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Friday, 26 November 2010
Page: 2385

Senator FISHER (1:01 PM) —I rise to speak on the Airports Amendment Bill 2010, which establishes a comprehensive framework for the regulation of Commonwealth owned airports leased to the private sector over the next 50 years. I note in particular the provisions of the bill designed to improve the planning and regulatory framework, drawing on the lessons of the past 14 years, and amendments on matters relating to the first five years of the master plan requiring additional information—for example, a ground transport plan. I also note amendments that clarify provisions in the existing legislation and framework which may be somewhat ambiguous.

Those sorts of provisions are not dissimilar to the sorts of provisions that could be developed by the government in the rollout of the National Broadband Network. The airports—the subject of this bill—would be very pleased to hear that there may be some scrutiny of the National Broadband Network, given that presumably they are enjoying or wish to enjoy some sort of broadband access. They may be wondering at what point some of their passengers are going to arrive today, given that it is largely the debate about the National Broadband Network legislation that has affected the departure times proposed by some of the passengers coming to those airports.

Given the links between this legislation and the National Broadband Network—in particular, the provisions of this bill that seek to clarify ambiguity—there remains ambiguity about issues dealt with, in part, by this chamber in respect of the National Broadband Network. Over the last couple of days we have heard about Senator Xenophon’s agreement with the government which, in part, was to do with securing the vote of the Independents for the passage of the legislation. We have also learnt that the strength of that agreement rests in a letter from the Prime Minister, dated 23 November. Senator Xenophon has already told the chamber that the date might be out a day, but we know the letter we are talking about.

It is also very clear that despite what seems to be the Prime Minister’s promise to Senator Xenophon that the NBN will be subject to scrutiny and be transparent by virtue of the creation of a joint parliamentary committee to inquire into the National Broadband Network, it is very clear that the strength of that committee is nothing more than the subject of a paragraph in a letter from the Prime Minister to Senator Xenophon. So what we know about that committee rests purely and simply in the letter from the Prime Minister. There is nothing from the House: no motions and no resolutions for this place to consider. There is nothing thus far that has kept the Prime Minister’s word to set up that committee.

But what we do know about the committee, if we go on the say-so of the Prime Minister’s letter, are four things. Firstly, it will comprise mainly government members. Secondly, the committee will determine the terms of reference of the matters into which the committee will inquire. Thirdly, the committee will not start its work until 1 July next year, which is some eight months hence, by which time the rollout in Tasmania will have done much work and there will have been the rollout in mainland Australia. Finally, we also know that the Prime Minister is proposing that the committee be able to call witnesses, including members of parliament, about the performance of the NBN ‘or other matters of local interest’. So, taking this committee purely on face value from the Prime Minister’s letter, because that is all we have, it is very clear it is going to be a government dominated committee looking into matters that the government is happy to have looked into in the National Broadband Network. In short, it will become a politician’s playpen and a parade ground for government members peddling the government’s NBN propaganda.

So what should we do about this? I would have had it that this chamber be able to consider a motion to establish a Senate committee inquiry into the National Broadband Network to dovetail with the joint parliamentary committee, were it to be established as the Prime Minister forecasts. I would also have had the Senate consider the motion that includes the terms of reference, which I would have been hopeful that the Greens, Senator Xenophon and Senator Fielding would have seen fit to support. Indeed, I would have been hopeful particularly of the Greens, given that the terms of reference in that motion had been on the Notice Paper for some days in the joint names of me and Senator Ludlam. He was at that stage happy for those matters to be the subject of the terms of reference. I also would have been hopeful of the support of the Independents for the motion at large, because I do believe that they want the National Broadband Network scrutinised from now until its completion.

However, given in particular the shortcomings in the sop, effectively, of the joint parliamentary committee offered to Senator Xenophon by the Prime Minister, I am left to wonder about indications that may have been given by Minister Wong in the background during the course of discussions in the ether of this wonderful chamber as it considered the national broadband legislation just gone. I am left to wonder whether certain indications may have been given by Minister Wong to the Greens, to Senator Xenophon and to Senator Fielding, given the publicity recently about, in my view, the spectacular shortcomings of the proposed joint committee—it will be stacked, it will tell the story the government wants to be told, it will not start work until July next year and it will just be a government propaganda machine. Given those shortcomings, I wonder whether Minister Wong may have made some overtures to the Independents in this place to attempt to backfill the gaps in the proposed joint parliamentary committee which have been identified in the very important debate that this Senate has had some time to have about the National Broadband Network and related legislation.

