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Wednesday, 9 February 2011
Page: 256

Mr STEPHEN JONES (6:03 PM) —It is a very courageous representative for regional Australia who comes to this place and defends Telstra’s ageing copper wire network as the Rolls-Royce that is going to drive us into the 21st century in technology. I suggest he give that speech in his electorate somewhere because I know for a fact that there are parts of that electorate where on a damp day if you spill your drink you will lose not just your broadband connection but your telecommunications connection altogether. I suggest that the member for Cowper go out to some of the more remote parts of his electorate and give the speech he has just given. Go out there and defend the copper wire network that Telstra currently runs and see the response that he gets from his constituents.

I have had the benefit of sitting in and listening to the speech by the member for Wentworth on the National Broadband Network Companies Bill 2010 and the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (National Broadband Network Measures—Access Arrangements) Bill 2010. He has the toughest job on the opposition front bench because he has been seen out there day after day championing a cause that he simply does not believe in. He is championing a cause to bag and hopefully kill a visionary policy, a policy long overdue, to roll out for the first time in our nation’s history a fast, reliable broadband network to every Australian household and business.

There are only two reasons why he has been sent out there to oppose this policy and to oppose the NBN. The first is that his boss only knows how to oppose things. He has not got a positive policy, as the member for Greenway has pointed out. He does not have a positive policy in any area, let alone in relation to broadband. The second reason is that the market fundamentalists, those who champion the cause of the market for everything it would seem except for tackling climate change, when it comes to economic theory, have a huge economic blind spot to market failure. We know that the need to build the National Broadband Network arises from the fact that after 20 years and, as the member for Greenway pointed out, after nearly 20 failed broadband plans we have a market failure of tragic proportions.

The only answer for this is for the government to intervene and ensure that we have a fast, reliable, high-speed broadband network which is available on a universal basis to 100 per cent of Australian households and businesses. So it is with great pleasure that I rise to speak on the National Broadband Network Companies Bill 2010, a bill that, together with the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (National Broadband Network Measures—Access Arrangements) Bill 2010, will enshrine in legislation some policy and governance arrangements for the operation of the NBN Co. to reflect the Gillard government’s historic commitment to build and operate a superfast, fibre-to-the-home telecommunications network. The National Broadband Network Companies Bill will limit the operation of the NBN Co. to wholesale-only telecommunications activities and it sets out the Commonwealth ownership arrangements, including providing for the eventual sale of the NBN Co. following the completion of the project and the approval of parliament. The legislation will lock in the obligation on the NBN Co. to offer wholesale-only services on open and equivalent terms to all service providers. This measure alone will guarantee a level playing field for all service providers—something that we have not seen since the deregulation of the telecommunications industry in 1991. In the history of telecommunications policy in this country, these bills are particularly significant because they deal with the structural problems that have been at the heart of so many failed broadband plans of the previous government.

The measures in the bill will do the following things. They will define the NBN Co. to include NBN Tasmania and any other company that NBN Co. controls. They will limit NBN Co. to wholesale-only telecommunications activities. They will establish powers to enable functional separation, and transfer or divestment of assets. They will enable the minister to make licence conditions, including to require or prohibited NBN Co. providing specific services. They will require the Commonwealth to retain full ownership until the NBN is built and fully operational. They will require a Productivity Commission and a parliamentary committee review prior to any sales process, and that parliamentary committee, as the member for Greenway pointed out, will inquire and report to parliament on a six-monthly basis on the operations of the NBN and the rollout process. The bill will establish the framework for the eventual sale of NBN Co. and establish regulations to be made to set limits on private control of NBN Co. following privatisation. It will also establish reporting obligations and exempt the NBN Co. from the Public Works Committee Act 1969.

Much has been made about the change to the bill which means that it is no longer a requirement set out in the legislation that the NBN Co. is to be sold within five years of being declared built and fully operational. Even though the stipulated five-year period would have allowed some flexibility for the government of the day to complete the delivery of the project through the sale of the NBN Co., it is also entirely appropriate to now leave it to the parliament of the day and the government of the day to make this judgment as to the sale and the timing of that sale.

The Gillard government is embarking on this nation-building infrastructure project as an investment in Australia’s economic future. It is very disappointing indeed that the member for Wentworth, the member for Cowper and all those opposite appear to have a total failure of imagination when it comes to understanding the economic potential that this project will deliver for this country. The problem for the shadow minister is that the Australian people can clearly see the benefit of the NBN and what it will deliver for them, even if he cannot.

