBN Co.
I refer you back to the overall approach of the National Broadband Network, which is to create—wait for it—a wholesale only, open access fibre-to-the-home network. In providing that network, the ACCC, specifically will consider the competitive impacts of the Telstra and NBN Co. arrangements as part of its scrutiny of Telstra’s structural separation undertaking. So, contrary to your outburst, the answer explained in detail how the ACCC responds to that agreement.
It is painful to listen to for many people. Senator Joyce came in here and attempted to ask a specific question, hoping to catch the government out on the specific requirements, I am sure. He got a detailed answer but cannot absorb it and cannot interpret it. I have explained that the ACCC has a specific role to play and I have described exactly what that is. If that is not enough, or you are just here to make your simplistic political point, that is fine, but you have the answer. If you are incapable of understanding the detailed provisions of the relationship between the ACCC and its consideration of the competitive impacts of the Telstra and NBN Co. arrangements as part of its scrutiny, that is your problem not the government’s.
Far from being impeded, it is managed by this bill in a way that recognises the NBN Co. and Telstra arrangement. These provisions are detailed and comprehensive, and I outlined them. Senator Joyce is coming in here, trying to justify the cheap political point he has been making all week that somehow competition is undermined. It is obvious that the ACCC will have a role in scrutinising this agreement. He has come in here just to, I suspect, do his shift and kill another 15 minutes of debating time for this bill. He has left the chamber, so obviously he is not able to absorb the information with enough nous to come back and have a follow-up question, perhaps about the detailed function of these provisions. Quite frankly, that is probably because I gave such a detailed response and he has nowhere left to go.
I will just sum up on behalf of the opposition. I think it is Joyce one, the government nil, after the last 15 minutes. I am not going to expand that further except to say in relation to these amendments that it is a gun to the head of Telstra. It is simply not good enough for the government to say, ‘Well, there’s been an agreement in relation to this matter.’ Quite frankly, to hold a gun to the head of a publicly listed company in the way that has been done by the government is indefensible, and that is why we are opposed to the government’s approach in relation to this matter and why we have moved the amendments.
I rise in support of the bill. I want to take up where I left off on this issue yesterday—that is, the importance of having modern broadband in Australia for future generations. What we have heard today is the wrecking ball of the Liberal Luddites on the other side of the chamber. They want to argue that we should continue with copper wire that is decaying, copper wire that is not providing proper broadband services to this nation. If we continued and we accepted the Luddite approach of the opposition, the capacity for this country to compete internationally in a modern economy would be nil, because to compete internationally you need access to the best technology.
What do the opposition say? They say, as they said for 11½ years, ‘We should just wait and see what happens; in five or six years time there might be a new technology that will make everything better.’ We all know—we do not all know; probably the opposition do not know—that the technology we are proposing is the technology of the future. It is the technology that will take this country forward. But you are not interested in taking the country forward. You want the country to continue to have the worst technology, a decaying technology, a technology that requires millions and millions of dollars to maintain. It is not—
Madam Temporary Chairman, on a point of order: I am just wondering, during this extraordinary filibuster, whether Senator Cameron could even mention remotely the details and what is involved in the amendments—just for a nanosecond.
I have heard some wide-ranging debate here, some debate, certainly from the opposition, that does not make much sense. I am just trying to bring this back to what the realities are for this nation in terms of its productivity, its international efficiency and being able to provide the Australian community with the best possible access to the technology of the future—and what is that? That is the NBN.
Yet all we have heard from the other side are attempts to wreck it. We heard Senator Joyce today. You have only to go back to what Senator Joyce said last week, and that is—it is no secret—that not only is this about trying to destroy one of the greatest and most effective propositions that this country has seen and that will take us into the new technology approach, but that it is also quite clear that the opposition see an opportunity to try and destroy the government through trying to destroy the NBN. That is what it is all about, and we know why that is: they are extremely unhappy because they are still sitting on the opposition benches. The Australian public were not prepared to put them in government, and they were not prepared to do that because they knew that the opposition were not prepared to embrace the technology of the future, and the technology of the future is the National Broadband Network.
Those opposite would see the regions of Australia denied access to high-speed broadband simply for their own political objectives—very base objectives, let me say. They are objectives that have nothing to do with the national interest; they are simply about trying to destroy a major initiative for this country and trying to destroy a government that has some vision about where we go on technology—a government that recognises that young people in this country, businesses in this country and consumers in this country should have the best. But what would the opposition do? They would say to wait until we see some fairytale technology appear on the horizon, and that fairytale technology will be the technology that supersedes the National Broadband Network. They know that is a nonsense. They know that is not a credible proposition. They know that is simply about the worst type of politics—trying to stop a major initiative on broadband for this country.
Telstra, we are being told, has a gun at their heads. The only gun that is being held to anyone’s head is the gun that the coalition are holding to the heads of the Australian community. They are holding a gun to the heads of the Australian community by denying them access to the best technology.
I do go into the bush now and again. As I said yesterday, one of the areas I look after is New England, and the engineering businesses in New England want their businesses to have the same access that businesses in Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide and the other capital cities have. They want to be able to compete from regional Australia. They want to build regional Australia for the future and they want to do that through the National Broadband Network. They know and they accept that there is only one party that has the way forward for the future of this economy, and that is the Australian Labor Party. The Luddites in the Liberal Party would walk away from or destroy new technology if they thought that gave them a competitive political position. Well, we are not about competitive political positions. We are about the national interest, and it is about time the opposition put the national interest before their base political interests. The national interest is about dragging this country—after 11½ years of economic and technological incompetence on the part of the Liberal-National coalition—into the new century and into a position where we can compete internationally with companies around the world.
