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Tuesday, 12 May 2009
Page: 2454

Senator FISHER (5:49 PM) —I present the second interim report of the Senate Select Committee on the National Broadband Network, entitled Another fork in the road to national broadband.

Ordered that the report be printed.

Senator FISHER —by leave—I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

It is with pleasure that I rise to speak to the tabling of this report, appropriately titled Another fork in the road to national broadband. This committee is currently scheduled to table its final report in the week commencing 22 June. In the course of tabling this report I want to deliver some thanks, firstly and most importantly, to the secretariat—namely, Alison Kelly and Veronica Gover—for their dedication and continued hard work. Likewise, the committee wishes to thank Jonathan Chowns from the Parliamentary Library for his behind-the-scenes assistance. I also want to thank the stakeholders and those who gave their time and dedicated their expertise to making submissions to this committee and appearing before it. I also want to thank my colleagues on the committee of all political persuasions for their hard, dedicated and very constructive work on this significant part of the government’s policy changes.

In terms of the road thus far with the National Broadband Network, this committee was set up in June 2008 to inquire into the government’s then announced national broadband network policy. This committee has had almost 10 days of public hearings. We have received almost 40 written submissions and we tabled our first interim report in December last year. This is our second interim report. The committee has chosen to table this second interim report to summarise the road thus far, given its recent fork. I am referring of course to the government’s announcement on 7 April this year to essentially abandon its National Broadband Network round 1 policy promise and replace it with another, to which I will refer as its National Broadband Network round 2 promise. In the process, it terminated the request for proposals underway under NBN round 1 and arguably wasted some $20 million of taxpayers’ money and some 18 months of time, during which consumers waited to see how the government was going to deliver on its promise with respect to NBN round 1.

The desertion of NBN round 1 by the government left many questions unanswered, a number of which have been teased out through the work of this committee. They include the ‘Who?’, the ‘What?’, the ‘When?’, the ‘Where?’, the ‘Why?’, the ‘How?’ and the ‘How much?’ In terms of the ‘Who?’, NBN round 1, said the government, would reach 98 per cent of Australians. Yet the government repeatedly refused to demonstrate to the population who was in the 98 per cent and who was in the left-out two per cent. They repeatedly refused to demonstrate whether city or country were in or whether the 98 per cent was based on per capita or households or businesses or premises or something different again.

In terms of the ‘What?’, the government repeatedly refused to show with any clarity whether people would get the promised minimum speed of up to 12 megabits or something different. The government was unable to stick to its time frames in terms of the ‘When?’ The tender process was treated as an elastic process, by way of example. With respect to the ‘How?’ was it to be fibre to the home or was it to be fibre to the node? Were the services and access thereto to be rolled in or rolled out? Was the then National Broadband Network round 1 to be delivered in partnership with the private sector, as promised, or something different? At what cost? The government postulated that it would cost some $4.7 billion, yet this committee heard evidence from experts that it would cost that and then some, and that is under the government’s NBN round 1. At what price for the consumer? Was the consumer to be invited to pay more for the same or less? These questions remain unanswered.

These questions are much the same as those now posed by NBN round 2, but the thing about NBN round 2 is that it is a bigger promise and then some, and this government’s bigger promises come with even bigger questions. They come with the ‘Who?’ The government says that 90 per cent of Australians will now get fibre to the home. The government has yet to show who will be in the 90 per cent and who will be in the 10 per cent. Ten per cent of the Australian population is some two million Australians. The government says that towns and cities and communities with populations of less than 1,000 will not be in the 90 per cent. When you look at the names of the towns and cities and communities that the government has proffered as being those who will be left out of the 90 per cent, you get 103 towns in South Australia and some half a million Australians. Where is the government hiding the other 1.5 million Australians who are in the 10 per cent and who ain’t going to get and ain’t going to be part of the 90 per cent fibre to the home? Just as Minister Conroy failed to show us his nodes with NBN round 1, he is failing to show us his maps with NBN round 2. The Australian community deserves to know that. They deserve nothing less.

Then there is the ‘What?’ The government is promising users speeds of up to a hundred times faster than they are currently getting. Rural and regional Australians, and in particular rural and regional South Australians, know that a hundred times nix is still nix. ‘When?’ The government is suggesting it will take some eight years to deliver on NBN round 2 at best guesstimates thus far. Others suggest it is going to take as long as 10 years. The government’s implementation study, says Minister Conroy, is to be finished by the end of this year. Yet the government’s advertisements—under the hand of its department—published on recent weekends, advertise for a consultant to undertake the study, with the study to be completed in the early part of next year. The time frame is already being treated as elastic by the government.

Then there is the ‘Where?’ Where is this going to happen? Tasmanians are to be congratulated. They are being promised by our Prime Minister ‘top tier’ in terms of the National Broadband Network. The Prime Minister says that it is possible to do in Tasmania what he is now promising by way of ‘top tier’ and says that it is ‘not necessarily possible’ in the rest of Australia. Well, ‘not necessarily’ displays that he knows that it is possible in some other places for some other communities for some of the time. Who are those people? Where do they live? And where is the government’s plan to deliver in those other places where it could be possible?

‘How?’ Will this NBN round 2 be delivered in partnership with the private sector or will the private sector sit back and wait and see it fail and then wait for the government to entice it to participate? ‘At what cost?’ The government has steadfastly failed to provide a commercial case for NBN round 2, which is projected—even on the government’s own say-so—to cost almost tenfold what NBN round 1 would have, at some $43 billion. ‘At what price for consumers?’ At this stage the experts are saying ‘some two to three times the price that consumers currently pay for services with which they are provided’.

In NBN round 1 the government was spectacularly successful at muzzling the participants in the process with a formal commercial-in-confidence gag during the tender process. The difficulty with NBN round 2 is that there is no formal gag at this stage but rather there is an informal one generated by the lack of certainty—by which potential stakeholders and potential participants in the industry would of course be best advised to keep their powder dry. So they stay silent, with effectively a muzzle that is even more pervasive and arguably even more powerful than the formal gag applied by the government in NBN round 1. With NBN round 2 and its bigger promises come bigger questions. The government’s promise deserves scrutiny, the government’s policy deserves scrutiny and the government’s process deserves scrutiny. I commend the report to the Senate. (Time expired)