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Tuesday, 23 November 2010
Page: 1960

Senator CORMANN (6:32 PM) —We are talking about a huge amount of money when we are talking about the NBN. This is one of the millstones that is still hanging around Prime Minister Gillard’s neck from the old Kevin Rudd days. It has been some time now since the $43 billion price tag for the NBN was put out there. It was at a time when the ABC series The Hollowmen was showing. I well remember all these hollow men standing in front of a whiteboard and having a discussion about how much money to throw at a particular program to make sure they got the appropriate political impact and ensure they got attention from the public about what it was that they were proposing to do and saying, ‘If you want to make people believe that you are taking action and that you are making a difference, you have to get that number right.’ In that episode of The Hollowmen they were standing around the whiteboard and essentially wondering whether the figure they came up with would pass the ‘whoo’ test.

I can just imagine Kevin Rudd and a few of his 30-odd-year-old advisers standing around the whiteboard and wondering, ‘Should we make it $5 billion? No, that’s not enough. What about $10 billion? No, that doesn’t sound like a serious investment. How about $20 billion? Ah, we’re getting closer. How about $40 billion? Oh, that passes the test.’ But the problem with $40 billion is that it sounds too much like you have picked it out of the air. You have got to make it look a bit scientific. So you have to put an uneven number at the back. You have to put a ‘3’ there and make it $43 billion. That sounds like you have at least given it some thought—as if there is some science behind the figure you came up with; as if there is some sort of proper assessment behind the identification of what is a significant amount of money that is supposed to be committed to this.

The former government, under former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and former finance minister Lindsay Tanner, prided itself on the fact that they had not conducted a cost-benefit analysis. I sat in Senate estimates with the finance department—and it is the same secretary of the department now as it was then—and asked them about all the ins and outs and asked: ‘Wouldn’t it be more consistent with finance department attitudes, policies and best practice to go through a cost-benefit analysis?’ It is on the record—and it is well established—that we have not conducted a cost-benefit analysis for this massive investment of taxpayers’ dollars.

I congratulate Senator Penny Wong, as the new Minister for Finance and Deregulation, for trying, very late in the process, to put a little bit of rigour around all of this. We have got Inspector Clouseau—also known as Penny Wong—out there trying to find out what Minister Conroy was up to. Here we are, two years into this process, and finally there is a minister in the government saying, ‘Hang on; we should put a little bit of independent oversight over all of this. We shouldn’t just take the word of Minister Conroy on this. We shouldn’t just take the word of NBN Co. about all of this. We should have a closer look at what it is that is being proposed.’ One day it is $43 billion and then it is $26 billion and then the government advertising says that the government has committed $43 billion but it is really $26 billion. Then we have an implementation study that suggests that we are going to have super profits in order to make sure that this is a commercially viable venture.

Whatever way you look at this, there has never been a serious attempt to test whether this approach proposed by the government is the best way to deliver faster and affordable broadband to all Australians. We on this side of the chamber are committed to faster and affordable broadband, but we are not convinced that the government and, in particular, the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy have done their homework. They are taking a very cavalier approach in their treatment of taxpayers’ dollars. So we think it is quite legitimate that there ought to be proper scrutiny applied to the way they go about committing to spend these sorts of sums of money.

This is the government that gave us the home insulation fiasco. This is the government that committed $2½ billion to put pink batts into people’s roofs as a stimulus measure and after they had spent half of the money they had to spend the other half to take those pink batts out of the roofs that they had put in there in the first place. This is the government that has had waste and mismanagement wherever you look, whether it is for home insulation or for school halls. There has been secrecy wherever you look, whether it is on the mining tax revenue assumptions or whether it is to do with the NBN or the waste and mismanagement in the Building the Education Revolution.

The government well knows there are many aspects of this legislation we are dealing with here that we can agree with. However, as a former leader of the Labor Party—one that I know Senator Conroy is very close to, and that is Simon Crean, the member for Hotham—once said, you cannot unscramble the egg. In this legislation there are 260 mentions of the NBN, even though the minister does not quite realise this. So this legislation is directly connected to the government’s plans for the National Broadband Network and, on that basis, it is very important that the Senate and the Australian people have the opportunity to properly scrutinise what is behind all of it.

We were promised a new era of openness and transparency by this government. Julia Gillard clearly was very scared in the two weeks after the election that she would not be able to hold on to her seat of power. I am sure that Senator Farrell, who is sitting across the chamber, was very worried that his little initiative towards the end of June in overthrowing the then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, was going to result in defeat of the Labor Party at the ballot box. I am sure that Senator Farrell, along with Senator Arbib, Senator Feeney, Mr Bill Shorten and all the other people who were actively involved—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Crossin)—Senator Cormann, I direct your attention to the bill that is before us.

Senator CORMANN —Madam Acting Deputy President, I am talking very specifically to this bill. This is about the government’s secrecy in not being prepared to release information that is directly relevant to us being able to properly scrutinise this legislation. The government, from the Prime Minister at the top and all the way down, promised us a new era of openness and transparency, but openness and transparency are the important features that are missing in the handling of this bill. That is why I have to go through some of the history, Madam Acting Deputy President, even though I am sure that Senator Farrell would rather that we did not remember.