That is the benefit of the National Broadband Network. The National Broadband Network delivers. It delivers for the community, for business and for the nation. And the opposition would walk away from that. That is what we have seen demonstrated here.
We had Senator Joyce on his feet. I do not know what Senator Joyce’s expertise is. He certainly has no financial expertise; that is why he was sacked as economic spokesperson for the coalition. He is now demonstrating that he has no competence and no understanding, absolutely no idea, of what is needed in this country in terms of the technology of the future. Senator after senator on the other side have stood in here and demonstrated that they are prepared to put their political interests before the interests of the nation.
I want the community in New England, the community in Tamworth and the community in Armidale to have access to the best broadband available. That is what we need. We need appropriate technology, good technology, the best technology available, to make sure that we can compete internationally. Those opposite are not interested in competition. You actually proved that over the 11½ years in which you sat back and did nothing in terms of the challenges that were facing this country. But you have the hide, the cheek, to come in here and lecture us about what we are doing. What we are doing is acting in the national interest. What we are doing is making sure that we can compete internationally. What we are doing is making sure that the national interest comes first.
Let the record show that about 10 minutes ago I summed up effectively on behalf of the opposition on these amendments and then, having been abused all day for filibustering, Senator Cameron got up and filibustered for 10 minutes. So, to use his words, it is cheeky to come in here and lecture us, Senator Cameron. I will now sit down again and I will be fascinated to see whether somebody else jumps up to filibuster. Let us put it to the test. You had the opportunity and you started filibustering. Let us put this to the test, as I sit down, and we will see who is going to jump.
I cannot let Senator Ronaldson’s making of such a pompous statement go past when we have spent about six hours fighting to get even to this debate and then having to endure not only so many contributions through the course of the afternoon that are informed by a complete misunderstanding of the topic at hand but also speaker after speaker, on behalf of the coalition, coming in here to fill up time. I am completely empathetic with my colleague Senator Cameron to feel the need to come and throw back some of the ridiculous rhetoric that has been served up to the government from across the chamber.
It is clear the opposition are taking this as a game. It is clear they are trying to prevent the consideration of this bill. We saw some 2½ hours of specific motion moving this morning to delay this debate to even begin on the procedures. We find ourselves now with this mock outrage. They are so bored in their tactics that they think, ‘Oh well, we’ll just come in and put our amendment for once.’ It is quite absurd. It brings this whole chamber down. Unfortunately, that reflects on all of us, not just the shameless members of the opposition.
Given we have had such a lack of clarity on the opposition amendments, I think it is entirely appropriate to ask Senator Ronaldson to reiterate the detail of why they believe these amendments are necessary. We are actually discussing opposition amendments. I know that has not been obvious because we have not had any contention put forward by the opposition as to why their amendments should be supported, so I will assist the opposition. They have moved their amendments (1) to (17), (24), (33) to (40), (43), (45) to (57), (64) and (65) related to spectrum, undertakings about hybrid fibre coaxial networks and subscription television broadcasting licences. They have not been able to present arguments as to why they support these amendments. I have, nonetheless, responded in detail to why these amendments are no longer necessary, but we have heard no arguments as to why they are. We have also had the opportunity, through the course of the debate on these amendments, to respond in detail to questions about how the reforms promote competition and why it is necessary, in the provision of proposed section 577A, for the ACCC to scrutinise and approve the competitive impacts of the deal between NBN Co. and Telstra as it relates to structural separation undertakings and the migration to new networks. But we get nothing from the opposition. Who is your spokesperson for telecommunications in the Senate, anyway? Is that you, Senator Ronaldson?
I am sorry. Out of interest, I ask the opposition, through the chair, who the spokesperson is for telecommunications. I would be interested to know why you are moving these amendments, given that we have provided satisfactory responses as to why they are no longer necessary.
Telstra and telecommunications generally is not an area of involvement in which I have spent a great deal of time in the last seven or eight years, although it is one of those areas I do have a nodding familiarity with, having had some frontbench responsibilities for it a long time ago—before most people in this chamber came into this chamber—between 1998 and 2001. In those days a long discussion went on about a range of telecommunications matters. I do not want to visit the subject of those discussions and those debates long past, because those were the long, lonely, weary days of the Howard government when there was a range of matters rammed through time and time again. I do remember in those days when we sat on those terrible hard benches over there that there were protracted debates on a range of topical issues of the day. I remember there was a clear distinction. I remember now, having watched this debate for the last five to six hours today, a clear distinction and a clear difference in approach between—
Madam Temporary Chair, on a point of order: I am fascinated to hear Senator Bishop’s life story in the Senate, but there is some legislation in front of the chamber at the moment dealing with the National Broadband Network. I would like to return to that subject matter, if we may.
Madam Temporary Chair, on the point of order: we have been listening to this all day. In the context of the wide-ranging nature of the debate we have listened to, I think it is entirely amusing that Senator Humphries would call to mind a point of order in this debate. Senator Bishop is talking about the debate and the process and I think he is entirely within his rights.
