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Thursday, 15 September 2011
Page: 6155


Senator URQUHART (Tasmania) (09:31): Isn't it nice when those on the opposite side recognise that we have done something. The National Broadband Network Financial Transparency Bill 2010 (No. 2) is a rehashed version of an old bill that Malcolm Turnbull brought to the lower house last year, a bill that was defeated. Not only is this bill a rehash of a failed bill but it has had to be amended to reflect the hard work of this Gillard Labor government.

The amended bill says to Australians that the Gillard Labor government is getting on with governing this country. It says to Australians that the Gillard Labor govern­ment is not only tackling climate change with a carbon price that will cut pollution, cut taxes, increase the pension and create clean energy jobs; not only putting more doctors, more nurses and more beds into our hospitals, resulting in less waiting and less waste; not only giving Australians a fair share of the mining boom and also boosting retirement savings, providing tax breaks for small business and a company tax cut; not only doubling investment in school education, upgrading facilities and providing more information for parents than ever before; not only taking a serious look at how best to improve aged care to give older people more choice and control; not only investing more than $36 billion in invaluable infrastructure projects that will lift productivity; not only planning the nation's first ever national disability insurance scheme; not only delivering $5.8 billion to flood affected regions across the country; and not only seeing the passage of 185 bills through the House of Representatives and 138 through this parliament, which is more than the Howard government in the same amount of time, but this Gillard Labor government is also serious about providing financial transparency on the National Broadband Network through a corporate plan, which was released on 20 December last year.

The corporate plan, which of course was being prepared regardless of this bill, is sufficient to cover the coalition's demands for a business case for the National Broadband Network. It is sufficient for them to remove half of this stunt bill. However, those opposite continue to make half-baked, semi-serious demands for a full cost-benefit analysis of the National Broadband Network when they know as well as we do that it is not necessary. This is obvious because those opposite seem to think that the Productivity Commission could prepare a cost-benefit analysis on the National Broadband Network by 1 February 2012—that is, 4½ months away from now, and so far less than the date of royal assent and commencement. Although they are only proposing to give the Productivity Commission a few months to prepare this cost-benefit analysis, they have specified 15 matters the cost-benefit analysis must cover—15 matters in a few months.

Add to that the fact that, just as with the next private senator's bill to be heard in this place, the Leader of the Opposition has admitted that even if the result were unequivocally in favour of the Gillard Labor government's policy he would not listen to it anyway. No doubt they would seek to tarnish the reputations of the telecommunications experts just like they do with climate scientists and economists in regard to the need to tackle climate change. The Australian people are finding this constant obstructionism and negativity offensive. We have one morning a week to set aside for private senators' bills and those opposite consider it appropriate to move stunt bills that they know do not have achievable goals. They know they will be defeated, and for the sake of what? To give me a chance to stand here and tell me how silly you look? No, it is because they are about cheap, short-term stunts. Those opposite are not interested in what a Productivity Commission cost-benefit analysis has to say. They know it would take many years and require a range of heroic assumptions for the Productivity Com­mission to do a formal cost-benefit analysis of the NBN. They know that the NBN's potential benefits affect almost every aspect of the economy and society. As one person said to Mr Turnbull at a public forum a few months ago: 'Who are you going to get to do the analysis? The Nostradamus unit of the Productivity Commission?' Australians know that no cost-benefit analysis was done on other major government projects such as the Adelaide to Darwin railway, the privatisation of Telstra or Malcolm Turnbull's very own $10 billion water plan.

Australians understand the benefits of the National Broadband Network. The facts are that the National Broadband Network will deliver affordable high-speed broadband services to all Australian homes, businesses, schools and hospitals no matter where they are located in Australia. As Australia's first national, wholesale-only communications network, the NBN will also support genuine competition in the telecommunications sector for the first time, which means better outcomes for consumers. This is instead of the vertically integrated, privately owned monopolist that currently operates our telecommunications industry.

The NBN will connect 93 per cent of premises in Australia with optical fibre, delivering speeds of up to gigabit per second, many times faster than many people experience today. All remaining premises will receive next generation wireless and satellite technology, providing peak speeds of 12 megabits per second. While those opposite continue to spout negatives, the NBN Co. is getting on with the job of connecting Australia. There is an over­whelming level of support in some communities. For example, the number of households that signed up for a fibre connection in the first release sites averaged 75 per cent, including a high of over 90 per cent in Willunga in South Australia.