I do wonder whether Minister Wong has given some indications, for example, about the composition of the joint parliamentary committee and about it being more evenly balanced between, say, government and opposition members. I do wonder whether Minister Wong may have given some indications to the crossbenchers in this place about that committee being set up to start its inquiry as of February next year and I do wonder whether Minister Wong may have given some indications to the crossbenchers about the ability or otherwise for members of parliament to parade their wares in front of that committee, when, really, who wants another speaking opportunity for politicians? I reckon the Australian people would reckon we get plenty in any event. I speculate that there might have been overtures in that regard.

Given that we are led to believe that the support of the Independents, and in particular Senator Xenophon, rested in very large part on the offerings of the government made to the crossbenchers in the last few days, it is incumbent on the Australian people and I think this place to attempt to extract from the government on the record what, if any, overtures may have been made to backfill the glaring gaps that exist in the Prime Minister’s indications to Senator Xenophon about the establishment of a joint parliamentary committee. Before we go to these airports, which are subject to this bill, and before catching planes tonight, I would respectfully suggest it is incumbent upon Minister Wong to put on the record any indications to the crossbenchers she has made. All Senator Xenophon had to hang on to—I bet his was not yellow—in the last 48 hours was a letter from the Prime Minister, from which there now may well be some departure—

Senator Ludwig —Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. I rarely do this and generally only during question time, but I think that in this instance I should point out, on a matter of relevance, that Senator Fisher has been talking at some length about matters other than those even close to the Airports Amendment Bill 2010. I did not hear the word ‘airports’ or something akin airports being mentioned in the last 10 minutes. I stand to be corrected. From a different perspective: people will want to contribute to a range of bills that are listed as noncontroversial. I seek the cooperation of the chamber to ensure that everybody gets an opportunity to be heard.

Senator Ian Macdonald —Mr Acting Deputy President, on the point of order: Senator Fisher clearly mentioned airports a number of times. It was about government accountability in the airports bill. Senator Fisher was merely talking about the accountability of the government in this bill and on the other matter she was raising. In relation to Senator Ludwig’s last comment, which had nothing to do with his point of order but which you allowed, I simply say that Senator Ludwig had an opportunity to extend the time for debate on these bills, which he twice refused—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Mark Bishop)—Senator Macdonald, you are now engaging in debate and you are committing the same offence you accuse Senator Ludwig of committing. Come back to your point of order, Senator Macdonald.

Senator Ian Macdonald —Exactly, but you allowed him. I am sure that, in fairness, you would allow me the same indulgence—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Address the point of order, Senator Macdonald.

Senator Ian Macdonald —I have addressed the point of order, Mr Acting Deputy President.

Senator Joyce —On the point of order: I imagine the regular retort to this would be: you have 10 minutes left to become relevant.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —The minister has raised a point of order. As we are all aware, I am unable to direct how you should make your contribution. I do direct your attention to the fact that it is the Airports Amendment Bill.

Senator FISHER —Given that this bill does two very important things—improving the planning and regulatory framework for airports, drawing on the lessons of the last 14 years, and seeking to clarify ambiguous provisions—it is incumbent on the government, in the context of the National Broadband Network, and particularly incumbent on Minister Wong, to clarify the ambiguity that may exist in any discrepancy between the Prime Minister’s letter to Senator Xenophon recording her sop to the Independents for their vote and anything that Minister Wong may have given by way of indications or overtures to the Independents. These indications would have been given to the Independnts prior to what might otherwise have been their consideration of a motion that I would have sought to put to make the National Broadband Network subject to the scrutiny of a Senate committee and subject to the sort of scrutiny that this bill proposes for the regulatory framework of Commonwealth owned airports leased to the private sector. I look forward to at some stage in the near future trafficking through a few airports and hopefully ensuring, by way of scrutiny, that the broadband network is up to date.

Senator Fifield —Travelling, not trafficking!

Senator FISHER —Trafficking myself. Oh, that gets worse, doesn’t it! Merry Christmas, everybody. Here we go, NBN bro.