Thank you, Madam Temporary Chair, I do appreciate the tact with which you chair the committee and the guidance you have given to speakers in this debate in such a fine professional fashion. The point I was developing was that the debates in the telecommunications area, having to do with ABC, spectrum, SBS, the privatisation of Telstra and a range of other matters in those days, were long technical debates. The distinction between the persons who participated in those debates in those days and those who participate on the part of the opposition today—mainly new, it must be conceded—was that in those days we had a clear view of the role of public policy and a clear view of the role of public enterprise fitting within a market economy in bringing benefits and concessions to those who most needed them in rural and regional Australia.
Today, when one considers the range of contributions that senators from Western Australia and New South Wales have made in debating the amendments before the chair, the one clear and salient factor that every speaker from the opposition has chosen to avoid—for reasons that are not clear to me—is that when this bill goes through we will have the structural separation of Telstra into retail and wholesale, and broadband will be laid out to Australian homes in the most cost-effective manner. We will have coverage from the most modern communications technology for something like 96 or 97 per cent of the Australian population.
Senator Back tried to make a big deal about there being a limited number of towns in Western Australia with populations of fewer than 1,000 that would not immediately benefit from the spread of the new broadband network. The fact is—and this needs to be put on the record—that something like 96 per cent of the population of the state of Western Australia will have immediate and improved access to the most modern telecommunications when the fibre is laid to their homes. You cannot ask for a better benefit than that: 96 per cent of the population will have the most modern communications system connected to their homes.
There was some commentary earlier that people on that side, I suspect, were trying to filibuster and delay debate for reasons not clear to me, but I am happy to surrender and let others on that side perhaps raise new and additional points that we can consider in due course, because that is clearly their intent. They do not want to waste time and we do not want to waste time. I have only spoken for five minutes and I would be happy to resume in the debate later—I have one or two other points to raise—but at the moment I am happy to surrender.
We are still waiting for an answer from the opposition, who are the movers of the amendments to the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer Safeguards) Bill 2010 on sheet 7004. I think that the question at hand deserves to be answered because, as I said, we have heard many unrelated contributions this afternoon and I am not surprised my colleagues feel compelled to respond to some of them. I have responded in detail as to why these amendments are not necessary, including the so-called ‘gun to Telstra’s head’ that is the subject matter of the amendments before us.
As I said before, there is no longer an automatic prohibition on the acquisition of spectrum if Telstra does not structurally separate and divest its interests in its HFC network and Foxtel. The government has been at great pains to amend the bill to ensure that Telstra has sufficient regulatory certainty to take a firm proposal to its shareholders to structurally separate by allowing Telstra to acquire specific bandwidth spectrum. I placed all of this on the record before. I am interested in a response from the opposition as to why they want to persist with these amendments. I think it is very clear they do not need to and I think we deserve an opportunity to get their response.
I also think it is timely to revisit the whole issue of the detail of the regulations we are discussing. Contrary to everything the opposition have said in the chamber today and their associated attempts to delay the discussion of this legislation, they have taken the approach of depriving the chamber of a detailed conversation about the amendments. We are now asking the opposition to justify their amendments, given the government has responded to the concerns they expressed. In the absence of that, I feel the responsibility to further expose the political motivations of the coalition in how they are handling these bills. I revert to comments made by Senator Joyce earlier in the week. The comments were not made during a debate about the bill. They ought to have been, but the comments were on a motion that the coalition moved to talk about the NBN, even though they did not want to discuss the actual bill. In that contribution by Senator Joyce earlier in the week, I confess he was a little provoked by government senators who were challenging him across the floor about the shallow nature of his contribution. But Senator Joyce did Australia a great favour, and today I want to thank Senator Joyce for telling the people of Australia that the coalition’s motivation for their opposition to these bills actually has nothing to do with structural separation.
We know the National Party were advocates of structural separation because they knew it would respond to some of the anticompetitive elements, aspects and characteristics of telecommunications in Australia under which their constituents have suffered. No, what Senator Joyce shared with all Australians and us in the chamber was that their opposition to these bills and to NBN Co. was about bringing the government down. He stated on the record that he thought the only reason Labor was in power was the NBN. Whether that is true or not, I know that it was the subject of some discussion during the period of negotiations and the formation of the minority government, but I have no doubt that it was a significant policy in the minds of Australians when they voted. Frankly, it is a policy that the vast majority of Australians want and need. In this chamber, Senator Joyce made very clear their opposition to these bills was not about the detail and it was not about this feigned protection of the competition structure. We know that is not true because our structurally separated wholesale only National Broadband Network with fibre to the premises addresses all of those concerns. But we know that Senator Joyce has a propensity to fly off at the hip and he really did let the cat out of the bag for the whole of the coalition.
Every time we come into this chamber to discuss the telecommunications bills, I remember it took us 5½ hours of actual procedural debate to bring this bill on that we find ourselves now debating amendment by amendment. I think it is also very important to understand, as far as Senator Joyce’s contribution here today goes, that he tried to purport that somehow the government was being negligent and the competitive provisions around handling the agreement with NBN Co and Telstra were somehow deficient. He knows full well that section 577BA specifically authorises certain conduct for the purposes of section 51 because NBN Co and Telstra do need to make an arrangement that will make the implementation of a National Broadband Network that is wholesale only, fibre to the premises, independently regulated and open access function efficiently. We know that it was the coalition that argued so strongly in the public domain for an arrangement to occur whereby Telstra and NBN Co came to such an agreement. It is hypocritical for them to then criticise the very provisions of the Trade Practices Act that are designed to manage that agreement between NBN Co and Telstra so effectively. Senator Joyce’s attempts to make cheap points on this issue are thoroughly exposed by the fact that once the answer was provided he had nowhere to go but to stand up and hoot and holler.
