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Tuesday, 23 November 2010
Page: 1881


Senator FERGUSON (1:33 PM) —I rise also to speak to the government’s Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer Safeguards) Bill 2010. I commence my remarks by repeating a short portion of what the shadow minister said when he was speaking to this bill in the other place. He said:

The 100 megabit per second fibre-to-the-home objective of the government has become little more than a religious devotion utterly unconnected from economics or market reality. To justify a $43 billion taxpayer investment, as the minister has done, on the basis that it will be used ‘in 20 years time for things that we do not know about’ is reckless in the extreme. In 20 years time most of the equipment in the NBN will have been replaced, some of it several times.

It reminds me of an inquiry that I embarked upon in the Senate in the late 1990s, just after the current minister came into this place. That inquiry, done by the economics committee, the report of which was entitled Telecommunications towards the year 2000, was a very comprehensive inquiry. We went all around Australia. In the outback of Western Australia I remember flying into small township called Cue and also another one of the places in the Murchison Shire where I think there were 19 or 26 ratepayers—I cannot remember which—when we were looking at their requirements with regard to telecommunications towards the year 2000. We went all around Australia and it was a marvellous inquiry, looking at the needs of Australians.

There was only one problem. By the time we brought our report down, some 18 months later, all of the evidence that we had collected at the beginning of the inquiry was out of date and no longer relevant to telecommunications. The changes in telecommunications were so vast and things had moved on so quickly that in fact things that we had found so important in 1998 by 1999 had become irrelevant—something like the current minister may become if he continues on the line that he is currently continuing on in relation to the NBN.

One of the major reforms that have happened—certainly the major economic reform over the last 25 years—has been government, particularly the federal government, getting out of business, not getting into business but getting out of businesses. They have been privatising businesses where governments are in business, ensuring that there is a level playing field, or as level as possible, so that the private sector can compete, which they certainly could not do in years gone by. So what on earth is the government doing here in relation to the National Broadband Network? It is turning back those 25 years of history by establishing a great big new government monopoly and then using the power of the parliament to legislate in a way that will prevent other parties with fixed line networks from competing with that monopoly. We are really turning back the economic reforms of the past 25 years with what is being proposed by the government in relation to the National Broadband Network.

I heard the minister say, in an interview on television, that of course this bill had nothing to do with the NBN. Well, as we are all well aware, he was totally embarrassed by Senator Joyce at that interview. He was embarrassed in a way in which I have not seen anybody else embarrassed for a while when it was pointed out to him that this bill before us mentions the National Broadband Network some 63 times—I think that is the figure, although I have not counted them myself. So the current minister’s attempt to divorce the National Broadband Network from this bill was a very good attempt, but it was one that certainly went nowhere.

In view of what I was going to say have been the answers to questions in this place in recent times but which I really have to say have been the lack of answers to questions, I could not help but be reminded of the current Prime Minister’s press interviews just after her government was formed. They were going to let the sunshine in. This was going to be a government of transparency. ‘We are going to tell the people all that they need to know in order to make informed decisions,’ they said. How things have changed, from those bold statements of the Prime Minister in relation to transparency, in a short couple of months. We have had the minister stonewalling, not allowing anything to take place which would give the parliament more information that might enable it to make an informed decision not only in relation to the bill before it but also in relation to the future telecommunications needs of Australia.

I was one of the lucky ones in my small country town: I had broadband that was delivered by the coalition. Sure, it is not 100 megabits per second but it is enough for me, and if we get to the stage of 100 megabits per second coming past my house—which is quite unlikely—I would not be taking it up anyway, and neither will the hundreds and thousands of Australian people be bothered. As we have found out in other countries around the world where high-speed broadband has been made available, people simply are not taking it up because of the expense. Besides that, there are very few people who actually require 100 megabits per second. I do not download movies, so I guess I am in the wrong generation, but I certainly have broadband—Internode are a wonderful service provider and I have nothing but compliments to pay to them—and that will do me, certainly for the foreseeable future.

I notice that we have Tasmanian senators in the chamber. Tasmania is where the national broadband rollout was started. I would be interested to know what the take-up is in Tasmania, in particular amongst people who have it going past their front door but who say, ‘I am not going to pay the extra that is required for my private residence to take up 100 megabits per second.’ In most cases such bandwidth is simply not necessary—and, as I have said, in other countries in the world the expectation of large numbers of people taking up the 100 megabits per second has not been realised.

The questions asked in this place in the past weeks have been an attempt to establish facts in order to allow impartial bodies to make some sort of an assessment as to whether this investment, which is the largest investment of taxpayers’ funds in infra-struct-ure in our history, is a worthwhile idea or whether we are getting value for money. One of the problems we face is that out in the community the average person thinks that, if the government is providing something, it does not cost anything. They are of the view that it costs nothing; the government is providing it. Little do many people realise that it is their money that is paying for this broadband network. Every taxpayer in Australia is footing the bill for this network and yet we are not allowed to know whether there are positive cost benefits relating to its establishment.

Many people, whilst they would like to have broadband, find out that it is going to cost $43 billion of their money and then have second thoughts. There is growing pressure in the community, especially in the business community, for a thorough cost-benefit analysis of the National Broadband Network to be made and for that information to be placed before the parliament so that people who are required to vote on legislation can make an informed decision. But this minister refuses point blank. This minister does not want members of parliament to have the information before them that is necessary and required in order to make a balanced judgment.

