Senate debates

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Answers to Questions on Notice

Question Nos 298, 300, 301, 312, 313, 342, 357, 359, 365

3:04 pm

Photo of Anne UrquhartAnne Urquhart (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Under standing order 74(5)(a) I seek an explanation from the Minister for Communications and the Arts, Senator Fifield, as to why questions 298, 300, 301, 312, 313, 342, 357 and 359, which I placed on notice on 26 and 27 June 2017, and question 365, which I placed on notice on 19 July 2017, remain unanswered. I note that my office contacted the minister's office at 12.42 pm today to inform them I would be seeking an explanation this afternoon. My office has not yet received a response.

3:05 pm

Photo of Mitch FifieldMitch Fifield (Victoria, Liberal Party, Manager of Government Business in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

The senator's office did contact my office. My understanding was that that was a courtesy to let me know she would be raising these matters here. That's the ordinary course of events; you raise the matters here and I respond. I am happy to do so and appreciate the opportunity.

I want to acknowledge at the outset the senator's ongoing interest in the NBN and her participation in the committees of this Senate in relation to the NBN. I think it's fair to acknowledge that the NBN is one of the most scrutinised agencies in the parliament. The company and my department have appeared at nine separate hearings over the past 12 months, including supplementary budget estimates plus an additional spillover hearing; additional estimates plus an additional spillover hearing; budget estimates plus an additional spillover hearing; and several hearings of the Joint Standing Committee on the National Broadband Network. In addition, my department and agencies in total have spent in excess of 55 hours before committees for Senate estimates or the Joint Standing Committee on the National Broadband Network. I can advise the Senate that the total number of questions on notice raised in all estimates hearings over the past 12 months is 2,057. The total number of questions on notice answered in the last 12 months is 2,048 for the Senate estimates committee and 81 for the Joint Standing Committee on the NBN.

Turning to the most recent budget estimates hearings, which relate to the senator's outstanding questions, I can advise colleagues the hearings were held over three days on 24 and 25 May and 15 June this year. Following these hearings a total of 417 questions on notice covering my portfolio were received. One question was withdrawn. Senator Urquhart has made reference to eight answers to questions on notice that remain outstanding. I can advise the Senate that in relation to the budget estimates process to which these questions on notice relate, key members of NBN's team attended the scheduled hearings. In addition to the five hours of testimony from the company on 25 May, the committee requested a subsequent spillover hearing, which was set down for 15 June. In the interim, 78 questions on notice were submitted to NBN specifically with a due date of 7 July. In the meantime NBN again appeared before the committee for a further two-hour spillover hearing on 15 June. Fifty-four of the 78 NBN-specific questions from the first estimates 2017 hearing were answered in advance of the set deadline and all 78 were responded to by 10 August.

As a consequence of the spillover hearing of 15 June, at which the NBN and my department appeared, a further 84 questions on notice were submitted, with a due deadline of 28 July, and Senator Urquhart has placed a further five questions on notice following the aforementioned 84 questions, with a deadline of 24 August. I can advise the senator that, of the 333 questions on notice lodged following the May budget estimates hearing, 88 per cent were finalised within the deadline. I note that a second spillover hearing of the Senate estimates committee will be held on Thursday of next week, and we all eagerly anticipate that. I undertake to the senator that I will endeavour to ensure that the handful of remaining questions on notice related to the committee's inquiries will be answered as soon as possible prior to the next spillover hearing.

3:09 pm

Photo of Anne UrquhartAnne Urquhart (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the explanation.

The minister's explanation is quite remarkable. He didn't admit that the responses to questions on notice had been in his office for weeks. We don't know that. He has not tabled the responses. He did explain that we had received a large number of responses but not why we haven't received these final nine. I think the minister mentioned eight, but there are actually nine. He didn't mention what is so special about these final nine that there has been a delaying, delaying and delaying of the minister's response. It is completely unacceptable.

It's bad enough that the Australian people struggle to get information on the NBN, and it's bad enough that they struggle to get basic internet connection from the NBN. Not only can they not get a proper connection; but they cannot get any advice or questions answered. We put detailed questions on one of the largest infrastructure projects in this country's history and I'm really concerned that we're faced with a government playing political games. We on the NBN committee hear all the time when we're out there talking to people that the only way to get a basic answer from NBN Co is to go to a politician or the media. That's what people on the streets are saying, that's what the media are reporting and that's what the talkback shows are all saying. We hear all the time that NBN Co will tell you the bare minimum of information, if anything, which is often nothing at all, unless you go to the media. It seems to whip up some sort of a frenzy when the complaints end up in the media and miraculously a solution is often found. A solution is often found for people who go to the media and raise issues about the NBN. Those who don't want to go public—a lot of people aren't confident about doing that; they don't want to be seen as complaining—get left behind in this process.

