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Monday, 15 November 2010
Page: 2262

Mr CIOBO (6:25 PM) —I am pleased to rise to speak on the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer Safeguards) Bill 2010. This is an interesting debate about how this nation addresses telecommunications issues. This has been an industry with perhaps the most rapid convergence and evolution of telecommunications, digital media, entertainment and various components that, in an increasing fashion, are coming together through a variety of mediums and through a variety of technologies. What we see in telecommunications is a difficulty from a policymaking perspective—and this applies both to coalition members and to members of the Labor Party in government—about the framework that we put in place to best deal with the issues and the policy responses required to do effectively two things. The first is to ensure that safeguards are in place—that there is a framework that enables a competitive environment across a range of currently separate but related industries. For example, pay television was once the domain of easily definable television operators and broadcasters but is now increasingly also the domain of mobile telephony and of fixed line broadcasting over, for example, pay TV. Increasingly, there is the ability to use the internet—in particular, high-speed bandwidth—to access, on demand, the kinds of media that people would like to watch on their computer screens or through streaming on their television screens.

Likewise, take radio: only a matter of a decade or so ago radio was discrete. It was something that could be pointed at, something transmitted wirelessly, by broadcasters. In our respective electorates across Australia, we had radio stations that we could listen to. But, increasingly, with the convergence of technology and the convergence of media, we see that radio can now be accessed both wirelessly—in the traditional sense of the word ‘wireless’—and over the internet. It is possible with a few simple clicks to start listening to a radio station effectively anywhere around the world.

This is an exciting period of time. Part of what this bill is directed towards is the grappling with a policy challenge that all parliamentarians face about the way in which we establish the framework that enables the ongoing convergence, development and deployment of new technology—the ongoing investment in research and technology and the ongoing commercial imperative that will drive what is required from the marketplace as we trial and error new technologies, new broadcasters, new approaches and new policy frameworks. By the same token, we also need to be mindful that there are at stake some legacy issues. That is the second limb that I referred to earlier. We know that Telstra—Telecom, as it was—was the monopoly supplier of telecommunications in this country. We know that Telstra was the behemoth of the Australian government that over the years has been increasingly subjected to a competitive tempo and to different competitors entering the marketplace.

With the convergence of technology, there is no doubt that Telstra’s competitors are now many more in number and also, in the delivery mechanism, quite profoundly different to what they were, for example, only 10 years ago. Part of the bill that is before the House today is the government’s attempted policy response to dealing with this convergence issue and to a rapidly evolving marketplace.

The coalition has some concerns about this bill. Although we are supportive, subject to the amendments that we have moved, the coalition’s concerns come down to several key factors, which in essence can be summarised by the fact that for all intents and purposes it would appear the government is holding a gun at the head of Telstra—and, in particular, through Telstra Telstra’s shareholders—with the bill that is currently before the House. The coalition has in the past opposed this bill. We now look at supporting the bill, subject to the amendments that I mentioned, because we recognise that the government has made changes which have improved the bill and has incorporated some of the concerns that the coalition has raised. But we still have amendments that, frankly, the government should look at adopting if it does not want to be political about this matter.

I have the privilege of representing around 100,000 people, many of whom are retirees, both self-funded and pensioners. A large number of these retirees, and people more broadly across my community in Moncrieff, are Telstra shareholders. They may have purchased Telstra shares in the first, second or third tranche of the sale of Telstra and they are looking for a return on the capital that they have invested in that company. Many of them have contacted me, concerned about this government’s plans to erode the market value of the asset that they used their hard-earned money to purchase when Telstra was privatised. That is the reason that, in some respects, the coalition sought to force the government to make changes, because we did not like their approach.

We know that intimidation is a stock standard operating process for many of the trade union movements in this country. We know that there are even elements of that intimidation that flow in the Australian Labor Party today. But, frankly, we should not accept the same kind of intimidation when it comes to one of Australia’s corporate players and to this government’s approach in dealing with what is a very important company, and one of the most widely held companies, in Australia today. That is why the coalition resolutely and steadfastly adopted the view that we would not kowtow to this government’s attempts to intimidate Telstra with respect to its structural separation.

