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Thursday, 29 October 2009
Page: 7600

Senator MINCHIN (11:54 AM) —by leave—I thank the chamber for granting me leave to make a few remarks in response to the statements of Senator Xenophon and Senator Ludlam on the motion relating to the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer Safeguards) Bill 2009. I must say, on behalf of the opposition, that I am disappointed that the crossbench senators have agreed to exempt this most radical of bills which is directly related to the National Broadband Network proposal from the order that required the government to produce the relevant documents if it wished to have its NBN related legislation considered by the parliament.

We must remember that this was not just a straight order for the production of documents. It was a motion of the Senate to the effect that, if the government wanted its NBN related legislation considered by the Senate, it should provide the Senate with the requisite background information to enable the Senate to vote with the full knowledge of the background to the government’s decision to embark on what it itself describes as the biggest infrastructure project in the nation’s history involving up to $43 billion of taxpayers’ money. If the government did not want to produce the documents, that is fine, but what the Senate was saying was that the Senate itself would not consider NBN related legislation until it saw those documents. I thought that was a very proper position for the Senate to adopt, given the magnitude of the NBN and the fact that the government had consistently said from the moment of the announcement of this rather extraordinary proposal that it was relying on the report from the evaluation study of NBN mark 1 to advance the proposition that we should now set up a government owned company to roll out, at a cost of $43 billion, a nationwide fibre-to-the-premises network.

I think it is reasonable for the Senate to say, ‘We would like to see that evaluation report on which you are basing this whole package, this extraordinary proposition that you are asking the Senate to support, before we agree to pass such legislation.’ I think that is the proper position for the Senate and I was pleased that the Senate supported our motion when we put it up. I am very disappointed that the crossbench senators have decided not to hold to that position because the government has agreed to have an inquiry. I think you are selling yourselves out very cheaply if that is the price. Senator Conroy has done a remarkable deal, because all that has happened is that you have agreed to have an inquiry. I do acknowledge and welcome the fact that Senator Ludlam has made clear that, as far as he is concerned, the order still applies in relation to any other NBN related legislation.

For the government to have come to this chamber and produce 16 of the 893 pages of the evaluation study and claim that the remaining 98.5 per cent of the report is all commercial-in-confidence is, from the perspective of someone who has spent 10 years in government as a minister, a complete nonsense. What I suspect is the case is that the evaluation report does not provide the justification which the government claims for it advancing this proposition that we now set up a government business to build, own and operate a $43 billion national broadband network. That is the reason we are not seeing the evaluation report—not that it is commercial-in-confidence but the fact that it does not provide the justification.

On behalf of the opposition, I say, ‘Yes, we have no objection to this inquiry,’ although I do, as I say from the experience of government, acknowledge that there are documents which are in fact commercial-in-confidence and cannot be released. In this case, I say that that could not possibly cover 98.5 per cent of the evaluation report, but we are happy for this inquiry to proceed. I must again say, however, how very disappointed I am that the crossbench senators—certainly Senator Xenophon and the Greens—have let the government off the hook on this, but I acknowledge the weight of numbers.