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Monday, 28 February 2011
Page: 1636


Mr BRIGGS (6:47 PM) —I rise to speak tonight on the debate on the National Broadband Network Companies Bill 2010 and a related bill. It is fair to say that this is an example of what this government has not done well. I thought it was highlighted very nicely today by the member for Fraser’s motion, which I was able to speak on—that is, that this policy is not about an evidence based policy approach to politics. For those who do not remember, this policy was born out of an attempt in 2007 to paint the then Leader of the Opposition, the member for Griffith, as modern, new and someone who understood the challenges of the future more than the then Prime Minister did. So they came up with this great broadband promise, in about April 2007, which was for 12 megabits per second for 98 per cent of Australia, using fibre-to-the node technology. At the time, many said that was not possible to implement. But, given the electoral circumstances of that year, it was a policy that was quite popular. It was no doubt part of the reason that the government changed in November 2007—much to the worse, unfortunately, for our country.

In government, the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy and the Prime Minister looked to see whether they could put together this politically based promise that was part of an election advertising campaign that was very well crafted, and they could not possibly put the policy together. So it had to be changed—it had to be reformed; it had to work; it had to be put into something that could possibly be implemented. The only face-time the minister could possibly get with the former Prime Minister was on a VIP flight to Perth, which was a 3½- or four-hour trip on the VIP. So we saw the minister rushing with his bags to climb up the stairs of the VIP to get up there with the then Prime Minister. This is an experience that many on the other side commented on, off the record, prior to the events of June last year. On that VIP plane they decided that, instead of spending $6 billion, they would pluck a figure out of the air, so they said, ‘Let’s spend $40 billion. Let’s build fibre to the premise. Let’s grab the beer coaster on the VIP and we’ll put a business case together on how this will work and then we’ll make an announcement about it.’ That was the next stage of the political promise to ensure that they looked like they were all for the future.

What you hear from those on the other side in this debate—and you just heard it from the member for Chifley and I am sure you will hear it from the warrior himself over there, the member for Wakefield, who is out at the doors every morning banging on the party lines these days, and it is good for his career that he is doing that—is that the only way that you can have broadband in this country is to support the NBN and the only way that you believe in fast broadband is by supporting the government’s plan to have 100 megabits per second to 93 per cent of the country delivered to the home. Of course, that is simply not true. The fact is that, even on the government’s own assumptions, the demand for those sorts of speeds will just not be there. The NBN Co. business plan forecasts that two-thirds of users will be paying for speeds no higher than today’s top ADSL2+ 25 megabits per second.

That makes complete sense, because people want to access broadband for different purposes. There are some in the community who want to have fixed-line broadband with very fast speeds, because they download and upload at such a pace that they need that extra capability. But the vast bulk of people in the community do not need or want that sort of speed. They do not want to be driving a Ferrari in a 50 zone. They do not want to spend the $40 billion or $50 billion that is required to deliver this network that the government says will get to 93 per cent of the country—which I do not think it ever will. The government simply thought it seemed like a good promise to make people believe that they are for the future to contrast with us on the other side.

On the other hand, what Australia needs is a mixture of technology. In certain places we need fast speed and access to fast speed. There is a place for fibre in this mix but, undoubtedly, people want the ability to be portable. You see it with the devices that are driving the market today. You see it with nearly everyone in this chamber in question time who taps away on an iPad or an iPhone or uses some sort of portable tablet or laptop as they move around the country. What is driving the uptake is mobile technology. Spending $40 billion on a fixed network is picking winners at the cost of the Australian taxpayer. It is not that this technology will be outdated. I do not think fibre technology will be outdated. Fibre technology will be part of the picture but it is just not required for every home in this country—not that it will get to every home.

That brings me to the next point: delivery. My electorate of Mayo, as I am sure you are aware, Madam Deputy Speaker Livermore, takes in the Adelaide Hills, the Fleurieu Peninsula and Kangaroo Island in South Australia. Some in this House have very close connections to parts of my electorate. It is an outer metro area that is affected badly in some parts by lack of access to broadband. There has been underinvestment in electorates like mine and that of Parliamentary Secretary Marles at the table, where there has not been the demand for the services or the uptake of the services in the past. So there needs to be investment in these areas. However, the likelihood that the Adelaide Hills Council is going to allow overhead cables to deliver fibre to the home in the Adelaide Hills or, indeed, the Fleurieu Peninsula is less than zero. If you do not accept that will not happen, the case is then about digging the trenches to install the fibre in parts of the country like mine, and that becomes even more outrageously expensive than what is on the table today. So the likelihood that my electorate and areas in the country which have problems with broadband will benefit from the scheme is ridiculously low.

