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Tuesday, 23 November 2010
Page: 1956


Senator RONALDSON (6:12 PM) —I rise to speak tonight on the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer Safeguards) Bill 2010, and, indeed, on a matter of principle that I find quite remarkable; and, as the rooster-come-the-goose leaves the chamber, I will talk about his involvement in some of these matters as well. I just want to put into some sort of perspective the nature of the moneys that we are talking about. It is $43,000 million. Forty-three thousand million dollars is what the issue relates to. It is a massive investment by the taxpayers of this country. Of great interest is that it is not just the people who are paying tax at the moment, but the people who will be paying taxes, quite frankly, for the next 50 years.

This is not about today. This is actually about tomorrow. This is about the obligations and the noose that we are putting around the necks of our children and our grandchildren in relation to this investment. We have quite clearly articulated in this chamber, led by Senator Birmingham in relation to this matter, where the coalition stands. We believe that it is entirely inappropriate and unacceptable for this government to refuse to show us the business case—not to show us, necessarily, but to show the Australian community their so-called business case.

This is just going from bad to worse for both the government and the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Conroy. The ineptitude that is being shown on all fronts in this matter is, quite frankly, absolutely gobsmacking. The minister needs to stop his confected, nervous laughter, which we have seen a lot of during the week, particularly yesterday when we saw probably the most embarrassing question time I have ever seen for any minister in a long time when his own side could not even bring themselves to ask him a question. They moved around the chamber to ask the most remarkably simplistic and stupid questions of anyone other than the minister himself. There was a fair bit of ABC, Anyone But Conroy, yesterday. The Senate tactics group would have said in the morning: ‘Anyone but Conroy. We are not going anywhere near him because we know they are going to be at him all day and because we know he is completely incompetent. We will ask questions of others and hope that they might be able to bat it away.’

Today’s revelation that we have now got someone else involved in this debate is quite remarkable. The corporate advisory firm Greenhill Caliburn have been asked to review the NBN Co.’s 30-year business plan as well as the 2010-11 corporate plan. Clearly, given the answers that Senator Conroy gave today, he was not involved in this decision at all. He is one of the partnering ministers in this and he was not involved. Had he been involved, he had numerous opportunities today to say that he was part of it. His silence in this matter told as much as we needed to know about this whole issue.

Clearly what is happening—and we have been starting to see a bit of it over the last week—is that the Prime Minister is getting extremely nervous about this matter. She knows that out there are some very significant questions being asked about the $43 billion taxpayer investment in the NBN. She knows that she has had to take some ownership of this matter and she knows that Senator Wong will be the one who will deliver it. Senator Wong will deliver it, not Senator Conroy. Senator Wong has now been tasked with the job of trying to sort this mess out. The fact that they have gone behind Senator Conroy’s back and put in place another group to oversee the overseers is remarkable. When asked if we were going to be able to see the NBN business plan, again we have been told no. So we are not going to see the business case and we are not going to see the outcome of this newly commissioned report.

We had the remarkable admission this morning from the Deputy Prime Minister that he had not read this documentation. It is quite remarkable. This is the Treasurer of this country. It is a 400-page study and he has not had the time to read it. It is quite remarkable. What is cabinet actually doing? I think we know the answer to that—absolutely nothing. It is completely and utterly paraly-sed. Does anyone in this chamber remember a government suffering policy paralysis the way this government is?


Senator Bernardi —Don Farrell in South Australia may.


Senator RONALDSON —Senator Farrell in South Australia may well have seen this. I get back to the comments of the Deputy Prime Minister this morning that he has not read the business case. I quote my colleague in the other place the member for Wentworth, who said at a doorstop this morning:

So we have the Parliament being asked to pass legislation for the establishment of the NBN—a $43 billion investment, no cost-benefit analysis, the largest expenditure of taxpayers’ cash in our history, a business plan that is secret, that is not being revealed to the public, and a business plan that neither the Prime Minister nor the Deputy Prime Minister are able to say that they’ve read.

Yesterday Senator Conroy confirmed that in 14 days neither he nor someone else in the government have managed to read the 400-page report. That is just so ridiculous in its commentary. But someone is not being truthful. I am not going to accuse anyone of lying, but I make the comment that someone or some people are not being truthful in the responses they have given. Can anyone in this chamber seriously look me in the eye and say that the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have not read this report? That absolutely beggars belief.

We have been sitting for 1½ weeks. Every single person is in this place. In the other place they cannot leave under the new paradigm, so they are all here. The ministers in the other place most certainly are here. There is a fair chance that the ministers in this place are here. This is a $43 billion investment. Is anyone really telling me that there cannot be cabinet meeting after cabinet meeting to get this matter resolved?

There is absolutely no doubt that this is a delaying tactic to get the government past six o’clock on Thursday night. Blind Freddy could see this is about getting the government past six o’clock on Thursday night, because at six o’clock on Thursday night we do not come back here until the second week in February. And then next year we are only here for 17 weeks. This is a government completely and utterly afraid of scrutiny, a government which has only four weeks of sittings before the next budget. It is an unprecedented sitting pattern. This is a government that is running and hiding until 1 July when their alliance mates who sit up the other end of this chamber, the Greens, have the balance of power.

What a remarkable coincidence that we will sit in the week that the Greens start running the country. Never before in 17 years have I seen us sitting in July. We are sitting in July because this government has rolled over to the Greens. This alliance now runs this country. Even Michelle Grattan made comment about it in the Age, I think it was, earlier in the week, where she talked about the new power of the Greens.

