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Thursday, 24 March 2011
Page: 3260


Mr TRUSS (Leader of the Nationals) (11:26 AM) —The NBN was born out of Labor’s spin machine. It has been all about rhetoric, which has been excessively lavish. But the delivery has been abysmal. The reality is that this was an idea that was dreamt up when people within the Labor Party machine—the New South Wales Labor Right was no doubt at the core of all this, as it was with everything in the Labor Party over recent times—were looking for extraordinary, over-the-top election promises to pretend that the Rudd government, if it came into power, would be a government of vision which could deliver real things to the Australian people. And so they made a very clear, very precise and very clearly articulated election promise that had more detail in it than most Labor promises. To summarise: Labor said that, after their election in 2007, they would deliver fibre-to-the node broadband speeds of up to 100 megabits per second to 98 per cent of Australians and that the first connections would be made by Christmas 2008. They also said that the cost of this magnificent project would be $4.7 billion. Shortly after the election, Prime Minister Rudd, in this House, reaffirmed that Labor intended to honour all its election promises, including the promise to deliver broadband speeds of 100 megabits per second to 98 per cent of Australians, commencing from Christmas 2008, at a cost of $4.7 billion.

The promise was repeated but, in reality, there was never a plan to deliver it. The plan was never realistic. Where it came from, who knows. But the reality is that it could never be delivered. It was a dishonest promise made to the Australian people. If Labor did not know that the promise was undeliverable, then that simply demonstrates their incompetence in the field. They did not understand what they were asking for, they did not understand what they were promising, and, not surprisingly, they could not deliver.

Bit by bit, the policy has changed. There was another grand announcement. So the situation changed. Instead of delivering the NBN to 98 per cent of the population, Labor decided they would deliver fibre-to-the-home to only 93 per cent of the population. There was no chance of meeting the Christmas 2008 deadline. In fact, the deadline has blown out for years and years, and in discussions over recent days it is clear that it has blown out even further.

Once more, the price drifted from $4.7 billion to $47 billion—the decimal place had been moved! Not just a simple typo: from $4.7 billion to $47 billion! And, of course, the price is still going up. Who knows what it will eventually cost—and it looks like it is at least eight years away, before most people will get any connections at all. And under this scheme, two million Australians miss out on the fibre-to-the-home commitment altogether. Labor just walked away from those people, as though they did not matter. The price went up tenfold, but the number of people actually getting the 100 megabits per second speed has been reduced. That is the nature of Labor in government: the promise completely dishonoured for two million Australians. And of course, I care about those two million Australians, because they are mostly from regional communities. I know Labor does not care much about people who live outside the capitals, but these two million people, who have been slashed from Labor’s promise, are out of sight—they live in remote communities and therefore they don’t matter, and Labor does not care.

What is particularly annoying is that Labor, when they came to office, cancelled the OPEL contract that had been signed by the previous government. This was a plan already in place that had been through the tendering processes. There were a number of parties offering to build it, and the contract was awarded to the OPEL consortium. That consortium would have been delivering broadband to all Australians up to 12 megabits per second by now—everyone would have it! While Labor were talking, the coalition had acted and the coalition’s program was in place for delivery. But Labor cancelled the contract. They said they had a better way. But the better way has not happened—and it does not look like happening. Labor still does not know how they are going to deliver it. That is clearly apparent by the fact that they bring 23 pages of amendments to their own legislation into the parliament, several years after they announced their NBN program. They did not know what they were doing when they made the announcement, and they clearly do not know what they are doing today.

The OPEL consortium would have delivered to all Australians for less than $1 billion of government contribution. We do not know how much of the $47 billion to $50 billion the taxpayers are going to have to pick up for the NBN, but we do know it is tens of billions of dollars. And who knows whether that will ever deliver the value that the government claims. Some of the reasons the government gave for axing the OPEL contract was that it was only going to deliver 12 megabits per second and it was dependent upon wireless. That was not good enough, we were told: you had to have fibre-optic cable for everyone. So they axed the contract. But when it comes to country people, that is all Labor are going to offer under their $47 billion scheme! They are still only going to get wireless or satellite coverage. Twelve megabits is enough for people who live in country areas, according to Labor. The 100 megabits per second is only going to be a promise to people who live in the more densely populated areas.

And when we hear the Labor Party’s rhetoric about how vital it is to have this speed, if we are going to be a modern economy, how vital it is to connect the whole of Australia, they then say, ‘Country people: that doesn’t apply to you; you don’t need these higher speeds.’ That is clearly an insult and a demonstration of where this government’s priorities are. They talk often about a two-speed economy. Writers talk about two-speed economies. And they are referring to the development in the mining areas of particularly Queensland and Western Australia that are doing well. But there is also another two-speed economy that this government is inventing—that is, those who can have 100 megabit speeds and those who cannot; those who are only deserving of 12 megabit speeds.

The other thing that the government tells us is that this 100 megabits is going to be wonderful stuff, because it will enable things like fast connections to schools and to tele-medicine and the like. But the very communities that need the tele-medicine, that do not have the doctors—the ones in the remote communities—are not covered by the promise! They are the ones who are going to be left out. The small country communities that really need the capacity to link into the best technology and make contact with city specialists and the like are those who live in little country towns. And all they are offered is wireless. This government has not thought it through—even the remote schools, where educational achievements are way below the national average. It is an embarrassment to our country that the people who go to schools in small country areas have such poor academic achievements, whether it be in reading, writing and arithmetic—or, for that matter, their capacity to get to university and obtain university degrees. The very people who need these speeds, who need the opportunity to connect to the best systems in the world, are the ones who are not going to get it.

The reality is that this whole program has been a tragedy for people who live in regional areas. Not only do they not have their OPEL broadband connections by now, as they should, but other developments in the telecommunications sectors have been stalled. Labor axed the black spot program for filling in mobile telecommunications black spots. They refused to fund it, even though it was recommended by the reports that were done into the telecommunications services. And there are still hundreds of black spots around, particularly in rural communities. I have been pressing for ages to get mobile phone coverage for a little town called Widgee in my electorate. They were close to the top of the list under the previous government’s black spots program, and most certainly would have got mobile phone coverage well and truly by now. But the government axed this program. When I wrote to the minister about it, he wrote back to me and said, ‘Well, we’ve axed that program because we are instead going to deliver the NBN network, with fast broadband speeds.’ However, Widgee will never get the high-speed broadband that Labor is talking about. They probably will not get wireless! And yet the government has axed the program that would at least give these people mobile phone coverage.

There has been a complete stalling of the provision of infrastructure in the telecommunications field for those people where the installations are not profitable for the telecommunications company. Telstra will not spend the money because they do not know what their future is. The plans of Optus and others are being held in abeyance because they do not know where the government’s NBN program is going to end up. So country people have missed out twice. They have not got the OPEL coverage they should have and they have not got the continuation of the Black Spot Program that the previous government was providing across the nation. And now, to add insult to injury, they are left out of the NBN promise of 100-megabit speeds through fibre-optic cable.

This is a government that has misled all Australians because it has failed to deliver the NBN as it promised it would—on time, on budget and on schedule. It has broken each of the commitments it made in that regard. But, in particular, it has betrayed regional Australians, who will be left out of this massive expenditure, and the people who need it most will not get the speeds that they need to connect to the rest of the world.