In other words, you need a mixture of approaches to fix the issue. You certainly need government intervention in some parts of our country to fix the problems, and there is no doubt that in parts of my electorate you need government intervention to ensure that problems are fixed. There are problems in Scott Creek, for instance; there are problems in Norton Summit; there are problems in Basket Range. There are problems in areas which have challenges with topography and distance from the exchange. Those are the areas which need investment in either improving the exchanges or upgrading the capability for wireless technology. But it is beyond the realm of belief that a town like Birdwood in my electorate will have this system built to it. It just does not make economic sense and it will never happen. It sounds like a wonderful promise and it sounds exactly like what people would want—‘We want 100 megs per second. That sounds brilliant. This will be great’—but the fact of the matter is that most people do not want that. They want access to reliable, decent-speed broadband so they can do what they want to do. That is what the parliament should be focusing on. We should not be trying to build everyone a Ferrari to drive in 50-kilometre zones. We should be investing in areas which require the investment and having the right settings so that the market looks after those areas which do not need the government investment. Those on the other side would say, ‘That didn’t work previously,’ and to some degree they are right. There was a problem with the structure of the system and I believe very strongly that that should have been addressed by previous governments, including the former government. However, that does not mean that you waste $40 billion or $50 billion by building an asset that is not required throughout the country.

The additional problems we have—and I think the member for Wentworth has focused on some very well thought through amendments—is the lack of transparency and the inability of the parliament to look at the spend. If you hold it up against what the government have done you will see the double standard in relation to the transparency they are applying to the Queensland flood reconstruction, which will cost about $5 billion. They have appointed a former Liberal to oversee the spend. We are talking about an investment of about $50 billion and yet there will not be any parliamentary oversight. They have excluded any oversight by this place of that spend.

It beggars belief that a government with a record of wasting money, as it does, whether it be through the BER debacles that we see on the front pages of the national papers day after day, the Green Loans program, the Jobs Fund or, the creme de la creme, the pink batts debacle—we have seen so many stories about waste and mismanagement by this government—would not have much more detailed consideration of the spend. Therefore, it is appropriate that the member for Wentworth’s amendment deals with issues to make it much more open to scrutiny so that we can see how the money is being spent and can try and ensure that it is not being wasted along the way. It is a very important amendment and I am sure that the government, if it were open, honest and serious with the Australian people, would adopt it.

I will finish where I started, and that is on the issue about evidence based policy. The initial and continued promise in relation to fast broadband is a political ploy. It is not about giving access to people who do not currently have access to broadband. That can be fixed and it should be fixed. This is about making the Labor Party seem like they are the party of the future and are au fait with technology. They will use language like: it is necessary for our economic development; that this is the only way forward; and that we have to have this investment or we will be left behind. The truth of the matter is that most small businesses do not need 100 megabits per second, do not want 100 megabits per second; they want access to reliable broadband with decent speeds. That is where we should be focusing our attention, not on this massive overspend that this government are proposing.

This is a very dangerous piece of legislation. It is a very dangerous path for the government to be proceeding down, given their record in relation to spending of Commonwealth money. At the very least, the proposed amendments that the member for Wentworth has tabled, particularly in relation to the scrutiny of that money, should be considered.

There is no doubt as we go forward that investment in technology in this country is hugely important for the future of our economy. Both sides of parliament must be and are focused on that. The debate is not about whether we believe we should have decent broadband access and speeds. We believe that. We are committed to that. We have a plan to do that. We have a plan to fix the problem areas that should be addressed that are not being addressed, and there are many. They sit in electorates like mine.

We do not accept this argument from the government that you need to spend $50 billion of taxpayers’ money building a network that the vast majority of people will never want or need. It is overspending on something that does not need that much money spent on it to make it a good, reliable, fast network which can be used and accessed by all Australians. We need a mixture of technologies to go into the future; we do not need this massive investment in just one of those technologies at the expense of other choices.

This is a political plan by a government that is desperate to run politics rather than policy. This is not an evidence based policy decision, as the member for Fraser talked about earlier today. This is not a government committed to that evidence based policy; it is a government committed to its politics. It is a government committed to having lines at the next election campaign and, in that sense, we oppose the approach on this issue.