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Thursday, 29 October 2009
Page: 7599

Senator LUDLAM (11:49 AM) —I will speak very briefly on this motion in relation to the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer Safeguards) Bill 2009. Just before we adjourned last night, Senator Brown put some remarks on the record on the way that commercial-in-confidence information is handled. Whilst recognising, of course, that there are legitimate times when commercial-in-confidence material should not be tabled and put into the public realm, he noted that it is used as a shield by both sides of politics against disclosure of documents that may well be in the public interest. It is quite a number of months since Senator Minchin originally put this motion on the Notice Paper, and in that time we have consistently maintained that the government’s claims are unacceptable. It is completely unacceptable for the government to say of the entirety of the material produced by the ACCC and by the expert panel in relation to the work done last year and earlier this year: ‘No, you cannot have it. The entire content of those documents is commercial-in-confidence because we run a commercial tender.’ If we run too far down this road, given the pervasive influence of corporations in Australian society, and indeed globally, we wind up with nothing at all in the public domain because everything somehow ends up being tied up in commercial-in-confidence considerations one way or the other.

Last night these two principles finally came into conflict. The documents really had not been tabled. A tiny proportion of the RFP documentation had actually been made available and put into the public domain, and we had to take it on trust from the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy that nothing else was going to be able to be tabled. Against that—the principle of the fact that the Greens do support debate on the Telstra bill before the end of this year—we, similar to Senator Xenophon, have some concerns. We will be putting some amendments to the minister. Those negotiations are ongoing. We look forward to the government’s support for those amendments but we do, in the first instance, believe that it is time that this bill was debated.

I have sat through a year and a half of quite constructive hearings and work done in the Senate Select Committee on the National Broadband Network, and the response from the industry, that this market is dysfunctional and has been so for a period of some time, has actually been pretty overwhelming. This was partly relating to the privatisation of Telstra, which obviously the Greens did not support, and partly relating to the fact that Telstra, as an incumbent, has been in a position for a long time to use and to abuse the dominance it has, both vertically and horizontally, within telecommunications markets. We understand, although we are not party to the negotiations, that Telstra is in negotiations with the government and that those will be ongoing, but we believe that there should be a framework within those negotiations to take place. That is why we believe the Telstra bill should be brought forward for debate before the end of this year.

As I said, Senator Brown spoke last night in some detail about the reason we needed more time to negotiate with the government and to come to an agreement around the issue that it is not really good enough that we simply need to take it on trust that the minister cannot release any further documentation. This is obviously the tip of the iceberg of a much broader issue around the way that corporations are accountable to the parliament and to the public of Australia. I note advice that we received from the Clerk that the motion we are debating today is of direct relevance to the NBN and that there is indirect relevance to the Telstra bill. That, of course, is why the block was put up. We are putting the minister on notice that, before we get to consideration of the substantive NBN bill and the other NBN bill floating around which we have been considering for some time, the order of the Senate stands. I believe that the process we have put in place is long overdue. It is long past time that we had some investigation of commercial-in-confidence claims and other claims which shield documentation and information from disclosure to the public, because there are far better models than are used here in the Senate. Orders for production of documents should be taken seriously and there should be some mechanism for independent review so that we are not simply taking the minister, from whichever side of politics, on trust.

I would like to thank my crossbench colleagues for the constructive way in which they approached the negotiations. I think we have a good outcome. I would like to thank the minister and his staff for the way in which they approached the negotiations as well. Most of all, I look forward to bringing forward the debate on the Telstra bill so that we can actually discuss, at long last, the structure of telecommunications markets, which have been dysfunctional for such a long period of time.