I would like to reflect on my colleagues’ contributions and the contributions of those opposite. It is frustrating for the government to have to endure misleading contributions by members of those opposite through the course of this debate. We have heard all sorts of big numbers bandied about and, despite more realistic figures being released into the public domain today, we have had no fewer than four different speakers from the coalition continue to use not only the $43 billion figure but higher figures—$50 billion, $53 billion, $57 billion, I think I heard at one point, I cannot remember—which they are making up. Information about the likely cost of the NBN is clearly on the public record, so to continue to bandy those higher figures around is irresponsible, misleading and unconstructive to the debate.
I also think that in providing those unconstructive comments we need to go to the heart of the confidence in this technology. I have been on many inquiries. I am even sick of saying that because people know how many inquiries my colleagues, the opposition and the crossbenchers have participated in over the years. But to come in here and assert that fibre is not the technology of the future or that somehow it will be outmoded in just a few years, as Senator Back did, is irresponsible in the extreme. It is unfortunate because what it tells the people of Australia is that you have a government, on the one hand, committed to the detail, to an elegant market structure that is structurally separated, addressing the vast majority of concerns about anticompetitive behaviour, and an opposition, on the other hand, that cannot even grasp the fundamentals or the facts and mount a debate or an argument.
In addition, they have also been incredibly inconsistent in the way they present their arguments. On the one hand, they say there should be less regulation. They fail to acknowledge that a structurally separated market allows for less regulation because so much of the competitive structure in stimulating competition at the retail level is dealt with by virtue of structural separation. They fail to grasp that most basic point and mount an argument for less regulation. We heard today, I think it was Senator Trood who came in here and mounted an argument to say that we were re-regulating with these bills. Clearly there is an absence of knowledge such that I think inevitably, unfortunately, the people of Australia who are listening to this debate can only conclude that people are not properly briefed and that we do not take our work seriously. I think from the contribution of senators opposite that it is reasonable that some people draw that conclusion about the opposition.
I think the other feature of this debate over many, many years has been that we all know where we needed to end up with structural separation. Senator Xenophon made a strong point in his presentation earlier about unscrambling the egg. It is difficult when the egg that we are unscrambling is about decades of regulation in trying to regulate a structurally imperfect industry. It is incredibly hard to do that but, because of Labor’s commitment and understanding of the importance of a national economic infrastructure for the future, we have been able to do it with our NBN policy. It is complex and there are some big issues to grapple with, but we are doing it step by step as we progress the National Broadband Network policy.
This is one piece of legislation. There will obviously be others. This one deals with the structural separation issues and takes into account, as the coalition demanded, the issues around the NBN Co. and Telstra agreement. I cannot fathom, as I said, why they would oppose it given it is such an important step in addressing all the things they feign to be concerned about.
That is where we go full circle back to Senator Joyce’s arguments. It is not about telecommunications, it is not about internet connectivity, it is not about bandwidth; it is about senators opposite thinking that they have a right to govern. They cannot get over the fact that our excellent NBN policy may have been a factor in determining our visionary policy for the whole of the nation. The visionary nature of this policy sits at the heart of regional Australia too. I note with interest that the coalition would send their regional spokespeople in to say that this is going to abandon the needs of regional Australians, and it is going to cost too much.
The fact of the matter is that regional Australia needs high-bandwidth services. The businesses, commerce and the farmers will tell you about the latency problems with their satellite connections. So we do need an investment in the next generation of satellite to soak up and address the demands of those on farms. But we know that regional Australia’s needs will be served by the NBN, whereas no policy under the former coalition government addressed these concerns.
Back to the coalition amendments that are currently before us: they are amendments that are addressing a problem that no longer exists. So I say to those opposite: have you considered withdrawing your amendments given that I have explained in detail that we have responded to them so comprehensively? Do you think that, in your efforts to amend this bill, by addressing the facts of the matter you might have been motivated to restore even a smidgeon of credibility to the stance that you are taking on this bill? I think the reasonable observation of commentators who are following this debate is that your representatives contributing to the debate not only have little understanding or knowledge about the history, background and nature of the industry structure and how it relates to competition but care little for the crucial economic and social infrastructure that the National Broadband Network will provide. I think it is unfortunate.
I am glad Senator Joyce has come back into the chamber, because I was talking early on about Senator Joyce and about how grateful we are to him for letting the cat out of the bag. But it is not about the merits of this legislation and how it relates to the structure of the telecommunications industry; it is, in fact, about the political tactics of a desperate opposition who want to try and stop the passage of a piece of legislation that, in general, is symbolic of the NBN and looks at some of the aspects of the relationship in the Telstra and NBN agreement and how it responds to the competition framework. It addresses many of the issues in relation to the structure of the industry, and I think it is a very important piece of legislation to progress the framework in which the NBN will function in the future.
It would be very wise, Senator Sterle, for you to be quiet. I have a question for Senator Lundy: did you or did you not say to Senator Xenophon—I overheard it before—that you were talking it out and you had been instructed to talk it out but you did not know why? Did you use words to that effect to Senator Xenophon? Senator Lundy, I want you to think very clearly about this and I want you to stand up if you did not.
