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Thursday, 15 May 2008
Page: 2917

Mr BILLSON (11:49 AM) —We are faced with an extraordinary issue here in this parliament today. I commend the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government, the member for Grayndler, for his speech on the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (National Broadband Network) Bill 2008. It has such positive themes in it, belying the reality of what has actually taken place. Today is an occasion when Labor’s political hubris has hit the wall of the reality of the incompetence of the minister, a process that is poorly designed and a rhetoric of sound and targeted investment in infrastructure that has ended up being empty words. It will be interesting to see how the members opposite vote on this issue.

What has occurred, for no other reason than pure political headline-grabbing, is that the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Conroy, has failed to translate political sound bites into sound public policy. He has been universally recognised as bungling this process, and there is not one major stakeholder in the industry that thinks this process is going well. His best ally in fact is the opposition. We have been quite thoughtful, constructive and helpful in our input, recognising that the availability of higher speed broadband to Australians who are seeking that service is an important national objective. Where our pathway diverges from the Labor Party is we are actually promoting the national interest, not some cheap Labor Party slogan. We have heard Labor running around in this place trying to perpetuate the fiction that Labor is a nation builder. Labor is a Labor builder and almost all that it does is done for its own political gain. This has never been more evident than in this process.

The process we are trying to remedy today is trying to establish where you should spend up to $4.7 billion of taxpayer money on improving the availability of broadband. The Labor Party has set itself a goal of 98 per cent availability for 12 megabits on a fibre network and then it has gone about trying to create the fiction that there is no such infrastructure out there already. What you have seen through the election campaign is Senator Conroy arguing that Australia was somehow in the Flintstones age and the election of a Labor government would miraculously transform us into the Jetsons age. Neither is true. You have seen international think tanks recognising that Australia is well positioned—certainly with challenges before us because of the size of our continent and the appetite of broadband communications users—to provide broadband services and you have seen some of that analysis in some of the more thoughtful journals, such as CommsDay, that recognise where Australia is at present and the pathway we are on. Those facts belie the political line that the Labor Party has been running. So today we are faced with a bill. This bill is what we have characterised as a show-and-tell bill, and we recognise the need for and importance of it.

The Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (National Broadband Network) Bill 2008 aims to make sure, as the minister has mentioned, that carriers have data available to them that enables them to develop a proposal in response to Labor’s request for policy. This is the document they put out, which was not much more than political spin book-ended by some bureaucratic tender speak. The request for a policy has been out there for some time. You have bidders being asked to contemplate the investment of $9 billion to $10 billion, depending on who you speak to, on the basis of the most flimsy amount of information and evidence, and this process is already underway. Before this parliament today we are trying to again be helpful and constructive to this incompetent and inexperienced government to get an essential piece of this tender process in place. The process is already well advanced—it is a month along and rapidly heading towards the 25 July deadline—yet there is still no legislative framework in place. There is precious little information out there that would enable people to develop accurate, thoughtful, costed and properly structured proposals. There is precious little information out there about what Labor’s public policy objectives look like. There is precious little information out there about the regulatory framework, the competition framework, the access, the pricing regime, the architecture required, the timing of delivery, or how the structural separation or otherwise of the successful bidder will operate.

What role does the government plan to play? There is talk about Labor wanting to have a commercial return on whatever the taxpayer investment is. If it is commercially viable, the private sector would be making those investments. This is old Labor seeking to impose itself without identifying a need for government intervention in an important area of our national economy and our social interests. It is an issue that is very important to many Australians. The Labor Party has comprehensively failed to articulate the basis for its plan and how this extraordinary process involving $4.7 billion of taxpayers’ money will get back on track. These are not the actions of a fiscal conservative. You do not spend $4.7 billion of taxpayers’ money to displace the private sector investment, to not be able to describe what it is you are trying to achieve and to not even canvass what the operating environment might be. Imagine going to a bank and saying, ‘I want to spend $5 billion. I do not know what the rules are, but I want to spend $5 billion.’ Why? Because that is the headline-chasing line that Labor has put out there.

Labor have created this problem themselves. They have had a sound bite based on a policy that was one telco’s plan for its future. Labor have picked it up to try and make it part of their political future. That is what this is about. There has been no analysis, no identification of the national interest, no effort to understand what is right, proper, robust and sustainable government intervention, no indication that they recognise that there is private sector investment and assets around Australia. The member for Sydney sits opposite to me. I wonder if she has any idea at all how much of Sydney already has available to it 12-megabit broadband services and beyond. I wonder if anyone has even bothered to make that calculation. The coalition had. It recognised that, across Australia, there are areas of service disadvantage where the marketplace was not providing the services for broadband and communications, which are quite reasonably expected by rural and regional people, that were available to metropolitan people, by and large.