The standing orders of the Senate clearly state that answers to questions on notice should be provided within 30 days. Everyone understands—I think we all do here—the workload of ministers and departments, but we haven't left it for 30 days; we've left it for longer. This has been a problem all year with Minister Fifield. Time and time again, it has been 60 to 70 days before we've received a response to questions on notice at all. It's a real concern. What it relates to is the transparency around NBN Co's operations and the clear politicisation of the rollout of the NBN by this government.

In May this year, the night before the communications and arts budget estimates, the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee distributed 108 responses to the questions on notice. Of those 108 responses, 107 related to the NBN Co. By the morning, when the Department of Communications and the Arts were due to appear, 17 questions relating to NBN Co were still outstanding. It's been over two months since those were placed on notice. At that stage, when we had the hearings, the then chair of the committee, Senator Reynolds, and I expressed our disappointment to the minister and to the secretary of the department about the lack of response and the time frame that it took to get that response. At the time, the secretary of the department gave us a commitment to double down their efforts next time. Well, the doubling down doesn't seem to have amounted to very much at all.

Of the questions placed on notice after the first spillover hearing in June, and a few weeks later in July, 58 were received only last week—weeks and weeks after they were due. As I've just told the minister, eight are still outstanding from the spillover and one is overdue from mid-July. There were also six answers to questions placed on notice in June where NBN Co have essentially said answering the question is too hard. Minister, what is it about these questions that is so hard to answer? What is it that you don't want the Australian people to know? After answering these questions, perhaps the minister could then provide the Senate information on when the office received the responses from the department. Was it at the same time as those questions answered last week?

If we look at the questions that remain unanswered, questions on notice 298 and 359 relate to the cost of the commissioned research. What is it that NBN Co and Minister Fifield don't want the Australian people to know? What is it they don't want them to know? Why is the cost of these reports so difficult to disclose? Across the two questions, I asked about the cost of research reports released over the past couple of years. This is a standard question that all sides of politics ask of government agencies and departments from time to time. It's nothing unusual. The people of Australia have a right to know what NBN Co is spending on research and the purpose of that research. I won't read the names of all 20 reports but some of interest to colleagues include The nbn GranTechie Report, where a new wave of silver surfers are closing the generational gap; the nbn Silver Economy Report, which revealed that the silver economy is set to boom; the nbn Digital Parenting Report, where we found out that school is back and parents are embracing the future; and the nbn Digital Dream Report, where Australians' top life goals were revealed once and for all. The front page of this report has a woman with a huge smile holding a golf club in an alleyway and wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with 'Keep calm and carpe diem'. The Aussie app-etite: connected devices building the future home report revealed that homes in Australia will have three times the number of connected devices in 2020. What a revelation! On sport, NBN Co commissioned the nbn Future of Sport Report, where it was revealed that the lines between sport and entertainment have blurred beyond recognition. This is just a sample of some of the research reports that NBN Co has conducted to market their product to consumers. That's fine, but let's be transparent about it—and why won't they release the costs of these reports?

NBN Co has a fixed pool of funds to conduct its activities and roll out the network. Surely a dollar spent on these reports is one dollar less that can be spent on rolling out fibre. Are these reports really worth it? We don't know because we don't know what the cost is. Some, no doubt, are worth it, but the only response to recent questions on notice about research reports that I've received was to question on notice 356. In this question I asked:

What was the cost of the Lifestylepreneur Report commissioned by NBN Co?

The lifestylepreneur report revealed that Launceston in Tasmania is one of the nation's top entrepreneurial hotspots. It is interesting that the media release associated with the report didn't mention once—not once!—that Launceston is the first city in the country where gigabyte services are being offered. Not once did it mention that. The release didn't mention that fibre to the premises has been rolled out to nearly all of Launceston. NBN Co's response about the cost of this report was:

nbn has a publicly available advertising and marketing budget within which it operates in order to generate revenue and ensure a return on investment to taxpayers. Within that budget, nbn runs a number of consumer campaigns and research insights are commissioned as part of these campaigns to make sure people are aware of the benefits of the nbn network in an aim to drive activations. The details of the individual costs of these research reports are commercial-in-confidence as nbn works with numerous/multiple research vendors.