My home state of Tasmania has been at the forefront of the development of the NBN. We have seen successful rollouts in Smithton, Scottsdale and Midway Point, with more than 200 kilometres of optic fibre laid at this stage and over 200 people employed during the project. Fibre is currently being laid in Triabunna, Sorell, Deloraine, St Helens, Kingston Beach and George Town, with work soon to begin in South Hobart. Labor is getting on with the job of connecting Australia.

Tasmania has traditionally had lower education achievement levels than other states but, with the NBN, educators like Skills Tasmania have been able to start providing better online resources to help teachers and vocational education trainers in schools across the state incorporate e-learning into their teaching. One major barrier to this resource has been the restricted internet bandwidth faced by many Tasmanians which results in the types of information students and teachers can view being limited by how patient they are or how long they can wait for resources to download to their computer. This is hardly an effective classroom environment. We need to encourage all Australians to continue to upskill, and there should not be a false barrier that isolates remotely located students. The NBN, where all Australians will have access to bandwidth of at least 12 megabits per second, will allow classroom discussions and teacher professional development to be conducted remotely but in real time.

Added to this are the exciting video based opportunities for learning, where students will not be simply sent one package of learning materials in the post at the beginning of a semester but will be able to quickly receive materials over the internet that will be far more engaging and potentially more up to date. The days of downloading files, installing software and worrying about compatibility will be in the past, thanks to the NBN. With the NBN, people will be able to log onto virtual machines where their applications, such as courses, are hosted completely separately from the material they have at home. It will transform the way in which Australians teach and learn.

Remote diagnosis over high-definition videoconferencing is a healthcare benefit of the NBN that will save the Australian government money and save Australians in regional areas who are battling an illness the stress of having to travel long distances to get the best specialist advice and monitoring that those in the cities get. Federal Labor's plans to allow Medicare rebates for these sorts of services will build on these technological possibilities.

The NBN will assist with overcoming the tyranny of distance for work, improving people's ability to 'telework' from home sometimes, allowing greater workplace flexibility that does not result in lower wages, reduced penalty rates and worsened conditions as those opposite continue to purport. The NBN will allow people to seek greater job opportunities and stay in their local regional communities and not have to move to a big city or be constantly travelling. In the Circular Head region of Tasmania, based around Smithton, a major factory closed its doors in 2010. However, some of its displaced workers have been able to harness the power of the NBN and begin re-training without having to leave their town. In difficult times, local opportunities through the NBN see communities united.

An opportunity for Tasmania that would not be possible without reliable network connectivity is a Google data centre. This week it has been reported that Google are looking to build a data centre to service the Asia-Pacific region and they have stipulated that they will look to build only in locations with a high percentage of renewable energy. This makes Tasmania the only viable option in Australia.

In Smithton, I know a number of those workers I referred to. A lot of those workers have had difficulty accessing services in the past. They live in a very remote area of Tasmania. The NBN will provide those people with lots of different opportunities that they have not had in the past. The hydro dams of the mid 20th century are combining with the National Broadband Network of the 21st century to give Tasmania a competitive edge. Both were instigated under Labor governments who did not just look to the past but embraced the future.

It is embracing the future that is at the core of the National Broadband Network. OECD statistics for June 2010 show that Australia is falling behind other developed countries on broadband. Australia is ranked 18th out of 31 developed countries on number of broadband connections. A June 2011 study by Akamai ranked Australia 42nd in the world for internet speeds, on par with Russia and lagging behind almost every single advanced industrial economy, including New Zealand. And yet those opposite want to delay and destroy the very infrastructure project that will kick Australia back up these rankings.

In the area where I live in Tasmania, on the north-west coast in a small farming community, I cannot get wireless. I cannot get good access to the internet. The NBN will be able to deliver that access to me and the people around me. Delay is only costing Australians. The Australian Local Govern­ment Association estimated in its 2007-08 State of the regions report that Australian businesses lost $3.2 billion and 33,000 jobs in 12 months due to inadequate broadband infrastructure. The NBN will fix this, but it will take time to fully connect Australia. This is an important initiative that regions like Smithton and others need.

