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Monday, 28 February 2011
Page: 1616

Mrs MARKUS (5:26 PM) —I rise today to speak in support of the amendments to be proposed by my colleague the member for Wentworth, the shadow minister for communications and broadband, to the National Broadband Network Companies Bill 2010 and cognate bill. The amendments are necessary to ensure transparency, create competition and bring scrutiny on value for money principles to Labor’s white elephant, the $50 billion national broadband plan. Labor’s latest white elephant is an unnecessary waste of taxpayers’ money at this time in our nation.

We face challenges of natural disaster recovery and reconstruction across five states, especially in Queensland; a rising cost of living, due in no small measure to Labor’s reckless spending and massive debt; and increasing pressure on small business, a traditional source of jobs. Now is not the time to commit to a $50 billion spend on a technology that is no better than other technologies being used across the world today—wireless, DSL, HFC cable and other systems that deliver fast broadband. Now is not the time to commit to the largest public works project in Australia’s history with a technology that will be largely superseded and out of date by 2020, at the project’s end. That level of investment, resources and infrastructure would be far better diverted to assisting the rebuilding of Queensland and addressing Australia’s water supply issues.

Ploughing $50 billion into the NBN—most of which will be spent digging trenches and laying pipes—at a time when reconstruction after natural diasters and a once-in-a-century mining boom compete for resources is a guaranteed way to ensure taxpayers do not receive value for money. Any sensible and fiscally responsible government would have the ticker to cancel the NBN plans in the nation’s best interest. The Gillard Labor government apparently has no ticker, nor has it anything but contempt for the Australian taxpayer. This is made clear by the refusal to submit any aspect of the NBN to parliamentary and public scrutiny, and I will return to that point a little later.

What we do know now, after intense pressure from the opposition, is the reluctant admission by the Labor government that households will have to foot the bill to connect the cable from the road to the home. But they cannot tell us how much. What we do know now, after the spotlight of public scrutiny was shone harshly by the coalition on the Labor Party, is the plan to dig up our roads and freeways, city and suburban streets, footpaths and utilities trenches to lay the cable. Again, they cannot tell us how long it will take.

People in the Blue Mountains, in the electorate of Macquarie, know all about roads being dug up. The Great Western Highway has had upgrade works for years which have had an impact on residents, local business and the environment. The electorate of Macquarie is a snapshot of a semi-rural community that already faces challenges of resources, services, telecommunication black spots and the tyranny of distance. From the outer limits of Mount Victoria across to Mount Tomah; in places like Ebenezer, St Albans, and Colo in the Hawkesbury; in the Megalong Valley, in Hawkesbury Heights, Linden, Woodford and many, many more suburbs across the electorate of Macquarie, there are properties large in size and long in terms of distance to the road.

An example is Bilpin, known as the ‘land of the mountain apple’. This village of large acreages has a population of just over 500 people, where the distance from the front door to the front gate would be a week’s exercise for many Sydneysiders. A resident of Bilpin, Kylie Docker, contacted me, seeking an answer to the question: who will pay the cost of connection from the road to the front door? Kylie lives on acreage and the family home is a long distance from the road. Kylie also wanted to know if the cables would be laid underground. I wrote to the Minister for Communications, Broadband and the Digital Economy, Senator Stephen Conroy, on 10 December. It is now 28 February, and I have still not received a response.

Residents in Wilberforce have raised concerns over changes to the telecommunications landscape and the costs associated with setting up the NBN. Residents in Kurmond are questioning the technology and whether or not it will be outdated before it is operational. Why are we moving to fixed-line fibre optics when countries such as the United States are going wireless? Residents living in Wentworth Falls want details of the broadband policy and the future for small rural villages.

It is not only unacceptable that the Gillard Labor government are determined to waste taxpayers’ money, as they did with the Home Insulation Program and the BER; it is also unacceptable that they are refusing to allow proper scrutiny of the NBN. Many residents in my electorate of Macquarie, already under enormous pressure due to the increases to the cost of living—in gas, electricity, food, fuel, utilities and transport—are quite rightly asking questions about the cost to them of the National Broadband Network. The December quarter inflation figures show big increases in essential food items such as fruit, up a staggering 15.5 per cent; vegetables, up a massive 11.4 per cent; water and sewerage, up 12.8 per cent; electricity, up 12.5 per cent: gas, up 7.1 per cent; and education, up 5.7 per cent. These are goods and services that families cannot do without. At a time when every Australian is facing a constant battle to balance the weekly budget, it is difficult, if not impossible, to understand this extravagant spending of taxpayer funds on the NBN by the Gillard Labor government.

I now turn to the double standards being applied by Labor, which are a matter of significant concern to the coalition and the nation, including the residents of the electorate of Macquarie. The Labor government have chosen to be selective in their ‘management’ of Australian taxpayers’ money. The decision to have the NBN exempted from the Public Works Committee Act and the parliament’s Public Works Committee is all about avoiding scrutiny. What is hidden in the yet to be publicly released 240 pages of the NBN Co. business plan? Why won’t Labor allow the NBN to be subject to a cost-benefit analysis by Infrastructure Australia, a review by the Productivity Commission and an inquiry through a joint standing committee of parliament? A cost-benefit analysis would make it clear whether or not the NBN is the most cost-effective method of delivering modern technologies to the family home, businesses, schools, hospitals, industry, government and corporations. The choice of fixed-line fibre optic technologies is questionable, given the range of equally high-performing alternatives. We need to know if the NBN will deliver value for money.

The government estimates the NBN will require around $27 billion in equity funding and will need to borrow a further $10 billion to roll out the network. In addition, they need to do a deal with Telstra, estimated to be worth $11 billion, for use of its conduits and migration of its customers. The $50 billion price tag adds equity, debt and payments to Telstra. Will we as taxpayers get value for money? It appears we will never know. What makes the whole project bizarre is that, in the normal course of events, every contract over $15 million is scrutinised to ensure that the Australian taxpayer is getting value for money. The government has moved quickly to set up a reconstruction inspectorate to oversee public spending on the reconstruction in Queensland but does not see any need to do the same for the $50 billion NBN spend. It does not give taxpayers much confidence in the financial management of the NBN.

There are many questions that remain unanswered. The NBN will be a government built and owned monopoly wholesale provider, with a long-term plan for privatisation. How will that affect long-term infrastructure investment? If the government is the owner and the government is broke, as it always is under Labor, and the NBN is not reaching its performance targets, where will the money come from to upgrade infrastructure? The NBN will initially be a stand-alone wholesale provider that provides layer-2 bitstream services to retail service providers who in turn provide services to end customers. It is not allowed or set up to do retail. How then is the NBN allowed to supply network services to gas, water and electricity utilities, transport operators and road authorities—even though the provision of such services to these entities is an existing and valuable business opportunity for Telstra, Optus and other carriers? Is this selective retail creep? These are just some of the concerns unanswered by Labor.

The coalition remains committed to a policy of providing all Australians with high-quality affordable broadband, regardless of where they live. It is vital that every aspect of the NBN be transparent. The coalition is determined to get value for money for every taxpayer dollar spent, contrary to the Gillard Labor government. I challenge members opposite to support the amendments to be submitted by the coalition.