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Thursday, 25 November 2010
Page: 2253

Senator XENOPHON (4:12 PM) —I think Senator Cormann’s coffee may be cold by now. If I may speak to the amendments we are dealing with—that might be a radical notion at this stage of the debate—I indicate that I will be supporting Senator Ludlam’s amendment, one of the premises of which is:

… the availability of accessible and affordable carriage services that enhance the welfare of Australians.

After all, that is what it is about. It should be about ensuring the maximum benefit for consumers and small businesses. It has huge benefits both at a social level and in the potential for productivity in this nation.

I secured a number of undertakings from the Prime Minister as a result of meetings that I had with her on the afternoon and evening of 23 November and some subsequent discussions on the morning of 24 November. As a result of that, the Prime Minister provided me with a letter. I think it is important, for the benefit of transparency, that that letter be tabled, which I will seek leave to do in a moment. It was an open letter; it was not a confidential letter. I do not think the government would have any difficulty with that. It is consistent with what the Prime Minister has previously said in relation to this, and I am grateful for the details it contains.

However, I do note that the letter is dated 23 November, which on my reckoning was Tuesday. It is now 25 November. I can assure the chamber—and I want to make this absolutely clear—that this letter was only received by me yesterday around lunchtime. I just want to make it clear that, whilst the letter is dated 23 November, it clearly refers to discussions that I had with the Prime Minister. It says: ‘I am writing after our discussions yesterday.’ Those discussions actually took place on 23 November. So there has been a mix-up with the date, and I think that can be confirmed through the Prime Minister’s office. In the interests of transparency, I seek leave to table that letter so that it is on the public record.

Leave granted.

Senator XENOPHON —Thank you. I so tender that letter. I also wish to indicate for the benefit of the committee as a whole that I and my staff have been working around the clock on a number of amendments—and I again thank Evelyn Ek for her work on this. I will be replacing the amendments that I have filed with another set of amendments. Some I will be withdrawing for the purpose of expediting the resolution of the committee stage, because Senator Ludlam is moving almost identical amendments—and I would join with Senator Ludlam, if I could, in terms of co-sponsoring his amendments.

I have had extensive discussions with the minister’s office and the Prime Minister’s office as well as other agencies, such as the ACCC, in relation to the amendments that I will be moving relating to transparency and greater accountability for consumers. An appropriate set of amendments has been struck in relation to that. I would have liked to have gone further, but I am trying to be pragmatic and realistic in relation to those amendments. These amendments go to the issue of transparency.

I note that the government has agreed to establish a joint committee on the National Broadband Network to provide progress reports every six months to the parliament until completion of the project. To quote from the Prime Minister’s letter:

The composition of the committee will mirror the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit and it will report on the roll-out process, report against the final business plan, assess risk management processes and look at other matters. The committee which determines a relevance to its deliberations ... The committee will commence its work from 1 July 2011 and draw on any relevant material from previous committees.

It was also made clear to me by the government that, in addition to the voting members of that committee, all members can be participating members of that committee. I would like to get clarification on that from the government so that it is put on the record. It does not have to be now, but I would like this clarification during the course of this committee stage.

It was made very clear to me that, if a senator or member who is not a voting member wants to attend that committee to ask questions about particular concerns for their constituents or on behalf of their electorate, they will be able to do so. The government also indicated—and, again, Senator Lundy may wish to confirm this—in my discussions with Senator Wong that the Productivity Commission will receive the appropriate resources it needs insofar as it will be advising this committee, which I think is useful in terms of transparency.

Senator Macdonald and others have made the point that this summary of the business plan—the 36-page summary—is not much chop. I respectfully disagree. It does give an additional degree of information that was not there in the public arena. I was not prepared to take a confidential briefing—a briefing that meant that I would have had to stand up in this chamber and say, ‘I know things about the business plan but I can’t tell my colleagues about it.’ I thought it was important that the opposition and the public could have access to that information.

Senator Ian Macdonald —Thanks for that, but it doesn’t tell us much.

Senator XENOPHON —Senator Macdonald says: ‘Thanks for that but it doesn’t tell you much.’ I think it does give some further information.

Senator Ian Macdonald —Can you answer the questions I asked Senator Conroy? He couldn’t answer them.

Senator XENOPHON —I am not the minister. I will never be a minister in any government—Labor, coalition or Green. That will never happen.

Senator Ronaldson —So that wasn’t part of the deal, then?

Senator XENOPHON —That was not part of the deal, I reassure you, Senator Ronaldson. So that is where it is at in relation to the process issues. As to the issue of the structural separation of Telstra, I think the government does have a difficult task. Some coalition senators, in their heart of hearts, will acknowledge that the way that Telstra was privatised and structured—with one of the highest levels of vertical integration anywhere in the world for a telco—has been bad for consumers and bad for the development of telecommunications in this country. I think the government has had an invidious task of trying to unscramble the egg.

I should also say that Telstra was quite upset with some of the amendments I have proposed—screaming blue murder, in a sense, saying, ‘This will be the end of us if there are strong competition principles.’ I would like to remind Telstra that I do not think that there are any Telstra representatives or members for Telstra in this chamber or in the other chamber. The parliament has a job to do in the interests of all Australians. I understand the difficulties involved. I understand that David Thodey, as the chief executive officer of Telstra, has had a rocky time lately. We saw what the chair of the Future Fund did last week, as he is entitled to do. I think it indicates that there is an opportunity here to structurally separate Telstra. It has not been smooth sailing for the Telstra board. David Thodey, to his credit, has been much more engaging than the previous CEO of Telstra. That has been a good thing for public policy in this country.

I think the imperative is to structurally separate. The issue of the NBN legislation is a separate issue. Whilst the two are interlinked, what will happen next year in terms of the whole NBN Co. legislation is a separate issue. I have been upfront with the government and they know that I will reserve my position on that legislation in terms of the consumer safeguards and ensuring the greatest degree of transparency and competition in the marketplace so that consumers can get the best benefit and also ensuring a continual level of transparency and scrutiny for the project through some of the mechanisms described.

I indicate that I support Senator Ludlam’s amendment. I am hoping that my amendments will be provided shortly. My office has prepared explanatory notes—not explanatory memoranda—in relation to those amendments to assist my colleagues. Given the time available and given the process, I thought that was the right thing to do. Again, I thank Evelyn Ek for that. I hope she will still be working for me after this week from hell for my office. I am looking forward to further stages of the committee’s deliberations on this bill.