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Thursday, 20 March 2008
Page: 1392


Senator CONROY (Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy) (11:04 AM) —I move:

That these bills be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speeches incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speeches read as follows—

COMMONWEALTH AUTHORITIES AND COMPANIES AMENDMENT BILL 2008

The Commonwealth Authorities and Companies Amendment Bill 2008 primarily amends the Commonwealth Authorities and Companies Act 1997 (CAC Act) to improve the governance and accountability arrangements for Commonwealth authorities and Commonwealth companies. The bill also contains a small number of consequential amendments to the Legislative Instruments Act 2003, Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983, Australian Industry Development Corporation Act 1970, Australian National University Act 1991 and Special Broadcasting Service Act 1991.

This bill is designed primarily to amend the CAC Act and represents the most significant set of amendments to the act since it commenced on 1 January 1998.

The CAC Act regulates Commonwealth authorities and Commonwealth companies. For Commonwealth authorities, the CAC Act contains detailed rules about reporting and accountability, and also deals with matters such as banking and investments, and the conduct of officers for Commonwealth authorities. For Commonwealth companies, the CAC Act contains reporting and other requirements that apply in addition to the obligations and responsibilities imposed by the Corporations Act 2001 (Corporations Act).

The amendments in the bill are primarily intended to improve accountability and transparency arrangements for Commonwealth authorities and Commonwealth companies. The amendments in the bill also improve the alignment of the CAC Act with equivalent provisions in the Corporations Act and update the CAC Act based on experience from over 10 years of operation.

The bill seeks to improve the efficiency and transparency of notifying directors of Commonwealth authorities and wholly-owned Commonwealth companies of the general policies of the Australian government that apply to a body.

Responsible ministers will still be required to consult with the directors of Commonwealth authorities and wholly-owned Commonwealth companies on proposed general policies that are to apply to them. However, the new process will significantly improve transparency through the general policy orders, issued by the finance minister, being made available to the public through being published on the Federal Register of Legislative Instruments.

The new process also improves efficiency and reduces red tape within government, by replacing a current cumbersome process that relies on multiple letters and correspondence between ministers and bodies, without the notifications being readily transparent.

Another proposed amendment to the CAC Act will clarify reporting obligations for Commonwealth authorities and improve transparency around granting time extensions by applying the process contained in the Acts Interpretation Act 1901.

The CAC Act also currently includes annual reporting obligations for Commonwealth companies based on reporting requirements contained in the Corporations Act. However, as a consequence of amendments to the Corporations Act since the CAC Act commenced in 1998, there can be different annual reporting standards applied to Commonwealth companies, depending on the company’s classification.

Amendments to the CAC Act will improve the accountability of Commonwealth companies by requiring annual reports to be prepared in line with the requirements for public companies under the Corporations Act.

Additionally, to ensure annual reports contain appropriate disclosure on public sector governance and risk management issues, for example, amendments in the bill will allow the finance minister to require additional information through finance minister’s orders.

Since the CAC Act commenced in 1998, the Auditor-General has submitted the annual reports of subsidiary companies of Commonwealth authorities and Commonwealth companies to the minister responsible for those bodies.

The bill will make amendments to the reporting requirements of subsidiaries so that directors of the relevant Commonwealth authority or Commonwealth company are responsible for submitting annual reports to responsible ministers. This amendment better reflects the responsibilities that directors of Commonwealth authorities and Commonwealth companies have for the operations of subsidiaries.

Through proposed amendments, this bill will provide Commonwealth authorities with greater clarity about the power to purchase goods and services by the use of credit cards where they do not currently have the express power to borrow. Importantly, the bill will also introduce a related criminal penalty associated with misuse of a Commonwealth authority’s credit cards.

When originally drafted the CAC Act sought, where relevant, to impose on directors and other officers of Commonwealth authorities obligations and responsibilities similar to those under the Corporations Act. Since that time, subsequent amendments to the Corporations Act have reduced the alignment in a number of areas. This bill will improve the alignment of the CAC Act with the Corporations Act in the areas of offences, penalties and terminology.

The bill will insert new offences into the CAC Act to align with similar provisions in the Corporations Act. The bill will also amend a number of penalty clauses to align them with similar provisions in the Corporations Act, including the introduction of a number of new civil penalty provisions.

Additionally, the bill strengthens the test for determining when the Commonwealth controls a company by employing terminology used in the Corporations Act for determining when a company is a subsidiary.

Finally, the last major proposal of the bill involves amending the CAC Act to clarify the level of protection of officers and public servants from statutory and other duties, as they carry out their responsibilities in relation to Commonwealth authorities.

In particular, these amendments will strengthen accountability arrangements through removing an exemption from criminal penalties contained in the CAC Act for breach of officers’ duties.

Overall, the amendments in this bill provide a significant and much needed update to the CAC Act, improving transparency, accountability and governance arrangements for Commonwealth authorities and Commonwealth companies.

I commend the bill to the Senate.


TELECOMMUNICATIONS LEGISLATION AMENDMENT (COMMUNICATIONS FUND) BILL 2008.

The government understands that access to high-speed broadband services is critical to Australia’s future social and economic prosperity. Fibre technology is essential to deliver the modern broadband infrastructure that this country needs to boost productivity.

This is why the government has committed to investing up to $4.7 billion to establish a new national broadband network in partnership with the private sector.

The national broadband network is a critical element of the government’s national infrastructure agenda, particularly given the increasing importance of the digital online economy.

The national broadband network is expected to provide minimum speeds of 12 megabits per second to 98 per cent of homes and businesses and be rolled out over the next five years. It will be an open access network to ensure equivalence of access for downstream service providers and will allow scope for providers to differentiate their product offerings.

The national broadband network will provide a platform for sustainable growth for our economy for many years to come.

One of the government’s key election commitments was to provide funding of up to $4.7 billion to facilitate the rollout of a national broadband network to 98 per cent of homes and businesses. The government also committed to using the $2 billion in the Communications Fund to help fund this commitment.

The Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Communications Fund) Bill 2008 would amend Part 9C of the Telecommunications (Consumer Protection and Service Standards) Act 1999 to enable money in the Communications Fund to be used for the purpose of funding the creation or development of a national broadband network, if required. The final decision on use of the fund will be made in the context of the government’s overall fiscal strategy.

The intent of the Communications Fund is to address the telecommunications needs of regional, rural and remote Australians. The Rudd government’s plan to roll out a national broadband network is fully consistent with this, but it will deliver in a much shorter time frame. The government is prepared to use the Communications Fund now to provide better broadband services to 98 per cent of Australian residential and business customers.

The previous government legislated to prevent funds being drawn below $2 billion and to only allow expenditure of the revenue stream. This government is prepared to invest $2 billion right now to fund this critical piece of national infrastructure. Under the previous government’s approach, regional Australians would be waiting 35 long years to reach the same level of investment in telecommunications that Labor is prepared to make right now.

In keeping with its commitment to regional Australia, the government has also extended the current Regional Telecommunications Review chaired by Dr Bill Glasson AO to August 2008. Amongst other things this will provide an opportunity for the review to take into account the national broadband network policy in preparing its recommendations. The government will consider funding in developing its overall response to the review report.

This bill is a significant milestone in implementation of the Rudd government’s initiative to give Australia as a whole a first-class broadband network for the future.

Ordered that further consideration of the second reading of these bills be adjourned to the first sitting day of the next period of sittings, in accordance with standing order 111.

Ordered that the bills be listed on the Notice Paper as separate orders of the day.