'Commercial-in-confidence,' they say—how can that be so? What is NBN trying to hide? Why are they trying to hide? What's going on? We can't find out from the minister; we can't find out from NBN. It's a payment for a report. That's what it is. And, if this is the response to this research question, why have questions on notice 298 and 359 not been answered? Surely the answers will be the same non-answer, or are you prepared to disclose the costs of some reports and not others? It is truly bizarre.

While I'm talking about Tasmania, I'll move to question on notice 365, which is also outstanding. Question 365 sought information about the new node that NBN Co is installing at the Burnie hospital on the North West Coast. NBN Co has declared the area ready for service, but when the cardiology clinic attempted to connect to the NBN it was discovered that the node servicing the consulting rooms at the Burnie hospital was 1.7 kilometres down the road. After the issue was taken to the media and a question was asked of Minister Fifield in question time, NBN Co then—not before, but then—provided some assistance to the clinic. They decided that they would install a new node 500 metres from the front door. So the question is: why 500 metres? They won't tell us. They won't disclose why.

My question on notice 365 sought a basic range of information about this new node, and it was in six parts. They are: how many premises are to be serviced by the new node? What is the longest distance from the new node to a premises to be serviced by that node? What is the average distance from the new node for premises to be serviced by that node? What is the difference in cost between a revised FTTN service and a new FTTP service for the Burnie hospital site? What is the difference in cost between a revised FTTN service and a new FTTP service for the other premises to be serviced by the new node? And what is the difference in reliability of a fibre-to-the-premises connection and a fibre-to-the-node connection at 400 or 500 metres from the Burnie hospital site?

The thing with this new node is that the clinic required basic upload speeds of 10 megabits per second. The Turnbull NBN only has a minimum expected upload speed of five megabits per second. Despite going to the effort of building a new node, NBN Co were unable to guarantee the basic upload speed that was required by this clinic to enable them to do their work. And so it came that the clinic found a different fibre provider that could guarantee a basic upload speed that would enable the clinic to connect to its main server in Launceston. Launceston is the city I mentioned earlier where fibre to the premises is everywhere. NBN Co commissioned lifestyle reports about its benefits.

It's interesting that NBN Co are now silent on question on notice 365. My question is: is it embarrassed by the situation? What will it do now with this node, how many premises will be serviced by it and how reliable will their service actually be? It's also interesting that NBN Co has answered question on notice 364, which was lodged at the same time as question 365. In this response, NBN Co revealed that the node near the Burnie hospital is the first node in the country set for installation in an area that has been declared ready for service. NBN Co explained that it is rare to deploy a node or a micronode into an area that is already ready for service. No doubt. Countless others across the country will be very interested to hear that NBN Co is now, on occasion, going to install new nodes where the distance from a current node is too great. I suggest that those with deep concerns and a strong case go to the media, because we know NBN Co is listening.

Given the unreliability of a fibre-to-the-node service, in a response to a question from Senator O'Neill NBN Co revealed that six per cent of fibre-to-the-node consumers cannot achieve download speeds of 25 megabits per second and 35 per cent cannot achieve 50 megabits per second. So it's no wonder the clinic had to go to a private provider to get the service they needed.

Question on notice 342 asked about the costs of a fibre-to-the-node rollout. NBN Co were asked four very simple questions relating to the construction of the nodes, connection of power to the nodes, active electronics within the nodes and connection of fibre backhaul to the nodes. These are basic questions about the component costs of building fibre to the node. So why is the government sitting on this information? Is it because they're embarrassed by fibre to the node? We all remember that the Minister for Regional Communications, Senator Nash, has referred previously to fibre to the node as the 19th century solution. Or is it that the costs are more than they budgeted? Is that what it is? Unless they answer, all we can do is speculate. We have no idea. So the government need to reveal these costs. The minister needs to do that.

I want to move away from fibre to the node. Question 328 asked for a simple state-by-state breakdown of the deployment of fibre-to-the-curb technology. Fibre to the curb is NBN's new golden child, with one million premises set to receive fibre all the way to the pit on the nature strip. NBN Co pushing fibre deeper into the network improves reliability, improves upgradability and improves speed. It costs slightly more but it will deliver a better product for customers and will require less maintenance and less work to upgrade it in the future. Of course, FTTC is not Labor's preferred option. We have always wanted a fibre-to-the-premises rollout. But, after the efforts of Prime Minister Turnbull and Minister Fifield, the Australian people just want the best that they can get. Like everything under the government's multimix technology mess, it's completely luck of the draw as to what your community will be allocated. Question 328 was a simple question. NBN Co did not provide an answer to this question. But, wow, talk about an unsatisfactory response! The response included a broken link to NBN Co's website and it said that it was too hard to add up the premises by state. How is it too hard? NBN Co have this information at their fingertips. Is it too hard, or is it simply that they do not want to provide it? After all, it will show that Tasmania is set for zero premises under fibre to the curb.