This is not just about some significant philosophical difficulties we have got with the Australian Greens and the sorts of things which the Greens stand for, which my party will never, ever countenance. It is not just about that; it is a far bigger issue. It is an issue about who is going to run this country in the best interests of this country. If you look at some of the new Greens senators who will be entering this place it beggars belief that some of those new senators will be running this country for anyone’s benefit other than for a very narrow group sitting in the far Left, politically, of this country. That is their agenda and that is who they will be representing.

I want to go back to some of the comments in the newspapers, and I also want to refer briefly to the bill introduced by Senator Birmingham today. I want to talk about the requirements in relation to the Productivity Commission. This bill requires the Productivity Commission to conduct a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis of the NBN and to report back to the parliament by 31 May 2011. I will read from Senator Birmingham’s press release:

The Productivity Commission inquiry will include:

  • Analysis of the current availability of broadband across Australia, including the identification of suburbs and regions where services are of a lower standard or higher price than in the capital cities;
  • Consideration of the most cost-effective and speedy options by which fast broadband services can be made available to all Australians (particularly those in regional and remote areas and underserved metropolitan areas).
  • Consideration of the economic, productivity and social benefits likely to flow from enhanced broadband around Australia, and the applications likely to be used over such networks.
  • A full and transparent economic and financial assessment of the proposed NBN.

I have heard my colleagues in the chamber today, Senator Cormann and others, who have been talking about these issues and the lack of transparency with this government. On a number of occasions this week I have heard Senator Bernardi and Senator McGauran talk about a lack of transparency with this government. I have heard all three of those senators take this government to task and question their inability and their outright failure to start being honest with the Australian people.

Why is it that since the election of the Gillard government we have seen anything but openness and transparency? Why is it that the Prime Minister and the ministers in this place constantly refuse to engage the Australian community in open dialogue? What greater obligation is there on a government when spending $43,000 million than to at least enable the Australian community to have some input into this and make sure that we are spending that money wisely? Let us wait and see what the Productivity Commission says about this expenditure of $43,000 million. Let us make a decision as a community as to whether this money is better spent than it would be on hospitals, roads and saving Australian lives. Let us make a decision about what way $43,000 million is better spent.

It is all very well to talk about the information superhighway. But what about some of the highways around this country where people are still getting killed every day of the week? So we have a road network that is still killing people but we are spending $43,000 million on an information superhighway that has not even had an appropriate parliamentary debate on the back of information that has been provided to the government. This notion that the cabinet will deal with this matter after we get out of here I think is absolutely and totally obscene—completely and utterly obscene.

It is an absolute dereliction of the responsibilities of the Prime Minister to this country. She cannot parade herself in front of the Australian community as someone who has got a new paradigm for how we are going to operate as a government, who has learnt from the mistakes of the past and who will not repeat the lack of engagement of the former and now stabbed Prime Minister Rudd when we have seen exactly the same behaviour from her. Apparently the crime that was committed by Prime Minister Rudd has been replicated by Prime Minister Gillard. So what was the change for? I ask those on the other side of the chamber: what was the change for?


Senator McGauran —So Arbib could be promoted.


Senator Bernardi —And Shorten could become Prime Minister.


Senator RONALDSON —I think the latter will happen and the former has taken a bit of a hit today, but he may well be back.

I look at the commentary today in the Australian editorial. I know that there are some—not all—on the other side of the chamber who openly and quite viciously attack the Australian newspaper—I think, quite frankly, totally unreasonably. I think it is a newspaper that has passed the test of time, and I think it is a responsible reporter of political facts in this country. I just want to read from this editorial:

THE unseemly rush to a National Broadband Network says more about the government’s political problems than about adding to national value.

                …            …            …

Labor appears willing to do anything to get the $43 billion network up …

                …            …            …

Australians deserve more open discussion on the NBN …

                …            …            …

The NBN is a Rolls-Royce answer to communication needs when a Holden might do just as well.

Towards the end of the editorial it says:

Even if the NBN delivered a top-of-the-line service rather than becoming an expensive white elephant, as some fear, the government has failed to explain why $43bn should be spent on broadband rather than on schools, hospitals, indigenous housing or other essential infrastructure and services. It is not easy to see, for example, why we still have so much single carriageway on Highway One north of Nambour (where Mr Rudd and Wayne Swan spent their childhoods) when the government thinks nothing of pouring millions into an information highway.

I have rarely seen a minister under more pressure than Senator Conroy is at the moment.


Senator Bernardi interjecting—


Senator RONALDSON —As my colleague quite rightly said, sometimes extreme pressure makes for bad decision making—to paraphrase what he said. That is absolutely what we are seeing at the moment. I say to the government: you have an opportunity now to deliver on the frankness and openness that you have been beating your chests about since the election. You have the opportunity now to put your cards on the table and prove us wrong in relation to the NBN. Prove us wrong and show us that you have got the information that substantiates this expenditure. Prove us wrong and show us that this is a far better investment for the future than schools, hospitals and roads. Prove to us that you are not putting a noose around the necks of our kids and grandkids. The only way you can do that is to put on the table the information that you have—and not hide behind a failure to have a cabinet meeting or behind some extraordinary notion that no-one has had the time to read the documentation. Put it on the table and let us see it. If we are wrong, show us where we are wrong; if we are not, stop wasting an obscene amount of taxpayers’ money which could be far better spent elsewhere.