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Thursday, 28 October 2010
Page: 2022

Mr FLETCHER (11:44 AM) —In making some comments on this bill that is before the House today, the Radiocommunications Amendment Bill 2010, I wish to address three principal areas: firstly, why radiocommunications is important; secondly, what this bill does and what views we in the opposition have on the provisions of this bill; and, thirdly, to what extent the bill does reflect some fundamental tensions and inconsistencies in the views that have been put forward by the Labor government about communications policy. I put to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, that it reflects and reveals a remarkable number of gaping inconsistencies.

Let me start by talking about why radiocommunications is important. As we have heard from previous speakers, radiofrequency spectrum is a finite resource and it turns out that this finite resource is, firstly, enormously valuable to society in terms of providing very useful services and, secondly, of great value to the organisations which obtain the right to use that spectrum to deliver communications services, be they mobile, fixed wireless, digital or analog television or any other such services. Therefore this raises a problem: how ought we efficiently and fairly allocate the use of radiofrequency spectrum given that it is a vital national resource which is in limited supply and given that it presents significant financial benefits to those who are fortunate enough to gain access to that spectrum?

Historically, it was allocated by administrative fiat and, as we saw in Australia in the 1950s, a small number of fortunate companies and individuals were made very well off indeed by being granted television licences. A similar experience occurred around the world when spectrum was allocated in this administrative fashion. Over time policymakers began to think that there might be a better way to do it and, as we have heard from a number of speakers today, in fact Australia was at the forefront of a different approach to public policy in the allocation of radiofrequency spectrum. Economists began to argue that it would be a good idea to allocate spectrum through the use of auctions, so as to allow spectrum to go to its highest value use and also allow the community, through government, to capture a share of the economic value of that spectrum through the prices charged to companies which successfully bid for that spectrum.

We have had a long series of auctions of spectrum in Australia over the last 15 to 20 years, starting, as we have heard, with the allocation of the 900-megahertz spectrum for GSM licences, which was not by an auction. It was part of the opening up of telecommunications to competition in the early nineties. Then we had the 800-megahertz spectrum and then the 2-gigahertz spectrum and a whole range of other spectra allocated which are used for a range of services today: second- and third-generation mobile and also fixed broadband services, such as, for example, the 2.3- and 2.4-gigahertz bands. So we have had a public policy process in Australia which has been successful, but it has carried with it the seeds of some problems because the spectrum licences that were allocated were allocated for a term of 15 years. At the time that this was done, it was thought, naturally enough, that 15 years was very distantly in the future so there was not really a necessity to think very carefully about what might need to be done when the 15-year period expired.

We are now facing that expiry. That will start to happen between 2013 and 2017 in relation to spectrum licences currently on issue. That presents a problem because there is a presumption in the act that the spectrum will be reallocated by auction. Potentially, this presents the prospect of very significant public inconvenience if spectrum which is today used by a party which may be serving millions of customers is reallocated through auction. The consequences would be quite complex. Of course, weighed against that are all the good arguments in favour of using auctions. Therefore the essence of this bill is to take an approach to reallocation which allows a range of factors to be considered and also to give ACMA some additional flexibility as to the timing in which it commences a reallocation process. That is reasonably uncontentious.

This brings me to the second part of what I want to talk about, which is what this bill does and the coalition’s attitude to that. As I have indicated, the variation in ACMA’s powers to give it more flexibility in terms of timing is uncontentious. What is considerably contentious is the proposal that the reallocation determination issued by the minister should no longer be a disallowable instrument. The importance of public policy in this area suggests very strongly that parliament ought to retain the capacity to oversee the actions of a member of the executive—in this case the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy—so we view with considerable scepticism the proposal that that reallocation determination should no longer be a disallowable instrument. Other aspects of the bill are not so contentious—for example, the proposal that ACMA should have the power to issue class licences over spectrum which is also the subject of spectrum licences. This recognises developments in technology and the fact that it may now be technologically possible to allocate spectrum both to the holder of a spectrum licence and to other users in a way which does not interfere with the rights of the holder of the spectrum licence.

We have seen other examples of the practices in allocating spectrum change over time with technological developments. For example, when analog television first came into operation in Australia in the fifties, there were 7-megahertz guard bands which applied between each allocation of spectrum to a broadcasting licensee. The reason for that was that, with the technology at that time, there was a risk of interference if you simply allocated one block of spectrum and then the immediate next block of spectrum was also allocated. With the introduction of digital television in Australia, we have been able to reuse those bands of spectrum, which until now have been lying fallow, because today’s technology means that you do not face that same risk of interference. So the fundamental notion of changing the evolving regulatory framework by which we allocate spectrum, having regard to the improvements in technology and the capacity now to use spectrum in more flexible ways, is a sensible policy and it has our support. However, as I have indicated, we do not share the government’s confidence in the capacity of its minister to make reallocation determinations without being subject to the necessary scrutiny of parliament.

