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Monday, 25 October 2010
Page: 1424

Ms ROWLAND (11:31 AM) —This motion comprises 18 points of procedure for a joint select committee to examine all aspects of the business of NBN Co. I note that there have been public statements by those opposite urging the independent members of the House to support this motion, as an adjunct to a separate private member’s bill, introduced by the member for Wentworth today.

There is a clear contrast here between Labor’s position and that of the Liberal-National Party. On this side, we are about getting on with the job of delivering high-quality broadband into people’s homes without delay, whereas the implications of the coalition’s position will reinforce the digital divide and the lack of decent broadband services in rural and regional areas.

I note the public rationale given for this proposal—that such a committee will oversee the rollout of the NBN. I know this from my research on the Liberal Party’s website. I am therefore bemused by the slogan, on the same website, that preceded these great platitudes on why it is so imperative to establish such a committee. It says:

Fighting for less talk more action. The Liberals believe infrastructure is about getting things done, not just talking about it.

Well, obviously not. I went from bemused to amused when I clicked on the Liberals’ broadband and telecommunications policy. It is exactly the same document that was universally lampooned at the federal election, and it still says—on its very first page—that the coalition will cancel the NBN.

So, in response to the member for Cowper, who is talking about his team not wanting to stop the bus, I suggest that he should get off that bus. He represents an electorate which has the 20th worst level of broadband penetration in the country—a measly 27.6 per cent. With 150 being the best and one being the worst, he is representing an electorate at number 20. So those opposite are not about transparency; they are about trashing. It is no wonder, then, that in telco circles they have been referring to the member for Wentworth as the shadow minister for dial-up.

Today, I want to present three factual and logical reasons why this proposal for yet another committee to examine NBN Co. should be rejected. I will also provide compelling data which demonstrates why this proposal is contrary to the interests of the constituents who are represented by the independent members in this place.

The first reason is the notion that NBN Co. is somehow lacking in its governance arrangements and oversight of the progress on its principal activity—to build and operate a national broadband network. Hence, there is the need for another layer of supervision of its operations and financing. Such assumptions are ill-conceived and they ignore one of the most basic facts about NBN Co. It is an entity which is subject to the Commonwealth Authorities and Companies Act. It is a Commonwealth company and is classified as a government business enterprise under regulation. What does this mean? As a Commonwealth company, NBN Co. bears a statutory requirement to submit financial reports, directors’ reports and auditors’ reports on its operations. It is subject to a series of other reporting obligations. The finance minister has the power to require interim reports from NBN Co. and those reports must be tabled in both houses of parliament.

But it does not stop there. The obligations on NBN Co. also require its directors to prepare a corporate plan, at least annually, for the responsible minister, and that plan must cover a minimum period of three years. The directors must keep the minister informed about changes to the plan and matters that arise that might significantly affect the achievements of its objectives. Other matters covered by the plan include assumptions about the business environment in which it operates; its investment and financing, including strategies for managing financial risk, financial targets and projections from the company; and an analysis of factors likely to affect achievement of those targets or create significant financial risk for the company or the Commonwealth.

I note the statements by the CEO of NBN Co. in Senate estimates last week, that its corporate plan and business model would be presented to the NBN Co. board, last Friday, and that its board recently signed-off on its annual report for the first full year of its operations—including an unqualified report by its external auditor, the ANAO. I also highlight the stringent reporting requirements prescribed in that act. NBN Co. must keep the responsible minister informed of its operations. It must give reports and documents in relation to those operations, as required by both the minister and the finance minister.

These are not merely issues of internal functioning. These are matters which go to the principal activities of NBN Co., which are stated as:

… to build and operate a new National Broadband Network to deliver telephony and high speed broadband to Australian homes, schools and businesses.

If anyone holds concerns about the operation of NBN Co. that are so grave as to warrant an even fuller degree of parliamentary scrutiny, then they should not beat around with a half-baked excuse for delay in yet another form of inquiry that conducts an unbounded series of reporting and produce a report or series of reports that end up as doorstops.

The existing statutory framework for an entity such as NBN Co. does not allow for anything less than full scrutiny and accountability of its activities. The member for Wentworth misses an important point. There are multiple pieces of legislation before the parliament, or about to come back, including the NBN companies bill and the access arrangements bill, which address many of the issues he has already raised. Against this backdrop, it is difficult to comprehend what this motion would achieve, other than to add an unnecessary distraction from the real debate. There should be a consensus in this place on the need to deliver the benefits of the digital economy to the Australian people, and the vital role of world-class broadband as part of that delivery.

This brings me to the second point of my argument. Whilst the proponents of this motion have couched their motivations in the alleged pursuit of transparency, I put it to those here that yet another parliamentary committee would in fact be the least effective mechanism to oversee its roll-out. NBN Co. already has the things that are needed to ensure that it has an effective roll-out and effective oversight. Far from holding a view that its operations are faultless, I believe that it is the combination of factors operating together, often in a state of tension, which keeps an entity like itself focused and in check. I therefore put to the proponents of this motion that if there is an aspect of NBN Co.’s operations which are deficient, they should be identified and dealt with directly and not couched in yet another referral to a committee, with the sole motivation of delay.

Finally, there has been much said about the realities of the timing of the Commonwealth parliamentary committee process, which, as a practitioner in this field I have observed. I have had cause to analyse and assist in the preparation of what seemed to be countless parliamentary inquiries into broadband, including that of the Senate Select Committee on the National Broadband Network and its five reports. We have a duty to the citizens of Australia to avoid political expediency and obstructionist tactics and to focus on an efficient delivery of this vital piece of national infrastructure.

But do not take my word for it; look at the evidence. As I mentioned earlier, one only needs to examine the ranking of Australian electorates in terms of households with a broadband connection. Out of 150 electorates the member for Cowper represents an electorate which has one of the worst penetration rates in the country, at 27.6 per cent. The member for Hinkler will speak next; only 32 electorates in Australia fare worse than his. For the member for New England, barely a quarter of his household constituency has a broadband connection. The member for Lyne has the 18th worst in the nation. The member for Denison has the 44th worst ranking out of 150. And I do not think my own electorate of Greenway is good enough; it is ranked around the top 30, at position 120, but there are still less than 50 per cent of households with a broadband connection. And this is after 12 years of coalition government, with 18 failed broadband plans. This is the best they could come up with.

I can go back to my constituents at the end of every sitting week, look them in the eye and tell them that I am doing my best in this place to fight for real high-speed broadband, but tactics like this motion stand against the residents I represent in Riverstone—the site of the first Sydney metro roll-out of the NBN—and the constituents of New England, Lyne and Denison, moving out of the mere 30-per-cent-and-below bracket for broadband penetration.

To those who think this is somehow a noble and justified motion I say this: show me that groundswell of 74.8 per cent of households in New England who do not have broadband who think it is a great idea to delay the NBN roll-out; show me the 72.6 per cent of households in Lyne who think they will get access to faster, more affordable broadband if the issue is shifted off to yet another parliamentary committee.

I am all in favour of oversight of the operations of NBN Co.—and the Australian public would expect nothing less—but at least I do not think the Australian public are so naive as to believe this motion is sincere in its motivations. Let’s pass Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer Safeguards) Bill 2010, let’s bring on the NBN companies bill and the access arrangements bill and let’s finally give Australians the high-speed broadband they deserve.