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Thursday, 18 November 2010
Page: 1615

Senator ABETZ (Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (1:07 PM) —I thank honourable senators for their contribution to this debate. At no stage in this debate have Labor told us any reason why they are hiding the business plan for the NBN from the Australian people until after the parliament rises. No reason has been advanced by the minister as to why these documents, which are clearly available, will be released as soon as the parliament rises—and that is what Labor are going to do.

We have had Senator Ludlam say to the media that the government would be making a serious tactical error if it continued to refuse to hand over this documentation. I say to the Greens that there is a very real opportunity for them to show that they not only mean those words but are actually going to follow them up with action. Senator Ludlum went on to say in the same interview that the Greens would not use this issue as a reason to block legislation. I suggest that that is a serious tactical error on the Greens’ part. They are saying to the government: ‘We are all huff and puff on this issue, but don’t worry, there won’t actually be any practical consequences as a result of you defying Senator Ludlam’s motion’—which is co-sponsored by Senator Birmingham. I am astounded that they say there are serious consequences but are not actually going to do anything about it. That is a matter of some regret, I must say, from the coalition’s perspective.

We are told in today’s Financial Review—and I assume this is correct—that Senator Ludlam and the Greens have been offered a secret briefing subject to signing a nondisclosure statement. I assume that the same has been offered to Senator Fielding. The same is being offered to Senator Xenophon. It is a pity, but I do not think any coalition senator has been offered a similar deal. But what is the benefit of a secret briefing if you cannot tell the Australian people what you are actually told in that briefing, let alone seek outside independent advice as to whether the material you are given in the briefing is true, correct, robust and reliable? With great respect to our crossbench senators, the government has thrown them a bone and, unfortunately, they accept it not realising that the bone does not have any genuine substance. I have got to give it to Senator Ludlam that he at least said in the media—as reported today—that it was a matter of concern. He said it was good for him to get a private briefing but what about everybody else? The coalition have not been offered that and I have not been offered that. Some others in my party may have been offered that. If the government are willing to brief one senator secretly, they should be prepared to advance that offer to every single senator in this place. But they have not. Of course, this is a government that likes to deal in secrecy. They had the secret deal with the miners, they have secrecy surrounding their climate change committee and now it is secret briefings on a $43,000 million infrastructure project for which we still do not have a business plan or a government response to the implementation plan.

My dear friend Senator Xenophon has said to the media:

Every day the Government held up releasing the plan was a day its case was diminished. The government can expect a much rockier ride with its legislation unless the business plan is released in the next couple of days.

Well, there is an opportunity for my dear friend Senator Xenophon to give the government a rockier ride by actually agreeing to put a rock on the road and force the government to account—but, once again, Senator Xenophon is the beneficiary of the offer of one of these secret briefings.

Senator Xenophon —Mr Acting Deputy President, on a point of order: I have had an offer of a briefing. Senator Abetz is making certain assertions—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Hutchins)—That is not a point of order. What is your point of order?

Senator Xenophon —My point of order is that I will not be signing any confidentiality agreement.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —You have made your point.

Senator ABETZ —That is a very, very useful contribution to the debate because methinks Senator Xenophon will now not be getting the briefing—or, if he does, we will have to ask: why is it that the Greens have to sign a nondisclosure document but Senator Xenophon does not? The government treats the crossbenchers with absolute contempt. Senators on the crossbench are being tied up in different ways. Senator Xenophon, I think you might be in a more privileged positioned than the Greens who have actually formed an alliance with this government. We do not know why you got that privileged position but it will be interesting to see whether or not you are provided with that detailed briefing.

Whilst I am talking about matters in the media, today the Prime Minister, Ms Gillard, promised to put a fine toothcomb through the business case for the broadband network before it is publicly released. So here we are, with the Prime Minister saying she still has not put the fine toothcomb through the business plan. But we are rolling out the National Broadband Network. We are committed to $43,000 million worth of expenditure; we have legislation before us that we should be voting on in the next few days—but neither she nor the cabinet have been through the business plan with a fine toothcomb. How on earth can any responsible government commit itself to legislation and to the rollout of a program without a business plan, let alone one that has had a fine toothcomb put through it? So it seems that we should be passing the legislation and going on with the rollout—and then, somewhere along the way, we might consider whether or not we should be putting a fine toothcomb through the business plan.

