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Tuesday, 23 November 2010
Page: 1876


Senator FISHER (1:13 PM) —What is the hurry with the Senate consideration of this so-called competition and consumer safeguards bill? What is the hurry when this government is in zero hurry to provide stakeholders with a copy of the business case? A copy of the business case could at least inform the business underpinnings of what this bill seeks to implement. What is the hurry, Minister? In particular, what is the hurry when the government is in no hurry to produce a business case? What is the hurry when the minister informed us at Senate estimates in May that there was apparently no relationship between this bill, the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer Safeguards) Bill 2010, and the construction of the National Broadband Network? We know that this bill is in fact all about the NBN. We know that this bill is a stalking horse to force Telstra’s hand to participate in the National Broadband Network because, without Telstra’s participation, the government’s vision of its National Broadband Network cannot come to fruition. We also know that this bill is about giving a preferred space to deals done between NBN Co. and others to implement the government’s NBN dream, because it proposes to exempt those deals from what would be and should be normal scrutiny by the ACCC in terms of competition.

We do know that this bill is about the National Broadband Network, despite the protestations to the contrary of the minister and the government. We also know that this minister told us at Senate estimates that this legislation, and the other legislation yet to come—of which there is quite some—is irrelevant to the construction of the National Broadband Network. Minister Conroy, who is trying to look totally uninterested because he does not want to hear his words spoken back to him—I guess I might do the same, Minister, if I were you, but I am kind of pleased that I am not—


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Moore)—Senator, I just remind you not to address the minister directly in your speech.


Senator FISHER —Thank you, Madam Acting Deputy President, I stand appropriately corrected.

The minister told us at Senate estimates on 25 May:

The NBN Co. is currently being built around Australia as we speak.

He went on to say:

The National Broadband Network is commencing and being deployed irrespective of whether or not legislation is passed or not passed by parliament. It does not require parliament to pass it.

Minister Conroy said that in May. Then when I asked:

Is the legislation irrelevant to the building of the NBN?

He said:

Yes, completely.

So why the hurry? Why the hurry from this minister? Why the hurry for this legislation from this government, when this minister says that this legislation—


Senator Conroy —It’s been 12 months that you’ve been blocking this bill in the Senate!


Senator FISHER —Thank you, Minister Conroy—alive at last. When this minister says that this legislation—


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Senator Fisher, I am interrupting you because I remind you, after reminding you earlier in your contribution, that you do not address the minister directly in your speech.


Senator FISHER —Thank you once again, Madam Acting Deputy President, for that appropriate reminder.

Why the hurry, when Minister Conroy and the government are in no hurry to release the business plan? Worse than that, they are in no hurry to subject this National Broadband Network to any scrutiny at all. They are in no hurry to prove to the Australian people that there is any transparency or that there is any accountability in this National Broadband Network, in which the Australian people are de facto bedfellows with the government whether they like it or not. For a $43 billion spend of taxpayers’ money—as Senator Williams says, borrowed money—the Australian people have been forced into bed with the government, and by the government, in every step of the rollout of the National Broadband Network.

It is with contempt that the Australian government is treating the Australian people not only in refusing to release the business case but also in continuing to refuse to do a cost-benefit analysis, and also refusing to release the government’s response to the $25 million taxpayer funded implementation study. We certainly know what we have not got, other than a government that seems to think, as the member for Wentworth has said, that with the National Broadband Network the end will justify the means.

We do have a government which somewhat successfully, but wrongly, portrayed the opposition during the previous election campaign as effectively broadband sceptics or broadband deniers. They got to the eleventh hour when that tactic almost worked with the emissions trading scheme. The government almost succeeded in the fraud that would have been the emissions trading scheme by little more than an argument that effectively shut down those who dared to question it by calling them sceptics and deniers. The governmen thought: ‘Well, that tactic worked before—almost. But we have learned the lesson of that one: change leaders. Now, with the National Broadband Network let’s go the same. Anyone who dares question our way will be shown the highway by telling the Australian electorate that the opposition, in particular, are broadband deniers and broadband sceptics.’

The Australian people will come to realise—and maybe they do not at this stage—that we will do everything we can to see to it that the Australian people have proper access and greater access to fast and affordable broadband. But we do not believe that the ends justify the means without some proof.

I go back to what the government could do, given that we do not have a cost-benefit analysis. We have an implementation study that says that, based on a raft of assumptions, this National Broadband Network can be built, but there is no proof that those assumptions will come to realisation. Indeed, in documents that the government thus far has not disclosed, we expect that there will be severe criticism of some of those assumptions and questioning about whether or not they will come to fruition. So we have an implementation study that says that, based on a raft of assumptions, this National Broadband Network can be built.

But we still do not have the government’s response to the implementation study. What does the government actually think about that 25 million buck spend thing? If you listen to the minister, he would have us believe that probably the government can give us its response to the business case by blacking out the bits it does not want us to see earlier than the government can give us its response to the implementation study. It has had the implementation study for way longer than we are led to believe that it has had the business case. Why the reversal of the order?

It is pretty interesting and perhaps not entirely coincidental that there has been selective leaking of what are supposed to be some key observations in the business case. Isn’t it funny that they are favourable to the government? Perhaps the minister, in his speech, might indicate whether or not these leaks are correct observations from the business case because I presume that, by now, he has read the 400 pages of it. It was reported by Michelle Grattan in the Age on 20 November that there are some ‘general points’ that could be made on the business plan. Firstly:

The National Broadband Network could be built in a way that provided an internal rate of return higher than the current long-term bond rate.

Secondly:

The business plan projected that prices would fall over time.