That is right. I ask Senator Lundy through the chair to stand up and deny that what I overheard her say to Senator Xenophon is correct—that indeed you had been told to talk it out and you did not know why. On the back of the commentary that has been made during the day about an alleged filibuster, I remind you that I effectively asked for this question to be put nearly an hour ago. I also remind the chamber that Senator Parry, at 10 minutes past six, tried to move a motion that the question be put. So will the record please show that the opposition has made it quite clear that we want to get these amendments through? Will it be shown on the public record not only that the Labor Party have not done that but that they have acknowledged an attempt to talk it out? I assume Senator Lundy will jump up in a second and refute it if it is not true, but if she remains sitting there then we will know that it is. What is the fix? What fix is on that has caused you to filibuster for the last three-quarters of an hour? What filibuster is on for Senator Lundy to say to Senator Xenophon that she does not know why but she has been told to talk it out? What is the fix?
I indicate to the senator that what we are saying is that we want Senator Lundy to answer the question: why are you filibustering—through you, Madam Chair? Why did you say to Senator Xenophon that you have to talk it out but you do not know why? You have been instructed to talk it out but you do not know why—those were the comments you made to Senator Xenophon. What is going on? Who is getting shaky? What deal has been done? What dirty deal has been done outside this chamber? There are the sorts of dirty deals we have seen with the Australian Greens over the last three months. What dirty deals have been done? Why are you filibustering? We have the acknowledgement by Senator Sterle that the Labor Party is filibustering. The public record will say so. Senator Lundy, I am looking forward to you rising and refuting the question that I have put to you.
I feel provoked, because what we are dealing with here is someone who purports to have such big ears, and now I feel compelled to say to the senators opposite that if this is the best you can do to answer these questions then you are completely and utterly exposed. Not only do the opposition have ample opportunity to stand here and respond to the specific questions about their amendments, but they choose not to.
Madam Temporary Chairman, on a point of order: I draw to your attention that Senator Lundy refuses to refute the matters that I have put to her about her conversation with Senator Xenophon. Yes or no?
I cannot assist the Senate on the speculation that has arisen. I think journalists are already speculating as to why there has been a delay, but the delay has nothing to do with me. In future I think I will need to whisper in the chamber, but that does not mean that what has been put is necessarily completely accurate in terms of verbatim.
Senator Ronaldson calls me a scallywag, so I will take that—I have been called worse. Senator Ronaldson, I think your game-playing in this chamber is reaching new heights. There are certain courtesies and protocols that need to be acknowledged but that you have breached, and I—like Senator Xenophon—am not confirming anything, despite your allegations. The issue at hand, I reiterate, is that I have asked the opposition why they are persisting with a series of amendments that have been comprehensively responded to and are no longer necessary. We are yet to get a decent answer from the coalition about their putting forward of these amendments. I suspect that they do not have anyone in the chamber capable of explaining why their amendments are so important, now that they have an answer from the government as to why they are no longer necessary.
It is important to understand that the coalition have spent 5½ hours getting to this debate, and they have now thrown their hands up in glee and delight, saying, ‘We must put this amendment.’ We have a right as a government to make clear our position, and there are only so many untruths and misrepresentations that can be put forward by coalition senators about the National Broadband Network. I am sure my colleagues understand why I feel compelled to talk about why the NBN is so important to Australia.
We are dealing with the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer Safeguards) Bill 2010. This bill sets a regulatory framework that is an important precondition for the NBN Co. and Telstra arrangement because it addresses structural separation and the issues surrounding the new structure of the industry that will exist when the NBN is built. For some unfathomable reason, the opposition have decided to oppose this bill. We are now in the midst of a series of detailed amendments in the committee stage, yet the opposition cannot answer the question of why they are persisting with amendments that seek to address problems that do not exist.
Madam Acting Deputy President, on a point of order: is this prattle going to be concluded by reason of Senator Evans and Senator Conroy now being here? Will whatever you are prattling on about soon come to a conclusion?
The National Broadband Network, as it is envisaged and being built by this government, will service the demand for bandwidth into the future. I remember reflecting some years ago on how poorly Australia was faring if you looked at, to take one measure, the OECD ratings; but perhaps a more important measure was the actual experience of citizens of this country. Some years ago I embarked upon a campaign called the pair gain victims campaign. I know Senator Joyce has a great appreciation of this campaign, because many of his constituents were so affected. The pair gain victims campaign was about recognising the physical constraints of the existing copper network. It took a long time and several inquiries, but a realisation was dawning on everybody in this place that the copper network was not going to support Australia’s bandwidth needs into the future.
Surprise, surprise, it was not long before this was confessed by Telstra themselves when they said on the public record. ‘We acknowledge that our network is at “five minutes to midnight”’. They were acknowledging that that network would not support Australia’s future needs, and yet that same telecommunications company, which had a residual monopoly in that physical terrestrial network, were not prepared to invest in the new technology that would sustain the next generation. Before embarking upon the NBN policy, we tested the market to give the market an opportunity to respond to the future needs of this country. The market was incapable of responding to the future needs of this country, and that was the precondition for developing our National Broadband Network policy.