Despite the rollout on the west coast presenting a perfect opportunity, construction on the west coast's fibre-to-the-node rollout has not commenced, and the response to question on notice 368, part 2, confirms delays in the ready-for-service date of around three months, from the middle of next year to the second half of next year. It is such a debacle that the responses to parts 1(a) and 1(b) of the question demonstrate that NBN Co either don't know or won't disclose whether the detailed design work is complete for this region. In just the past few months, since the announcement in June this year, I've been asking numerous questions of NBN Co, including: will the west coast of Tasmania also be included in the fibre-to-the-curb rollout? For months I have had nonanswers from NBN Co and a request that I lodge the questions through the estimates process. Fine! That's what I did. And I still get an ambiguous response.

Last week, after the response to question on notice 368 was received, my colleague the member for Braddon, Justine Keay, and I issued a statement to the Tasmanian press calling on the Prime Minister to direct NBN Co to clear up this ambiguity and roll out FTTC in Queenstown, Rosebery and Zeehan on the west coast. These communities were slated to have fibre to the premises under the original NBN, and then Prime Minister Turnbull, as communications minister, broke his promise to complete the fibre-to-the-premises rollout in Tasmania and turfed these west coast communities onto satellite. But, after a concerted community campaign, Labor promised to roll out fibre to the premises to these communities, and those opposite promised to roll out fibre to the node in Queenstown, Rosebery and Zeehan through the NBN Co's Technology Choice Program. The minister should really go and check the weather on the west coast this week: rain, rain, snow, rain. What does copper hate? Rain. The copper on the west coast is already significantly degraded. The region is one of the wettest in the country, yet they want to replace copper with new copper. It is ridiculous!

Do you know what else is ridiculous? During Ms Keay's radio interview last Thursday, the NBN Co's Corporate Affairs Manager for Tasmania, Russell Kelly, tweeted that the west coast would receive a fibre-to-the-node rollout. There was no explanation and no further information. He subsequently went on radio and said that there were no delays and construction would start soon. That evening I emailed Mr Kelly with some basic questions, in particular how a change from a mid-2018 ready-for-service date to a second half of 2018 ready-for-service date is not actually a delay. Guess what? I haven't had a response.

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Oh, big surprise!

Photo of Anne UrquhartAnne Urquhart (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is that not a surprise? I could sum up this whole saga by saying it's easy to tweet, as we saw from Mr Kelly in Tasmania the other day, but it's obviously very, very hard for the government to explain to us and the people we represent. We need to get their answers to actually be able to go back to those people and talk to them about the issues they've got with NBN Co. NBN Co is not being transparent, and neither is the government, in the delivery of NBN. (Time expired)

3:29 pm

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Another stunt by the Labor Party, because we happen to be on broadcast today. We've just had a 20-minute adjournment speech on a matter where a senator hopes to get a headline in her local media over these issues, which, in fact, if you know about NBN Co, all stem from the mess NBN Co was when Labor senator Conroy designed it on the back of an envelope in an aircraft. The whole difficulty which this government has been trying to deal with is the fact that Senator Conroy and the Labor Party could not organise a chook raffle, let alone Australia's biggest ever business.

I congratulate Minister Fifield on the answer he gave to Senator Urquhart's question. This session of the Senate is supposed to be about finding out why questions on notice have not been not answered. Senator Fifield was given some notice an hour or so beforehand, and in that hour he was able to come up with accurate details of the huge number of usually irrelevant questions asked by Labor senators at estimates, on notice and otherwise that involve the department, Commonwealth bureaucrats, in hundreds of hours of research, trying to find the answers, which, I will bet you, Madam Deputy President, the Labor senators who ask the questions never even read. That is obvious, because you go to the next estimates and they ask exactly the same questions, and the public servants say, rather embarrassingly, 'I'm sorry, Senator; we already answered that on notice, in writing.' Senator Fifield gave us statistics. Most of the questions have been answered.

I am still waiting for answers to a couple of questions that I asked of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government, which finished four years ago. I put questions at estimates two years before that, and I am still waiting for the answers from Labor ministers. That was par for the course when the Labor Party was in government. But I congratulate Senator Fifield on getting so many of the answers and explaining that those that had not been able to be addressed by public servants because of the time taken would be answered very shortly.

