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Tuesday, 23 November 2010
Page: 1940

Senator BERNARDI (5:05 PM) —Before question time I raised a number of concerns which are shared by many on this side of the chamber. The largest infrastructure spend in the history of the Australian people, $43 billion, is being committed by this government without the benefit of a cost-benefit analysis—which their own organisation, Infrastructure Australia, has requested for any major infrastructure rollout. I asked the question earlier and I will pose it again: why would you create Infrastructure Australia and then not heed their advice or accede to their questions in order to get value for taxpayer dollars?

The first conclusion one could draw is that there is not value for taxpayer dollars. The other conclusion we could draw is: based on the track record of this government, billions of dollars will be squandered under this program. That is their history and a leopard cannot change its spots. Their history is of squandering billions of dollars on half-baked programs that end up with bigger problems down the track. These are legitimate questions, whether you are a Liberal or a Labor person, or even if you are a Green. You deserve to know the truth. The problem is: Minister Conroy and this government are hiding something from us all. They will not release the business case.

What I find absolutely remarkable is the fact that they commit to $43 billion of infrastructure rollout without a business case being made beforehand. We know is was cooked up on a plane, while Kevin 747—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Troeth)—Order! Senator Bernardi—

Senator BERNARDI —Sorry—the former Prime Minister’s jumbo jet or whatever he was on with Minister Conroy. It was cooked up there because the previous incarnation had failed. We know that. But the Australian people need to know what is behind it. After all, this is taxpayers’ money that has been invested to create a monopoly situation in which this government will be in control.

If anything should scare the Australian people, it is to give this government—an incompetent government riddled with incompetent ministers who still have their jobs no matter what catastrophic disasters they have given us—control of a monopoly situation. That is not good. It is not good for the Australian people.

It is interesting to note that, for all their rhetoric, flourishes and arguments now, Minister Conroy last year in estimates said that he does not support the structural separation of Telstra. This year, he is implementing legislation which effectively makes the structural separation of Telstra virtually impossible for Telstra to resist because of the damage that would be done to their business if it did not accede to these demands by the government. And why should they accede to them? Well, the government is dangling a bunch of cash for them to accede, virtually pushing them into to.

So there are punitive penalties here, such as not being allowed to bid on other spectrum, wireless spectrum, which Minister Conroy has been laughing at and saying it is not a viable alternative. It is quite an extraordinary situation. When he was in opposition I remember him saying that wireless spectrum was going to cause chickens to lay hardboiled eggs, or something equally ludicrous. It was going to cause roller doors to open or microwaves to go off. This is the sort of hyperbole that Minister Conroy is responsible for. But what he will not come up with is some simple facts and figures, something so that we can examine the credibility of this case.

If it stacked up to scrutiny and the assumptions were right and things were good, you could possibly make a case for it. But they will not give us that. They will not give it to us. They want us to take it on face value that this is in the interests of the Australian people. We know what the cost is going to be; we are not really sure of the benefits.

Rather than release it or ask for an independent assessment by someone like the Productivity Commission, they have cobbled together in the last 24 hours a reference to a stacked committee in which they will dominate the terms and the ultimate report. That is not scrutiny. That is not examining whether you are getting good value for taxpayer dollars.

The question ultimately is: what do they have to hide and why do they want to hide it from the examination of this parliament? I am disappointed to note that some of the documents we seek will be released after parliament has risen. Then there will only be six weeks of examination in the next six months in which we can ask questions about this—not that we get many answers from Senator Conroy or from anyone on that side of the chamber.

The Australian people deserve to know. All the time, the clock is ticking, the rollout is continuing and billions of dollars are being spent. We do not know if that money is being spent wisely. In fact, in many instances one could presume it is not being spent wisely. In Tasmania, in order to get people to sign up to the NBN, which is almost compulsory because they are ripping out their copper line networks, they have to give it away for free.

Senator Conroy talked about 100 gigabytes per second. The fact is: very few people are signing up to 100 gigabytes per second, because it costs so much money. Madam Acting Deputy President Troeth, you are from Victoria—perhaps the only people in this country who want 100 gigabytes per second now are those in the Brumby dirt unit, the people responsible for spreading and smearing people on the social networking sites, at taxpayers’ expense. The grubs who trawl through the social networking sites belittling their opposition are probably the only ones. This is what taxpayers are paying for under a Labor government in Victoria. What more can we expect from the Labor government up here with their proven smearing techniques and their dirt units. It is quite extraordinary—

Senator Feeney —I seem to recall you did pretty well.

