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Thursday, 25 August 2011
Page: 5516


Senator NASH (New South WalesDeputy Leader of The Nationals in the Senate) (11:24): I thoroughly enjoyed the contribution from Senator Bilyk. It was really a bit of a hoot, wasn't it? I particularly liked the bit where those on the other side of the chamber were taking it upon themselves to proffer advice to our side of the chamber, which I really find quite extraordinary given the inept nature of the current Labor govern­ment. But I shall not waste time on that.

We are here today to debate the National Broadband Network Financial Transparency Bill 2010 (No. 2), and I find it interesting that on no occasion in Senator Bilyk's contribution did she actually try to defend her government on the basis of why they will not inform the Australian people properly about the business case for an NBN and a cost-benefit analysis. On no occasion did Senator Bilyk or anybody else on the other side that I have been listening to actually give a good reason why the Australian people should not be fully informed about the National Broadband Network. This bill was very ably and capably put forward by Senator Birmingham, and I must acknow­ledge Senator Birmingham's diligent work and thorough understanding of tele­communi­cations issues. He has put forward a very sensible bill. I actually think it is one of the most sensible bills we have seen before us in this place for quite some time. It does two things: it requires the publication of a 10-year business case for the NBN and it requires that the NBN project be referred to the Productivity Commission for a thorough cost-benefit analysis. How sensible is that? I think that is absolutely what the government should have been doing anyway.

Can you imagine, colleagues, what would happen if we popped down to our local bank and had a chat to the bank manager about an idea that we had had for a new business venture and said to the bank manager, 'We've got this really good idea; we think we've got this great idea'? 'What's it going to cost?' says the bank manager. We reply: 'We're not really sure. We've got a bit of a ballpark figure but we're not really sure. So we're sorry; we can't tell you.' The bank manager says: 'How's it actually going to work? How's it going to operate?' We say: 'Sorry; we're not really sure. We can't tell you, but it is a really good idea.' The bank manager then says: 'Who's it going to service? How many people is this going to impact upon? What's your return going to be? How long's it going to take?' We say to the bank manager: 'Actually, we're really sorry; we're not sure about any of those things. But it's a really, really good idea, and all we need from you is a bucket of money, so that'd be great, thanks.' It is absolute pie-in-the-sky stuff, yet that is exactly what this government has done. Senator Conroy has come up with a bucket of money, because that is all it is: it is an unsubstantiated, unworked-through buck­et of money.

So, having got this bucket of money from the bank manager, the minister is now endeavouring to control this beast that is really becoming out of control. What is the minister thinking if he thinks it is okay not to inform the Australian people about how this NBN is going to work? If that does not smack of the arrogance of this Labor govern­ment at this point in time—as it has been for some time now—it is just extraordinary. If it were not so serious, it would actually be funny, because the government is completely inept.

Why is it that this government will not put forward a business case and do a cost-benefit analysis? It is because they know it is all going to turn into a pile of 'very interesting arrangement'. They know that if they try to explain properly to the Australian people how this is going to work then either (a) they would not be able to or (b) it would look so bad. So they are hiding. It is one of two things. Either they are hiding because they know it is going to be so bad or they simply do not know how this is all going to unravel. It is a bit like letting a train loose on a track without a train driver and saying, 'Well, it's off to a destination somewhere; we're not quite sure what that destination's going to be or what the impact's going to be along the way, but the train's on the track and it's rolling. We in the coalition have always supported faster, better telecommunications for the Australian people. But, unlike the other side, we also have supported doing it responsibly and sensibly, not coming up with some bucket of money, taxpayers' dollars, to put towards some project that has no cost-benefit analysis and no business case. It is just stupidity. If that is the way the government are running the country, which obviously it is, it reflects really badly on this government's ability to substantially and properly determine policy for the future of the country. They simply cannot do it. They simply have no ability whatsoever to do it.

Senator Birmingham's bill is one that should absolutely be passed by this chamber, and I cannot understand anybody not supporting this. It is just sensible. I know that Senator Lundy will have a different point of view because her party has to have a different point of view. I do acknowledge Senator Lundy's very real understanding of these issues. She has a very significant knowledge and capability in this area. I suspect that if I asked her in a corner of a room somewhere, 'Do you really think the NBN is going as well as it could and should it really be like this?' she might have a few thoughts about how it could have been done differently. But I certainly would not want to put any words whatsoever into her mouth. What is going to be interesting, colleagues, is to see whether the Greens and the Independ­ents support the government on this bill. It is going to be very interesting indeed, because all this bill does is ask the government to be responsible and provide the Australian people with the information they deserve about the National Broadband Network.