Could I suggest to Senator Urquhart—if she is not just after a cheap headline in the local rag—that she does what I do now and what I used to do even in the term of the Labor government. If I have a serious question, a serious wish to help a constituent, I will go and approach the minister. I have done that a number of times with Minister Fifield. Different constituents have had problems that I thought his office might be able to deal with, and so I've gone to see him in his office. He is very, very helpful. If you have a serious question about the Burnie hospital, if it's a serious question, if it's something that requires immediate attention, don't try and get a cheap headline in the local rag; go and see the minister's office, and see if they can give some help.

Senator Urquhart interjecting

Senator O'Neill interjecting

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source


Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

If you're serious about your constituents—and I suspect that few Labor people are; the only constituent they are interested in is the union movement, who put them here, and that is the constituency they respond to all the time. But, if you do have a hospital that has a problem, don't issue a media release and get your photo in the local rag; go and see the minister and try and fix the problem.

Opposition senators: We did!

That is what senators should do. That is what senators on this side do.

Senator Urquhart interjecting

Senator O'Neill interjecting

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source


Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Could I also suggest to Senator Urquhart that, if she wants to know something about NBN and some of the mess that they were in earlier, she talks to her colleague the former Queensland Labor MP Mike Kaiser, who was thrown out of the Queensland parliament for fraudulent electoral activity but who then—

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Polley, on a point of order.

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Aged Care) Share this | | Hansard source

I bring to your attention that we give leeway to senators in their contributions, but, as usual, Senator Macdonald is just on a rant. Can you draw him back to the topic before the chamber?

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Polley, I have been listening very carefully. For most of his response, Senator Macdonald has been talking about the question at hand. Please continue, Senator Macdonald.

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I don't like to say this, but if Senator Polley were following the debate she would be aware the motion is that the Senate take note of the answer, which is certainly what I am doing. The President has ruled rightly. When there are things that the Labor Party are sensitive about they always make a point of order objection to sit me down—but I won't be sat down.

As I was saying, if you want to know anything about the NBN, go and see Mike Kaiser, the Labor member in the Queensland parliament who was thrown out of parliament for electoral fraud and who then got a job in the Labor Party years as the government relations manager for NBN.

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source


Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Would you believe that? NBN is a government organisation and suddenly NBN decided, on instructions, I know, from the shareholding ministers—

Senator O'Neill interjecting

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator O'Neill, I have called order a few times. I ask you to listen in silence to Senator Macdonald's answers.

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The shareholding ministers were Senator Conroy and another Labor minister in the Rudd-Gillard government, and suddenly Mr Kaiser, having been sacked from the Queensland parliament, pops up as the government relations manager for NBN. Why NBN, as a government owned organisation, would need a government relations manager, no-one could ever tell me. Why they were paying Mr Kaiser in excess of $400,000 to do government relations between a government company and the government—the Rudd-Gillard government—no-one has ever been able to explain.

I notice Mr Kaiser has now popped up as a director of KPMG in Brisbane. Senator Ketter would be aware of this. Suddenly Mr Kaiser is a director of the once great KPMG. And I see the Queensland Labor government recently engaged KPMG to do a survey on why employing more and more bureaucrats in Queensland was a good thing. How could that possibly be needed?

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator O'Neill, on a point of order.

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Macdonald is nowhere near the topic of the NBN. He is not taking note of the questions that were clearly identified. He is talking about commissioned public relations. He could talk to question 298 and the failure of the government to respond. He is ranging far too widely.

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (President) Share this | | Hansard source

This is a wide-ranging topic, and Senator Macdonald is referencing issues around the NBN. Please continue, Senator Macdonald.

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Again, for Senator O'Neill's benefit, the motion is that the Senate take note of Senator Fifield's answer, which was answering questions on NBN. I have said to you, 'Go and ask Mike Kaiser if you want to know about the NBN,' because he was the $400,000-plus government relations manager for NBN when NBN got us into the mess that Mr Turnbull and Senator Fifield are now trying to resolve.

I don't want to delay this debate any further. I am not going to speak for 20 minutes on what is clearly an adjournment topic. But some of the rubbish that is spoken here, particularly on broadcast day, needs to be challenged, because the misinformation that is given out about these issues has to be corrected. That is why I have taken a little time to congratulate Senator Fifield on his response to the questions that were asked, highlighting again the abject waste of taxpayers' money in paying highly skilled public servants to answer literally hundreds and hundreds of questions on notice that those opposite don't even read. I say that because they come to the next estimates, they ask the same questions and the public servant embarrassedly says, 'I'm sorry, Senator—we've given the answer to that to you before.' That shows that most Labor senators never read any of the answers to those literally hundreds and hundreds of questions that are placed on notice.