‘Scrutiny and oversight’ were the terms used by coalition senators earlier when, clamouring for the release of the business case—which everybody knows will be released in the future—they said, ‘They ought to be subject to scrutiny and oversight.’ The fact about the scrutiny and oversight—
Madam Temporary Chairman, I rise on a point of order: relevance. We are very keen to progress these amendments that have been moved by the coalition. I remind you and the speaker that these amendments are removing the ‘gun at the head of Telstra’ approach relating to the inability to bid for spectrum and shutting down their Foxtel and HFC cable. That is what the amendment before the chair is. What Senator Lundy is doing might be very interesting as a treatise on history or something, but it is not the amendment before us, and we really want to put it, because we want to pursue these issues and get them voted on. So can I again ask you, Madam Temporary Chairman, to invite Senator Lundy to actually address the amendment, rather than give us general historical babble.
Thank you. I would like to continue with the point I was making about the inadequacies of the opposition’s argument. They talk about scrutiny and oversight. I hasten to point out that there have been so many opportunities for scrutiny and oversight that we find ourselves in a situation where they just do not have anything else to say.
For Senator Macdonald’s benefit, I want to say that I have addressed the amendments very specifically and at length and I have responded to a detailed question from Senator Joyce in relation to his purported pet issue—that is, as he claims, the lessening of competition. I have pointed out that the adjustments—
Senator Macdonald, in response to your question yelled at me across the chamber, my point is that I was responding to a question put by a member of the coalition. Do you understand? Through you, Madam Temporary Chairman, my apologies—
I was responding to a detailed question from a member of the coalition in relation to proposed section 557AB. I have not only given a detailed answer—a response, if you like—to the coalition’s proposed amendments but also revisited that response a number of times. I am now throwing back to the coalition—
Actually I was not reading off a sheet. Technically, the reference to the clause is in fact as Senator Joyce describes. So thank you for that clarification. I was not reading from a sheet when I mentioned that. I think I had the numbers right but slightly in the wrong order, so I would like to offer my second big thank you to Senator Joyce today. I have already thanked Senator Joyce for letting the cat out of the bag on why we are enduring this persistent opposition to these bills. Now, as we can see, there is persistent moving of amendments that are no longer relevant, because the government has actually resolved the problems that the amendments seek to fix. So, Senator Joyce, I feel completely indebted to you now for helping us out with this and for making it clear to the Australian people that of course it is not about telecommunications; it is about political tactics.
For the National Party this is a particularly painful scenario, because the role the National Party played previously was very much one of trying to hold the Liberal Party to account on telecommunications issues. Why? Well, quite correctly there was a sensitivity to the poor performance of the telecommunications industry in regional Australia, the constituency the National Party claims to represent. So, right up until the minority Gillard Labor government was elected, the National Party at least pretended to play a constructive role in trying to argue for greater services to regional constituents and to regional citizens in the area of telecommunications.
They invested in the Page report, which went through a series of propositions, including addressing the very important issue of—guess what—structural separation as one of the solutions necessary to resolve the ongoing anticompetitive conduct of the residual monopolist, Telstra, in the marketplace. Do we hear any references to this research, invested in by the National Party, that they found so compelling then and have so walked away from now? Absolutely not. Why not? Because, as far as they are concerned, the political tactic is far more important than the policy and the issue of substance.
We have seen unprecedented behaviour in the chamber this morning. Procedural cycle after procedural cycle of motions was used to delay the beginning of this debate. We have heard contributions from coalition senators who clearly have not constructed an adequate brief, or briefing notes, from their opposition, so they were unable to consistently convey the position of the opposition through the course of the debate. We find ourselves none the wiser as to what the coalition actually wants to do, except oppose, obfuscate, block, deny—
and wreck. I think that their opposition to the NBN underpins an incredibly irresponsible attitude by the coalition, and I have a little bit of sympathy for those on the opposite benches who find the whole stance of their party uncomfortable. I say that on the basis that, like me, they have experienced the real world and understand what citizens want. In fact, I was distracted by a point of order when making this point earlier, but I will go back to it because it relates to the real-world experience of real people who are trying to establish home based businesses, who are trying to embark on long-distance education endeavours, who are trying to access improved government services in an online environment and who consider reliable, affordable, high-bandwidth services absolutely essential to their future prospects.
The other great strength of the NBN is that it allows people to choose where they live. Being from Canberra, I take issue with the point made by one of the coalition senators that somehow I am not privy to the real-world challenges of bandwidth availability. I can assure you that I am. Here in Canberra I benefit from feedback from three important groups of people in relation to telecommunications. The first one is the constituency of Canberrans who retire to the surrounding region, particularly down the coast. They tell me of the absolute frustration they feel when they invest their life savings in their retirement home only to find that there is no infrastructure that they can access that will provide them with an affordable high-bandwidth service. It is quite a tragedy, because many people, particularly here in Canberra with the work demographic, are used to having online access.
We have also benefited as Canberrans from having more competition than usual in Canberra because of the presence of TransACT, which is a BDSL fibre-to-the-node independent network. That has created some competition with Telstra in the past. So we are rather unique. But for some areas of Canberra we are in exactly the same position as many regional people around the country. In outer metropolitan areas, relatively new areas, Telstra invested in an infrastructure called remote integrated multiplexers, which are like a sub-exchange, but this had the effect of inhibiting the number of ADSL or broadband services that were able to be provided. As all of my colleagues have heard over many years, the people of Gungahlin are long-suffering victims of the RIM pair gains systems and still find themselves on waiting lists just to get the basic ADSL2+ services.
