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Tuesday, 20 March 2012
Page: 2219

Senator CONROY (VictoriaMinister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Digital Productivity) (11:20): I thank Senator Fisher for her question. None of the amendments that are being put forward are controversial. In fact, the first two groups of amendments were recommended by the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee in its report on the bills. They were actually recommended. So they were discussed by the Senate committee, which is the proper place for it to happen, and we have taken up some of the recommendations.

The first group of amendments will enable TUSMA, the new statutory authority set up by one of the bills, to disclose information to the Telecommunications Industry Ombuds­man, the Regional Telecommunications Independent Review Committee and the secretary of the department; the second group of amendments provides that the TUSMA board must include a person with knowledge of consumer affairs; and the third group of amendments relates to the role of TUSMA in managing the migration of voice-only customers from the Telstra copper network to the NBN. The migration of these customers will be helped if the service pro­viders of those customers provide customer information to TUSMA. To do so at the moment, however, may breach the statutory privacy and confidentiality obligations. These amendments enable the provision of information and overcome those issues. A related set of amendments permit disclosure by service providers of information to TUSMA where this may assist TUSMA in carrying out any of its functions or exercising any of its powers. These are similar to arrangements that currently allow information to be disclosed to the ACMA, the ACCC and the TIO.

Once again there was a bit of colour and movement on that side of the chamber, with suggestions that it was not discussed or debated, yet two-thirds of these amendments were actually recommended by a Senate committee that examined this at some length—which I am sure you were involved in, Senator Fisher. Possibly you may not have been, so I may be doing you a disservice. I appreciate that you did have some time off, so you may not have participated all the way through that committee. But this was certainly canvassed by a Senate committee.

It is no surprise to see Senator Macdonald once again demonstrating the hypocrisy of the position of those opposite on the National Broadband Network and the legislation that surrounds it. What this legislation does, for the first time, is correct the mistakes of the previous Howard government when it privatised Telstra as a fully vertically integrated monopoly. You said to Telstra, 'It's your job to make sure the phone boxes stay out there in the broader community. It's your job to manage all of the infrastructure of emergency services on your copper network.' This legislation—

Senator Fisher: Point of order, Mr Chairman: I asked the minister quite a clear question. I think he responded to it in the beginning, and he is now straying to unrelated matters. We have about six minutes left for this debate. I would ask him to finish his answer and sit down—if he has not already—because I have a follow-up question, and I am sure my colleagues do.

The CHAIRMAN: Thank you, Senator Fisher. Senator Conroy has been relevant to the bill. Senator Conroy, I will remind you of the question that was asked.

Senator CONROY: Thank you. As has been noted, I have answered the question, but I am also responding to some comments that were made by Senator Macdonald. I think it is fairly free-ranging if I am responding directly to comments that were made by Senator Macdonald. I think, to be fair to you, Senator Fisher, you were not here, and I do not think Senator Fifield was, but Senator Macdonald is a guilty party. He voted to privatise a vertically integrated monopoly and create the mess that we are cleaning up; this is the final part of the legislation to clean it up. The government, for the first time, are making a contribution towards the costs of the universal service obligation for those in our community that have the worst access to telecommunications services. We are not the party that voted for privatisation that meant that Telstra's mobile phone network did not reach all the places it should. We are not the party—

Senator Fisher: Point of order, Mr Chairman: the minister indicated that the government is moving three amendments. He tried to suggest that two-thirds of those amendments were the subject of inquiry by the Senate committee. What he has conveniently misled this chamber about is that the third amendment was not the subject of the committee considerations—

The CHAIRMAN: Senator Fisher, that is not a point of order. Senator Conroy is being relevant and speaking within the ambit of the question before the chair.

Senator CONROY: Thank you. As I said, they were considered by the Senate committee. I did not suggest that the third was, but what I have been arguing is that this is a mess you made. If Telstra wanted to close a phone box in this country, Telstra put a sticker on it and closed it down. We are now taking away the capacity for Telstra to unilaterally rip phone boxes out of the ground—literally rip them out of the ground, as they have been doing around this country—and get rid of them. We now have a different regime so that they are not able to do those things. We have an agency that will have funding from the government for the first time. You never put a cent in.

How was the universal service obligation fund previously done? Telstra would say it does not pay for all the costs of providing the universal service agency, and there is an existing levy on telcos. How was this figure devised? I think one of the former communications ministers from those opposite used to add his mother's age, divide by his shoe size and just make a number up. I know this because I have inherited it. Every year it comes across the table: 'What amount do we want to charge for the universal service obligation levy?' All we have done so far is roll it over, because trying to fathom the way that Senator Alston calculated the universal service obligation levy was actually comical. Nobody in the parliament, the bureaucracy or the industry has ever to this day been able to tell us what the formula was for creating the levy.

We stepped up and said it is time we had a new agency to make the calculations and to look at this levy arrangement. More importantly, for the first time—it did not come from the National Party or from the rural Liberal Party members that Senator Macdonald so proudly boasts of regularly—we have said the government will make a contribution to protecting the telecom­munications services in dollar terms. We are putting money in: $100 million each year into the future. We are putting that forward to the costs of the universal service levy to make sure Telstra cannot just rip phone boxes that people still use out of the ground. We are proud of that and we will not back away from that. This agency allows us to have a role in protecting telecommunications services for the first time. Those opposite, who privatised a vertically integrated monopoly and who were interested only in fattening up the cow for privatisation in the past, should hang their heads in shame and, as you are going to do in a few minutes, vote for this legislation, because it will be the absolute ultimate shame if you oppose an agency that will guarantee the protection of telecommunications services into the future for regional and rural Australians.