At a business leaders’ forum in early October we heard the chairman of ANZ say that the lack of a business case, and full publicity of that business case, is throwing a lot of doubt in people’s minds in relation to the level of expenditure. And why wouldn’t it? We are being asked to support the largest expenditure of taxpayers’ money—certainly since the Snowy Mountains scheme—before we have any idea of whether or not we are getting value for money. I understand people wanting broadband, particularly when they think it is not going to cost them anything, but there is more to us passing the sort of legislation that is in front of us—certainly the sort of legislation before us as far as Telstra is concerned, which will reduce competition rather than increase it.

We have the chairman of Wesfarmers—a big business, a big company in Australia—saying:

I’m not convinced, and feel it needs a cost-benefit analysis …

We have under-invested in infrastructure for the last 30 years, in road, rail, water. I just see this as another part of infrastructure that we need to go through, stocktake and prioritise. And I don’t know if it (NBN) will rank in priority.

Truer words were never spoken. Nobody is able to make a judgment on that issue without the necessary information in front of them to make it. The government has repeatedly refused to undertake such a cost-benefit analysis, often on the grounds of the cost of doing it or the delay that it might cause if it has to be done prior to the bill reaching its conclusion in this place. Well, when we are spending $43 billion—at least $43 billion—of taxpayers’ money, I do not mind a little delay. If I were spending my own money and it was a fraction of that amount, I would want to make sure that I was getting value for money. Why shouldn’t we require the government to ensure that it is getting value for money—not for its money but for the money of ordinary Australians, ordinary tax-paying Australians? They have a right to know whether or not they are getting value for that money.

The Labor government has refused to refer the NBN to its own, newly created specialist infrastructure agency, Infrastructure Australia. Why? Why would this government refuse to refer this network to its own, newly created specialist infrastructure agency? It defies all logic. This government thinks that it can spend money like a drunken sailor without knowing whether or not it is getting any value whatsoever for its dollars. It is okay to please the customer who does not think it is costing them anything—and that is the average taxpayer—but, when it comes to spending the hard-earned dollars of taxes paid by Australians, the government will not even refer the proposed National Broadband Network to its own specialist infrastructure agency.

When Labor’s infrastructure minister—Mr Albanese at the time—in January 2008 announced the establishment of Infrastructure Australia, it was tasked with ‘developing a blueprint for fixing and modernising the nation’s transport, water, energy and communications infrastructure’. Now, if this is not a major piece of communications infrastructure, I do not know what is. The minister himself said at the time:

Today’s announcement underscores just how serious we are about bringing in expertise from outside of government who want to contribute their energies to making our nation what it can be.

Yet the biggest infrastructure investment in our nation’s history is not being scrutinised by this body. Why not? Why did the minister not address in his second reading speech why the biggest infrastructure investment in our nation’s history is not being scrutinised by the very body that he set up? The then minister for infrastructure set up this body, yet the government refuse to use it.

When we talk about the Productivity Com-mission, we can say that it is the best possible organisation to ask: what are the implications of this project or what are the im-plications going to be? The Productivity Commission is staffed by experts who understand economics but also experts who understand the importance of factoring in non-financial costs and benefits, such as spillovers and the social consequences of various policy choices. Minister Conroy simply rejects this. Minister Conroy, in his bull-headed manner, wants to get this through regardless—regardless of whether senators know the information, regardless of whether the public know they are or are not getting value for money. The minister said:

… you could debate for 10 years and each person will have a different value that you plug into a model—

that is, to assess the NBN. That worries me even more, because currently the only view we have is the view of the minister. And, if the minister thinks he is the fountain of all wisdom when it comes to spending $43 billion of Australian taxpayers’ money on infrastructure, I would suggest that he might want to get a few opinions from some other people—people who are qualified in other fields, people who are qualified in assessing whether such infrastructure spending is good value for the Australian taxpayer.

The very point of referring the project to the Productivity Commission is that it would end the sort of subjective analysis we are seeing, because the Productivity Commission is strictly nonpartisan. I cannot say the same thing about the minister or about a lot of other people who have commented on it. But never in Australia’s history, never in the history of this federal parliament, has a government proposed to spend so much money with so little consideration or analysis. In my time in this place, in excess of 18 years now, I have never seen a government propose to spend this amount of money with such a minimal amount of analysis and without the rigorous analysis that can be provided by bodies such as the Productivity Commission or Infrastructure Australia, or other bodies that this government so proudly trumpets on other occasions. However, when it comes to this particular piece of infrastructure, the National Broadband Network, the government is blind to suggestions from outside. Senator Conroy—I cannot believe it—tried to justify the lack of transparency by claiming that putting the project with the Productivity Commission would be ‘too costly’; yet the Productivity Commission said it would be prepared to look at the NBN.

We have reached the stage where the government is now trying to establish this gigantic monopoly. It is so anticompetitive that the proposed telecommunications legislation which we are debating explicitly exempts the NBN from the Trade Practices Act. What has this government got to hide? We are talking about an eight-year, $43 billion project and yet this government has said that for us to do a business case will result in too much delay. I am amazed that this government has brought before us a project such as this. In effect, projects of this size and scale require necessary oversight and consideration to ensure that they are being carried out in the most effective and efficient way. The public deserve to be informed of how their money is being spent and whether or not they are getting value for money. I think it is about time the minister and the government came up with the answers to those questions.