This is the experience of so many communities around the country, where new estates have been built and Telstra, for all of the wrong reasons, invested on the cheap in their infrastructure, denying a proportion of the population that needed a higher bandwidth service in the ADSL service the ability to access it. This outer metropolitan problem is even experienced by very large, multistorey high-rise inner city developments where these RIMs were installed in the basement. People who thought they were buying a state-of-the-art apartment in some of our biggest cities had problems once the densities and demands for ADSL started to increase. The NBN, of course, addresses all of these problems.
There is another constituency, and that is the people in the outlying areas around Canberra. There was nothing in the former government’s 20 or so reports and responses to the problems of regional connectivity that serviced the needs of people who found themselves on ageing copper unable to sustain broadband services and for whom the only solution was a satellite service riddled with latency problems, not to mention expense. Those who found themselves—wait for it—in the doughnut, outside of the footprint of the metropolitan terrestrial delivery area but not inside the subsidised area under the schemes that were designed to support people in more remote areas, were not able to get any satisfaction, support or help to— (Time expired)
I do not know what is going on here, but there is a challenge to Senator Lundy and to the government. This chamber is meant to be going to a recess at 7 pm, in about 12 minutes time. We would like to see these amendments from the opposition dealt with by 7 pm. So I am not going to say terribly much here, Senator Lundy. We do not know what is happening in the chaos of the government ranks. We have seen Senator Evans and Senator Ludwig zoom in and out of the chamber at different times. Senator Conroy just had his arm around Senator Fielding—who has just disappeared. Senator Wong is up in the corner with Senator Xenophon. We have had all sorts of little huddles and groups happening. I do not know what sort of chaos is going on. I do not know whether your deal with one of the crossbenchers is somehow falling apart. But your opportunity is here. If you want to move this on, if you want to end the government filibuster, you can get on with the job now and resolve the question on these amendments. Let it go to a vote so that we can move on to the next amendments.
There are pages of these amendments to get through, as you know. You have put in place a gag to apply tomorrow morning. We would like to see all of these amendments appropriately debated and not all rushed through at the end of the gag. So why not cooperate in the chamber and allow us to get on with this? Is there some reason that tax laws amendments are being circulated in the chamber? Why is it that that is happening at present? Has the government authorised circulation of amendments in the chamber because it is planning to change the agenda? What is going on here? Please tell us: what are you planning to do? What are you planning with a bill that is not before us at present?
Senator Lundy, you keep saying that you do not understand what the opposition’s case is on these amendments. You understand it very well. You know very well that there is a very clear and distinct matter of principle and difference between the government and the opposition. We do not think you should be negotiating with Telstra with a gun pointed at their head. That is the firm principle here. We think that, when it comes to their HFC cables and their right to bid for spectrum, they should maintain that right. If you want to get a deal with them, you should get a fair-dinkum deal with them on fair-dinkum terms, not by using ministerial discretion to take away other key parts of their business.
It is that simple: we disagree. You know that; I know that. That is not unusual between the government and the opposition. We disagree. We have established that. We have established that you do not like our amendments. That is okay—do not vote for them. But put them to a vote and do it before 7 pm.
I am very glad that Senator Birmingham has come in here. Very specifically, the bill has been amended allowing Telstra to acquire specific bands of spectrum—unless the minister determines otherwise in a legislative instrument—giving Telstra the regulatory certainty they were looking for so that they could take a firm proposal to their shareholders regarding structural separation. I appreciate that Senator Birmingham has come in here to explain what the amendments mean. He is right: we do know what the amendments mean. But what I would put back to you is that we think we have fixed the problem that your amendments seek to address.
Telstra may have raced around and said, ‘We’ve got a gun to our head,’ but whether or not they did is irrelevant—the coalition have chosen to characterise this issue in that way. We feel we have addressed the problem. We understand that Telstra believe we have addressed it. So why, if everyone else is in agreement that this problem has been addressed, does the coalition persist with these amendments? Why don’t you withdraw the amendments and acknowledge that the government has fixed the problem?
Again, let me put it very clearly, Senator Lundy: we do not think you have fixed the problem. We think the capacity remains for the minister to exercise powers that effectively put a gun at the head of Telstra. We think that is very clear-cut in the legislation before us. We accept that you think you have fixed the problem. We do not believe you have. Let’s get on with it, put these amendments and move on to the next one so that we have time to effectively debate all of them.
I wish to speak to the amendments but, firstly, I have sat in this chamber for nearly four hours and, for the last hour and a half of the debate on the amendments by the opposition, have heard the minister repeatedly ask shadow ministers of the opposition to explain what is going on. They have no idea. In all fairness, let’s just cast our minds back to last night. There was an opportunity for the opposition to debate this bill for three hours. They did not have the bottle. They did not have the intestinal fortitude to stay here for three hours last night and have the debate.
We sat here this morning and watched a most ridiculous situation—a waste of Senate time for three hours. There were some of the most ridiculous points of order by the usual suspects, including Senator Macdonald from Queensland—a usual suspect in filibustering and stalling. Another usual suspect for wasting time is Senator Brandis. The two of them, with Senator Joyce jumping in, made no sense. It took three hours before we could even debate the bill. Then we had Senator Birmingham lecturing us. I do not know—he might be hungry or there might be a barbecue outside. I have no idea. How dare they come in here and lecture us when they had three hours available last night! They have no guts and no bottle. They went missing in action, and then they have the audacity to lecture us. They do not even have the guts to come into the chamber. The minister on duty spent nearly two hours debating this set of amendments and not one of those opposite showed some decency. Perhaps they have no idea. I do not know. Mr Turnbull, the shadow minister, was in here earlier. Perhaps they do not have any directions from him. I have no idea. But for Senator Birmingham to come in here at the last minute is so disingenuous. It does him no credit. It does that side of the chamber no credit. Senator Joyce screamed at the minister and did not make any sense—hang on, I will rephrase that: that is normal for Senator Joyce. What a complete waste of the Senate’s time.