One of the reasons this government did so badly at the election was that in the last three years we saw a similar track record of secrecy and cover-up, which led to a deep sense of suspicion across the Australian community as to whether they could trust where this government was proposing to take us. This is particularly relevant to the National Broadband Network because, as I have described in my opening comments, it was initially $43 billion worth of taxpayers’ dollars and then later we were told $26 billion of it would be taxpayers’ dollars. Whether it is $26 billion or $43 billion coming out of taxpayers’ pockets, it is a lot of money and it deserves proper scrutiny. It deserves a proper process to ensure that taxpayers are getting value for money. That is something that the Rudd government did not pursue, and of course that is why it had to keep secret what little information there was in order to ensure that people could not understand exactly what was on the table and nobody could prove how ineffective this spending potentially was. The point is that if we are going to invest $43 billion in a project we ought to have a cost-benefit analysis. That is pretty basic: what is the cost and what is the benefit we are going to get out of it? Then we can make a clear and informed judgment as to whether, in light of the benefit we can achieve, the cost required is justified.

I point out again that the Rudd government, in their period in office, prided themselves on the fact that they were not doing a cost-benefit analysis. At least now Minister Wong is attempting to have some scrutiny of Senator Conroy’s activities. She wants to have some independent oversight; she is sending in the detectives and auditors to look at what is on the table. She wants to independently review the business case. She wants to review the 2010-11 corporate plan by NBN Co. It is very late in the process, but at least Senator Wong is trying to make sure that there is a degree of scrutiny of Senator Conroy’s activities. On this side of the chamber we congratulate Senator Wong for at least making an effort. But, again, our concern is that the outcomes of that process are not going to be appropriately transparent for all the Australian people to review and assess. Today in question time the minister refused to commit to releasing the outcomes of her detective work to the Senate and the Australian people. My concern is that we are being asked to deal with a piece of legislation which is directly driven by the government’s plans for the NBN, yet there are ministers in the government who are having second thoughts about the way the NBN process has been handled so far, to the point where they are commissioning independent reviews and independent scrutiny, and we are expected to make a decision on this legislation before we have the benefit of the results of those reviews and can properly assess what has come out of Senator Wong’s scrutiny of the activities of Senator Conroy.

We do not believe that that is appropriate. If the government is having second thoughts, why should the Senate not be having second thoughts? If the government thinks there is a need for more scrutiny, and if Senator Wong thinks she wants more information to ensure that what is being proposed is the right way to go, why should the Senate not have access to more information to ensure that what is on the table is the right way forward? As I mentioned earlier, it has not been properly scrutinised to date as to whether the government’s proposal in relation to the NBN is the best way to ensure faster and affordable broadband. That ought to happen. We should not go down the road of spending $43 billion on something unless we know it is the best way of doing it. That is simple—policy development 101; it should be, anyway. That is why we are not in a position at this point in time to support this legislation, even though there are bits in it that are quite sensible and do have our support.

The concern we have is that the secrecy that has been displayed by this government in relation to this bill is not an isolated incident. There is government secrecy wherever we look. This is a government that was supposed to let the sun shine in. This is a government that promised that everything was going to change after the scare on 21 August. This is where you interrupted me before, Acting Deputy President Crossin, but this is very relevant to this piece of legislation. Two weeks it took, after the election, to form a government, and a key feature for Mrs Gillard to convince Independents to support her—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Senator Cormann, it is not ‘Mrs’ Gillard, and I would ask you to refer to people in the other house, and particularly the Prime Minister, by their correct titles.

Senator CORMANN —Acting Deputy President, I apologise. That might have been the accent. I do not quite know how to properly pronounce ‘Ms’ and ‘Mrs’, but I—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Senator Cormann, I think the correct title you are seeking is ‘Prime Minister’.

Senator CORMANN —I might just seek advice—and you might. I understand that I am allowed to refer to people as ‘Mr Kevin Rudd’, for instance, and ‘Ms Gillard’. I would seek your ruling on that again on the basis of advice from the clerks.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Senator Cormann, the advice is, and my ruling is, that the correct title is ‘Prime Minister’. But she is certainly not ‘Mrs’ Gillard, and we would ask that you refer to people in the other house by their correct title. Thank you.

Senator CORMANN —The Prime Minister, Ms Gillard—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Thank you, Senator Cormann.

Senator CORMANN —I will say it again. The Prime Minister, Ms Gillard, of course, knows exactly what she did, two weeks after the election. In order to get the Independents to support her, she committed to a new era of openness and transparency in government. She promised that all of the errors, and all of the losing of the way that happened under the Rudd government, were going to come to an end and that now there was going to be, truly, openness and transparency. Of course, we have experienced the exact opposite. We have experienced the exact opposite in relation to this bill. We have experienced the exact opposite in relation to the mining tax. We have experienced the exact opposite in relation to the Building the Education Revolution fiasco. And I am not confident that we are going to experience anything but secrecy from this government in relation to other matters. This government also wants to take $50 billion off the states in GST revenue. We have been asking it for information in relation to this and that has not been shared with the coalition either. The reality is that there is a pattern developing under this government. They want us to deal with legislation like this, which is directly related to the NBN, without having the benefit of information that was properly requested by the Senate.

The government knows that it is not just the coalition who are of this view. This is a view that is shared by crossbench senators and by crossbench members in the other place. They share our assessment that this government has been very secretive in relation to this and they share our assessment that the government should be much more forthcoming with information.

We take very seriously the need to be very careful in the way we spend taxpayers’ dollars. We think that there ought to be a proper process to ensure that taxpayers’ dollars are spent for maximum effect. This government cannot put its hand on its heart now and say that the $26 billion in government money, and the $43 billion proposed to be invested in the NBN, are going to be invested in the best possible way, because nobody has ever gone through the process. The only person in the government that is trying to ensure a semblance of scrutiny, a little bit late in the process, is Penny Wong, and I found it very amusing when—

Debate interrupted.