At the end of the day this is not about a bucket of money of over $50 billion. It is a bit hard to get your head around that. I know the government says, 'It's not over $50 billion; it's only $36 billion', but they very neatly refuse to include the $11 billion that went to Telstra and the cost overruns that are predicted as being very likely. We only have to look at things like the Building the Edu­cation Revolution program to know that the government cannot manage money. There is always waste and mismanagement when it comes to this government, so you need to factor that in. There is not a bucket of money. There is not $50 billion sitting in a giant bucket underneath Parliament House, although from the way that Senator Conroy is going on you would think that there is. This is Australian people's money. This is taxpayers' dollars. This is money that taxpayers of Australia have provided—although I may correct myself there and say that, with the $198 billion worth of debt this government has now given the Australian people, it is probably far more likely it is coming from somewhere else.

What will the Greens and the Independents do? All this legislation does is ask the government to be responsible and to provide the Australian people with the information they deserve when it comes to the government spending $50 billion. If the Greens support the government on this we can only assume that it is another occasion of the operation of the Labor-Greens govern­ment. By and large, that is what we have now; we have a Labor-Greens government. There is no greater example of that than yesterday in this place when we were discussing the cap to the childcare rebate and the fact that there was going to be increased costs to families for child care. Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, from the Greens, who in the past had said there should not be any extra impost on families and the government should not be using this as a savings measure, voted with the government to increase childcare costs for families. If that is not the best example of the fact that this is a Labor-Greens government and there is no other way of looking at it, then I do not know what is. I could be wrong, colleagues, but I expect that today in this chamber we will see the Labor-Greens government voting as one again. I hope I am proven wrong and that the Greens in fact realise that this bill is doing nothing more than asking the government to act responsibly, which they certainly have not managed to do in the past.

I must say I have been a little disengaged from telecommunications issues over recent times, but I thought it was timely to make a contribution today, as I did last night with Senator Birmingham in the committee stage, because it is really important for the future of this nation that we get telecommunications right. I suspect that the current minister is not getting it right and I suspect that many people across the country would say: 'Fifty billion dollars—mmm. Okay, how about if some of that went to telecommunications and, if the government has a bucket of money, $50 billion, how about we put that to some other infrastructure use or maybe put that into some health infrastructure?' Let me tell you, as I know from when I am out there in the regional communities talking to people, the level of health service that is given to regional Australia is appalling. But, no, the government is hell-bent on this NBN. It is extraordinary. It is a bit like watching a slow train wreck in a lot of ways.

I could be wrong. We could come back in 20 years and say, 'Gee, isn't it fantastic; the NBN has gone brilliantly!' Not being a soothsayer, I cannot tell; not having a crystal ball, I do not know. But I suspect that we would be standing there saying, 'What an absolutely disastrous mess that turned out to be!' Picking technologies is not smart; that is probably the understatement of the year. Of course there has to be a capacity in the backhaul through the fibre. I do not disagree with that one little bit. That actually should be addressed. That is key to the provision of better services in regional Australia. But for the government to prescribe how it will work from that point on to the home is just absolute stupidity. I note that even this morning NBN Co. has admitted that wireless internet services in some areas could be comparable to the speed of basic services on Labor's fibre network, so it is just extraordinary that the government is continuing down this track. Before I came into this place—it seems a very long time ago now; back in 2005—Senator Joyce and I, who were not actually in this place at that time but were both senators-elect—were asked to co-chair a regional telecommuni­cations inquiry for the Page Research Centre, which was chaired by Dr Troy Whitford. I must say that Dr Whitford has an extra­ordinary intellect. He does indeed have a brain the size of a planet. We worked together with industry to come up with a plan for future-proofing telecommunications in non-metropolitan Australia. I actually think we came up with some pretty good ideas, bearing in mind, colleagues, that this is over six years ago now. While I admit that many of my colleagues did not agree with what we put forward, it was a really sensible plan. We said that competition—where it can exist—is absolutely the vehicle to provide the best telecommunications services for the Australian people but, where there is market failure, the government does have a role to play in ensuring that those areas have equity of service when it comes to telecommuni­cations. So when the minister started talking about the NBN, I had sympathy for some of the principles in that they aligned with this view. But what he has ended up with is an absolute NBN beast that has morphed into an entirely different being from the principle that he started with. What we came up with back in those days—and I notice my good colleague Senator Joyce has joined me now—was a pretty good plan. I am sure my good friend and colleague Senator Ronaldson will again refer to me as an agrarian socialist. He has taken to calling me 'Black Nash McEwen'.

