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Monday, 14 September 2009
Page: 9437

Dr JENSEN (5:35 PM) —I rise to speak on the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (National Broadband Network Measures—Network Information) Bill 2009. The members opposite will be all too aware of the preposterous pledge made by their former leader, Bob Hawke, that under his colourful maladministration ‘No Australian child will be living in poverty’. Of course, this laughable commitment was never fulfilled and there was never any intention for it to be fulfilled, given that Hawke’s words were aimed at winning votes, not at winning the fight against poverty. How little things change with the ALP. Two decades on and his evolutionary spawn, the Prime Minister, heads a government which is promising no Australian child will be living without a high-speed broadband connection. Let us set aside the way in which this reflects the much higher expectations of the Australian public in all aspects of life because of the 11 years of sustained economic growth and widespread prosperity under the competent and enlightened coalition management. What we are seeing in the National Broadband Network proposal is Labor again making grand promises which it has absolutely no idea about fulfilling. Like Bob Hawke, the Prime Minister appears set to be forever remembered and derided for delivering a sweeping but hollow commitment which is entirely based on spin and is totally devoid of substance.

This is nothing but a fancy promise which the government has no hope of delivering and which is a desperately cynical attempt to cover up its failure to make any real progress on a key election promise two years after coming to office. Of course, the government wasted 18 months and $20 million on its first bungled National Broadband Network plan and is again haemorrhaging cash under this latest farcical attempt to win votes through spin rather than action. Millions of dollars are already being poured into salaries and operating expenses for those appointed to manage the network, even though there is no network to manage. Where is the demand or the evidence of the demand for this proposed service? Most Australians already have access to relatively high-speed internet services, whether it be ADSL or ADSL2 or via the dramatically growing wireless internet services. Do the Australian people really want $43 billion of their money spent on a system which will be of marginal benefit to few and of significant benefit to even fewer?

Where is the evidence of the effectiveness of the proposed network? The systems in place work. How will the one proposed be better and to what degree? Will the improvement justify the massive expense and for how long? There have been suggestions of a 10-year roll-out for the proposed network. It has taken nearly six months from the government announcing the plan to bring this bill before us, so the project is already mired in delays. Ten years is an extremely long time in politics but it is several generations in technology. Indeed, we heard the member for Kennedy talking about how in a period of 15 years there have been four different generations of technology, and the government is betting on a technology here.

Ten years ago, most of the high bandwidth services which we are seeing as driving the push for high-speed broadband services today simply did not exist. YouTube, Facebook and, of course, Twitter were not here; yet the government is presuming to plan a network today which will meet today’s demands but not for another 10 years. Will we then have to start over yet again because of an ill-thought-out policy implemented by the members opposite? Why is a long-term strategic telecommunications strategy setting its aim at only the second-rate technology of today when other countries already enjoy far superior network service and are planning to improve these further? Will we be happy with the service when it is complete, whenever that might be? Will we be happy with it after six months, after 12 months or after two years, as we watch communications services in neighbouring countries leapfrog Australia? A $43 billion investment should be delivering more than short-term gratification.

These are just some of many very pertinent questions which remain unanswered on this issue. The Australian public deserve to know these answers before we get the bill passed onto us. It is our duty as members of parliament when considering such massive commitments to ensure that they are the best choices for our country. The government has in this instance failed to demonstrate that this is the case. The members opposite would have us believe that this legislation is essential if Australia’s broadband infrastructure is to be improved and that critics are holding back development of better systems, yet the same members opposite are themselves bent on slowing Australian network speeds through their insidious internet censorship scheme. Of course, the same minister is responsible for both of these farces.

Internet service providers have won the backing of colleagues around the world in their loathing for a man apparently set on hindering the infrastructure he is supposed to enhance. The Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy recently won formal recognition for his unpopularity in the industry as Internet Villain of the Year. Some individuals felt strongly enough about the issue that last week they attacked the websites of both the minister and the Prime Minister. Computer users, particularly the more tech-savvy—and a special mention must go to the Whirlpool website forums for fostering real debate of the issue—hold the minister as an object of contempt and ridicule, particularly for his bumbling attempt to impose controls over the medium which is ultimately setting the world free. The internet delivers power to the world’s people. It is an ally of all who cherish freedom, individual liberty and true democracy. That is why it is the enemy of authoritarian rulers in countries such as China, Burma and Iran—and, it seems, of the Australian Labor Party.

Members should recall that under the last coalition government we had a very simple, very cost-effective and very popular program under which families could get free copies of an internet filter program for their homes to protect their children from unsavoury internet content. The Rudd government scrapped that, and two years after taking office the minister is still unable to offer an alternative. Delay after delay has very fortunately put this censorship plan on hold, and for this some thanks must go to internet service providers who refused to take part in sham trials.

By now, the members opposite must also have realised how deeply flawed is the internet filter pursued by the minister, and we can only hope that they will quietly abandon it at some stage. What grew from the idea of protecting children using the internet rapidly became billed as a weapon against child pornography, and these are surely two very different issues. From there, the minister has broadened it to propose blocking Australians from viewing any material which a select group of faceless bureaucrats deem inappropriate. And to top it off, the list of banned material would itself be banned from public scrutiny, effectively making the censors unaccountable. IT experts say such a system will slow the network and that it will not work, regardless. This is particularly the case in combating traffic in child pornography, which reportedly is usually distributed through peer-to-peer networks rather than via websites, and so could continue unhindered by the filter.

And so we have a government pledging to spend tens of billions of dollars on a national broadband network of dubious worth which will supposedly offer higher speed data links to all. At the same time, the government is planning a censorship scheme which will have the opposite effect, reducing data speeds and hindering access. And, most crucially, it would stop the free flow of information which we have come to expect from the internet, a strategy more akin to foreign dictatorships, for which Labor feigns distaste, a strategy wholly not in keeping with our country’s proud history of free speech and open debate. The internet promised to take us all into the future, but this government appears intent on applying the policies of the past in its selfish pursuit of power and control, not only in this building but over the lives of all Australians.