In this regard I note that the shadow minister for communications paid a visit to the South Coast of New South Wales recently. He drove through my electorate and spent some time with the good residents of the electorate of Gilmore, taking the opportunity to make some of his spurious claims about what the NBN will and will not do. A leading local newspaper, the Illawarra Mercury, quite astutely was not fooled by any of Mr Turnbull’s ridiculous claims. I would like to read from an editorial of the Illawarra Mercury on the day after Mr Turnbull’s visit to the Illawarra. It goes under the heading ‘Mr Turnbull’s internet plan short-sighted’ and it says:

MALCOLM Turnbull is off the pace if he thinks the Australian people will accept a tiered system of broadband connection in which regional and suburban residents are treated as second-class citizens.

The Opposition’s communications spokesman was a long way from Vaucluse when he dropped in at Barrack Heights yesterday to talk all things NBN with some of the Liberal faithful.

The Liberals’ opposition to the National Broadband Network hurt them at last year’s election but Mr Turnbull is doggedly sticking to his line that Labor’s plan is overpriced and unnecessary. While he advocates improving internet access to those areas where it is poor, in his view town centres should get a super-fast internet connections at 100 megabits per second, while those logging on in the ’burbs are forced to settle for a slower rate.

Even if the average residential user of the internet doesn’t need a 100 megabits per second connection at the moment, Mr Turnbull’s plan lacks vision. The internet is used in ways unimagined just a few years ago. No-one, including the Liberal Party, can predict what new uses are around the corner.

And whether they need the speed or not, no-one likes the idea of being lumped with a B-grade option.

I think the editor of the Illawarra Mercury has really belled the cat in that well-crafted editorial.

The people of the Illawarra were not taken in by the shadow minister’s misleading assertions about the NBN project, nor his claims that if the coalition’s OPEL broadband plan had continued then just about everyone in this country would by now be enjoying access to broadband. The coalition now claims its defunct OPEL project would have extended high-speed broadband out to 99 per cent of all households and small businesses. This is delusion on a grand scale. The OPEL plan was in fact meant to reach 90 per cent of just half a million underserved premises, which is less than five per cent of all premises in Australia.

That is not a point that the member for Cowper will be out spruiking around his electorate. I suspect the member for Wentworth was not out there sprouting that when he visited Gilmore the week before last either. But this very low-ball plan failed even to reach that coverage objective. Instead, independent analysis showed that, if it had proceeded, it would actually have covered fewer than 380,000 premises; that is around 3.5 per cent of premises, or 72 per cent of the low-ball promise that they made to the electorate. It was just one of 19 failed broadband projects the coalition put up, and it is time that we all moved on from these failed plans.

I live very near the trial pilot rollout site in Kiama Downs and Minnamurra, and it is exciting to see those trucks rolling the cable through the suburbs. Transformational projects of the magnitude of the NBN do not happen overnight, and they certainly do not happen every day in our region, but it is pleasing to know that steady progress is happening every day. In one of the first release sites in Kiama Downs and Minnamurra, which is adjacent to my electorate of Throsby, the take-up of the NBN is proceeding at extraordinary levels, as is consent to fibre connection to the premises—and this is important. Households were invited to preselect, if you like, whether they would like to get the NBN connected to their premises, and over 75.9 per cent of premises in Kiama Downs-Minnamurra have signed up to that, indicating that they want to get high-speed broadband from the NBN retail providers connected to their premises, which just shows that there is a lot of excitement in the local region for this project. Transfield, the local construction company, in its first release site has completed the majority of the passive infrastructure for the underground deployment despite very poor weather conditions—although we will not complain about that given that we are a long way from the floods of Queensland, northern New South Wales and northern Victoria.

Some issues to do with the laying of cables will arise during this rollout process. I believe it is important to keep our focus on the big picture here. The network is expected to be activated progressively, with live services becoming progressively available through retail service providers in the coming months. It is great news for the Illawarra and it is my intention, together with my colleague the member for Cunningham, to do everything that I can do to work with local councils in the region to encourage NBN Co. to roll out the NBN into the high-population centres north of the first release sites and eventually to Wollongong and the entire Illawarra-Southern Highlands region.

As you can see from the quotes I read out from the editorial in the Illawarra Mercury, this has the support of the entire region. Regional Development Australia Illawarra is very, very keen. This is a body made up of business leaders, government agencies both state and federal, unions and local government representatives. It is very, very excited about the prospect of getting the NBN rolled out into the Illawarra, because we can see that the 67 per cent of small businesses in the Illawarra and the Southern Highlands which are home based will benefit enormously from this project. The 20,000 people who daily make the trip from the Southern Highlands of New South Wales or from the Illawarra to Sydney in search of work or for employment might be able to spend a little bit more time off the train platforms and in their communities, because they will be able to telecommute or work in the new businesses that will grow up around the NBN—the much-needed new businesses in the Illawarra. So I commend the bill. It is an exciting project and one that the entire community is behind.