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Wednesday, 23 June 2010
Page: 4118


Senator BRANDIS (2:00 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Conroy. I refer to the non-binding agreement for Telstra to participate in the National Broadband Network. How can the government justify paying $9 billion of taxpayers’ money essentially in exchange for Telstra shutting down its existing business? What are Australian taxpayers actually getting for their $9 billion?


Senator CONROY (Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy) —That is a question that shows that those opposite, as usual, have failed to do basic research, to even read a press release from either Telstra or NBN Co. or look on the departmental website. It is very clearly spelled out what is being received in the deal between NBN Co. and the Telstra Corporation, which is who the contract, the financial heads of agreement, has been signed with. It is a $9 billion deal between NBN Co. and Telstra, and the $9 billion refers to two or three different aspects but the vast bulk of it refers to access to Telstra’s infrastructure—the ability to use existing infrastructure. This will lead to significant savings for the country and, more importantly, it will not lead to the debacle that took place under those opposite with the HFC cable, when we had Telstra and Optus trucks driving down the same streets stringing two cables up in front of everybody’s houses, digging everybody’s pavement up twice. That is what actually happened. That sort of duplication was a terrible waste of money for the Australian economy.

The other major aspect of the $9 billion is the commitment to transfer all of Telstra’s customer base onto the National Broadband Network. That is millions and millions of Telstra customers closing down the copper and moving across onto the fibre network. This is a win-win. (Time expired)


Senator BRANDIS —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. How does the minister defend Labor’s decision to spend another $100 million a year of taxpayers’ money on the universal service obligation—a cost that until now has always been met by the telecommunications industry, not by the taxpayer?


Senator Lundy interjecting—


Senator CONROY (Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy) —Yes, they do think they are so clever, Senator Lundy. You are right. Tragically, the way networks work is they are connected together. Pieces of copper connect to pieces of copper; pieces of fibre connect to pieces of fibre. When you restructure the sector, when you pull the copper out of the ground and you close exchanges, what that means is that the copper network that extends out into the 10 per cent needs to be connected to something. The restructure that we are engaged in is described by the Australian in its editorial today, where it says:

THE effective restructure of Telstra after two decades—


Senator Brandis —Point of order, Mr President. The minister was asked—


Senator CONROY —You don’t know what you are talking about.


The PRESIDENT —Order!


Senator Brandis —Are you going to call him to order, Mr President?


The PRESIDENT —Senator Conroy!


Senator Brandis —Mr President, the minister was asked why the taxpayers rather than the telecommunications industry are now footing the annual $100 million bill for the universal service obligation. It must be obvious to you that he has not gone anywhere near responding to that issue.


Senator Ludwig —On the point of order, the minister has been directly answering the question, quite frankly. He has been quite relevant to the point, and what we now have is the opposition simply seeking to raise the issue again during a point of order, which is quite inappropriate.


The PRESIDENT —The clock should have been held during the points of order. It has not been.


Senator CONROY —I’m a long way from finished, Mr President.


The PRESIDENT —Order, Senator Conroy. I believe it was at about the 34-second mark. On the point of order, I believe the minister is answering the question. He might not be answering it in the way that is desired, but I cannot tell the minister how to answer the question. I draw the minister’s attention to the fact that there will be 34 seconds left on the clock to answer the question.


Senator CONROY —As I was saying, the Australian’s editorial today says the restructure is:

… a political win for the Rudd government, which can now point to the brave new world of competitive telecommunications that lies ahead.

I will finish the rest of the quote, but again, to come back to the embarrassing point that Senator Brandis does not seem to understand, the $100 million is only part of the money. We will continue to have the industry levy, but because the structure of the sector is changing— (Time expired)


Senator BRANDIS —Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. Why has the Rudd government decided to spend $16 million of taxpayers’ money advertising the National Broadband Network on television and radio and in the print media across Australia when, according to Labor’s own statements, the building of the network will not be completed for at least eight years? Isn’t this just another political stunt from an all-talk, no-action government?


Senator CONROY (Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy) —On the question of all talk and no action, let’s be very clear about this: 6,000 kilometres of backhaul is being constructed across Australia right now. In Tasmania the first real customers signed up will go live in just two or three weeks—real customers with a real network that is being built in the ground today. For the first five mainland release sites, construction starts next month. The embarrassment on the other side is that they do not actually understand anything about this sector. They do not understand that the first customers will be connected in Tasmania in a few short weeks.


Senator Brandis —Then why are you advertising on the mainland?


Senator CONROY —Senator Brandis, you are an embarrassment to yourself, all right? The advertising campaign has come because all around Australia people are asking for more information, because of the disinformation— (Time expired)