In a previous part of this debate, we were told that the opposition motion was too extreme. That was told to us by the Greens. I must say, I always find it interesting when the Greens assert that something is too extreme! All I would say is that I think that term ‘extreme’ was used as a fig leaf to try to cover up the transparency of their deal in the Labor-Green alliance. If it was too extreme then, given all the time that has passed, I would have thought that the Australian Greens could have said to us: ‘We don’t agree with this particular paragraph or that particular paragraph; delete those. Remove the extreme elements of the motion’—whatever they are—‘and we will support you.’ But no such offer was made; no such suggestion was made. That suggests to me that this was just a ruse to try to get them out of supporting this motion.

So what the Greens—and, with respect, the crossbenchers—have been saying to the government is: ‘We’re angry with you. And, to prove it, we’re going to say so publicly in a press release—so there! Take that, you fiends! But then, of course, we’ll vote for your legislation.’ I am sure Senator Conroy is in his office laughing at the crossbenchers and all their public protestations. Senator Conroy is interested in only one thing: the passing of the legislation—that is all he is interested in. We could require the government, if we had the will—and the coalition has the will; it is up to the crossbenchers to decide if they have the backbone and the will—to force the government to hand over this vital information before we pass the legislation and consider matters NBN any further. So, for all the sabre rattling by the crossbenchers as to how angry they are, they are not even willing to unsheathe the sabre and go in for the fight. So it has all been rattle, rattle, rattle in the sheath, but no unsheathing of the sabre and saying, ‘Government, this is a fundamental principle on which we will take you on.’ I really cannot imagine a more important matter than this—a $43,000 million taxpayer liability—to have examined, and for which to have a business plan, and to have that in the public domain so that we can actually discuss and consider the robustness of it all.

Senator Conroy’s contribution was highly irrelevant and somewhat bizarre. I think that it shows he still has not graduated from the high school debating team because, for all the hyperbole and insults, he did not actually deal with the issue at stake. I say to him—leaving aside the mere sloganeering and the mere repetition of the names of little towns all around Australia that might be getting broadband: if it is all that good, then just give us the business plan. In his 20-minute or so contribution, he did not outline to the Australian people why the business plan has not been released and why the government’s response to the implementation study has not been released. At one stage, he sort of suggested that it might be because cabinet might want to consider something. He did not say, ‘Cabinet still has to consider’; he just put it up there like flying a kite. We do not know if that is actually the reason or not. I simply say to the minister and, again, to the crossbenchers: if we are to believe, at face value, Senator Conroy’s assertion about cabinet possibly wanting to consider the documentation, don’t you, crossbenchers, think that that actually should have been considered prior to the drafting and submitting of this legislation to this parliament—that those matters should have been considered by cabinet before changing from a $4.7 billion National Broadband Network policy to one 10 times the size: $43 billion worth.

So we have had all the words from the crossbenchers, with Senator Xenophon telling us about his absolute disappointment, how infuriating it was, how the communications standards were Third World—you see, Senator Xenophon, I was taking notes. So we have had all that. But the acid question is: will you do something about it? We know that, on this motion, the answer is no. Hopefully, next week there may be some strength to your arm on this and you might give the legislation a genuinely rocky ride—not like today where you attacked the government with a limp lettuce leaf and said, ‘This is how angry we are—but, really, we’re not going to do anything about it.’ To sum up: if we do not pass this, it will show that our friends on the crossbenches are great in the media and get all the publicity but, when it comes to the crunch, they are all sizzle but no sausage. There is no substance there, and that, from our point of view, is disappointing.

This was a first, very real, opportunity for the Australian Greens, in particular, to make a stand and say that, whilst they are in an alliance with the Labor Party, they will not subject their so-called principles to the executive of Labor. Clearly, they have. They have, on this occasion at least, shown themselves willing to be a doormat for the Australian Labor Party. I hope they will not do so in the future.

Unfortunately, judging by the speeches—unless a rush of common sense has since overtaken those on the cross benches—this motion will not be carried and the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy will be chuckling in his office at the weakness of the crossbenchers on this important principle. He will be chuckling and treating the crossbenchers with contempt as he gives his ministerial statement this afternoon, and the Senate’s motion for production of documents—

Senator Xenophon —We’ll see who gets the last laugh!

Senator ABETZ —Senator Xenophon right: he who laughs last always laughs the longest. Senator Conroy, I predict, is chuckling and laughing in his office. I hope that he will not have the last laugh and, as a result, some other matters will arise next week in relation to the legislation before us. This is a fundamental principle for the opposition. The Australian people demand it. To not require it and to put up a barrier to the government to show that the Senate is saying, ‘Enough is enough,’ on this matter shows that our friends on the cross benches are great with the media and great with the spin but when it comes to the crunch—when it comes to the substance—they are found wanting.

Question put:

That the motion (Senator Abetz’s) be agreed to.