I make the point again because there are taxpayers who are listening to this debate, and those taxpayers pay these highly skilled, highly paid public servants to go around and answer all of these hundreds and hundreds of questions that are never looked at by Labor senators. It is just an abject waste of taxpayers' money that these questions should be asked and the answers never read. Senator Fifield indicated that most of the hundreds of questions that have been asked have been answered. There are a few that have not been answered, and he gave the reasons for that. He indicated that, at the very earliest time, they will be answered.

I again say to Labor senators: if you're serious about helping people like at the Burnie hospital, don't go to your local paper and get a headline; go and talk to the minister's office. If you're seriously trying to fix a problem, go and talk to the minister's office. I know you'll be well served. But if you just want to play politics—if you think that is a cheap way of getting Mr Bill Shorten as Prime Minister of Australia—at least be honest about what you're doing and don't clothe it in these questions about technical matters that you'll never even read or understand the answers to.

3:41 pm

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Listen to the last couple of words—'technical matters that you'll never read or understand'. If we wanted language to symbolise the smug superiority of this government with regard to this rollout of NBN, we just got it from Senator Macdonald. That's probably the only decent contribution that he's made because it reveals absolute contempt for the Australian people, for our businesses, for health, for education and for all those innovators around the country who are begging for the opportunity to grow businesses and jobs, to educate at distance and to absolutely transform our economy. They've been sold down the river by this government who thought that we were too stupid and were going to stay stupid long enough to be unable to figure out what a dud it's selling us.

The lemon NBN that the government are delivering us—fibre to the node—is breaking down all over this country. They thought they'd get away with it, but the Australian people are onto them. We want to know the facts about what the government are doing, and that's why we've put all of those questions on the record—because the government have attempted to hide every single possible thing they can about this disastrous rollout.

I want to make some comments about Senator Fifield's opening remarks. We have, from this senator, this constant positioning of: 'Be calm. Don't worry about it—everything is fine. You shouldn't be concerned. Yes, we are spending $29 billion.' He forgets to tell you about the additional $20 billion that they had to put in on top of that because the market was awake to the rollout and understood how bad the rollout was, so the market wouldn't come in with the last $20 billion. So we've got $49 billion in a government business enterprise of which Senator Fifield is our representative.

We have asked questions. Yes, we have certainly asked questions. This is a massive spend—it's $49 billion. What we've got is Senator Fifield saying: 'It was a lot of questions. It seems to be an unreasonable number of questions.' How many questions do you reckon the Australian people should get for $49 billion? I reckon we should get a lot of questions, and we should also get some decent answers. What we are calling the government's attention to—and thank you, Senator Macdonald, for letting us know it's broadcasting day—and what we are letting the Australian people know is that the government are hiding what they're doing from you with regard to the NBN.

I want to put on the record a number that you should ring if you are experiencing trouble with getting the NBN connected at your place. Let me tell you that, in my situation, my husband and I were able to build an entire house and move in the time that it took to get the NBN connected to our old house. That's how bad the delays have been. I want you to take this number down if you're listening, or if you're here in the chamber or the gallery today, and you're concerned. The number is for the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman, and it is 1800062058. I will repeat it before I finish my remarks this afternoon. People are sick and tired of getting this nonsense, this rubbish run-around, from this government. They're getting it from the NBN, they're getting it from their retail providers like Telstra, Optus and all of those companies that are providing the NBN around the country. People are sick and tired of being caught up in a blame game that goes from one person to another. They are also sick of what the technology is not delivering. They're sick of the continuous dropouts that are hurting their businesses. They're sick and tired of the impact on their families of not being able to get the access they have been promised. This government said the NBN that they were going to deliver would be cheaper. That's wrong. They said it would be faster than what people had. We're hearing right across the country that people want their ADSL back because their NBN connection is slow and fragile. They said it would be cheaper and faster and they said we would get it sooner. That is absolutely not the case. They are way behind and they have a massive problem going on with one part of the system that they rolled out, another kind of technology that clearly Senator Macdonald thinks we're all too stupid to understand, the HFC cable, which is the equivalent of a Foxtel line into peoples' homes, which the government said would be good enough for us to get information down.

We want to know some important things about what's going on with the NBN. Let me go to the substance of some of the questions. The first thing I would like to go to is service class zero. I'm sure there will be people listening to this debate somewhere around the country who cannot figure out why they can't get an answer out of the NBN or out of their telecommunications company, their retail service provider, about why they can't get the NBN. These are people who are often in a community where everyone else in their street has finally got connected—they're not happy, but they've got connected. But they're sitting there on their own at the end of a street, or sometimes in the middle of a street, and they simply cannot get a connection. NBN, when they hit these in-the-too-hard-basket cases, have this Orwellian term for it. They call it 'service class zero'. I suppose there is some truth in it, because you get zero response from the NBN, you get zero delivery of the NBN and you get zero explanation about why you can't get that connection at your house.