The former coalition government put in place the OPEL project to address that. That project was structured properly. It was based on an identification of where the market was not responding to a reasonable expectation of what broadband and communication services people might want. There was a clear understanding of the structural separation so that it was not advantaging any particular telco provider. What does the Labor government do when it gets elected? It junks the very policy that was built on those sound public policy principles on the most spurious of information that it will not release. So much for transparent and open government! So much for accountability! Where is the material, Minister? Where is the data on which you have based a decision claiming that the deliverables are not meeting the contract? Where is it? The industry believes the implementation plan for OPEL outperformed what was required of the contract. Yet, in pure political spite, Labor wipes that out. If open and transparent government means anything, if evidence based policy making that we hear so much about means anything, release the material, Minister. It is an outrageous abuse of power.

We have a bill before us to make sure that basic information is available to enable tenderers to lodge a bid. How ironic! The minister overseeing this debacle of a process is the same minister who wrote to the Auditor-General complaining about the previous government’s process in OPEL. He was put straight by the Auditor-General that against the evaluation criteria all the proposals had been properly evaluated, and that there was none of the nastiness that the now minister talked about. It was a proper and reasonable process driven by clear public policy principles, properly administered in a transparent and consistent way and with all probity requirements met. Yet the minister said, ‘Tender participants have indicated that the information was not provided to other tenderers for many weeks.’ The minister himself said, ‘Given the limited period allowed for the preparation of bids for this tender, this delay in providing equal information to all participants significantly disadvantages some bidders.’ What do you do with a minister who makes a political point when he is in opposition, does not take into account the Auditor-General’s advice and then makes the most catastrophic compounded error—like the one he was pointing to—when he is the minister? This is a most remarkable process.

This is the same minister who, this morning, rang me to see if we would again bail him out of trouble, as we did in the Senate yesterday, when the minister and his government could not get the government’s own amendments considered in the time available. He throws himself on the opposition and says, ‘Please, please rescue me from this disaster I have created.’ He rang me again this morning and said, ‘I expect you will characterise my phone call, Bruce, as begging, grovelling and gagging.’ Yes, he is absolutely right. We gave an undertaking to have this bill passed in this place by 11 o’clock so that it could get back to the Senate to be dealt with. And guess what? The minister has missed another deadline. He could not even deliver on that timeframe we had accommodated for him in another act of constructive and helpful engagement in this process. This is more about saving Stephen Conroy from himself. This is too important to leave to this minister who is making error after error after error.

We have seen, I think, six items of government business already transacted here this morning. So urgent was this that the minister put out the most ridiculous press statement yesterday having a go at me and the coalition for rescuing him from his own incompetence. Is there no end to the gall of this man? Does he think running the government is like some factional deal where you just muscle up and ignore the truth? Come on, Minister! He is having a go at us for actually facilitating the process that he could not organise for himself. The time available was not enough to deal with the government’s own amendments, but then when our amendments were universally recognised in the telecommunications community as a vast improvement on what the government was offering he got cranky about that.

There is a reason the minister does not know the mood of the telecommunications community: he does not talk to them. It was up to the opposition to discover that there had secretly been some government amendments dropped out there. There was no notification to us. It was done the night before and then we were expected to accommodate the shambolic process that he had overseen. He did not consult anybody. If he had, he would have known that there is considerable support right across the telecommunications community, across the users of these services and across policymakers and analysts for the actions the opposition has taken. But he would not know that because, just as he did not contact the opposition about their amendments and did not consult anybody about them, he certainly did not consult any of the key stakeholders that these amendments are aimed at. So the press release that came out yesterday accusing us of slowing up the process when we saved his bacon is just more of the hubris we expect from this minister.

What we have before us today is a bill to make crucial information available on a tender process that has already being going for a month on $4.7 billion of taxpayer money on a proposition that they cannot even define operating in a regulatory environment that they have not even canvassed. They have not even discussed the kind of network architecture they want to deliver and they will not even raise what the implications will be for cost and pricing for users, when all the evidence points to the fact that it will cost more to get your communications services. It could be an inflationary measure, if it is handled poorly, and the evidence is there that the minister will handle it poorly.

This is a bill which got dropped into the Senate on the second last day it sat, which sat around in the Senate yesterday and the day before while they did other things that were thought to be more important. The minister then claimed that we were holding up the bill because we were facilitating the debate on it, and now it is here in the House a day later. It was introduced about 30 minutes ago and you will see the government gag the debate on this bill just so it can get back to the Senate. What kind of a shambles is this? When a national security bill needs to be dealt with quickly, we have seen the parliament work this process nimbly. A bill can be introduced, discussed, debated and dealt with on the one day. This is rare. There are some national security examples. There was the need to respond to the equine flu. There have been issues with unquestioned bipartisan support such as the increases in veterans pensions that I oversaw in the previous government. But, with this thing, the only interest we are protecting is Senator Conroy’s because he has made such a hash of it.

