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Tuesday, 5 July 2011
Page: 7620


Mr BRUCE SCOTT (MaranoaSecond Deputy Speaker) (17:15): Last night I was talking about the need for clarity and certainty for greenfield sites. In my electorate, with the Surat coal basin, many developers have had to look at housing and industrial site developments without any certainty about how this infrastructure is to be rolled out—pipes and pits; is it going to be Telstra or will it be NBN Co.? The Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy said there would be consultation with the industry, but every time the industry—in this case developers—went to either Telstra or NBN Co. they were not willing to give an answer because they did not know; this government had not consulted. At last we have some legislation that will enable developers to proceed with some certainty. However, the lack of industry consultation in coming to this position is disappointing. The government have failed to talk with stakeholders, they have failed to consult with the comm­unications industry, and in this whole project they have simply not done their homework.

In December last year Senator Conroy said in relation to government policy on these new developments:

It has been a consistent feature of the Government's policy in new developments that there should be room for competing providers.

We would agree with that. Senator Conroy went on:

This continues to be the case … Providers can compete to provide infrastructure in new developments, for example, by offering more tailored solutions to developers or more expeditious delivery.

Notwithstanding what the minister said in December last year, on 13 May this year NBN Co. issued a press release referring to an agreement signed with subcontractor Fujitsu and its construction partner Service Stream:

… Fujitsu will manage the design, construction and associated works for the deployment of fibre to new developments …

So much for consultation with the industry; so much for looking at competing ideas. This was just signed up—

Ms Marino: A done deal.

Mr BRUCE SCOTT: It was a done deal, I imagine done behind closed doors. Certainly there was no consultation with the industry. Notwithstanding all of that, we and the developers now know what is happening. We have to play with the cards dealt us. In my electorate of Maranoa developers in the Surat coal basin have been desperately ringing my office wondering what on earth they can do—how can they go to their banks and raise debt to roll out these new infrastructure projects, including housing? There is a desperate shortage of housing. In the last six months rents in my home town of Roma have gone from $250 per week for a three- or four-bedroom home to $600 per week, with three-monthly reviews—and those rents are still going up. Of course part of the problem with new housing developments is the failure of the govern­ment to give certainty when it comes to the rollout of optic fibre cable and the pits and pipes that are associated with rolling out communications technology into new developments. We have come to expect that from this Labor government. They talk about big projects, but just look at the project they implemented in response to the GFC. Do you remember the BER school halls project? Here we are in 2011 and they are still building school halls in my electorate. They are winding back costs all the time because they have blown the budget and, as well, costs have increased over this time because of the inflationary effect.

Where is the cost-benefit analysis of this whole project? There needs to be rigour; there needs to be a cost-benefit analysis done on this $50 billion investment. After all, it is ultimately going to be taxpayers' money—my money, your money, the money of the people in the departments here in Canberra, the money of hardworking Australians—that will be put at risk. They deserve to know what a cost-benefit analysis of this project would show. We should be developing the nation's backhaul and replacing old technology. That is a given; we agree on this side that that is sensible. We should be replacing it from the inside to the outside of Australia. The member for Grey would well know that there are microwave links in his electorate, as there are in my electorate, and that some communities today are still serviced with single-channel radio systems for basic clear voice signals. Yet we hear from this government that maybe these communities will get satellite technology for clear voice signals for telephones. The government say that this project will be complete by 2020, but these people will still be on single-channel radio systems and microwave links for communications—and for the internet, in some cases—with the main backhaul network covering this nation.

We should be investing out there. Of course, the coalition's policy would have covered that. Had we been elected and had the Independents who sit behind us here supported Tony Abbott for Prime Minister, we would be doing those sorts of things now because we had money to invest in partnerships in communities where the market fails. That is where taxpayers' money should be going. Where the market does not fail it is for businesses to compete against other businesses to roll out this infrast­ructure. But no, not with this government. They are getting rid of what was once a monopoly and are now creating a government owned monopoly.

Before it is too late, we should have this whole project referred to the Productivity Commission for a clear cost-benefit analysis. That is what the Australian taxpayers deserve. The very least that this government could do would be to refer it to the Productivity Commission. The Productivity Commission would be an honest broker and bring forward not the coalition's or the government's but its cost-benefit analysis of this $50 billion project.

As I said a moment ago, we can look at those areas where markets fail to build new infrastructure, such as in the outback of my electorate, in rural areas or even in outer metropolitan areas. I know that the outer areas of Melbourne—when you get up into some of the smaller communities in the hills—they are a long way from the main backhaul networks of Australia. We on this side of House agree that people do need access to affordable high-speed internet. It has loosely been called broadband, but I like to talk about high-speed internet. I am not a technical guru, but it is high-speed internet. Whether it is in those outer metropolitan areas, in the outback of my electorate, in the electorate of the member for Grey—

Ms Marino: Or the member for Forrest.

Mr BRUCE SCOTT: or the electorate of the member for Forrest, in Western Australia, which is similar, there are areas where markets will fail, and under this government, should they be re-elected, the suggested date by which communities in the outback of my electorate might getting connected is 2020. I see the Parliamentary Secretary for Trade at the table and I am sure that in the seat of Richmond there would be places where the backhaul is deficient today.

Mrs Elliot: They are very excited about the NBN.

Mr BRUCE SCOTT: I would be most interested to do a run through of the seat of Richmond because I am sure there will be people there who will be waiting until 2020. Yes, it is coming their way, but I am sure this is not the government that will be delivering it to people living in areas where markets fail. We know that markets fail and that is where there is a role for government.

I want to touch on a couple of other issues because they are important. We have recently seen executives of Regional Devel­opment Australia writing to our councils to ask them for between $5,000 and $10,000 to do a survey of the 3G deficiencies in those areas. For heaven's sake, does the govern­ment not know? It is going to spend $50 billion and now it is asking ratepayers to contribute up to $10,000, through their local government rates, to map the areas covered by 3G or wireless in those communities. It is very curious. I thought the government was talking about fibre to the premises, but what is this survey of wireless coverage in regional communities about? The govern­ment is asking the ratepayers to pay for something they do not yet have and may never get.

The other issue I will be watching very closely under this model that the government is putting together is the adequacy of the funding for the universal service obligation. I understand that Telstra is going to be required to continue to provide that universal service to ensure that all Australians have access to affordable telecommunications. Telstra has always done that. I am particularly concerned about whether the money that is coming either out of the budget or out of NBN Co. will really be adequate. What happens if the money is not adequate and the budget gets tougher? The government is looking at this mythical surplus in 2012-13, but it might have to cut back somewhere. Who is going to miss out? It could well be the universal service obligation where $50 million has been allocated from NBN Co., which will then go up to $100 million.

I have great faith in Telstra Country Wide. They have been out there and they are the people who have always made sure that telephones are connected when the market fails to do so. When the floods swept through our areas they were the ones who went out to clean out the pits and get the communic­ations going. It is hard enough in remote parts of my electorate to get an electrician or a plumber, but how on earth are you going to get a telephone technician when the funding for the USO may not be adequate? It just will not happen. That is a concerning issue that I will be watching very closely as this government continues to blunder along. I have real concerns about how the government is dealing with this. It should be referred to the Productivity Commission for report because the taxpayers deserve nothing less. (Time expired)