Thursday, 23 August 2018
Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer) Bill 2018, Telecommunications (Regional Broadband Scheme) Charge Bill 2018; Second Reading
I'll continue my remarks on the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer) Bill 2018 and the Telecommunications (Regional Broadband Scheme) Charge Bill 2018, after question time interrupted me last week. Well, what a week we've had, in more ways than one! We had former Minister Fifield, Mr Morrow, Mr Rue and even Mr Turnbull complete an almighty backflip. And, despite Mr Rue's gaffe, the board of the NBN Co, with the blessing of the government, appointed him as the next CEO of the NBN Co. Less than a day after NBN Co let the cat out of the bag that it had a plan to charge regional telecommunication users $20 more to access broadband than consumers in the city, the then Minister for Communications, Senator Fifield, made a humiliating retreat.
Last Wednesday evening the NBN Co's CFO, Mr Rue, revealed plans to charge regional customers $20 a month more for a 50 megabits per second plan than a customer in the city would pay. On Thursday morning, the NBN Co's Tasmanian spokesperson, Mr Russell Kelly, doubled down on the position during an ABC Hobart radio interview. Mr Kelly was asked, 'Is it fair that customers, who just by, I guess, where they live, have to pay more for a service that's available in the city?' Mr Kelly responded, 'Well, this is one of the realities of the internet'. What galling language. This is from the NBN Co that crows about how Tasmania is the first state to be connected, when we know that there are hundreds of homes across the state and families and small businesses on the edge of towns that are having to wait until at least the end of this year to get connected. Instead of working through the issue with the community, with its end users, NBN Co is simply saying that it's a reality that people in the bush need to pay more.
Labor quickly signalled that we would not have a bar of that. Minutes after the press conference, our shadow ministers for communications, Ms Rowland and Mr Jones, held a media conference calling on the government to intervene. We called on the National Party's Senator McKenzie, as the Minister for Regional Communications, and Senator Martin, as one conservative senator who supports a full-fibre NBN, to stand up to the Liberals and to stand up to NBN Co and demand that the regions get a fair go. Later that day, the capitulation was on, with the embarrassed former Minister Fifield declaring that NBN Co would engage in 'a fresh round of product consultations'. I'm sure we can all predict what regional consumers would have told NBN Co during those consultations. Except it's now been revealed that those consultations are a mirage, a smokescreen, or, as Senator Cash might phrase it, a whiteboard.
The respected communications industry online news website itnews.com.au included an updated report that the $20 slug on fixed wireless users had been outlined at an industry briefing on the Wednesday afternoon—a briefing that had been planned for at least a week. It was reported by iTnews that the new plans were presented along with the three-year road map. The briefing went for four hours, after which NBN Co's Mr Rue, the CFO, and Mr Ryan, the chief engineer, fronted the parliamentary committee hearing. The iTnews website reported that it understood the $65 price was presented to industry as a done deal. Industry were told on the Wednesday afternoon they would be sent paperwork about the new framework. It was also reported by iTnews that the new $20 charge would begin from Monday, 20 August, the Monday just gone. The next day, the NBN Co's CEO tried to mop up the mess. He said that it wasn't a 'foregone conclusion' that NBN Co would slug regional fixed wireless users $20 per month more for the same speed that their friends and colleagues in towns and cities on fixed lines were receiving. It can't be both a done deal and a consultation. If it was said to be a consultation, you have to ask why industry wasn't asked on the Wednesday; rather, they were told.
Listeners can draw their own conclusions. But, for me, this latest NBN debacle clearly suggests the minister has lost control over the NBN Co and that the NBN Co have lost an understanding of what is actually palatable to consumers. NBN Co began virtually pretending there was no hearing of the joint standing committee on the Wednesday night, that the CFO's comments had been a figment of everyone's imagination, and claiming no decision had been taken. They sought to wash the records, step back from their bungled admission and hide their secret charge. I understand the charge would have affected nine out of 10 regional households on a fixed wireless network if they chose to order a 50-megabits-per-second service—nine out of 10, which is 584,000 premises across the country.
Most of the time with the NBN, I hear cases of individuals who are disadvantaged. This is a huge cohort of Australian households, businesses and families, and often it is pot luck if you're on fixed wireless or fixed line. We've heard some shocking examples of people at the end of a street being assigned to fixed wireless, or whole new subdivisions being moved to fixed wireless instead of the NBN and the developer rolling out fibre to the home within the development. This then creates congestion on the network, so we've got an inferior network that will cost people more than the alternative. There is no consideration for fairness and no consideration for equity of access. And it is a step that will only increase that digital divide between the city and the bush, between those lucky enough to live in a full-fibre suburb and those nearby stuck on an inferior, more expensive fixed wireless service.
