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Monday, 21 March 2011
Page: 1213


Senator McEWEN (10:59 AM) —I rise today to contribute to this debate about the National Broadband Network Companies Bill 2011 and the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (National Broadband Network Measures—Access Arrangements) Bill. Here we have another package of bills designed to bring about the establishment of Australia’s National Broadband Network. I am always pleased to have the opportunity to talk about the National Broadband Network, the NBN, because it is such an exciting initiative and it offers so much potential both in public policy and in economic development for Australia. It has been a long time in the hatching and this is just one set of legislation to bring about fruition of the NBN.

On 7 April 2009, the Labor government announced that it would establish a company that would invest up to $36 billion over the next eight years to build and operate a wholesale-only, open-access National Broadband Network. From the outset the government said that it would introduce legislation that established governance, ownership and operating arrangements for the wholesale-only NBN company and for the access regime to facilitate open access to the NBN for retail-level telecommunication service providers. The two bills in debate today address those particular areas.

As we all know, or should know, the National Broadband Network is a fundamental nation-building reform. It will pave the way for Australia to move into the high-speed digital age. The Gillard Labor government is aiming to ensure that 93 per cent of all Australian premises will have access to high-speed, fibre based internet services for the benefit of businesses, communities and individuals. The remaining seven per cent of Australians premises will benefit from increased internet speeds by fixed wireless or satellite, depending on where they live. Once the rollout of the NBN is complete, Australian internet speeds will soar up to 100 megabits per second—some 50 times faster than most people experience today. It has been said many times in this chamber, and I am not shying away from saying it again, that the NBN and the high-speed internet technologies that it entails are the railways and highways of our time. The NBN project is the single largest nation-building infrastructure project in Australian history and the technologies have the potential to transform every aspect of our lives including business, health, education and government services, and it will serve Australia for the future.

The NBN will also increase national productivity and help us to build a stronger, modern, resilient economy. The two bills that are being discussed today are part of the crucial steps to make sure that Australia no longer relies on its ageing copper telecommunications network. It has been proven that as a result of our dated network, our broadband performance is severely falling behind in comparison with international standards and so the federal government wants to prepare Australia for the future. For that reason, we need to ensure that all of the bills associated with the NBN that are proposed by the government are passed through the Senate.

Individually, each of the bills in discussion today has significant purposes that will aid the rollout of the NBN.  The National Broadband Network Companies Bill 2011 contains provisions to ensure that NBN Co. operates on a wholesale-only basis. It establishes a regulatory framework for ownership, governance and operation of NBN Co. along with its subsidiary corporations. Additionally, the bill provides that the Australian government must retain full ownership of NBN Co. until its rollout is complete and it establishes the framework for the eventual sale of NBN Co. The National Broadband Network Companies Bill 2011 delivers a staged process to limit the activities of NBN corporations during the build phase and a staged process which will create transparency as NBN corporations move towards private ownership. Those processes involve considerable consultation and public enquiry—for example, by the Productivity Commission and the parliamentary joint committee on the ownership of NBN Co.

The companion of the companies bill is the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (National Broadband Network Measures—Access Arrangements) Bill 2010. While this bill contains three parts, the primary purpose of the second bill is to amend the Telecommunications Act 1997 and the Competition and Consumer Act 2010 to introduce new access, transparency and non-discrimination obligations relating to the supply of wholesale services by an NBN corporation.

As a member of the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee, I have been part of many of the inquiries into the broadband legislation since the NBN project was initially launched by the Labor government. The report from the most recent inquiry, into the two bills that we are debating today, was tabled out of session last week. The bills were referred to the environment and communications legislation committee early in February. It has been an important of the process of rolling out the NBN that all of the legislation associated with it has been subject to scrutiny by the Senate committee. After advertising for submissions, 24 were received, and subsequently the committee held public hearings in Sydney and Canberra to hear from witnesses.