My contribution will be more brief than most. I would suggest that when Senator Sterle makes a contribution he should be more careful about choosing what he says about our shadow parliamentary secretary in relation to this. Senator Birmingham has been home in Adelaide to attend his wife’s grandfather’s funeral today and has only just got back. I think it is a bit rough to say that he has only come to the debate now. Senator Birmingham would have liked to be here all day but was unable to be here. When people make a contribution in this debate they ought to do a bit of homework first, because it is understandable that the responsible person on this side would have liked to be here all day. It certainly was not his fault that he was not.
I rise to speak for the first time in this debate. Obviously, this debate has been very effectively led for the government by Senator Lundy and Senator Conroy. As senators would know, I am one of the two shareholder ministers in NBN Co., so I have a keen interest in this issue. I have a particular interest in rising to speak to the coalition’s amendments, which seek to deal with issues that the government has already dealt with. It seems somewhat odd that the opposition, despite the fact that many of its members at other times have recognised the importance of the structural separation of Telstra and have recognised that the current structure of Telstra has been an impediment to the development of competition and to the development of innovative products that Australians can use in this area, has nevertheless moved amendments that in many ways seek to undermine the policy intent of the legislation, which is to deliver the capacity for the structural separation of Telstra by giving effect to the arrangements that are in place between NBN Co. and Telstra. I find it extraordinary that the opposition chooses to come in here and lecture the government about contributions in this debate. We have had to move heaven and earth to get this debate on.
I have been in this chamber for quite some time. I was elected in 2001 and took office in 2002. I do not think I have ever seen the extent to which the opposition went this morning to move sequential procedural motions—
Madam Chair, I rise on a point of order. The procedural motions in debate, which went for a little over two hours this morning, were directed to extending the length of time available for debate and resisting the gagging of the debate by the government. Senator Wong is misleading the chamber by misrepresenting the position to the contrary.
That is just another example of what I am talking about. We see Senator Brandis, in his desire to demonstrate just how tough he is, continuing to take spurious and pompous points of order in an attempt to look relevant. It is quite extraordinary.
Sitting suspended from 7.00 pm to 7.30 pm
We are considering the first series of opposition amendments. It is reasonably obvious that there are discussions going on between the respective leaders in the Senate, and I expect them to return to the chamber shortly. In the meantime, I would like to continue my comments in relation to the amendments and their broader legislative context.
Prior to our brief dinner break, I was reflecting on the preconditions that led to the need for addressing the structural nature of telecommunications. The bill that we are considering, the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer Safeguards) Bill 2010, seeks to make the adjustments to the structure of the telecommunications sector in Australia as a precondition for the effective operation of the National Broadband Network policy. The policy is, as everybody knows, a wholesale-only, fibre-to-the-home, open-access, independently regulated network. The elegance in that visionary policy lies within the structural separation of the wholesale and retail arms.
Much comment has been made about the impact of the National Broadband Network on the competitive regime. In essence, the telecommunications competition problems that we have endured in the past are a product of vertical integration within the telecommunications market and the way that that has evolved over time. In particular, one of the persistent problems was the hold with which the residual incumbent, Telstra, was able to leverage the vertical that existed in their market. Vast tracts of regulation were designed to try and redress the anti-competitive characteristics of that industry structure. That, of course, led to much legislation, starting with, in my recollection, the Telecommunications Act 1997.
There were several Senate inquiries and there was a great deal of negotiation about the details of that act, but the characteristic of the problem was that regulations were never able to solve the anti-competitive impact. There was a lot of regulatory gaming and lip-service on the problem by the government, who were obsessed with their privatisation agenda. From opposition, there were several efforts by Labor to strengthen the competition regime, none of which were able to make a real difference because we never had the comprehensive numbers in the Senate to make a real impact. So there were many years of disappointment about the failure of the competition regime to drive the kind of investment that we needed to get a telecommunications network of high enough bandwidth to service all Australians for the future.
That is where the NBN policy came in. We recognised that those preconditions of an underinvested copper network were not going to service our future needs, so we did what any sensible government would do: we tested the market to see if there could be a private sector response to address the problem. In testing the market, we found that the market was incapable of responding to the infrastructure needs of this country. It was in the knowledge of the market failure that we constructed the National Broadband Network policy. Initially it was a fibre-to-the-node policy. I think it is important to acknowledge—as I have not yet done so in this lengthy debate—that it was the coalition’s broadband select committee that highlighted and raised concerns about the strength of a fibre-to-the-home network as opposed to a fibre-to-the-node network. We took evidence in the broadband select committee that a fibre-to-the-node network would not be as future proof as a fibre-to-the-home network could be. Hence, a modification to our policy, informed by the failure of the market but also by several months of further inquiry about the strength of a fibre-to-the-home network, during which it was universally acknowledged as the only way for us to proceed. That is how our National Broadband Network policy as it is currently constructed came to be announced. I am incredibly proud of it because it does—
The National Broadband Network is world’s best practice in the style of policy that most nations have aspired to. Here in Australia, we have actually got it right.