The backdown is welcome in the short term. But what it exposes is the calamity that the NBN has become under Mr Turnbull as communications minister and then as Prime Minister. A minister who was given the task of destroying the NBN is doing his very best to achieve Mr Abbott's task. It's ironic that this week, with the leadership speculation around energy policy, based on the differences between Mr Abbott and Mr Turnbull, the government refuses to take a principled stance on the NBN. Instead of doing what the country needed and fighting Mr Abbott's wrecking ball against the NBN, the government capitulated and oversaw the crass politicisation of what should have been a bipartisan nation-building project. The NBN was manipulated, stretched, pushed and shoved into a model colloquially known by many as the multitechnology mess, a mess that combined the technology from three simple alternatives—fibre to the premises for 93 per cent of the population, and a mix of satellite and fixed wireless for the remainder—into a mishmash of fibre to the premises for the lucky; fibre to the curb for the somewhat unlucky; fibre to the node for the downright unlucky; fibre to the basement for those in apartment buildings and the like; overcrowded fixed wireless for many, many more than was originally predicted, including whole towns; and satellite for those in remote parts of the country or for those who find themselves out of sight of a congested fixed wireless tower. Under Mr Turnbull, Mr Abbott and Senator Fifield, the NBN has gone from the key infrastructure bridging the divide between our cities and our regions to a rollout that divides neighbourhoods, incentivises freeloading, punishes the regions and prices regular consumers out of fast broadband.
We had a charge last week that came about because we have weak Liberal and National parties bitterly divided by infighting and personalities that are incapable of adequately representing rural and regional Australians at the cabinet table. It is remarkable that we have a cabinet Minister for Regional Communications that allowed this charge to be floated. What is the point of being in office if you can't represent regional Australians, the people you claim so often to be the champions of? Under Labor, we have uniform wholesale pricing between the cities and the regions. The Prime Minister should not force regional Australians and regional businesses to pick up the bill for his mess. It is bad enough that the government created a digital divide based on technology. Now he wants to create one based on price, and his rural and regional MPs and senators will sit by in complete silence. If it were not for Labor, the charge would have been implemented from Monday, 20 August.
The problem is that this Prime Minister cannot comprehend what $264 a year means to regional families. If he could, he wouldn't allow it, but he has no idea. This is a policy decision permitted by a Prime Minister who is just so out of touch and a government that is completely out of touch. We're not talking about a few hundred households or businesses either. The best estimate we have is that 584,000 premises will be affected by this charge: 4,000 in the Northern Territory, 40,000 each in Tasmania and Western Australia, 60,000 in South Australia, 125,000 in Queensland, 150,000 in Victoria and 160,000 in New South Wales. In every corner of this country, people on the urban fringe and in our rural communities will be impacted by this charge, a charge necessitated because, under Prime Minister Turnbull, we have a second-rate NBN that is $20 billion over budget and four years behind schedule. We've got a second-rate NBN that's over budget and out of control because we've got ministers and a Prime Minister who have no control over their own corporation.
It is difficult to believe the minister had no idea what NBN Co were planning, especially given the duration of the consultation on these changes. Whoever the communications minister is should outline exactly what the government knew and when, and exactly what their office knew and when. Former Minister Cormann should outline what he knew and when, and what his office knew and when. Likewise, Minister McKenzie, while not a shareholder minister of NBN Co, is a minister within the Communications portfolio whose constituents include a vast number of people affected by these proposed changes. Each minister must outline what they knew, what their offices knew, and what they didn't do to stop NBN Co slugging fixed wireless users with a $20-a-month charge.