We did ask questions about service class zero. We asked for a breakdown by the technology, because they are rolling out fibre to the node, HFC, and there is talk they are going to roll out fibre to the kerb. We wanted to know, by technology, how many premises were in service class zero. We wanted to know that for households and businesses. We wanted to figure out what was going on. That is one of the questions we wanted an answer to. This issue is affecting thousands of Australians who can't get an answer. But this minister didn't go to any of the substance of the matter. He simply made the argument that there have been a lot of questions asked and they are working really hard and there is nothing to see here.

The problem is that Australians need access to a service. They want the real NBN, they want the fibre NBN and they are going to want it more and more as our use of technology increases. Those who are caught in the service class zero spiral are in a desperate need. This is why this is so egregious and why it is so wrong that some of these questions are not being answered. We know that the NBN produces a weekly report which contains the aggregate number of the service class zero premises. It's not like they don't have the information. Why won't the minister have that handed over and put into the public domain? We know that the information is there. It's at their fingertips. Why should it be that the Senate, asking questions on behalf of the Australian people, should be kept in the dark about information that is actually available on a weekly basis to the minister if he should ask for it from NBN, which he is in charge of? He's not separate from NBN; we have to remember that. The minister is responsible for the NBN.

Other questions that we asked included about the commissioning of research. There's nothing extraordinary about this question. This is the sort of question that's asked of government agencies all the time. We asked it because we believe that taxpayers have the right to know what NBN Co is spending on research and what the purpose of that research is. We know that some of the pieces of research conducted by NBN Co include The nbn GranTechie report, the Future of sports report, the Gen nbn 2020 and beyond report and The nbn digital dream report. The Senate can be assured that the NBN has been anything but a digital dream in every possible way. But why has this government not been able to produce a response to this question on notice? Surely, having commissioned the research, the purpose of it must already be known. The cost of it must already be known. But it's not known in this chamber and it's not known to the Australian people, because this government is hiding as much as it possibly can about its failed delivery of the NBN.

We also asked for figures underpinning the 2016 corporate plan, which is the main document that gives us a sense of what is going on with the NBN. Often at those Senate estimates when Senator Urquhart and I are both there, with our colleague Senator Chisholm, asking these sorts of questions, we get referred: 'Just wait; the next corporate plan will be out.' It's as though all is going to be revealed—except it isn't; it never is, because strategic pieces of information are being kept from public view. We have a request in that the NBN provide the underlying ready-for-service assumptions that they've relied on in their 2019-20 financial year explanations or revelations in their corporate plan. We know that the government's tried to avoid answering this question and another question, question 176, from additional estimates. So, in the name of transparency, we've asked it again, and there's still no response.

This is a pretty important question to get an answer to: what are the figures that the NBN is relying on for ready for service? That's part of their business plan. And is this business sustainable? Is it working? What assumptions are embedded in it? If you run a business you have to have those basic assumptions to understand what's going on with your business. Surely NBN Co, with $49 billion invested in it—taxpayers' dollars—should be able to answer the sorts of basic questions that a year 11 business class could answer regarding the assumptions that underpin NBN Co's financial plan. There are other questions that concern me that we haven't got answers to, including question 313—again, figures underpinning the corporate plan for 2019-20. Again, why can't we have those?

Let me go then to fibre-to-the-node costs. I want to take the opportunity again, in case people who were listening didn't have a pen the last time I said it, to tell you the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman's number again. If you're getting pushed from pillar to post, around and around, and you're sick of the NBN circle, you need to call the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman and they will get on the case of your retail service provider. The number is 1800062058. Why am I giving you that instead of saying, 'Talk to the minister', as we heard from Senator Macdonald? It is because five million Australians can't all talk to the minister and, as we know, the minister doesn't answer questions anyway. Why aren't I telling you to go to your local member or senator? It is because our offices are already inundated with people calling on us, over and over, to try to help them solve problems. It has got to the scale now, with the rollout of this dodgy NBN, that even our offices can't keep pace with it. The Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman can force the companies to actually answer some of your questions and to do something within 10 days. So don't waste your time anymore. Don't let this government cost-shift its mismanagement of the NBN onto your business. Don't let that happen. Call the TIO on 1800062058 and get somebody to take some action on your behalf, because it's a pain for the retail service providers to actually be contacted by the TIO.