I believe as a matter of economic policy that there are benefits to structural separation; I have always held that view. But the question, as always, is how, once the egg is scrambled, you then go back to making changes. When it comes to the wholesale retail network of Telstra, and when it comes to a rapidly evolving marketplace with myriad technologies and, importantly, myriad delivery mechanisms, it is crucial that the mechanism and the policy approach that government adopts are the correct ones.

There are a number of aspects to this bill that I believe do not achieve the outcomes that are sought. Streamlining access and anticompetitive provisions in the Competition and Consumer Act to promote competition in the telecommunications industry is a noble goal, one I am supportive of, but the amendments that we seek to make will improve the bill. It is up to the Labor government to recognise that we are not overreaching with the changes that we are asking for. We are not overreaching in any way, shape or form and, in fact, the amendments that the coalition is moving in this particular piece of legislation will help to enhance the competitive framework that will apply to Telstra in the retail separation from the wholesale which is sought. While the Labor government insists that the Telstra and NBN Co. arrangement is subject to review by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, a central component of this piece of legislation, the coalition remains concerned that the bill, and in particular section 577BA, explicitly excludes the deal that the government is attempting to achieve from the usual scrutiny of the Competition and Consumer Act. What is more, the bill allows for ministerial interference in the ACCC’s handling of the deal, which in my view further undermines the integrity of the process.

The government claims that this bill will provide Telstra with access to the wireless spectrum required for the next generation of wireless systems but does so only if the separation of Telstra is done to the absolute satisfaction of government. This goes to the very matter that I raised at the outset of my speech—that is, that it is, effectively, akin to the government holding a gun to the head of Telstra and, I believe more importantly, to the shareholders and owners of Telstra, many of whom live on the Gold Coast in my electorate of Moncrieff.

We have proposed four amendments which we believe, effectively, guarantee the integrity of the separation process by reducing opportunities for government interference in the decision-making processes of the ACCC. Subject to approval by Telstra shareholders, the proposed separation should be delivered in a manner that is cost effective, promotes competition and imposes no greater cost on taxpayers than is absolutely necessary. That is a relatively straightforward proposal which is worthy of support in this chamber. Telstra, like other regulated utilities such as gas, electricity and water, should of course be left free to charge prices that deliver a reasonable rate of return on its assets. This can be achieved through the amendments that have been put forward, which will place taxpayer interests ahead of those of Telstra, NBN Co. and the government.

We know that this government is obsessed with the need to roll out its NBN Co. It is a linchpin for this government, whose members wander round Australia trumpeting NBN Co. as the great new, almost Soviet-era style project of this government, promising rapid broadband to everyone, with no mention of the asterisks and all the associated costs and no mention of the debt that this government has racked up as part of its grand vision for broadband in this country. That is why we say, through the amendments that we have put forward: let us put the interests of taxpayers first and foremost.

The amendments will explicitly ensure that the Competition and Consumer Act applies to the NBN Co. and Telstra deal. The amendments will allow parliament to disallow ministerial directions to the ACCC regarding the NBN Co. and Telstra deal. The amendments will remove the threat of cable television sell-off or limited access to wireless spectrum should Telstra not separate in a way that the government approves, which goes back to the issue about there being a gun at the head of Telstra management and, importantly, Telstra shareholders. And the amendments will restore merit reviews and procedural fairness to the ACCC’s enforcement of the new access pricing regime.

These amendments ought to be supported by the government. They are amendments that place taxpayers’ interests at No. 1 on the list. They are amendments that protect the capital that has been invested by those million-plus shareholders across Australia and, importantly, they dilute this government’s complete absorption when it comes to the political pursuit of its NBN Co. at basically any cost. It should be watered down. It should be diluted. And it should be replaced by a primary interest that is more concerned with taxpayers’ outcomes and shareholders’ outcomes over and above the political outcomes sought by government. I certainly urge the House to support the amendments to this bill that the coalition will put forward.