On this bill specifically, Labor has serious concern that this bill has been brought on to prop up the NBN corporate plan. The legislation has been conspicuously delayed for nearly two years. Just last week this bill was brought on for debate with a new implementation date of 1 July 2019. The upcoming release of NBN Co's corporate plan might offer a clue as to why the dysfunctional Turnbull government is in a sudden rush to pass its $7.10 per month internet tax. It's because NBN Co is required to release its pre-election corporate plan before the end of August 2018. The corporate plan will contain forecasts out to financial year 2022, but it will not disclose the assumptions that underpin financial forecasts beyond that year. If the government passes its internet tax in August 2018, not only would the price increases come into effect in the next term of parliament but it would also permit the government in this term of parliament to add the revenue from this internet tax onto the NBN corporate plan from 2022 out to year 2040. If the legislation does not pass the parliament in August 2018, that is no longer possible. Should the legislation conveniently pass the Senate this week, we will have learned two things about the minister: (1) his motivation was not about serving the broadband needs of regional Australia but rather the pre-election NBN corporate plan; and (2) he does not believe in his own policy, and that this is why the government delayed implementation of price increases until after the next election. All of this is being driven by a simple reality: Turnbull's second rate NBN is $20 billion over budget and four years behind schedule. It costs more and does less.
The government should come clean with what they knew about the $20 charged on fixed wireless users, they should come clean on what other surprises are in their communications policy, and they should stop the secrecy about the NBN rollout.
I rise to speak on the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer) Bill 2018 and the Telecommunications (Regional Broadband Scheme) Charge Bill 2018. These telecommunications bills before us today impose a $7.10 charge per month per premises on certain broadband wholesalers, excluding the NBN. This is a massive tax representing more than a quarter of the wholesale price for broadband. This tax is designed to ensure a government owned monolith, the NBN, can completely dominate a market, crushing small, privately owned businesses. Can anyone suggest what the position of the Liberal Democrats on this might be? I suspect you can, and in case you don't know, the Liberal Democrats are a low-tax party. The Liberal Democrats believe that government businesses should be privatised so the rigours of competition can provide better services at lower cost without risk to taxpayers. Obviously the Liberal Democrats oppose this tax of $7.10 per month, designed to prop up a bumbling, government owned monolith. Unfortunately the coalition government has been captured by the NBN, despite criticising the NBN when in opposition. Labor has criticised the coalition government about this $7.10 tax, but at the end of the day I fear that Labor, like a frazzled parent of a petulant child, will still feel that it must give the NBN whatever it wants. Unfortunately it seems that we will be stuck with this new tax of $7.10 per month. We need more Liberal Democrats in this place to hold back the folly and crony capitalism of the major parties and to ensure that more money stays in the pockets of everyday Australians.
I rise to speak on the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer) Bill 2018 and the Telecommunications (Regional Broadband Scheme) Charge Bill 2018. I acknowledge the National Students Leadership Forum for these wonderful young people here who, I'm sure, will have a great deal of interest in these two pieces of legislation.
These bills, which work in conjunction with each other, do two key things. One is to legislate certainty that all premises in Australia can continue to access high-speed broadband infrastructure beyond the NBN rollout. This obligation already exists, but this gives it certainty, and Labor supports this. The second thing they do is to introduce a telecommunications levy that will add $84 per year to the bills of up to 400,000 consumers and businesses on the non-NBN network.
Before moving on to the broadband levy, I wish to note that Labor supports schedule 3 of this bill. The proposed statutory infrastructure scheme will provide certainty as we move beyond the initial NBN rollout in 2021. The community will continue to have certainty about their ability to get access to broadband services at their new home or business. Schedule 3 largely codifies an obligation that already exists in the NBN statement of expectations. Labor supports this and considers it to be a sensible and natural step.
The original commitment by Labor in 2009 was historically significant, particularly for regional and rural communities. Our National Broadband Network was established to ensure every Australian would have access to high-speed broadband, irrespective of where they lived or worked. As a result, nearly three million homes and businesses across regional and rural Australia will have access to high-speed broadband, a sizeable portion of whom had no access to any broadband after 11 years of inaction under the Howard government. This was the single most important initiative to bridge the city-regional divide when it came to broadband in this country. Labor is proud of this achievement, and those who supported it in the Senate should be as well.
On the other hand, the government has nothing to be proud of in terms of what we uncovered last week. Last week, before the Joint Standing Committee on the National Broadband Network, the NBN Co admitted to plans to charge regional Australians on the fixed wireless network $20 more per month than customers on the same 50-megabit speed who lived in the city. Simply put, a regional consumer could pay 44 per cent more than someone in the city for the same 50-megabit speed under this plan. This is an extra $65 per month, or $240 a year, that regional consumers would have to fork out. This is how this government views regional Australians. It takes them for granted. It doesn't view them as being as important as the city dwellers.
