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Monday, 28 February 2011
Page: 1642


Mr CIOBO (7:16 PM) —While sitting in here during the last contribution from the member for—


Mr Champion —Wakefield!


Mr CIOBO —Wakefield, thank you—I realised something. It was a moment that crystallised in my mind what this NBN is about for the Australian Labor Party and the government. It is the chance for all of the Labor members to stand up and channel their inner Fidel Castro. You can see them come into the chamber and metaphorically put their little soap box underneath their feet, stand up, stroke their goatee and start dispensing wisdom about what a great nation-building project this will be. That is what we are getting from the Labor members opposite: the chance to channel Fidel Castro.

I hope that the member for Wakefield’s children—I am not sure if he is a father yet, but if he is not, I hope that God blesses him with children—read his contribution because in the decades to come my child—and, as I said, the children I hope the member for Wakefield is blessed with—will be able to understand the contribution that the member opposite made to a $50 billion spending commitment by the Australian government. And they should understand how facile a contribution it was, like so many others from that side are, because they will be paying the debt off for decades. For decades it will be future generations of Australians that are paying off the grand vision of Australia.

The former Prime Minister, the member for Griffith, was a great one when it came to big, bold plans. He was not very good at following through and he was not very good at making sure that what was being proposed actually made a hell of a lot of sense, but he was great on the sell. They say in marketing, ‘Sell the sizzle, not the sausage’, and that is what we had from the Australian Labor Party at the last election and prior to that, when this grand scheme which, according to folklore, was developed between the former Prime Minister, the member for Griffith, and the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Conroy, on the back of an envelope aboard a VIP. It seems very appropriate that a $50 billion exercise that is going to commit generations of Australians to debt and deficit should have been devised on the back of an envelope inside a VIP, because this entire project completely reeks of the fiscal incompetence that has become the hallmark of this federal Labor government.

We have a number of fascinating aspects to the bill before the House today, the National Broadband Network Companies Bill 2010, and they underscore the approach of this government when it comes to NBN Co. What we know is that this is, for all intents and purposes, going to be the single largest building project of its kind that the world has ever seen. Only a matter of a month or two ago, the President of the United States rose in the United States Congress for his State of the Nation address, and he outlined a bold vision and a plan. There are a lot of similarities between a lot of the rhetoric we hear from members opposite—from government members pathetically trying to justify this massive expenditure—and what the President of the United States said. However, there was a key difference between his approach and the approach of Labor members opposite—and this was coming from a president who has presided over a massive blow-out in their debt-to-GDP ratio in the United States. That was that in the United States, in relative terms, their investment in providing high-speed broadband to their people is about 165th, according to most media comments, of what this government is doing in this country. He outlined his plan, which was built on 4G wireless technology.

Members opposite get up and wax lyrical about how nothing happened for 12 years under the coalition and all of this absolute rot—and it is absolute rubbish, because 12 years ago, although the internet did exist, it was nothing on what it is today. Let me inform members opposite, if they do not know already, that there is a reason why they talk about Web 2.0—it has been the evolution of the internet. Indeed, it has evolved from what originally started out as effectively what they called internet relay chat, or IRC, and some very limited components of the internet in terms of multimedia in the early 1990s to what it is today in 2011. And we have no idea where it is going to go. In another 10 or 20 years it will be even more profound than it has been over the last 10 or 20 years.

To hear members opposite start to rave on about how nothing happened for 12 years deserves the contempt of the Australian people. I sit here on this side of the chamber and I listen with contempt as I hear members opposite speak in these glib terms about ‘investing’—so-called—$50 billion of taxpayers’ money ‘after nothing happened for 12 years’. What absolute rubbish! Members opposite have an obligation to future generations of Australians to put a more compelling case—rather than to simply throw up these kinds of stupid lines, frankly—because what the government is looking at doing through this legislation is entrenching a monopoly in this country. It will hand to NBN Co. effectively the single greatest telecommunications monopoly this country has ever seen. It is a massive regressive step, and it comes at a huge cost to Australians as they will be paying off for decades the debt associated with this so-called vision from those opposite.

The coalition are not exactly being unreasonable with our proposal. Fundamentally, there is one aspect of the proposal we are driving forward that we are asking the government to listen to. We are saying: subject this to a cost-benefit analysis. What is so outrageous from a public policy perspective about asking for this $50 billion, or thereabouts, of expenditure to be subjected to a cost-benefit analysis? The answer—from any right-thinking, straight down the line, ordinary Australian—would be, ‘Nothing,’ because there is nothing outrageous about subjecting this to a cost-benefit analysis.

There is nothing outrageous about saying to this out-of-control government that a $50 billion spending initiative should perhaps go before the Productivity Commission and that we should ask the Productivity Commission to make a decision about whether or not this expenditure, which our children will be paying off for decades, is the right expenditure. Members opposite should hang their heads in shame, because it is one thing to have people lock in behind a government policy but an entirely different thing when that policy involves such an exorbitant waste of money.

