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Monday, 22 November 2010
Page: 1711

Senator IAN MACDONALD (1:11 PM) —It is always good to hear Senator Lundy in these sorts of debates as I know she has a very longstanding and precise understanding of this area. In fact, as I said jokingly—but only mock jokingly—I think Senator Lundy would have made a far better Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy than the current incumbent. I know it embarrasses Senator Lundy to have me say that, but I sincerely believe it because Senator Lundy does actually understand these things and, despite her protestations, I am quite confident that had she been the minister we would not have had the absolute mess before the parliament and in Australia that we have now.

As each day goes by, more and more people are questioning the spending of $43 billion of taxpayers’ money on what many are now calling a white elephant. I continually make the point that had the coalition won the 2007 election a broadband would be operating nationally at very high speeds today—no ifs, no buts, no maybes, no looking eight years down the track and perhaps more waiting for this NBN conglomeration to become effective. It would have been operating today. Had the coalition been able to implement its policy, that national broadband network would have been a mix of copper, HCF, fibre to the node or to the home and wireless. That would have been up and running. People that I represent in Northern and remote Australia would be enjoying the benefits of a very high-speed broadband today, as I speak, yet because of this government’s three or four years of vacillation people in many parts of remote Australia still cannot get a decent mobile telephone system. That is what they would have you spend some of the $43 billion on rather than on what is increasingly being called a white elephant.

I ask senators and I ask the people of Australia: if Senator Conroy’s NBN is as good as he says it is, then why do you need this legislation, the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer Safeguards) Bill 2010? Why do you need to threaten Telstra with a shotgun if Senator Conroy’s NBN is so good? If Senator Conroy’s NBN is as good as he says it is, you would think that people would be rushing to it and you would not need any legislation to destroy competition. In fact, if it were as good as Senator Conroy tries to make out, then in Tasmania you would have more than a 50 per cent take-up and you would have people actually paying to go onto the system. I keep mentioning the fact—I am waiting for Senator Conroy or someone on the other side to tell me I have got it wrong here, but no-one ever will—that in Tasmania NBN Co. are giving away their part of the $43 billion investment for free. They are not charging the internet service providers a cent for this network which in Tasmania has already cost $100 million. You would think that if you were getting that $100 million input into good telecommunications in Tasmania for free then more people would be rushing to join up, but they are not. Quite frankly, most of us will never want 100 megabits per second. Those who want to download the latest in movies—certainly something I do not want to do and I suggest very few Australians want to do—will perhaps like the 100 megabits per second. But for normal average use, 12 megabits per second will be more than sufficient for what most Australians will need.

Taking the case of people in Tasmania, they are getting the service for free at the moment. The price to customers, we heard the other day, was from $49.95 up to $89.85, depending on the service they got, but that is about what people now pay for the same service on Telstra’s or Optus’s copper line system. It costs everyone $300 to get the connection box on their house, but so few people were interested in this that NBN Co. said, ‘We’ll put in the $300 box free of charge.’ So not only are NBN Co. not getting any revenue for their $100 million investment but they actually paying out—they are paying people $300 so they get the connection box in the hope that they might then actually connect to the system.

If Senator Conroy’s NBN is so good, why aren’t more people being involved in it? If it is so good, why do you have to force Telstra to shut down their copper network? If it is that good, surely people will line up to join into the fibre-to-the-home network, then we will not have to pay Telstra $11 billion for them to shut down their copper network. That is what we are doing: the taxpayers are paying Telstra $11 billion to shut down their copper network. Telstra, of course, are laughing all the way to the bank—and why wouldn’t they? It would be completely unnecessary if Senator Conroy’s NBN were as good as he makes it out to be.

This bill before the parliament gives the minister power to shut down Telstra’s, and I assume others’, HFC cables if the minister thinks that leaving them operating would give Telstra the potential to compete with the NBN service. If this is as good as Senator Conroy always tells us it is, why is this legislation giving the minister power to shut down the HFC cable network in Australia? If this is so good, why is this draconian legislation needed? This is the sort of legislation that would have had an everyday place in communist Russia—telling companies what they can and cannot do and threatening to take off them part of their business if they do not toe the government line. That is what this bill says.

There are in this bill, I might say, some elements with which the coalition certainly agrees. The pieces of the legislation that deal with consumer protection are appropriate, we believe. They reinforce the existing consumer protection safeguards in the industry, including the universal service obligation and the customer service guarantee. These changes do place an increased burden on carriers but, nevertheless, we on this side of parliament still support them and we are not going to be moving any amendments in this area. In particular, we believe it is very important for consumer protections to be meticulously upheld, especially in rural, regional and remote Australia where, as we all know, access to reliable communications services is critical. So there are certain elements of the bill which we support. But, as Senator Birmingham indicated when he led the debate today, we will be moving a number of amendments to remove some of the more draconian elements of this bill. I understand that both Senator Fielding and Senator Xenophon will have amendments as well and we are interested to see what they are.