There are two things about those two observations. How cute is it that it ‘projected that prices would fall over time’? Well, indeed they should, because over time consumers should be taking up this national broadband network. The Australian people would expect little else—hoorah, big whoop! As for the comment, ‘The National Broadband Network could be built in a way that provided an internal rate of return higher than the current long-term bond rate,’ let us revisit the implementation study and let us recall that that implementation study deliberately, in my view, predicted a modest return of six per cent—yes, the current bond rate. Firstly, what private sector investor would bother investing in a project as risky and as unknown as the National Broadband Network for a six per cent return? They can get that on deposit at a bank. How modest was the six per cent rate of return? Experts provided evidence to the Senate Select Committee on the National Broadband Network about the curious fact that the implementation study used the internal rate of return, which the business case says is supposed to be better than the long-term bond rate.

How curious it is that the implementation study used the internal rate of return, to start with, because most economists—of which I am not one, Madam Acting Deputy President, you will be very pleased to know—as I understand, having had it explained to me, would have expected the implementation study to use a thing called the weighted average cost of capital to determine at the end of the day what should be the profit of the National Broadband Network. But, no, I am told by people qualified in these things that those who use a skewed and unusual internal rate of return do so because they want to skew the end point; they want to get to six per cent.

Also, this government wanted to ultimately avoid the prospect, I am told by the economists, that there could be a negative net present value with the National Broadband Network. If there was a result of anything worse than the zero net present value from the National Broadband Network when the government wants all of these private sector investors, who is going to invest in an asset that has less than a zero net present value? I understand from my economic experts that, by utilising the internal rate of return, the implementation study could realise the six per cent outcome, ensuring that it was a better than zero per cent result in the net present value. Thank you for your indulgence—or perhaps not—in getting Economics 101. The point about that is there should be nil surprise if the business case actually says that the NBN could be built in a way that provided an internal rate of return higher than the current long-term bond issue. Show us the business case, Minister, in its entirety so that the Australian people can really judge what is happening here.

What else do we not have? We should not be surprised that we do not have the complete picture when this bill, in large part, is about keeping out of the picture deals between NBN Co. and others to deliver the NBN and about keeping them out of scrutiny by the ACCC. So we should not really be surprised. What else do we not have? We do not have Minister Conroy’s response to or compliance with the Senate order made last Thursday that he at least produce three sets of documents over the weekend just gone and by yesterday. It was a motion put up by me that the Senate passed resulting in a Senate order. All he had to do was produce three documents. Firstly, he had to produce the red book as it relates to the National Broadband Network and, in particular, to produce the bits of the red book that are currently blacked out without them blacked out so that they can be read. We would like to see what are expected to be NBN Co.’s observations about and now qualifications of certain key recommendations in the implementation study—that is, NBN Co. no longer agreeing with some of those recommendations. Minister, what we wanted to see, and all we wanted to see, was the red book, the advice to incoming government, with the bits that are currently blacked out not blacked out so that they could be read.

Secondly, we wanted to see yesterday, had you complied with the Senate order, the docu-ment showing how the government chose the first release sites that are rolling out around the country. Why, for example, on the minister’s say so, were the first and second phase release sites in Tasmania, start-ing off with Scottsdale and Midway Point, chosen on the basis of engineering advice, yet the first and second release sites on the mainland were supposedly chosen, according to NBN Co.’s annual report, on different sets of criteria including community acceptance criteria?

How were those first sites chosen? That is what we wanted to know for each and every site, and all we wanted to know. That is what the Senate ordered Minister Conroy to provide to the Senate yesterday and he failed to do so. Each and every one of those documents must be in existence. They must have been approved by the minister. We know that the first release sites and first-stage release sites in Tassie are happening, and the second phase release sites in Tassie and the second-stage release sites on the mainland have all been announced. The decisions have been made, made, made. Presumably, there were some criteria—let us see them.

The third document that the minister failed to provide to the Senate yesterday was the ACTU heads of agreement, which the minister says can reassure the Australian people that there will not be a wages blow-out in the construction of the National Broadband Network. What is the big deal about the ACTU set of enterprise bargaining principles? The minister told us in the Senate last Monday, 15 November:

... we have an agreed set of EBA principles. They have now been signed and agreed by the ACTU, coordinating right through with the CEPU and a range of other unions—

et cetera, and then he went on to say:

They have been signed off and agreed and there is no suggestion at all that there would be a wages blow-out.

Well, Minister, let us see them. Each of those three sets of documents existed—the red book, the basis for the government’s choice of the first release sites, and the ACTU’s supposedly signed and agreed enterprise bargaining principles. All the minister had to do over the weekend just gone was ask someone to press the green button on the photocopier. That is all. Unlike the spurious bases for rejecting calls for the business case, which the Prime Minister is now somehow foisting home and interconnecting with the points of interconnection, for added confusion, those three sets of documents existed.

I note that the minister is departing the chamber. I presume he is feeling rather shame-faced and is now going to press the green button on the photocopier. I look forward to delivery, Minister. In respect of the ACTU enterprise bargaining agreement principles, Minister Conroy attempts to say that there will not be a wages blow-out in the sector because NBN Co. has already signed its enterprise agreement with its workers. Big whoop! That covers some 400 workers. They are not the workers who are going to be rolling out the National Broadband Network across the country. They are not part of the supposed 25,000 and, if they are, that is going to leave 24,600 places still to be filled. They are not part of that workforce and, in any event, NBN Co.’s workplace agreement only covers that workforce for four years, and the minister says that the NBN will take eight years to build. There is way more to unravel in that wages story and, unfortunately, the Australian people will simply have to watch this space because this government is refusing to provide any sort of proof that it has any method to its National Broadband Network madness.

Unless and until the government makes some effort to deliver accountability and transparency, there is no hurry and no haste for this Senate to consider this legislation or any other legislation related to the National Broadband Network, because on Minister Conroy’s very own say-so it is irrelevant to the build of the NBN.