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Tuesday, 1 March 2011
Page: 1884

Mr BRUCE SCOTT (6:02 PM) —I thank the member for Lyne for agreeing to put me ahead of him at this time. It certainly helps my diary immensely and I thank him for that. I welcome this opportunity to speak today on the National Broadband Network Companies Bill 2010 and cognate bill. I really am very concerned at the way the government is trying to push these bills through so quickly to avoid part of the public scrutiny. We have seen much in the media but there should be more public scrutiny of the flawed NBN plan. The National Broadband Network Companies Bill will govern ownership. It will also be about the operations and the legal status of NBN Co., the Commonwealth owned builder and operator of the broadband network. It limits NBN Co. to business activities directly related to supplying wholesale communications services and sets out some arrangements for its eventual privatisation.

The Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (National Broadband Network Measures—Access Arrangements) Bill 2010—I know it is a long title—also amends the Competition and Consumer Act 2010 and the Telecommunications Act 1997. It requires the NBN Co. to provide open and non-discriminatory access to retail carriers using its wholesale services and imposes similar access rules and NBN compatible technical requirements on non-NBN fibre rollouts.

I, like many of my coalition colleagues, am committed to ensuring that there is a universally available, high-quality broadband—‘high-speed internet’ is probably a better term—available at affordable prices. The National Broadband Network is a $50 billion investment—let us be clear about this—on behalf of the taxpayers of Australia. Whilst it may not be on budget it is still a Commonwealth funded proposal.

I have no doubt that we have to build our nation’s network, and it is the government’s role to ensure that where the network fails—and there have been many failures in the past, dating right back to the days of the PMG—the government should be there to invest in what I call the nation’s backhaul. In other words, we are building the nation’s network infrastructure—I call them our highways—through optic fibre cable and the network. The government should be there where there is a market failure. Markets do fail.

We need to develop the nation’s backhaul. We should be replacing, as part of the NBN proposal—we are still waiting to hear from the government on this—those single-channel radio systems that are the legacy of the PMG and Telecom, before Telstra, out in the outback of my electorate. There are single-channel radio systems in this day and age! There are microwave links going right out into the outback and up into the gulf and the Torres Strait Islands. These are technologies of more than a century ago and we should be replacing them. But the market will always fail to provide the upgrade of those facilities and that is where there is a role for the government.

The government rolled out, through NBN Co., a $250 billion optic fibre cable link between Darwin and Toowoomba. Many out in those committees thought, ‘The optic fibre cable is coming through my town; we’re going to get access to high-speed internet.’ I have had to tell them, ‘No, it is actually a duplication of existing optic fibre cables that are owned by Telstra.’ NBN Co. have upset many of my constituents because they felt that they could go through people’s properties and just advise them by letter, ‘We’re coming through.’ We have had many fights on the way with NBN Co. They thought they had greater rights than the title deed holder who pays rates on this land.

Maybe it is going to be good infrastructure in the long term but, even when they came from east of Mount Isa through to Cloncurry, if they had used the Landsborough Highway between Cloncurry and Winton it might have made a little bit of sense to me. But no, they went further east, to Marathon, and cut across Mitchell grass plains to Winton. They could have used the national highway—and the communities of Kynuna and McKinlay are along that highway. That would have enabled providers at some time in the future to connect national phone towers along a national highway that links Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney and Darwin. But, no, they did not take that 300 or 400 kilometre route, which would have made sense. It is that backhaul, that connectivity, that would have enabled a connection to be made at some time by third parties rolling out mobile phone and wireless networks, albeit along a lonely stretch of highway north-west of Winton.

The other thing that concerns me is that this bill will mean there will not be appropriate parliamentary or public scrutiny of the NBN Co. The NBN is the single largest public works project in Australia’s history and it should be subject to some parliamentary scrutiny. It should be subject to investigation by the Productivity Commission as to whether it is appropriately funded and whether the money is being spent appropriately. Public works is part of it, but we on this side of the House are suggesting it should be investigated by the Productivity Commission. If the government believes it is such a good project then surely an independent analysis would be the best way to ensure we get value for money to provide the best services at the best possible prices. But no, the government is not going to let Public Works or the Productivity Commission oversight the greatest investment by the Commonwealth in any public works in our history.