Where were the Nationals on this? Sitting on their hands as usual. The Nationals, as we all know, are the doormats for the Turnbull government. They were quite happy to sit there and let regional Australia pick up the bill for the Prime Minister's NBN mess. They come in here and cry crocodile tears but do nothing when it comes to standing up for regional Australia on these important issues.
Two hours after Labor called on the government to drop its regional broadband price hike, NBN Co reversed their decision, and so they should. The ABC has also revealed that the NBN sought to modify a record of their own opening statement to the committee on their website to include passages that were not in the original statement and were not spoken by the NBN executives.
The minister has also been pretending that no decision was ever made. In fact, he has claimed that consultation on the pricing changes was ongoing. The minister's argument began falling apart on Friday when an iTnews article, citing documents belonging to the NBN Co, noted that the $20-per-month increase was presented to the telecommunications industry as a done deal, not as something under consultation. The iTnews article also noted that the regional broadband price hike was due to come into effect on 20 August. That was this week. Had it not been for Labor, regional consumers would be paying more. This could have been a disaster for my home state of Tasmania, where up to 40,000 households could have been slapped with an extra $20 per month just to order the same 50-megabyte service as someone who lives in the city.
The intention of the NBN was always to bridge the digital divide between regions and the cities, not create a new one. We need to ensure these levies do not deepen the digital divide and make broadband less affordable for regional households and businesses. We need to make sure that regional communities have access to a broadband network that is fit for the future so that they can participate in the digital economy. Under this plan, if you live in Point Piper, the wholesale charge for the 50-megabyte plan will be $45 per month, but, if you live in regional Australia and want to order the same speed over the fixed wireless network, the NBN has proposed to charge $65 a month. This $20 per month is an extra $240 a year that regional consumers would have to fork out. Thanks to Turnbull's NBN shambles, a regional consumer could be paying—
Thanks to the Turnbull government's NBN shambles, a regional consumer will be paying 44 per cent more than someone in the city. There's one rule for Mr Turnbull in his Point Piper mansion and another for rural and regional consumers. At the same time as energy prices are going up and cost-of-living pressures are increasing, a broadband price hike by this government is the last thing people in regional Australia want to have to deal with. Regional Australians and regional businesses should not have to pick up the bill for the mess created by this Turnbull government.
Now I'll turn to the broadband levy currently before the Senate. The introduction of this poorly designed levy is highly regrettable, but Labor will not be opposing it outright, given the economic deterioration of the government's multitechnology mix. Rather, Labor will be seeking an amendment to the bill to reduce the scope and impact of it. This will ensure it is fairer, more targeted and better aligned with the sensible policy objectives. I recall years ago when Mr Turnbull talked about the NBN like an excited child at Christmas. He doesn't do that anymore. In fact he doesn't speak with any excitement on anything anymore, unless, of course, it's about giving a $17 billion tax cut—
Opposition senators interjecting—
Order! Senator Polley, resume your seat. Senators on my left, one of your own colleagues is on her feet and I can hardly hear her speech because of your interjections. I ask you to extend to your own colleague the courtesy of allowing her to be heard in silence.
The Prime Minister doesn't speak with any excitement on anything, unless, of course, he's giving a $17 billion tax cut to his mates and the big banks, and a $60 billion tax cut to multinationals and corporate Australia.
Mr Turnbull thought he would be the great savour of the NBN. Instead he's been a great disappointment. The NBN has turned into a shambles under this government, and, as we can see, there has been leaked report after leaked report. The lack of transparency in relation to the NBN and the denials and consternation of the NBN Co reflect the paranoia that has gripped the Turnbull government and the NBN infrastructure program. In fact, this would seem to be behind the times if I were to note the deterioration of this government. This government is in paralysis, and who can blame the Australian people for not listening to it anymore. You can only let someone down so many times before they switch off and stop listening.
Over the past few years, Labor has held NBN consultations with consumers and small businesses across the country. I can tell you that the Australian public is dismayed that the Turnbull government abandoned Labor's fibre-to-the-premises NBN under the false pretence that switching to a multitechnology mix would be faster and cheaper. The bungled installation of the NBN is costing local businesses in my home state of Tasmania, where Mr Turnbull made the callous decision to leave Tasmanian businesses and households off the map. Consequently, Tasmanians are still crying out for better NBN services so they're not left behind and can operate and take advantage of the digital economy. None of the Turnbull government's pledge of 1.5 million premises to be connected to the new fibre to the curb will be in Tasmania.