Senator BERNARDI —Senator Feeney is of course quite proud of masterminding the dirt unit in Victoria—he was the state director down there. He would know a lot about it, and I am sure he recognises that having 100 megabytes per second would be of great benefit for him to smear more people on more internet sites. But it is not your job now, Senator Feeney; your job is to spend taxpayers’ money wisely and prudently. It is not to take staffers out of Mr Brumby’s office and put them into the smear unit—$43 billion is being spent in this country with no cost-benefit analysis, no public business case and no scrutiny. This is an extraordinary circumstance and it is something that I know will alarm the Australian people.

I am someone with an open mind about most things—and you know that, Madam Acting Deputy President. I am sure I can deal with this bill before us. The coalition is going to move a number of amendments with respect to things like competition. We want to ensure the normal operation of the Competition and Consumer Act 2010. This is the key legislation that protects the interests of consumers and promotes competition. We want to make sure it applies to the NBN, the government monopoly. This government loves monopolies. It loves monopolising information and taxpayers’ money. But taxpayers need to know whether competition is going to ensue with this proposal.

We also want to make sure that the parliament is allowed to disallow ministerial directions to the ACCC regarding the NBN and Telstra deal. We want to make sure that any ministerial direction to the ACCC regarding the criteria for acceptance of a functional or structural separation undertaking shall be a disallowable instrument. We want to make sure this parliament can continue to have a say, so that this government does not have the last word on everything that transpires in this deal.

We also want to remove some of the sticks. There are carrots—there is $11 billion in cash and $100 million a year for eight years to maintain a network that the government is paying Telstra to get rid of, which is quite extraordinary. I remind the Australian people: Telstra is being paid $9 billion in cash to rip out and sell its old copper line network. But what this government has not acknowledged is that it is contracting Telstra to pay the government $100 million per year for the next eight years to maintain that selfsame network, and that strikes me as quite extraordinary. But it is not extraordinary to this government, which only saw that payment as a failing when it was exposed to the scrutiny of light.

We want to remove the gun-to-the head provisions of theTelecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer Safeguards) Bill 2010 which provide ministerial discretion to bar Telstra from bidding for next-generation 4G wireless spectrum—‘Separate or you can’t bid.’ This is the same spectrum that Senator Conroy, the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, has been ridiculing as inefficient and ineffective. But why would the government care who buys the spectrum if it is not going to work properly? We want to remove these provisions, which threaten Telstra with being forced to divest its pay television code and/or its 50 per cent interest in Foxtel if it does not voluntarily structurally separate. This use of the word ‘voluntarily’ reminds me of someone’s going to a Labor Party branch meeting and volunteering to vote the same way all the time. That is what happens in the Labor Party—there is no voice of dissent. As Senator Doug Cameron said, and I think he deserves some credit for belling the cat, there are lobotomised zombies on the other side of the chamber.

Senator Ryan —Don’t forget the ballots.

Senator BERNARDI —Thank you, Senator Ryan—I will recall that. Senator Ryan interjected, and I know that interjections are disorderly, but his interjection was very pertinent in this case, because the highlight of Senator Conroy’s career was when his mentor, Robert Ray, recognised how talented he was. He referred to him as a ‘factional dalek’ with an inability to see any other side of a position. Robert Ray’s referring to Senator Conroy as a factional dalek— if I recall correctly, he may even have referred to him as a ‘dysfunctional factional dalek’—shows that Senator Conroy has been spending far too much time doing the numbers for his own preselection, getting rid of Kevin Rudd and various things like that and not enough time looking at the integrity of this legislation.

I remind the Australian people once again that I am talking about a minister whose lowlight so far—though I expect there are still lower lights yet to come—was his saying on national television that this bill had nothing to do with the NBN. The bill refers to the NBN 62 times; yet, according to the minister, it has nothing to do with the NBN. What further evidence do we need that we cannot take this government or this minister at their word and that we should not be passing bills like this in an unamended form? That would be wrong.

I want to refer to principle, because some of us hold principle high in the carriage of our duties. I do not think it is right, the previous coalition government having sold Telstra—a fully integrated telecommunications organisation—to the Australian people at a cost of many billions of dollars and to use that money to repay a previous Labor government’s debt, that as soon as Labor gets back into government and is struggling for an agenda it tries to enact legislation which creates another telecommunications monopoly in the hands of a government and which forces Telstra to divest itself of a very big part of its business if it wants to remain competitive in the telecommunications industry.

The principal of this is wrong, and it has been demonstrated again and again that governments cannot run businesses. We accept that governments may fill the void where competition fails, but we should have competition out there; we should have people producing as much as they possibly can and providing as many services as they can in a competitive environment. This government’s proposal will not do that. It will not provide a competitive environment, because the government will set the terms and conditions and the Australian people will not be able to get their money back because of the grubby deal that was done 24 hours ago between the Greens and their alliance partners, the Labor Party.