In passing, I recall the debate on Thursday when Senator Xenophon said he was not going to insist upon the cost-benefit analysis because he had been offered a briefing by the government. He obviously had not read the fine print, because he now discovers that that would have required him to have a seven-year confidentiality clause imposed upon him. He could not have talked about his briefing for another seven years. I understand from reading the newspapers that that has moved on a bit. But I also understand that for that reason Senator Xenophon, according to the newspapers—I have not spoken to him myself—is not now going to take the briefing, which makes me wonder why this matter was not referred to the Productivity Commission for proper assessment.

This legislation, in spite of Senator Conroy apparently not knowing this, is all about trying to make the NBN work. It will not work in a commercial way. The leading telecommunications experts have all been to Australia and cannot believe that a government monopoly is going to waste $43 billion of taxpayers’ money on a fast broadband service that private industry could have equally well provided—and businessmen around the country agree. In Australia private industry was well on the way to providing that. Sure, there have been complaints. In the number of communications committee hearings that I have been involved in over the years there has been a litany of complaints about access to Telstra’s network by competing carriers. I accept that in many cases those complaints are accurate and justified. But you do not need a sledgehammer to crack that nut. What you need is decent legislation and clever negotiations between the parties to bring about a result.

This proposal to spend $43 billion to shut down a current network that, for the majority of Australians, is okay, to build a competing network, or duplicating a similar sort of network, to me is just crazy. I am pleased to say, as I mentioned before, that every day that goes by more and more Australians are questioning the sense of this. Sure, we all want fast broadband. But, as I have said a number of times, had the coalition’s plan been adopted, that would have been up and running now. Even the most optimistic estimates of this plan suggest that it will be seven or eight years before it is properly operational.

Why do we need 100 megabits per second? We are told that it makes e-health much better. Sure, e-health can work better if you have 100 megabits per second, but that is available now. In fact, I understand that 100 megabits per second has been available for some time if you are prepared to pay the price for it—and nobody will. But I understand the carriers can provide that if you want to put your money up. I note that in the United States the minimum broadband target is four megabits per second. As I recall, the coalition’s 2007 proposal provided for 12 megabits per second—more than enough for the average Australian.

If this proposal is so good, why, oh why, oh why will Senator Conroy not allow it to go for a rigorous, independent cost-benefit analysis? If he is that confident, you would think he would be the first one to push it in there so that an independent and well-regarded authority could come out and say: ‘Senator Conroy is absolutely right. This is going to be at a cost which is bearable by the nation and it will provide all of these benefits that will justify that cost.’ It is incomprehensible that Senator Conroy would object to that if what he has said about his NBN proposal is accurate. But the corollary is obviously the case. Even Senator Conroy, nice fellow that he is, knows that all his rhetoric is not accurate. Even Senator Conroy knows that the value for money is not there, in spite of what he says here. If it were there, he would be the first one pushing it into a rigorous, independent cost-benefit analysis.

What Senator Conroy is doing is locking us into what today is the very latest of technology but tomorrow may be old-fashioned. That is one of the concerns that we have with this. Why Telstra are being forced into a position where the minister may be able to shut down their HFC pay television cable network completely escapes me. That sort of draconian, un-Australian approach to any business activity in Australia defies logic. It certainly defies our understanding and defies what we accept as the norm in a democracy like Australia. Those HFC pay television cables, I have to tell you, pass about 30 per cent of Australian homes at the present time and they could easily provide 100 megabits per second if you wanted to pay for it. But, as I say, take a poll. Who needs 100 megabits per second? We are being locked into Senator Conroy’s view of the world, when tomorrow there could be all sorts of new technologies.

That is what was so good about the coalition’s original proposal: it included copper, it included fibre, it included the HFC cables and it included, most importantly, wireless—because the thing people want more than anything today is not necessarily 100 megabits per second but a mobile telecommunications arrangement. As old-fashioned as I am, I take my laptop everywhere and, in fact, with the little stick I shove in the side of the laptop I can actually send messages as I drive between my office and my home or if I am travelling overseas. Of course, with our little mobile phones, we can also send emails wherever we like and get internet access. So what we are all seeking is that mobility, and locking Australia in, at $43 billion, to a fixed-line fibre network is in my view not appropriate.

I return to the matters I raised when I started this contribution. If the system is as good as Senator Conroy says it is, why do we need this legislation? Why do we need the draconian bullying of a major Australian company that is in this bill before the parliament today? If it is as good as Senator Conroy says it is, why in this bill does he give himself the power to shut down the HFC network? If it is as good as Senator Conroy says it is, why is it that in Tasmania, where the service is being given away, at no cost at all, only 50 per cent of the people have even bothered to have a look at the proposal? It does not make sense. The coalition, as I mentioned, will be supporting parts of this bill, but we will be moving amendments to attempt to correct some of its more draconian elements.