Submitters and witnesses to the inquiry were unanimous about the importance of the passage of these bills through the Senate. The importance of high-speed broadband for business, health, education and research purposes, particularly in rural and regional areas, was stressed in the majority of submissions and the committee was able to take evidence from witnesses along those lines. For example, witnesses Professor Stanton and Professor Griffiths from the Group of Eight, a coalition of leading Australian universities, highlighted the importance of broadband for health services and health research. I quote them:

High-speed broadband network provides the capacity for distant doctors or patients—or midwives for that matter—to have real-time interactions with specialist colleagues in an urban setting if they need it ...

I can imagine how that will improve the delivery of health services to Australians who live in more remote communities. Professors Stanton and Griffiths continued by saying:

Broadband connectivity allows clinicians, wherever they are, to engage in things like grand rounds—when patients of interest are discussed in teaching hospitals, people who are not physically in that building can connect in real time and participate in the questions and answers.

In regard to medical research, the professors said that superfast broadband would speed up trials and research immensely. Again I quote them: They said, in respect of medical research:

... it can take years to get thousands of people in a normal randomised control trial. We can do online automated randomised control trials with people in their houses in a few months.

That is an exciting opportunity in the area of medical research that would otherwise be unavailable to Australian medical researchers—one that the federal opposition appears to wish to deny to researchers and, indeed, people throughout Australia who could participate not only in the research itself but in the benefits of that research.

As I already mentioned, superfast broadband services are going to help a multitude of sectors. Mr Strong, from the Council of Small Business Organisations of Australia, noted the many opportunities which broadband brings to small businesses. I quote him:

“There are 2.4 million small businesses—

in Australia.

They are diverse, but I think I can say with confidence that the greater bulk of them want—

access to affordable and high-speed broadband—

for competitive reasons as much as anything.

Mr Strong also advocated for those who run their businesses from regional areas and said that broadband would change the way they work entirely. I quote Mr Strong again:

“Women on farms ... I have seen a few of them use the internet quite well to sell products ... and I know one young man is manufacturing and selling golf clubs online and doing quite a good job of it.”

Would we want to deny the innovative small business people out there in our community, particularly those in regional and rural areas, who will be able to benefit from the better access to high-speed broadband that the National Broadband Network could give them? I do not think any Australians would want to do that, but apparently there are some Australians in the Senate chamber that do. An affordable, superfast broadband connection would help all small businesses, particularly those who rely heavily on the internet, to stay abreast of their markets.

Further submissions and witness statements to the inquiry continued to reiterate the importance of high-speed broadband across all sectors. In relation to the benefits that the NBN will have on the education sector, Ms Saab, from the Association of Catholic School Principals in NSW, stated:

E-learning is truly already a reality in our schools. We have moved from paper to e-books to personalised learning and now to e-publishing in a relatively short time. Scalability is necessary to allow us to continue to grow, as I said, and to provide 21st century skills ...

Ms Saab continued:

Our school cannot meet the needs of the 21st century learner with 20th century infrastructure. Hence, the broadband is so important to us. Students are, as we know, the very greatest asset we have. The children of Australia, we believe, deserve an education that enables them to be global citizens of the 21st century. The 21st century classroom is currently grinding to a 20th century halt without fast reliable access to the internet.

Ms Saab has encapsulated in those comments exactly what the National Broadband Network will bring to our education sector.

Finally, in quoting witnesses at the inquiry conducted by the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee, I note that the ACTU in its appearance at one of the hearings stressed that the NBN would help bridge the gap in access to the internet. The ACTU said:

… if you examine the current take-up rates of access to broadband, it falls as the income of your family falls. In other words, low-income families or people on ordinary incomes were much less likely to have a home broadband connection than people who are more well off. In our view, that is an unsustainable outcome and not an outcome which promotes social utility. An NBN program which provides for universal access and a universal wholesale price, we say, would be the best method to ensure that Australians have equality of access to broadband technology.

