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Tuesday, 1 March 2011
Page: 1892

Mr ZAPPIA (6:43 PM) —I take this opportunity to speak briefly in support of the National Broadband Network Companies Bill 2010 and cognate bill. Before I get on with my remarks, I commend the member for Lyne for his contribution to this debate. Few issues that I can recall from my time in this parliament have been debated as often as this matter has been. The claims and counterclaims have been expressed time and time again and the coalition’s criticism has been rebutted time and time again. The Australian people are quite understandably losing their patience on this matter. It was a key election issue in 2007. It was a key election issue in 2010 and, in particular, the cost of the NBN was a key election issue for the opposition in the 2010 election. Australian people have not been persuaded by the coalition misinformation and scare campaign on this issue which continues to date. It is a campaign which would have you believe that the cost of this project is something like $50 billion when the coalition know full well that the taxpayer contribution is about half of that.

If members opposite do not understand the importance of the NBN, let me assure them that the Australian people do. The people I speak with in my electorate do; the Independents in this place do, and we have just heard from the member for Lyne; the Australian people do. Clearly opposition members do not understand the significance of the NBN. They simply do not get it. Over 12 years in office they did nothing, and Australia fell further behind the rest of the world in the provision of high-speed broadband internet services. For the past three years the coalition have opposed the government’s NBN legislation every step of the way and at every opportunity available to them, most recently with a matter of public importance on this very matter only last Thursday. The member for Wentworth, who led that MPI as shadow communications spokesman, I believe does understand the importance of the NBN, so I asked myself, ‘Why the objection?’ I can only conclude that their political strategy is to block the NBN rollout so that at the next election they can go to the Australian people and say to them, ‘The government has failed to deliver the NBN.’

What is extraordinary is that the opposition, as the alternative government, do not have a credible alternative policy of their own, again highlighting that they simply do not understand the importance of this issue. Their view is that the market will sort itself out and that the private sector will build the necessary networks and provide the necessary services. That simply has not happened, and it did not happen during the 12 years of the previous coalition government. Again, there has been no credible alternative policy put forward by them—or, in fact, by the private sector—to provide the services that are needed.

Other speakers have spoken—I notice the member for Corangamite did earlier this evening—with regard to the productivity efficiency gains to be made from a modern, high-speed NBN. Those productivity gains would run into billions of dollars each year. Each year the rollout is delayed costs the nation billions of dollars. If there were ever a sustainable charge of costing Australians billions of dollars it would apply to the coalition for their opposition of the NBN rollout. But it is not just about dollars. It is as much about the personal and human benefits associated with a high-speed NBN. Whether it is in health, education, research, social life or entertainment—in fact, in every aspect of life—there are noticeable personal benefits from a high-speed NBN.

In Makin, the electorate I represent, poor access to reliable internet services is one of the most common issues raised with my office. The patience of the people waiting for decent internet services is wearing thin. They understand what the government is proposing and they want the government to get on with it. They have heard the opposition claims and simply are not persuaded by them. I welcomed the announcement last year that the national rollout of the NBN would commence in a number of areas, including the north-eastern suburbs of Adelaide, which is the area that I represent. I know that when I speak to residents in those areas they are quite excited by the thought that they might be one of the first communities to finally get some decent access to broadband services. I am also aware of the importance attached to a high-speed national broadband network by business. During the Howard government years businesses in the northern region of Adelaide had to enlist the support of Salisbury council to secure a decent broadband service. Salisbury council, to its credit, was able to deliver for them where the Howard government had failed to do so.

I have listened to this debate at length and I have listened to all sides of it, and it seems to me that the debate comes down to what I would suggest are three critical areas. The first relates to the cost of the NBN. The second relates to the monopoly situation that is being created as part of this proposal. The third relates to the cost and benefit of it. I want to talk about each of those areas briefly. In respect of the cost: yes, of course the cost is substantial. This is a significant national project, and if you compare the cost of the NBN rollout to the cost of other significant national projects in years gone by, it is not unreasonable. From my recollection, we went through an extensive tender process to come up with the proposal that we have before us right now. For all of the criticism by the opposition, they have not been able to put forward a credible alternative policy that delivers the same service at a better cost. I am also pleased to see that the government—we heard this only an hour or so ago in this House—will be establishing a committee to oversee the NBN rollout process.

Finally, cost comparisons have been made with similar systems in other countries and the costs of rollouts in those countries. It is my view that you cannot properly compare what is required in Australia to what is required in another country. Issues such as population density, distance between cities and other unique Australian factors simply cannot be factored in such a way that you can get accurate comparisons to other countries. If it could be done cheaper, I am sure it would have been.

I turn to the question of monopoly and the criticism that this will create a monopoly for the NBN network. National infrastructure has quite often been owned by governments in a monopoly situation. It is not at all unusual for governments to do that. In fact, there are still many examples of government monopolies over key public infrastructure. For example, if you look at who owns much of the water systems, the electricity distribution systems, the gas distribution systems, the postal services and telecommunications of this country, you see that they are all essentially either federal or state government owned monopolies. Previously we also had the government involved in things like aviation and a whole range of other areas where today a monopoly no longer exists. The roads throughout this country are owned by the government.

So to suggest that there is something unusual and something wrong about a company being a monopoly owner of key government infrastructure is, I believe, a very flawed argument. In fact, more often than not it has taken a government to make the necessary investment and then in subsequent years, once the system is running, to sell off the asset to private investors.

The third matter I want to talk about is the cost-benefit analysis. Again, this is a matter that you can debate at length, and it is very, very difficult to come to any finite conclusion. It is extremely difficult to accurately assess the benefit that will accrue as a result of having a modern, high-speed national broadband network. Let me use a couple of examples. Recently, with respect to the floods in Queensland, I heard several speakers commenting on how important it was that people were able to communicate with one another at critical times during emergency situations. It was because of that communication that people perhaps were able to save lives. How do you ever put a value on a life saved as a result of having the communications ability that a modern national broadband network would be able to provide?

We know that the NBN system will be able to provide cost benefits for our health system throughout the country. There are proposals in hand which will ensure that a high-speed broadband service in this country will be of immense value to our medical system and our health system around the country. Again, if one life is saved as a result of that system, how do you put a value on that?

But, if you want to go to productivity gains, I do not think anyone in this House would deny that having a high-speed NBN around this country would generate millions and billions of dollars of productivity gains for this country. I do not think that is in dispute. The sooner we have the system up and running, the sooner we will be able to benefit from those gains.

Finally, with respect to the cost-benefit analysis, I say this: we still do not know today what the infrastructure that we are dealing with will be able to do for us in the future. The applications and the systems through which we will benefit are still evolving and, in some cases, perhaps have not even been thought out. So how do you value something like that? I do not believe you can. I believe that there are questions that we need to ask. What systems do we have available to us today? Is there a shortfall? I think the answer is yes. How do we best proceed to ensure that we have the most efficient system for this country as quickly as possible?’ I believe the proposal before us does exactly that. That is why I support it. I commend these bills to the House.