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Monday, 15 November 2010
Page: 2169


Mr FLETCHER (11:36 AM) —Today’s debate is not, as those opposite would have us believe, about whether an improved broadband infrastructure for Australia is a good thing. Of course an improved broadband infrastructure for Australia is a good thing. Today’s debate is precisely about this question: is it a good idea, in advance of committing $43 billion of taxpayers’ money, to require a business case which meets normal commercial standards and to require a cost-benefit study to be conducted by the well-respected organisation the Productivity Commission? That is the question before the House, and I want to make three points in the brief time available to me.

Firstly, to conduct a cost-benefit study is a manifestly sensible thing that should be done with this regulatory initiative as it should be done with every substantial regulatory initiative. Secondly, it is not true that the National Broadband Network Financial Transparency Bill 2010 will involve any slowdown in the building of the National Broadband Network. Thirdly, a circumstance as we have here—where the executive government has manifestly failed to live up to reasonable standards of transparent decision making; where it has manifestly failed to live up to its own standards as to how the case for an enormous project of this kind ought to be made—is surely precisely the kind of instance where the parliament should step in to insist on a higher standard of scrutiny. If the new paradigm means anything, it means that these are circumstances in which the parliament should step in to require that a cost-benefit study be conducted.

My first point is that it is widely accepted that a cost-benefit study is a good discipline to undertake before any major regulatory initiative. I quote the Commonwealth government’s Best Practice Regulation Handbook, which says:

The Australian Government is committed to the use of cost-benefit analysis (CBA) to assess regulatory proposals to encourage better decision making.

The second point I make is that this is not about delay. Let us be clear. To date, 4,000 premises have been passed by the network in Tasmania. A further 10,000 will be passed by mid-July next year. These are tiny fractions of the proposed complete network build of 10 million premises, and on the mainland much less has been done than in Tasmania. So there would be no prospect of this bill materially slowing down the build of the network even if it were the case—as it is not—that this bill in any way required that the build be suspended while the cost-benefit analysis went on. It does not. Simply, this bill is designed to ask: is the way that we are proceeding the most sensible way to build a broadband network? For example, clause 5(2)(b) requires:

… a consideration of the different options by which broadband services of particular speeds could be made available to all Australians …

and—

an estimate of the likely time frame and cost of each option;

In other words, the outcome of this work will not be a simple yes or no. If it finds, for example, that the present model cannot be justified in terms of the benefits that are delivered for the costs, there may very well be other models which emerge. It is not at all the case that this is about stopping broadband; it is simply about saying, ‘Before we embark on this huge project let’s do some standard analysis to see whether the design of it is sensible.’

My third point is that this is precisely the kind of circumstance where a new paradigm parliament should step in to insist on a higher standard of scrutiny. I quote what the member for Lyne said on 7 September in talking about outcomes from negotiations he and other Independents had held with the Labor Party:

That is a good and big outcome from this process, and one that hopefully demonstrates this is not going to be a weak parliament, this is going to be a strong parliament.

Those are important sentiments. This should be a strong parliament. Ordinarily when an executive government had manifestly failed to live up to its own standards, to its own stated principles, as to how a project of this scale ought to be carried out there would be nothing this parliament could do. But these are not ordinary times. We do have a parliament which has the capacity to impose the proper discipline on this executive government to require that there be a cost-benefit study before this massive expenditure is committed to, and I commend the bill to the House for that reason.