The third point I want to touch on is the extent to which this bill reveals—perhaps inadvertently—the fundamentally conflicted attitudes of the Labor Party when it comes to communications policy. The first area of conflict is that we have seen in the approach to the National Broadband Network a tremendous faith in centralisation, a tremendous faith that government knows best. A government which could not even competently give away pink batts apparently has the knowledge and capacity, mystifyingly, to build a network bigger and more ambitious than any private sector company has ever built, a network that will go all around Australia using a technology which has never been used for this purpose in Australia—all to be delivered on time and on budget. Wouldn’t it be remarkable if we could all share that faith in the capacity of government to do this thing?

On this side of the House we do not share that faith. We continue to believe that the best approach to telecommunications policy is to give primacy to the market and to competition. That is the philosophy which, interestingly, underlies the whole regime for allocating radio communications spectrum. The whole principle which underlies the approach in the act which is amended by this bill is that you allocate spectrum using a competitive process and it will go to its highest value use. Very importantly, spectrum licences are not technology specific. The user of the spectrum is free to use it for the purpose which he, she or it believes will be the most productive. We rely upon the auction process to identify who believes they have the highest value use for the spectrum. If they believe that using it to deliver broadband services over third generation mobiles—or over the shortly arriving fourth generation—then it is open to them to put in a high bid and take advantage of the capacity to get that spectrum. A philosophy that relies upon competition and the market is what underpins our approach to radio communications spectrum allocation. There is a rich irony in the fact that this government are putting forward a bill to amend the act that is consistent with the philosophy which underlies our approach to allocating radiofrequency spectrum at the same time as they are using a naively centralising approach—a government-knows-best approach—when it comes to the overall question of broadband.

But that is not the only area where this bill reveals the fundamentally conflicted attitudes within the Labor Party. The second thing that reveals a fundamental degree of confusion is their attitude to wireless. Minister Conroy said in a press release earlier this year:

Wireless spectrum is a valuable public asset.

We heard in a speech in the second reading debate from the minister representing the minister in this House that many of the licences to be allocated under this bill ‘are now used by telecommunications carriers to provide mobile phone and wireless access services to millions of Australians’.

So there is recognition that wireless is an enormously important service of enormous value. We can expect as a nation to raise very significant amounts of money from private sector players when it comes to the re-allocation process. This is a recognition that all of us could agree with but, regrettably, when it comes to the politics of broadband, all recognition of truth and of fact based assessment of reality goes out the window and it all gets down to grubby politics. This is what Stephen Conroy had to say on Lateline on 18 August. Criticising the former shadow minister Tony Smith, he said:

He still won’t answer you how many people he is going to condemn to a wireless network that can’t deliver the services that Australians are increasingly going to need and demand over the coming years.

I am confused. What does Minister Conroy believe? Does he believe that wireless is an enormously valuable public asset, that wireless services are of high value in delivering broadband, mobility and other things or does he believe when he is engaged in grubby politics that wireless is something to which Australians are to be condemned? He cannot have it both ways. The fact that this bill which highlights the central, vital importance of wireless communications is being introduced reveals fundamentally the stark hypocrisy of Stephen Conroy in the approach he took in the last election in putting forward a particular perspective on broadband. It is very, very disappointing that something as fundamentally important as telecommunications and broadband policy in this country is being compromised by the grubby political attitude which this present government is bringing to bear.

Let me quote from somebody else who has been a significant cheerleader of the government’s national broadband program. I am talking about Professor Rod Tucker of the Institute for a Broadband-Enabled Society. He wrote an article which appeared in the Age on 10 August in which he said:

Critics claiming wireless is all we’ll need are living in the past.

Again, this is part of an attack on wireless for political purposes that seems to be wholly inconsistent with the central thesis of this bill with which we fully agree, which is that wireless is of vital importance. Mr Deputy Speaker Georganas, I am sure it would be evident to you from that brief description the fundamental inconsistencies and attitudes delivered by the Labor Party.

I might also quote what Senator Conroy said on 10 August. He said the coalition’s plan to focus on wireless ignores the advice of industry experts and that:

It will consign Australia to the digital dark ages.

This is very confusing stuff. Is wireless a good thing or a bad thing? It is very hard to tell from Minister Conroy. If this is the kind of political approach we are seeing to an area of vital public policy, is it any wonder that we view with enormous scepticism the proposal that this minister ought to have the power to make a re-allocation determination without it being subject to the scrutiny of parliament. We are very concerned about that and that is a matter which requires very careful consideration.

Debate (on motion by Ms Roxon) adjourned.