Senator Joyce interjecting

Senator NASH: Senator Joyce has just indicated that is a compliment. There is a role for government to play in ensuring that there is equity of services in telecommuni­cations where we have market failure, but that is not what the government has given us. It is nothing like what the government has given us. So, instead of looking at the urban areas and asking, 'What regulatory reform can we put in place to assist competition in the cities where that is going to have the best possible outcome, where that is going to provide the best services?'—oh no—he has just taken a giant slam, gone straight to the top and gone for the giant, you beaut, super-duper model that is going to be completely out of control.

My great fear is that, once we go through this entire process with the NBN Co., the dealings with Telstra that we have seen and where it is all morphing, in a lot of ways we are going to end up at exactly the same point we started. That, indeed, would be a very, very sad day for telecommunications, because regional communities are still being left behind. After all of this talk and all of this bluster and everything else from this government, regional communities are still being left behind. I note that Senator Bilyk was waxing lyrical in her contribution on the bill about Armidale and the connections—

Senator Bilyk interjecting

Senator NASH: It was waxing lyrical; it was. You had some fantastic phrases in there, Senator Bilyk. I have got to say: I would love to know how you came up with them. Senator Bilyk was waxing lyrical about Armidale. I am not quite sure who gave Senator Bilyk her information about Armidale, but I can assure you, colleagues, about the number of people who have connected in Armidale. Armidale is big. How big is the population of Armidale, Senator Joyce?

Senator Joyce: 25,000.

Senator NASH: You would think there would be a pretty significant proportion connected in a town of 25,000. You would think maybe 10,000 or maybe 5,000. Fewer than 50 people in Armidale have connected. So I would suggest, Senator Bilyk, that maybe you go back to your speech and have a little look at that particular bit—fewer than 50 people. The bill before us today does nothing more, as I said earlier, than require the government to act responsibly. Senator Birmingham, in his second reading contribution to the bill, said:

... it will give parliament much greater comfort if that transparency—

indeed, the transparency of the NBN—

is a statutory requirement rather than simply a promise from the executive.

I think he is spot on on that one, because we know what this government is like with promises, don't we colleagues? Let me see, what is the most recent promise I can think of that was broken? The biggest one is—I know—the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, saying before the last election: 'There will be no carbon tax under a government I lead.' And what have we got now, colleagues? We are looking down the barrel of a carbon tax.

Senator Lundy interjecting

Senator NASH: I notice Senator Lundy is making a contribution from the other side for the first time. I think the government is a little sensitive about this, because they know that there is nowhere they can hide. It was a promise that was made to the Australian people and it was broken—'There will be no carbon tax under the government I lead.' So it is not surprising that the Australian people do not believe the minister, Senator Conroy, when he says: 'Just trust me. It'll be fine. The NBN will be fine. We don't need a business case. We don't need a cost-benefit analysis. It'll be fine. You just trust us.' The Australian people are smarter than that and they deserve better than that. They deserve to have the business case and the cost-benefit analysis that has been put forward through Senator Birmingham's bill. It is just common sense that that sort of information would be available. It is just common sense that the Australian people would be able to have access to the information that they rightly deserve about how the NBN is going to work. Let me tell you, colleagues, this whole 'trust us' thing just does not cut it. The $50 billion that this government is going to spend and how it is going to work need to be plainly and clearly explained to the Austra­lian people. The government should stop hiding. The government should stop complet­ely negating the need for this, because it is quite extraordinary to watch. On this side of the chamber, we understand that it needs to be done. We need better tele­communications, and especially in regional Australia. Senator Joyce and I have been saying that for years and years. But we have got to do it responsibly and sensibly and do it informing the Australian people of what we are going to do about the outcomes they need and deserve.