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Wednesday, 24 November 2010
Page: 2018

Senator ABETZ (10:20 AM) —In summing up for the opposition on the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer Safeguards) Bill 2010 second reading debate, I seek to make a few observations. The most obvious is to debunk the Labor lie—the refuge of those devoid of an argument in this place—that accuses us and the coalition of wrecking, of wanting to wreck broadband. The coalition has a proud and strong record of supporting broadband, but when we ask questions about the wisdom of the government’s particular approach we are lazily and immaturely labelled as wreckers by a government unable to engage on the issues. It seems to think that mere repetition of slogans is going to be a substitute for the evidence that we seek. We are deceptively told that the bill before us does not deal with the National Broadband Network. In fact, the bill does not mention the National Broadband Network. No lesser authority than the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy himself told the Australian people that on national television—so the coalition’s contributions on this bill were irrelevant. NBN was not part of this debate and the bill that we are considering, so the Labor sloganeering went.

Unfortunately for the minister, unlike him some of us actually had creased the back, the spine of the bill. We actually opened the bill. We actually read the bill and, what is more, we did the same with the explanatory memorandum. What that exposed was that the minister himself had not creased the spine of the bill or the explanatory memorandum. It seems that it came as an absolute surprise to the minister on national TV when he was told by Senator Joyce that the bill did, and does, refer to the National Broadband Network and it does not only do so once or twice or five times or 10 times or even 50 times, but 62 times the NBN is referred to in the bill. Yet the minister was not aware of it. The minister did not know.

We have a choice, Madam Acting Deputy President Fisher: the minister either deliberately sought to deceive the Australian people or he simply had no idea that the NBN was referred to in the legislation. I will allow the minister to make the determination as to which it was. I confess I am one of the more charitable on this side of the chamber and therefore I am willing to punt on the latter. Why? Because the minister is ignorant. Question time after question time he has proven that for us. Indeed, if ignorance were a crime, then Senator Conroy would be convicted each and every time beyond reasonable doubt by a unanimous verdict. But in political terms this gross and negligent ignorance is in fact criminal. This is the minister in charge of the $43,000 million NBN rollout, and that $43,000 million comes to roughly $2,000 per man, woman and child in this country. It is all one huge taxpayer liability run by this minister.

By the government’s own appalling standards Minister Conroy is starting to break away from the pack in the ministerial incompetence stakes. The competition is fierce. There is Minister Garrett of pink batt fame; there is Minister Carr of ‘cash for clunkers’ fame; and indeed there is the Prime Minister herself with her Citizens Assembly for Climate Change, so Minister Conroy is competing in a very well pedigreed field in the 2010 ministerial incompetence stakes. But with this NBN and his TV gaffe, he is really is breaking from the field and developing an unassailable lead.

It would be all quite laughable if it were not so serious. When their incompetence is highlighted, the minister and his colleagues chant their hackneyed focus-group-tested slogan of ‘wrecker’, but in doing so they throw that silly slogan by implication at the OECD, respected economic commentators, respected industry doyens and respected industry players. It seems we are to believe that the OECD are all wrong and bow to the superior intellect and knowledge of the minister who does not even know what is in his own legislation. I do not think so.

Not only is the minister ignorant of the content of his own bill, it seems that his colleagues do not trust him either. That is why the minister, unbeknown, had to have the NBN business plan subjected to an independent assessment by the Minister for Finance and Deregulation. We welcome that assessment, but it will all be too late. The business plan of the NBN will be revealed but only after the parliament rises and after the government asks us to vote for this bill. Might I just divert here and say that, as I understood the minister’s response to a question this week, the actual assessment of the business plan being undertaken by Greenhill will in fact not be made publicly available.

So what we have is a situation where, if I might say with respect, there is no business plan. No business plan ever says that things are not rosy in the garden and that you should not proceed. It is always written in hope with great faith that everything will go well. That is why, I must say, it was wise to seek that independent assessment. But of course that independent assessment now is not going to be made available to the parliament or the Australian people. What we as a coalition fear is that this minister will continue to try to control the levers of the NBN, its rollout and this legislation.

Need I remind anybody in the event there is any doubt that this bill does in fact deal with the NBN that the facts speak for themselves. Sure, the minister has not opened the bill to read it or the explanatory memorandum, but I would have thought that he may have bothered to read the second reading speech on this legislation by his colleague Mr Albanese in the other place. Had he done so, he would not have had to read far at all. Indeed, he would have had to go only to the second paragraph of the second reading speech. The second paragraph of Mr Albanese’s starts as follows:

The National Broadband Network will fundamentally transform the competitive dynamics of the communications sector in this country.

Of a nearly two-page speech, the NBN would be referred to—just on the first page—at least half a dozen times. It is peppered with references to the NBN, yet this minister goes on national TV and asserts, ‘the NBN is not mentioned in the bill; it does not refer to the NBN,’ when his own colleague in the other place has already spoken on the bill and says, ‘Yes it does.’

Let us remember that the legislation is called the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer Safeguards) Bill 2010. When Senator Conroy’s colleague in the other place talked about the ‘competitive dynamics of the communications sector in this country’, he was right on the money, right on target, as to what this bill deals with—the NBN.