I know from people in the electorate who have spoken to me and from people who are working behind the scenes for telecom organisations, who are desperately worried about the practices they are being asked to enact, that they are being told: 'Do everything you can to prevent the complaint going to the TIO.' Why would that be the case? Because it costs them some money, it costs them pain and it puts a timetable on the responsible action. It also means this government can't continue to come in here and say, 'Everything is fine,' because they will actually have to report the TIO figures. The TIO is the only tool we have that is really effective right now to get a sense of how bad this NBN rollout is going. You should call the TIO and let them know so that this government can't continue to come in here and mild-manneredly say, 'Everything is okay,' because you know it's not okay, I know it's not okay and the government, deep down, know it's not okay. That is why they are hiding. That is why they're not answering these very important questions.

Question 357 is about NBN technology trials. The Turnbull government like to talk about how the NBN is trialling new technology. They do this in order to attempt, in Senator Macdonald's vein of 'They're too stupid to figure it out,' to distract Australians and the media from the fact that they are deploying a second-rate 19th century copper network. Senator Urquhart revealed the source of that comment, and that is Senator Nash. The government's own minister for regional affairs has indicated that she thinks the NBN technology that her government is rolling out is a 19th century technology. We don't always like the answers we get from Senator Nash, but, on that, she is telling the truth. We have asked the government to explain how much taxpayer money has been spent on trialling technologies that it hasn't deployed. How much has been spent on this grand experiment, cooked up by the now Prime Minister, Mr Turnbull, when he was the communications minister? How much has been spent? We are still waiting. No answer.

One of the things that we asked about was the wholesale speed tier mix in the 2016 corporate plan. This is important, because we asked the NBN to provide the numerical data that was underlying an important graph contained in their own corporate plan. The government has tried to avoid this question by providing data from the 2017 corporate plan, instead of the 2016 corporate plan, but we will continue to pursue it. We have requested it again to get the facts and the details on the table. The response from the NBN Co is absolutely outrageous. The volume of detailed questions on notice and the limited time available to respond mean that the NBN must prioritise questions that are not answered in whole or in part in regular reporting vehicles such as weekly updates, the corporate plan, annual reports, quarterly financial reports or on their website. This is simply ridiculous. The NBN Co is a government business enterprise accountable to the minister, who should be acting on behalf of the Australian people. They should be called to account. They should be writing full and fearless answers, giving the facts, keeping proper scrutiny on this $49 billion spend that is underway. What type of a racket is this government trying to run? It is the equivalent of the NBN waving a white flag and saying, 'This is all just too hard.' The company that is tasked with the wholesale provision and rollout of the NBN right across this nation is saying to us that it is simply too hard to answer our questions.

We have asked a question about a simple breakdown of where they are going to do fibre-to-the-curb, which is a new technology that the government have decided that they are considering deploying. We simply asked: where are they going to do it? We can't get an answer from the NBN. They have got to have this information at their fingertips but they are arbitrarily determining that they have a right to the information but the Australian people, through the Senate, do not. That is absolutely unacceptable. It cannot continue to be the case.

In the last couple of minutes that remain, I would like to indicate that the folder that I have brought in here—which I could go through—is just of the first hundred people we have documented who have problems with the rollout of the NBN on the Central Coast. Recently we had a hearing on the Central Coast, and I was very disturbed by stories of the kind that I have told you here this afternoon of people waiting for service, people unable to get information and people whose service had fallen over. But I want to make some points about this government, which pretends to be the friend of small business. Let me tell you: in Gosford we have a perfect example, in a small part of the seat of Robertson, of where the real NBN has occurred. We took evidence from a company there that received multiple international awards, whose business is entirely in the cloud and is employing 20-plus employees in a great little office in Gosford and delivering world-class, award-winning technologies to councils and other major organisations all around the world. They've got the real NBN. That's what is happening for them. NIB, the insurance group, brought their call centre to the middle of Gosford, in Robertson, because it has the real NBN.

Around the edges of it, though, in the second part of the testimony that we heard, we heard from local small businesses who own gyms or who are art creators and sellers of their own art. One gentleman, whose NBN connection was delayed by four months, lost $70,000 because he could not get any internet connection to sell his artworks online in the lead-up to the Christmas period. That is just one small business. We heard about alarm calls in a 24-hour gym on the Central Coast, where for weeks and weeks and weeks on end the owner was there trying to resolve the problem. It took him months to get a response. We heard story after story of people who were getting the run-around. Labor is listening to the people of Australia. We know you're getting the run-around from the NBN and the RSPs, and this government is trying to give the Senate the run-around. We will not stand for it. That is why the government must answer these questions. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.