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Conroy discusses Australia's digital future -

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Conroy discusses Australia's digital future

Broadcast: 05/12/2007

Reporter: Ali Moore

A project to introduce a fast new nationwide broadband network is now in the hands of the new
Communications Minister, Stephen Conroy, who inherits a long-running stoush between Telstra and the
competition regulator.

Transcript

ALI MOORE: A new fast broadband network was one of the key promises of the now Labor Government
during the election campaign with a pledge to spend $4.7 billion of public money towards the
infrastructure. The project is now in the hands of the new Communications Minister, Stephen Conroy,
who inherits a long-running stoush between Telstra and the competition regulator.

Senator Conroy also inherits the previous government's media ownership rules and the changes
they've lead to, as well the former government's appointments to the ABC board. All in all, it's a
busy portfolio.

On just his third day in the office the new Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital
Economy, Stephen Conroy joined me earlier today. Senator Conroy, welcome to Lateline Business.

SENATOR STEPHEN CONROY, COMMUNICATIONS MINISTER: Good to be with you.

ALI MOORE: You're the new Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy. What
happened to sport, the arts and the national archives, all of which were in your bailiwick before
the last election?

STEPHEN CONROY: Actually, those weren't my bailiwick. Sport was Kate Lundy, the arts were Peter
Garrett. They weren't areas of my responsibility prior to the election. So it wasn't a surprise to
me that they didn't come into my portfolio.

ALI MOORE: You've also been put down to number 13 on the listing of the new ministries. Is there
any significance at all to that positioning?

STEPHEN CONROY: I'm happy to serve anywhere that Kevin Rudd asks me to serve.

ALI MOORE: Well, you do still obviously have a lot on your plate. First of all that commitment to
spend $4.7 billion on a fast broadband network. How quickly can that tender be awarded?

STEPHEN CONROY: Look, our ambition is for it to be completed by the end of June. That will be a
tight timetable, but this is something that as you saw during the election campaign, Kevin Rudd is
very committed to Labor's national broadband roll-out.

It works in very closely with Labor's initiative to put laptops into schools and so we are very
ambitious. We're very keen to hit the ground running and we hope we can have completed that tender
process by the end of June.

ALI MOORE: Are you sticking with the plan for fibre-to-the-node, or now that you're in government
would you consider spending more money and perhaps going more way with fibre to the home,
particularly given that fibre-to-the-node obviously connects with modern technology with the old
copper wires?

STEPHEN CONROY: We are committed to spending no more than $4.7 billion. That was Labor's commitment
from the day we announced our plan and we've never changed it. We're inviting tenders for
fibre-to-the-node to reach 98 per cent of Australians' homes and businesses at 40 times faster than
most Australians currently get.

We are open to upgraded proposals. Already a number of potential bidders have indicated that they
wouldn't actually bid for a 12 meg proposal. They had talk about a VDSL proposal which would
actually be master minimum speeds of the 20-25 meg proposals.

And if tenderers would like to put forward a fibre to the premise proposal we would welcome that.
We won't be contributing anymore money. We think $4.7 billion is a substantial contribution to a
national broadband network. But we're not ruling out if tenderers wish to put forward fibre to the
premise.

ALI MOORE: But given the cost difference, if you're talking $4.7 billion, then we're talking
fibre-to-the-node and doesn't that mean whoever wins the tender you need Telstra to play in order
to get access to that last mile to the copper wire?

STEPHEN CONROY: Labor's $4.7 billion doesn't preclude somebody putting up a more expensive proposal
that they would be contributing the reminder of the money to for a fibre to the premise. There's
still a opportunity for people to put forward a proposal like that. As I said, people have already
put forward a faster proposal than Labor is tendering for, and we welcome these other technologies
that can be put in place.

ALI MOORE: But you also can't rule out just the original fibre-to-the-node and in that case, you
would need Telstra to play to get access?

STEPHEN CONROY: No, at the moment Telstra own all of the exchanges and there is an access regime in
place that allows Telstra's competitors access to those exchanges and the same would apply in terms
of nodes. We would take legal advice about what is the best way to allow that access and an access
regime, but we would be committed to delivering that access, and if that required a new access
regime then that's what we would look at introducing.

ALI MOORE: How will your faster broadband network fit with the $1.9 billion Wimax network contract
that was awarded to the OPEL consortium to the previous government, will you honour that contract?