Our questioning of this bill relates to our support of broadband and the health of the Australian economy. Labor somehow thinks that, because they have this grand vision of the National Broadband Network, there is no need for a cost-benefit analysis or for it to be placed under strict scrutiny. Let us not forget that this very same minister—Senator Conroy—went to the Australian people in 2007 claiming that he could do all these wonderful things with broadband for an investment by the Australian people of a bit over $4,000 million. It has now ballooned to 10 times that figure, to $43,000 million. I think a cost-benefit analysis is a very good idea, not only for a $4,000 million project but also for a $43,000 million project.

Let us remember Labor’s mindless mantra of ‘evidence based policy’. Remember that great line from the 2007 election? There is no business plan, no government response to the implementation plan, no analysis of the business plan—in fact, no evidence has been put before us other than this minister’s wholesale incompetence. Neither is the business plan being referred to the Productivity Commission. I would have thought anything with the initials ‘PC’ would have of necessity attracted the Labor Party, but they must have realised that on this occasion ‘PC’ did not stand for political correctness; it stood for something substantial—namely, a proper analysis by the Productivity Commission. As a result, when they hear the initials ‘PC’, Labor recoil in horror, because the idea of having scrutiny placed on anything is a matter of great concern to them.

The same government that provided this mantra on openness and transparency is now denying access unless senators—and only a few chosen ones—sign up to a seven-year non-disclosure agreement. Then, with a bit of pressure, it was brought down to a year, then a few weeks. I give full credit to Senator Xenophon for not signing up, and I trust other crossbenchers will not either. The duplicity in Labor’s mantra and then in their actions, I must say, is breathtaking.

We as a coalition have a raft of amendments for this bill, all of which will improve it significantly. The most significant to our mind is to refer the NBN to the Productivity Commission, and I understand an amendment that will be moved in the committee stage has been or is about to be circulated.

The case for the referral of the NBN to the Productivity Commission has been comprehensively made out, not by us in the coalition, not by the commentators and not by the industry players but by the minister himself through his incapacity to answer any question on the NBN over recent weeks. Indeed, the government itself has clearly lost confidence in the NBN business plan and the minister, and that is why it is now obtaining an independent assessment of the business plan.

Need I remind you that that business plan was prepared by the over 30 or 40—I forget the number now—executives engaged by the NBN Co., all of whom taxpayers are currently funding and who earn between $300,000 and $1.8 million per annum. Those are huge sums of money. These people were charged with developing the business plan which is now being subjected to review by another group of people for sums as yet undisclosed, I think. This cost is once again to be borne by the Australian taxpayer, and the Australian people will not be given that report either.

So, no matter which way we look at the NBN—up, down, in or out—it is a mess; hence, our reluctance to take the minister at face value in relation to his assurances about the NBN. Why should we take his assurances at face value—or at all—when he does not even know what is in his own legislation? The latest news is that the Prime Minister has inserted herself into the discussions with the crossbenchers. I think on balance I welcome that.

In her ministerial capacity, Ms Gillard was responsible for the Building the Education Revolution program, which we now know—courtesy of the leaked caucus minute in which Mr Rudd absolutely nailed Ms Gillard—was one of the great failures of the Rudd Labor government. She was responsible for the announcement at the last election of the cash-for-clunkers scheme. Remember that? We are running away from that one now. Remember the citizens’ assembly on climate change, her initiative? We are running away from that one now. We have a Prime Minister who has a whole host of failures in her previous portfolios and who is the architect of policy failures. With that great CV behind her, she has now inserted herself into this debate to try to assist this hapless minister. I have to say the prime ministerial insertion is to be welcomed, but only marginally.

We still have the unresolved question of who actually commissioned the Greenhill report. We are told that Senator Conroy and Senator Wong are the joint shareholder ministers, but—

Senator Conroy —Correct. You still haven’t even asked the right question.

Senator ABETZ —There we go. There is a churlish, immature interjection by the minister, saying, ‘You haven’t asked the right question,’ which confirms that the minister is deliberately obfuscating, not only to this place but to the Australian people, because anybody who knows anything about joint ventures knows that one party of the joint venture can go away and seek independent advice as to whether to the joint venture is good, bad or indifferent for their particular interests, which may not necessarily marry up with the interests of the joint venture itself.

Senator Conroy —You’re too lazy to do your own research.

Senator ABETZ —The minister interjects, suggesting that we are too lazy to do our own research. What a hide! What a cheek! At least we creased the back of the bill. At least we creased the back of the explanatory memorandum. At least we know that the NBN is referred to in the bill 62 times.

Senator Lundy —You’re a genius!

Senator ABETZ —Senator Lundy quite rightly says that we on this side are geniuses, but if the capacity to read a bill makes you a genius what does it make the minister who has responsibility and carriage of this bill when he goes on national TV and says, ‘The bill does not refer to the NBN,’ when there are 62 separate references to the NBN in the bill? That is why we as a coalition have no faith in this minister. That is why we as a coalition have no faith in the rollout of the NBN as proposed by this minister and by this government. That is why we have no faith in the $43,000 million liability that is about to be foisted on the Australian people and to be administered by this incompetent minister. If this minister knew what was actually in his legislation and the explanatory memorandum, we might have some more faith in him and the government and the proposal. At this stage, we do not.