In those comments from the ACTU we can see that the NBN is a classic Labor government initiative, because it is directed entirely at ensuring inclusion across the community and ensuring that people who are not doing so well have access to the technologies that will enable them to participate in the community and in all aspects of community life in the same way that those of us who are somewhat better off are able to do. It is a social initiative as much as it is an economic initiative, and it is one that the Senate should stand behind.

After looking at both the companies bill and the access bill in depth and listening to submitters and witnesses, the committee recommended that both bills be passed. The committee also recommended, however, that the passing of the bills be subject to an amendment passed through the House of Representatives regarding the application of the Freedom of Information Act to NBN Co. for the access bill. The federal Labor government wants to make certain that the NBN will be for the benefit of all Australians. In fact, when an exposure draft of the companies bill was released for public comment in February 2010, some concerns were raised about certain aspects of the bill. In response to those concerns, the government has made significant changes to the bill from the initial draft—for instance, by strengthening the status of NBN Co. as a wholesale-only business. The government is taking great pains to make sure the community understands what is being included in these bills and has an opportunity to comment on them.

The foundations and rollout of the NBN have already begun in various places across the country. My Tasmanian colleagues would be the first to tell you that the first services provided over the NBN were launched in their home state in August last year. I am pleased to say that, in my own state of South Australia, Willunga has been selected to be one of the first release sites for the NBN. The people of Willunga are very happy about being included as a first release site. Residents of Willunga overwhelmingly embraced the rollout of the test network, with 84 per cent signing up for the optic fibre connection, after years of putting up with inadequate and ineffective internet speeds, which was all the previous Liberal government could provide them. We know that two more South Australian suburbs, Modbury and Prospect, will be included in the rollout of the next 19 mainland sites. We look forward to seeing the benefits to those communities in South Australia.

There has been considerable legislation already passed in regard to the rollout of the National Broadband Network, and one of the most significant achievements for the government so far in this regard which will ensure that this delivers competition to the telecommunications sector in Australia was the passage of the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer Safeguards) Bill in 2010. That was a very significant day in Australia’s telecommunications history because, of course, passing that part of the legislation was integral to separation of the wholesale and retail arms of Telstra and paved the way for the overall integration of the NBN. It was a step in the government’s plan to deliver the NBN which we promised in the 2007 federal election. Our promise then was to partner with the private sector to deliver a national broadband network and in particular to ensure competition in the sector through an open access network that provided equivalence of access charges and scope for access seekers to differentiate their product offerings. As I said before, these two bills today are part of making that promise to the Australian people a reality.

I am very proud to be a supporter of the National Broadband Network. As I said before, it is a real point of difference between the Labor government and the coalition opposition in having a vision for the future of Australia, ensuring all Australians have equal access to this incredibly important initiative and ensuring that we take advantage of the opportunities that modern telecommunications will provide to a very big country like Australia in the delivery of education services, health services, economic development and competition between small businesses.

It is disappointing that this week, another week in the federal parliament, has started with the coalition again carping, whingeing and nay-saying about important public policy initiatives being rolled out by the Labor government. But that is what we have come to expect from the coalition, because they have no comprehensive plan at all for dealing with Australia’s future telecommunications needs. Every time we have a piece of legislation to do with the National Broadband Network we get coalition senators on the other side of the Senate chamber trying to knock it, trying to set us back, trying to keep all Australians back in the 20th century and trying to again fluff up the carrier pigeons that they keep over there because they think that that is the way forward.

Thank goodness there is a Labor government. Thank goodness there is a Labor government that is absolutely committed to rolling out the best possible telecommunications infrastructure for Australia. We welcome scrutiny of our legislation, whether by a Senate committee, by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission or by the Joint Committee on the National Broadband Network. We welcome scrutiny and we will participate with the Australian community to ensure that the best possible telecommunications infrastructure for the future is rolled out by the government.