STEPHEN CONROY: We have said all along, will honour existing contracts. There are a number of
performance hurdles the OPEL contracts have to meet. That's all part of the contract.

We're currently receiving briefings at the moment from the department, from ACMA, from the ACCC and
we're seeking to have meetings as soon as is possible with OPEL themselves.

So we've said from day one, we will honour an existing contract. What I've also said is Labor will
be building a fibre-to-the-node project and OPEL have to decide how they're going to respond to
Labor's superior fibre-to-the-node project.

ALI MOORE: Another area of policy that's under your control and about which you've been scathing in
the past, the new media ownership rules passed by the previous government. You've described them as
a massive handing of concentration of media ownership to the most powerful people in the land. Now
you're in power, will you change them?

STEPHEN CONROY: We said all along that we wouldn't be able to unscramble this egg. Now there's been
significant market movement, we've said that there are a number of things we need to examine to
improve the level of diversity across Australia.

We want to see a national interest test. We want to see divestige of powers to the ACCC. We want to
see the firm debates for the switch off of analog. And I've made this commitment before the
election that we will, and we announced that there would be a firm switch off date at the end of
2013. So switch off date is coming.

ALI MOORE: How would a national interest test work in the context of the Trade Practices Act?

STEPHEN CONROY: Well, the Trade Practices Act by itself is not strong enough to deal with these
questions of media diversity, particularly for news and current affairs. That's why you need a
national interest test. The Productivity Commission outlined a test. That's something we want to
look at and see whether that is the appropriate model.

But the Trade Practices Act by itself cannot, it cannot manage these challenges and we've said that
consistently.

The other thing that we need to consider is as that we now have a firm switch off date at the end
of 2013 we are in a situation where we have to have a look at options like a fourth free-to-air
network. That's something that we've said before the election, and we're committed to look at that.

ALI MOORE: You're also responsible for the board of the ABC, an area where I have an obvious
interest and so do my colleagues. You've been highly critical of the way the Howard government made
appointments to the ABC. You've said you'll set up an arm's length procedure. How quickly can you
put that new procedure in place? What will it involved?

STEPHEN CONROY: It's based around the Nolan principles out of the UK, where you set up an
independent committee that will make recommendations back to the minister.

And those recommendations... it would be a brave minister that wanted to overturn them, because the
importance of the ABC to this country is very, very significant.

What we need to do is depoliticise the debate around the ABC. We need people to have confidence in
it. One of the great challenges is protecting Australian voices into the future and the ABC is
going to have a critical role in doing that. So we need to take away this debate that there's been
there over the last few years about the politicalisation of the board of the ABC. We want
Australians to be confident.

ALI MOORE: If you want to depoliticise the ABC, will you spill the board?

STEPHEN CONROY: One of the things when you want to be arm's length is you don't want to move in and
be sacking people willy nilly. If we want to go through a proper process as we've said we do, we'll
be looking at this process as replacements come up. We're not looking for the night of the long
knives. We want a proper process.

ALI MOORE: That's a categorical ruling out of a spill?

STEPHEN CONROY: Absolutely. We've never suggested at any stage we'd be spilling the board. What we
said is as replacements come up, we'll be looking at using this new process. We've got to see how
quickly we can put that in place. There are appointments due in the next six months or so.

ALI MOORE: You've got one in February and another in May, if you can't put the new procedure in
place by then, will you extend the terms of those directors?

STEPHEN CONROY: That's something we're considering at the moment. We're taking briefings from the
department at the moment. That's one of the issues that came up - how quickly could we put in place
that process given that position is coming up. That's something we're taking advice from the
department on at the moment.

ALI MOORE: You're also committed to reinstating the staff elected to the ABC board, and of course,
that's the position that was at the centre of the resignation of Morris Newman as a director a
number of years ago. Of course he's now returned as the chairman. If you reinstate that staff
elected position, what do you expect the response of Morris Newman to be?

STEPHEN CONROY: I'm confident he'll be able to work with our proposal. I've had preliminary
discussions with Morris. I'm sure we can sit down and work out any differences there are. I'm
confident we'll be able to get a board position who understands that they are there, not as a
representative individually of just the ABC staff, but they are governed by the board processes.

I'm confident that we can work with Morris and the ABC board to ensure that this position which
Labor's committed to and we put it in our platform - it's been clearly part of our platform - we're
sure that this can work.

ALI MOORE: Senator Conroy, many thanks for talking to Lateline Business.

STEPHEN CONROY: Thanks very much.