That is why the Gillard Labor government switched on the new Interim Satellite Service as part of the National Broadband Network in July this year. The service replaces the Australian Broadband Guarantee and provides eligible rural and regional Aust­ralians with access to an enhanced service. The interim service is expected to be in operation until 2015 when NBN Co. plans to launch two purpose designed, high-speed broadband satellites that will provide a long-term satellite solution as part of the National Broadband Network.

The planning and design of the NBN has been about finding the most appropriate service at the right price for all Australians. A project of this scale is simply not possible for a private sector provider. On this side of the House we recognise that markets are not perfect and need strong government policy to facilitate the best outcome for all Australians. We are joined in this under­standing by the chief executive of Singapore Telecommunications, who said:

You do need some level of economic intervention if you want to get a network built ahead of when a business case would encourage (private) operators to build a network.

Furthermore, the UN Broadband Commission report for 2011 provides strong support for Australia's commitment in rolling out the NBN and promoting the benefits of the digital economy in relation to education, teleworking and smart energy management. Most importantly, the report states:

To optimize the benefits to society, broadband should be coordinated on a countrywide basis, promoting facilities-based competition and with policies encouraging service providers to offer access on fair market terms … efforts should be coordinated across all sectors of industry, administration and the economy.

Further—

Developing isolated projects or piecemeal, duplicated networks is not only inefficient, it delays provision of infrastructure that is becoming as crucial in the modern world as roads or electricity supplies.

The Gillard Labor government and worldwide leaders in the telecommunications industry recognise the role of government investment in the rollout of broadband networks. We understand that a purely commercial perspective would not be able to take account of the service benefits which are to follow.

The Gillard Labor government recognises that the NBN is an investment in our nation's future. That investment in our nation's future is also an investment in our children's future and our grandchildren's future. The NBN network is important not only for the future of our economy but also for the lives of the people that are coming after us. The corporate plan shows a return on investment of over seven per cent, and we know from the Greenhill Caliburn report that the assumptions underlying revenue and cost projections in the NBN Co. corporate plan are reasonable. The Greenhill Caliburn report concludes that NBN Co.'s corporate plan is what it would expect to see from an Australian blue-chip company with the corporate plan providing:

… the level of detail and analytical framework that would be expected from a large listed public entity.

As recognised by Greenhill Caliburn, and those opposite through their amendment to this bill, NBN Co.'s corporate plan shows the NBN will provide all Australians with world-class broadband on a financially viable basis at affordable prices. The corpor­ate plan shows taxpayers will get their investment back with a return. The NBN will provide a rate of return significantly higher than the government bond rate, and all Australians will gain access to this world-class network.

The National Broadband Network is another reform in Labor's ever-building suite of successful reforms that are about making that better place for our children and grandchildren. This bill sees a continuation of the monotonous negativity from those opposite who seek to delay and destroy one the most valuable infrastructure projects in this nation's history—for what?—because time and time again they seek to put their short-term political advantage ahead of the long-term interests of this nation.

The NBN, as I outlined earlier, is a very important structure in this country. For those people in Smithton—and I will go back to them again because I know them very well—the ability to access and have a fast broadband system is going to change their whole outlook on life. When you are faced with a closure, such as the factory where they worked, your prospects of employment in your particular region are very limited. That is what happened to the people at the factory—200 of them were made redundant. The NBN and its provision in Smithton has provided those people with some opportunities that if it were not there they would not have had. They have access to fast broadband, they have access to better medical provision through the use of the NBN and they have better opportunities for their children to access better education.

Those are the things that the NBN will deliver to not only the community of Smithton but also those other communities like Triabunna, a very isolated community on the east coast of Tasmania, which at this stage is going through some closure of industries. Again, the NBN will deliver the opportunities to those people in that community to access the outside world and get training, education, access to health care and a whole range of things that they would not have been able to have had the NBN not come to their town.

This is a very important reform. The NBN does need to be there. We need to get it up as quickly as possible for all those people in all those communities not just in my home state of Tasmania but in every regional area. Even in the cities we need it. But in the regional areas, because of the tyranny of distance and because of the lack of availability of services and access to those services, we need the NBN for people to be able to have the same opportunities that their cousins in the cities have today. Therefore, this is a very important process that the Gillard Labor government is going through, and to put up obstacles such as those opposite— (Time expired)