This is probably only the tip of the iceberg for taxpayers, who are ultimately going to fund this project, but it does concern me that we have not had that public scrutiny. I am the voice of the people of the seat of Maranoa, which covers 45 per cent of the landmass of Queensland. The distance between the east of Maranoa and the west is further than the distance between Brisbane to Melbourne, and from north to south it is further than from Brisbane to Sydney. Across my electorate, communications are very important. I believe communications are a fundamental right. It should not be considered a privilege to have affordable modern communications—not only voice but increasingly data as well.

The tragedy of this legislation thus far, unless there is going to be a change of heart from the minister, is to see some of the nation’s backhaul, the nation’s network, being built where markets fail. We have not really heard from the minister; we have had soundings from him. I only hope he will listen to some of the councils in my electorate. What the coalition said prior to the last election was that we would have a fund that would be available to third parties to build an open access network where markets fail. One of those areas, in my own electorate, is the outback shires of Diamantina and Barcoo, where a single channel radio system connects Birdsville to Bedourie. They have a single channel radio system from Windorah to Jundah-Stonehenge. These could connect with Defence’s over-the-horizon radar facility. There is an optic-fibre cable from Stonehenge through to Longreach. It is the network they use to receive information from the over-the-horizon radar. These shires are prepared to put something like $2½ million to $3 million on the table. They have said that to the minister. I have supported their letters to him to replace those single channel radio systems. So in my electorate and, I am sure, and in other parts of remote Australia there are communities that are desperate to see that old technology replaced with optic-fibre cable. Because of the importance of it, it will be there in 20, 30 or 40 years time servicing those communities. It will allow a whole lot of other activities, including e-medicine. There is also a growing tourism market out there, so small businesses would be established around outback tourism.

We have got to upgrade the infrastructure. I have not yet seen any proposal put forward by the government that is going to guarantee to those communities a partnership arrangement between the Commonwealth, through NBN Co., and those two local council areas. I use them as an example because they are in a very remote part of Australia. From the coalition’s point of view, they are not forgotten people, and I just hope they are not forgotten people from the government’s point of view. The coalition government provided for this with the Future Fund. We put it into law that the money earned by the Future Fund would be spent every three years where there were market failures.

I would like the minister to also respond fully to the Glasson review of communications in rural and remote Australia. The coalition lost government in 2007. From 2007 to 2009 there was, we understood, some $300 million to be spent on addressing market failure out in those rural and remote parts of Australia and, in some cases, metropolitan parts of Australia, where markets also fail. I am sure the member for Macquarie can understand that—when you get into the Blue Mountains. There are market failures close to our large metropolitan cities.

The Glasson review and its recommendations have not been fully responded to by this minister. When we left office there was a fund of $2 billion that was earning something like $300 million over a three-year period that was to be used without having to go back to budget. The Treasurer cannot use the argument, ‘Oh, we were hit with the global financial crisis and we had to find savings.’ The money was there, invested by the Howard government to make sure that, where markets fail, we could address those market failures without going back to the taxpayer. I would like a minister to respond to that.

I want to touch also on Telstra Country Wide. I really want to know, with the agreement between the government and the board of Telstra, what they intend to do with Telstra Country Wide. Telstra Country Wide is out in those rural and regional areas. We put them there by regulation to ensure that they would be in regional Australia when Telstra was fully privatised. We did fully privatise it. Telstra Country Wide has been out there in the community with across-the-counter, face-to-face services. They have been invaluable, I can assure you, in the recent devastating floods and natural disasters. The minister at the table, Minister Bowen , would know. He came to Charleville in the March floods of last year. He knows how important it was to have Telstra Country Wide in the community, providing mobile phones and replacement phones for those people who may have lost them as a result of the floods. We saw it again in Dalby, Chinchilla and Condamine this year. They were there again. I wonder whether under NBN Co. and the separation of the wholesale and retail operations of Telstra what will happen to Telstra Country Wide. The Prime Minister says that this is a government for regional Australia. I am sure the member for Lyne heard that. This is a government for regional Australia. As part of this bill the government should tell us what they are going to do in relation to Telstra Country Wide and make sure that they continue to build the outback networks. (Time expired)