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Monday, 14 September 2009
Page: 9373

Mrs MOYLAN (12:52 PM) —I rise to speak on Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (National Broadband Network Measures—Network Information) Bill 2009. This bill is not individually influential but does form part of the legislation that is necessary for the government to come good with its promise to deliver a national broadband network, so it is part of that process. It is because I recognise the importance of the universal access to fast, affordable and reliable broadband that I am very pleased to have the opportunity to speak. It is certainly an issue that is enormously important in an electorate like Pearce which, although it has a number of urban cells, has a large rural and regional component. At the moment, it is people in those outer areas who are having difficulty in accessing broadband services.

It is unfortunate that, despite the announcement of a $43 billion spend on broadband services, constituents in those outer areas—like Pearce—are not likely to benefit. It is interesting to have a look at a breakdown of some ABS figures in relation to that. For example, over 1,000 towns would miss out under the government’s broadband plan as it has been announced. Towns with 1,000 people or less will not receive high-speed fibre-to-the-premises broadband services, as has been outlined by the government as part of its $43 billion program. ABS lists over 1,000 locations—1,033—with a population of less than 1,000 people. These are the people who will miss out on some of these services that will cost the Australian taxpayer dearly. That represents about half a million Australian people living in those towns, Australia wide. If you looks at Western Australia, 113 towns—or 53,697 people—are likely to miss out on broadband services under the government’s proposal and, in the electorate of Pearce, 21 communities—or 12,142 people—have been dumped in the too-hard basket by the government and will wait years for improved services.

It is certainly a major issue when I am travelling around those country and regional areas. They are not so far out of the city—some of them are maybe an hour and a half’s drive—and yet they do not have access to a reasonable service. In this day and age, when a lot of people run their businesses from home using broadband services, it is a great detriment not to be able to decentralise from the cities and live in rural areas and run businesses from those locations. It is a great detriment to many people who live in the electorate of Pearce.

This bill amends part 27A of the Telecommunications Act 1997, which enables the minister to require telecommunications carriers to give information to the Commonwealth about their telecommunication networks. That is not just carriers, I note. In 2008, when part 27A was enacted, the Commonwealth required this information so that it could provide it to those firms that intended to submit a proposal for the government’s first—now terminated—fibre-to-the-node national broadband network, or what is known as NBN mark 1. This bill removes a sunset clause which made most of part 27A inoperative after 26 May 2009 and expands the class of firms from which information can be compulsorily obtained to include utilities. As I said, it goes beyond just telecommunication carriers. There are other companies that will be subjected to this. It also changes the purpose for which the information can now be used. Information is to be received for the purpose of the implementation study that the Commonwealth is to conduct and by the company NBN Co. that the Commonwealth has established to own and operate a new fibre-to-the-home national broadband network, NBN mark 2.

In this day and age, high-speed fibre-to-the-node is one of the most important services a government can provide to its people, so I do not have any argument with the government’s stated objective of providing it. Where the coalition differs is in the method of delivery and in that group of people who will miss out because of the methodology and the policy and the way in which it is applied. At the last election, Labor gave a firm commitment to start the rollout of a fibre-to-the-node broadband network to 98 per cent of the population by the end of 2008 and, clearly, this is another promise that has not been fulfilled by the government. We now find ourselves with an implementation study that may report—it is not guaranteed—in 2010 and a build that is likely to take more than eight years. That means the network will not be completed until 2018 or possibly later.

This bill and the National Broadband Network itself have major implications for both the general electorate and the companies expected to comply with the government’s requirement, and both points of view are important and need to be given consideration. This bill was introduced, I believe, and I think our report in the Senate has indicated, without adequate opportunity for consultation with key stakeholders. These stakeholders have indicated they will cooperate—well, really, they do not have any choice, because there are penalties for noncooperation—with the government on the provision of necessary information. But they have indicated that they have a number of concerns about the potentially broad and burdensome requirement that could be imposed on them by the minister. And they were only consulted as a result of the Senate Environment, Communications and the Arts Legislation Committee—that is when the consultations began.

There are quite serious issues for companies which must comply with this piece of legislation, and they involve cost, practicalities and, of course, security. Indeed, I think the evidence of Mr Hughes from the Australasian Railway Association to the committee is evidence of the kinds of burdens that will be placed on many companies, not just telecommunications companies. He said:

According to the legislation, railways will be required to provide information on land infrastructure and other facilities under their control. I am sure that you will appreciate that there are millions of pieces of information which may be requested varying from digital location information to the size of ducts. There are over 44,000 kilometres of rail track in Australia and countless stations, terminals, offices, yards, sidings, depots and other facilities. A simple question such as the boundaries of land under railway control represents an enormous amount of work to answer with any degree of accuracy. Yet this is exactly what the rail industry fears could be required under the legislation. If such information is required without due regard to reasonableness or compensation, it will impose an unacceptable burden on the industry.

Again, I find it extraordinary that there was no plan to have adequate consultation with these companies before this legislation was to be debated and passed in this place. Again, it shows a failing, perhaps, of a government that lacks experience.

The inquiry raised a number of concerns, including the tight time lines proposed for consultation, when they were agreed upon. Also, as to the provision of information sought under the legislation, civil penalties do apply for carriers and utilities that do not provide accurate information. Stakeholders believe they should be immune from such penalties if they act in good faith, and I think that is a reasonable proposition. I think it is evident that there are great complexities in what many telecommunications and other utility companies are being asked to do. Utilities also raised concerns about the bill’s failure to clarify arrangements for cost recovery associated with the provision of information, and there is currently no mechanism for consideration of compensation under this mandatory requirement.

