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Monday, 25 October 2010
Page: 1422

Mr HARTSUYKER (11:21 AM) —I would like to reflect for a moment on that contribution, which was, I think, not much more than personal abuse. It was very low on facts, very low on vision and very low on the important concept that we should be accountable for the taxpayers’ money that we spend. In the debate that we are going to have on this issue in this place, we have one side, the government, which is running from scrutiny. And it is absolutely important that when we spend one dollar of taxpayers’ money we should be getting value for money for that dollar, because our taxpayers work hard to provide the funds which we spend on their behalf through this place. Yet we have a government that says: ‘We are going to embark on the largest public infrastructure project in this nation’s history. We’re going to be visionary. We’re going to be nation building. But we’re not going to do a cost-benefit analysis.’ And why is that?

If I were recommending a project to the Australian people, I would welcome a cost-benefit analysis because it would show that the assumptions I had made in putting the program together were correct. I would not welcome it if I had been fudging the figures, I would not welcome it if I had been gilding the lily, I would not welcome it if I had been overly optimistic and I would not welcome it if I had been dreaming. I say to the members opposite: which of the things I have just mentioned apply to you? Quite clearly, you are all about avoiding scrutiny. Quite clearly, you are not willing to put your project to the test; otherwise, you would welcome the cost-benefit analysis.

The opposition is not saying we should stop the bus; the opposition is saying we have got to make sure the bus is heading in the right direction, we have got to make sure the bus’s engine is going to operate efficiently and we have got to make sure the bus is going to get us to our destination efficiently and effectively. Governments deal in priorities. Quite clearly, high-speed communications are an important priority for this country, but they need to be judged on the basis of the alternative types of investments we can make. For the money that is proposed to be spent on this project we could complete the Pacific Highway. For the money that is proposed to be spent on this project we could upgrade our health system beyond our wildest dreams. Yet Senator Conroy and the government seem to be saying: ‘It doesn’t matter what the opportunity cost of capital is—I have a dream! Build it and they will come. But please don’t do a cost-benefit analysis. Please don’t establish a committee that is going to examine in great detail the progress of this project.’

I think it is very sad that the government is so hell-bent on pushing ahead without scrutiny. What would the committee that is the subject of this motion achieve? The proposed committee would be working in real time and looking at issues as they arise. It would be taking evidence from NBN Co. in real time and checking that the project is performing as they believe it should be and as the Australian people have the right to expect it to. We do not want to see a Building the Education Revolution disaster or a pink batts disaster and then be faced with having to clean up after the event. We want to build a fence at the top of the cliff, not send an ambulance to the bottom of the cliff to clean up the mess afterwards. And that is the real situation that we face here. We do not want to have an Auditor-General’s report in X years’ time saying $43 billion was blown—was wasted. We want to make sure that this project is kept on track. Based on their performance with regard to the pink batts program, computers in schools and Building the Education Revolution, this government have a very poor record of keeping projects on track.

I remember that the member for Leichhardt used to have a T-shirt with a big crocodile on it. The crocodile was licking its lips and, at the top of the T-shirt, it said ‘Trust me!’ I really do not feel well disposed to trust the government based on their financial performance to date. The implementation report by McKinsey assumes that everything has to go right, that the take-up rate has to be around 90 per cent and that the costs need to be kept under control. Where is the contingency? Where is the provision for the things that are going to pop up? We do not know what they are but we sure do know that they are coming. Where is that prudent contingency that would allow for the almost inevitable cost overruns? We have seen discussions about labour force shortages. Where is the contingency for that? Where is the sensitivity analysis with regard to blowouts in labour costs, as opposed to the total cost for the completion of the project? Where is that? I have not seen it. It has not been published. The government give me no confidence that they can train the workforce, deliver the project on time and ensure that wages do not blow out to a point where the project becomes unviable. It is just like that crocodile: ‘Trust me!’ The coalition are about ensuring that this project is properly analysed. The government are about trying to sell a dream to the Australian people. It is a project that they are not willing to subject to scrutiny.

The Prime Minister is promising that all people will pay the same wholesale price for broadband. But counter that with the fact that there will be different costs in providing services to different parts of the country and the government’s proposal to sell off a proportion of this project. Will a rational investor purchase it based on regulated prices? What is the likelihood that the government will be able to sell this project as a private-sector investment? We have already seen the government retreat from the original proposal that it should be an investment that would be attractive for the public to invest in; we are seeing a very rapid retreat from that.

I would also like to mention the very important issue of opt in, opt out. We had a pilot program in Tasmania—and it was so successful that the Tasmanian government has to adopt an opt-out model! We have not seen the people who were provided with this technology as a pilot for the whole of Australia racing to take it up and embrace it. We have seen what I would say is very much a reluctant take-up. What does that say to a prudent investor? A prudent government would look at the situation and perhaps alarm bells should be ringing. The take-up rate is not what they were expecting. What does the take-up rate in Tasmania say for the projections of the McKinsey report? It says to me that the projections are very much at risk. It says to me that a prudent investor would exercise caution. But the government do not believe that is so. Despite the risk, they want to push ahead. They do not want a cost-benefit analysis and they do not want to have an inquiry that could subject this project to scrutiny as it progresses. They do not want to see the Australian public informed of cost overruns or time delays in construction or low take-up rates. They want to be able to conceal that. The government’s strategy on NBN Co. has been very much a strategy of concealment.

In estimates, we have seen Senator Conroy ducking and weaving, arguing and trying to avoid simple questions that were aimed at getting the sort of information that the Australian people have a right to receive. People in regional and rural Australia, quite clearly, want high-speed broadband. They believe the priority should be given first to those areas with the worst services. That is the coalition’s point of view. Instead, this government is all about charging ahead, under a veil of secrecy, on a project that it cannot demonstrate is financially viable. They are, in fact, keeping the truth from the Australian people and concealing issues such as the take-up of broadband. Why are they not upfront with these sorts of issues? Getting information out of the government as to how this project is progressing is like getting blood out of a stone. This motion is a very important one, as this committee would go some distance toward providing the sort of transparency that Australian taxpayers want and deserve.