Let us run through some of the issues. What we will be voting on shortly is a bill that has just arrived. I had to ask Senator Conroy’s staff, so worryingly truncated is this process, if the bill actually is what we think it is because nobody has had a chance to look at it. No-one has had a chance to confirm that the amendments that were passed in the Senate are actually in the bill or that the amendments the government seeks today to introduce and pass, which will knock off those improvements to the bill, are the right amendments. No-one knows that. Parliamentary scrutiny is relying on the word of Senator Conroy’s staff. I take their word because I respect the staff. I feel for them. Imagine working for Senator Conroy! He cannot organise anything. Here is another example of how this opposition is working constructively and helpfully to bail him out of his own problems.

The debate today is a fascinating one. We are looking at amendments that were passed in the Senate that followed an out-and-out condemnation by the Parliament of Australia of Senator Conroy and the Rudd government for their disorganised and unprofessional fibre-to-the-node process. It is a shambolic process. The tender does not have information to enable people to build. This is $4.7 billion of taxpayers’ money and nobody, including the senator, can define what it is going to be spent on. At a recent communications industry conference, one of the leading thinkers in the industry said, ‘There is more detail in a tender to buy photocopiers than there is in this $4.7 billion taxpayer spend.’ So this is what we are faced with.

It is terrific that the minister for infrastructure is opposite because we have also heard wonderful words about evidence based policy, how Infrastructure Australia will be our saviour and that one of its tasks will be to properly evaluate important infrastructure projects to identify the public interest, what problems we are seeking to address, how you go about evaluating various avenues of taxpayer involvement—whether it is a regulatory change, a facilitation role or direct investment—and whether the competition framework is supportive of this or not, so that that sound public policy process that Labor keeps heralding actually will amount to something. It was all about them having a slush fund to spend prior to the last election.

If you believe anything that the member for Grayndler has said about this process, you would support the opposition’s amendments that seek to put into this process those very elements that make sure there is value for money for the taxpayer. I do not have time to detail them, but anybody even remotely interested in sound public policy would see that our amendments aim to deliver what is expected of any government spending $4.7 billion of taxpayer money. All of those requirements are completely absent in this process where a political sound bite is now halfway through a tender process and there is no definition of what the public policy goals are, what the regulatory environment might look like, what is going to happen to people who might not succeed or what infrastructure is out there currently. There has been no discussion whatsoever about that yet people are expected to put in a bid.

I would invite any of those Labor Party members who spoke so majestically about the Infrastructure Australia Bill to see if they can cope with their first test: either they are in this place pumping out hubris and cheap political slogans as apparatchiks of the Labor Party or they actually believe in something. If any of these people—the members for Grayndler, Page, New England, Maribyrnong, Charlton, Shortland, Oxley, Forde, Isaacs, Banks, Werriwa, Ballarat, Wills, Throsby, Newcastle, Brand, Robertson, Lingiari, Blair or Blaxland—believe any word they said on the Infrastructure Australia Bill, they will support us, because that is what we have put in the bill and what their government wants to cut out of it today.

Another issue that is in the bill is the careful management of the information that is available. If you do not know why that is important, just read today’s newspapers. If you do not know why our confidentiality provisions and the duties of and obligations on public officials are important, have a look at today’s newspapers. Have a look at some of the clips today that already report some disquiet about the information that has been provided voluntarily, because of a leak. Read that eminent journalist’s article today. This protected carrier information must be properly handled, not only by the carriers and those developing bids but by the public servants involved in this process, and the coalition has put amendments in place to make sure it is. Why is that important? Read today’s newspapers.

The G9 consortium is upset that the material voluntarily provided by Telstra is inadequate, and they go to some length to describe concerns about rural and regional information. How do they know that? On the basis of a leak. Was it Telstra’s leak to damage their self-interest, or where did it come from? Ask yourself why these provisions are necessary, why there needs to be constraint on the use of the material, why there needs to be some encouragement for voluntary provision—which is why our amendment is superior to the government’s—and why there is a need to completely remake the expert panel and get the proper expertise on it to carry out the jobs of those agencies like the ACCC, the Productivity Commission and the Infrastructure Australia group, which have been sidelined by this shambolic process that Robert Mugabe would be proud to call his own.

Carriers have been gagged from debating throughout this process. The parliament is about to be gagged as well. To the speakers on our side who wanted to speak to it: I feel very sad for you that something as important as this has been handled so appallingly. The gag is now going to be subjected to this parliament. This is an abomination and will stand as one of the worst days in parliament this building has seen for many years. (Time expired)