Of particular concern to the coalition is the scope within this bill for information to be sought and then used by the government not only for the purpose of the implementation study but also by the NBN Co. and its suppliers for a period of 10 years to assist any network rollout. It would be entirely fair if these provisions were to only apply for the implementation study period and cease in June 2010. In the event that information is required after that period by an NBN company, the government should seek a fresh authority through this parliament. This is highly sensitive information and I think it is reasonable that there be some restriction on it.

The government itself has expressed a preference for an approach that allows carriers and utilities to provide requested information on a cooperative and commercial basis. Regardless of the passage of this bill, that avenue does apparently already exist. There is also a Senate order in place requiring the communications minister to table the reports of both the NBN expert panel and the ACCC which relate to his first, failed, NBN tender process before any NBN related bills are debated in the Senate. Of great concern is the fact that the government has proven that it is incapable of meeting its self-imposed time lines on the delivery of the National Broadband Network, of which this legislation is a perfect example.

The government is treating taxpayers, I think, with contempt in its dereliction of duty by neglecting to prepare a cost-benefit analysis of a $43 billion project. That is a very large commitment of taxpayers’ funds, and the bill to taxpayers is growing already, with the NBN CEO earning $2 million a year. Public confidence in the government’s capacity to deliver this project is at an all-time low.

I thought it was interesting to hear the comments of the member for Grey who spoke, I thought, very well on this bill earlier today, when he said that no business case has been made and the cost is likely to be much higher than the returns. One has to query, also—and I think the member for Grey touched on this—the number of users who will be able to actually access the service. It is all very well to make a commitment to provide a service to 98 per cent of people who mostly live in city areas, but we have seen nothing about what the cost to the consumer will be, and it is another matter entirely whether people will be able to afford the cost of connecting to the service. Because there is no cost-benefit analysis, we have no idea who is likely to be able to take up this service when it has actually been built and developed. It is fundamental, with any business proposition, that the first thing you do is a cost-benefit analysis, and I think that not doing so is a great dereliction of duty.

In my electorate, many people are concerned that they will not gain any benefit from this large expenditure of taxpayer money. For example, it is very unlikely that a place called Gidgegannup in the Pearce electorate, a community that is less than 50 kilometres from the CBD of Perth, will benefit from this measure. At present the people in that locality are unable to access ADSL broadband even though fibre optic cable runs metres from their home. They are forced to make use of whatever internet connection they can get on phone lines that would be every bit of 40 years old. What hope for some people living hundreds of kilometres further from Perth? A constituent highlights the inadequacy and lack of fairness of the current proposals.

The lack of a business case has been severely criticised, and the Productivity Commission submission to the Senate Select Committee on the National Broadband Network made this comment:

The proposed implementation study provides an ideal opportunity to undertake a thorough cost-benefit analysis, gathering the appropriate evidence to ensure the project best meets the nation’s interest. In this context, evidence needs to be gathered from the perspective of the welfare of the wider community, and not just the interests of particular sectors.

            …         …         …

Similarly, cost-benefit analysis can assist in contrasting ‘gold plated’ service provision and investment options motivated by short-tern cost savings. Whereas the former can have high up-front costs, the latter may incur significant future expenditures, including those required to meet demand growth.

            …         …         …

… the application of a thorough cost-benefit analysis would aid the implementation study during its detailed work, including its application to a pilot project in Tasmania.

There were a couple of comments from the media that I thought were relevant. One is by Michael Stutchbury, economics editor of the Australian in June 2009, when he said:

But what does Rudd then do with what is touted to be Australia’s single biggest infrastructure project, the $43 billion broadband plan? He and Broadband Minister Stephen Conroy brazenly flout the rigorous cost-benefit analysis that is supposed to be applied to all big infrastructure projects. They announce the plan to directly connect just about all Australian homes to an optic fibre network, whatever the technology risks, along with a price tag plucked out of nowhere. The technocrats and merchant bankers are supposed to reverse engineer the cost-benefit numbers to make them add up. This puts Eddington and his Infrastructure Australia in an impossible position in demanding that the states lift their game.

I think that is a very good summary of the concerns that we in the coalition have for this proposal. Further, Paul Kerin in the Australian on 15 April 2009 said:

If election promises are sacred, what happened to Rudd’s far more important ones such as evidence-based policy, not grand rhetorical flourish?

I quoted the concerns that people have in an area like Gidgegannup, 50 kilometres from the city, but whether you go north, south, east or west of my electorate the same problems are emerging. I have got the third largest electorate in Western Australia. It covers 26,000 square kilometres. I have many of these areas that will miss out. As I said earlier, over 12,000 constituents will not benefit from this $43 billion taxpayer spend on communications. But those who live further north in spots such as Nilgen do not even have a postal service. They do not have newspapers delivered. If you do not drive a car, you are in big trouble. Some of these people need to know what is going on with the weather and other important information. It is almost impossible for them to have any kind of communication except perhaps the telephone. It is hard to imagine what it would be like to live in those areas. I am not talking about a place that is 200 or 300 kilometres from the city of Perth. I am talking about a place that can be accessed in about a 1½- or two-hour drive at most. I think it is unreasonable that the people living in these areas should be expected to contribute to a system that they will personally get no benefit from. The electorate will be made to suffer in waiting for the drawn-out introduction of a broadband network, while industry will have little option but to grin and bear the government accessing their information. On top of all of that there is no cost-benefit analysis that informs us as to whether this is a good or a bad plan. (Time expired)