I am sure I am not letting the cat out of the bag when I say that, if the Productivity Commission and the cost-benefit analysis said, ‘Yes; this is definitely the way to go and this taxpayer subsidy should be rolled out,’ the coalition would probably support it. I am sure it is not that radical to say that. But you know what? We all know that that is not going to happen, and the reason it is not going to happen is that it is economic madness, sheer economic lunacy, for the government to pursue this agenda—and that is the reason they are avoiding scrutiny at all costs.

The Labor Party do not want scrutiny on NBN Co. before the Productivity Commission. The Labor Party do not want scrutiny of NBN Co. when it comes to freedom of information laws, which is why NBN Co. is structured the way it is in the legislation. The Labor Party do not want scrutiny of NBN Co. by the parliament’s Public Works Committee, and that is the reason that they have also made attempts to try to avoid any scrutiny by that committee. In essence, the Labor Party do not want scrutiny of this bill or of the whole proposal, because they know that it was a legacy promise from the former Prime Minister, now being implemented by this government, that is bereft of any notion of economic responsibility—completely devoid of any real semblance of making sure that young Australians will not have to meet this debt in the future.

Let us use a basic analogy. If you go out to dinner with a group of people it is very easy to whip out the credit card at the end of the night and say, ‘It’s all right; it’s on me.’ It is really easy if you are not the one who actually has to pay that bill. And that is precisely what we have got going on here now. We have a government that is happy to throw the card around at the end of the day and say, ‘It’s all right—I’ll pick up the tab; not a problem; don’t you worry,’ because the people who will pay the bill for this economic recklessness are the Australians of tomorrow.

We have already had a government that has racked up, in a relatively short time—three years or thereabouts—around $80 billion of net debt, and that excludes the $50 billion that NBN Co. is putting forward. The most galling aspect of this exercise is that, in a world that is rapidly evolving, a world that is shifting from fixed-line technology to wireless communications, a world where the United States President has indicated—in what is one of the most, if not the most digitally-enabled economy globally—that they are putting their resources into wireless 4G technology, we have got this government spending $50 billion and saying: ‘Trust us! It’s okay. We’re the ones with vision,’ and just blithely throwing out all manner of rhetoric about anyone who dares to question them about what they are up to.

But we know that the stakeholders who have come out in support of NBN Co. are those with the most vested in this area. The wise stakeholders have remained tight-lipped, unwilling to indicate whether they believe fixed-line communications are superior to wireless technology. But there are others, of course, who have come out and said, ‘This is brilliant; we should support it.’ And why wouldn’t they? Why wouldn’t Google, for example, support this rollout of technology? After all, they are going to be the beneficiaries of this technology. So why wouldn’t Google come out and say, ‘Yes, we support it; fantastic idea’? After all, it is not going to cost Google a cent, and it is all blue sky when it comes to that company. So I am not surprised that those are some of the groups that we hear from.

But the more compelling argument to me is that if you were to pin down any of the members opposite and ask them: ‘Why is it that this form of technology is superior to a wireless form of technology?’ they would be unable to answer. I would invite any members of the government following to explain why this technology is superior to 4G wireless technology. I think we will find that they will fall short and that all we will hear is glib rhetoric about how something should have happened 12 years ago because back in the year 1999-2000 you should have seen all this coming. Well, that is just rubbish.

This bill will remain an absolute testament to the manner in which this government has completely lost control when it comes to fiscal responsibility. This is not going to be Kevin Rudd’s legacy as some kind of a visionary. This is not going to be the current Prime Minister, Julia Gillard’s, testimony of her great vision. What it will be is a sign of the times as technology continues to evolve and as the world moves increasingly to wireless technology, which has been the trend for the last decade. People will look back and say, ‘We can’t believe that this is what they spent the money on that we are still paying off.’

It is almost not too much to say that this is effectively one evolution away from the fixed copper wire network. It is just a different form of technology. Fixed copper wire was visionary at the time too. This is going to be fixed fibre. No doubt Labor members have all been saying what a great vision it is. It is not, because it is just $50 billion that has to be repaid in the future when the market could have provided a solution and that is what the coalition took forward.

The far better option is to accept that there are changes that need to be made to this legislation and for Labor members opposite to concede that it should be subjected to a cost-benefit analysis. If they do not want to take my word for it, they should listen to the Governor of the Reserve Bank, Glenn Stevens, who made it clear that any proposal like this should be subjected to a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis. They should listen to their own rhetoric. Labor Party policy says, ‘We will subject any initiatives in terms of public infrastructure to a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis.’ Of course, none of us saw the asterisk that says ‘excluding the NBN’.

The Labor Party need to start living up to actually making sure that their actions match their words. They need to explain why fixed wire technology that is going to cost $50 billion should be an expense that our children should have to pay for for decades to meet some kind of bizarre vision that the Prime Minister had.