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Tuesday, 3 February 2009
Page: 32

Senator MINCHIN (Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (2:47 PM) —My question is also to the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Conroy, who would certainly know about saying one thing and doing another. I ask him whether it remains the minister’s ambition to sign a contract with the successful tenderer for the National Broadband Network project before the end of March, as he has indicated, and prior to the establishment of a regulatory framework which presumably will require legislation to be considered, debated and passed by this parliament.

Senator CONROY (Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy) —Thank you, Senator Minchin, for the question. The government will not be commenting on the detail of proposals or speculating on the outcomes of the request for proposals processed while the report is being considered. Let me be clear: those opposite have continued once again, as I indicated in the answer to the previous question, to play both sides of the street. On the one hand, Senator Minchin has wanted to claim that the process is a farce and the process has collapsed, yet, on the other, now he is demanding that we sign a contract apparently by March. We have indicated that that is our ambition. But to speculate further, as Senator Minchin has continued to do, would undermine negotiations that are commercial in nature and go to the heart of the probity and integrity of this process. Senator Minchin should know better, because when we received the report the evaluation had occurred at arm’s length. The government had not seen the contents of any proposal, nor had it received detailed briefings on any proposal from the panel of experts.

Senator Coonan —Mr President, I rise on a point of order. It relates to the requirement for the minister to be directly relevant in his answer. What the question went to very clearly was whether there would be a regulatory framework that would precede the signing of the NBN project or whether it would be after.

Senator Ludwig —On the point of order, Mr President: clearly Senator Conroy has been directly relevant to the question. He has been talking about national broadband and it is difficult amongst the hubbub from the opposition but perhaps they could listen more closely in respect of the response by Senator Conroy. He has been directly relevant to the question. His answer has been about the national broadband rollout. In this process the opposition should of course listen to the question and answer. The difficulty that is always faced here is when the question is framed in such a way that it presupposes an answer, whereas in this instance they should listen to the answer being given.

The PRESIDENT —Senator Conroy, there are 30 seconds left for you to continue your answer and address the question that has been asked.

Senator CONROY —Thank you, Mr President. Those opposite seek to ask questions and then ignore the answers even when they are directly relevant to the questions. I have already stated that we are not going to comment on the ongoing discussions that are taking place, because they go to the heart of commercial matters. They go to the heart of the government’s negotiating position. So—this is for those opposite—the regulatory framework goes to the heart of these commercial issues. It goes to the heart of them. (Time expired)

Senator MINCHIN —That was a most confusing answer. My question was whether the minister remains committed to his public statement that it is his ambition to sign a contract with the successful tenderer for this National Broadband Network before the end of March, which would presumably involve signing a contract prior to any required legislation passing this parliament.

Senator Faulkner —The question? It should have a question mark at the end of the sentence.

Senator CONROY (Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy) —That is exactly right, I think it was just a question mark on the end. I have already answered that question, Mr President. I said our ambition was to sign by March and I was not going to be commenting, as Senator Minchin will realise if he reviews the tape, rather than just getting distracted by Senator Coonan’s point of order—Senator Minchin has just demonstrated it was a point of order that had nothing to do with the question that was asked. We have made it clear: asking us ongoing questions while the process is still afoot undermines and is deliberately intended to undermine the Commonwealth’s position, and we will not be answering questions while we are engaged in these sensitive commercial negotiations.

Senator MINCHIN —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. So much for the openness and transparency we were promised in relation to this project. Having received the report of the NBN expert panel, is the minister now in a position to finally concede that Labor’s election promise of rolling out fibre to the node to 98 per cent of Australia’s population is unaffordable and cannot be delivered?

Senator CONROY (Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy) —Senator Coonan is going back to the future.

Opposition senators interjecting—

Senator CONROY —I am going back to it because it is actually like dealing with the former minister, Senator Coonan. We have a complete rewind from Senator Minchin in that he is adopting Senator Coonan’s failed policy positions. Let me be clear: Labor’s election commitment will be delivered. But let’s not get away from the cant and hypocrisy of those opposite. When Senator Minchin was in charge of finance, he undertook a number of scoping studies in relation to Medibank Private, ComLand, the Defence Housing Authority and the Albury-Wodonga Development Corporation. These scoping studies were all undertaken under Senator Minchin’s watch. He would not comment on them and he did not release them. (Time expired)