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Thursday, 18 November 2010
Page: 1633

Senator BIRMINGHAM (2:24 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Conroy. I refer the minister to the plan by BT to build a ₤2.5 billion optical fibre network to reach 17 million UK premises, which has prompted comments in the Financial Times that:

It is not yet clear how the economics will stack up … some worry the build will be more expensive than expected while others fret about demand. Investors should be in no doubt that this is a gamble.

If a ₤2.5 billion network in a densely populated country is ‘a gamble’, how is a $43 billion investment in Australia not an even bigger gamble?

Senator CONROY (Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Digital Productivity) —I am not sure what bows you can draw from an entirely different scheme based in the UK to the one here in Australia. I will reiterate that, notwithstanding that those opposite like to claim on the one hand that it is a dangerous, evil monopoly, on the other hand they keep claiming that we do not need it because wireless is taking over the world. The mutually inconsistent arguments being put by those opposite continue to be the basis of the question being put forward by the good senator.

What we are seeing here in Australia is an agreement that has been reached to close down the copper network and replace it and upgrade it with the technology that will allow us to move into the 21st century with confidence so that we are able to take advantage of all the new education applications, the new health applications, the new sustainability smart grid style applications, the new aged care applications and the new veterans care applications—all of those are the reason that the National Broadband Network needs to be built. While those opposite, particularly some down in the far corner, used to believe in equality of access, and they used to believe in uniform pricing for the city and the bush, this government is committed to delivering. It is committed to delivering to all Australians massively improved broadband performance. The wireless and satellite networks will be 20 times better than what most Australians use today. The fibre optic network component will be at least 100 times faster and, if someone wanted a whole gig, it will be a thousand times faster than what many Australians have today. (Time expired)

Senator BIRMINGHAM —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Given the OECD has recommended that ‘a prudent approach’ be taken to the NBN with ‘additional efforts for rigour and transparency’, why is the government intent on stopping all senators from being prudent in their jobs and from applying appropriate rigour by blocking us from considering the NBN business plan before having to vote on crucial NBN related legislation?

Senator CONROY (Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Digital Productivity) —I appreciate that Senator Birmingham there had to try to draw an even longer bow to connect the NBN related bills which are before the parliament. Let us be clear. The deal that is ratified is a deal between the companies. This is a bill that is about consumer protection. It is about the restructuring of the sector—something you apparently now support. This is a bill that is not about the National Broadband Network. It is a bill that includes a ratification of a deal struck between the NBN Co.—those 62 references are about a reference to the deal between Telstra and the NBN; they are not about the NBN—

Opposition senators interjecting—

The PRESIDENT —Senator Conroy, you should address your comments to the chair. Interjections on my left should cease.

Senator CONROY —Thank you, Mr President. This is a bill about consumer protection. (Time expired)

Senator BIRMINGHAM —Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. Can the minister explain how 62 references to the NBN in a piece of legislation are not about the NBN? With the risk level of international broadband projects being questioned and international experts questioning the risk of Labor’s NBN, why should Australian taxpayers trust this minister, who is so obviously out of his depth, with $43 billion?

Senator CONROY (Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Digital Productivity) —Mr President—

Senator Brandis interjecting—

Senator CONROY —You just keep smoking it, George. Notwithstanding those opposite and their catcalls, this is—

Senator Ian Macdonald —Mr President, you should not need me to alert you to the fact that Senator Conroy is being entirely—

The PRESIDENT —I presume this is a point of order; is it?

Senator Ian Macdonald —Yes, it is, but it should not need to be. You should instruct Senator Conroy, because this is the second time he has done this, not to cast those sorts of comments on other members of the Senate.

Senator Chris Evans —On the point of order, Mr President: it is obviously up to you to rule whether the minister said anything inappropriate, but I point out that the minister is being constantly heckled. Senator Macdonald is one of the worst offenders in that regard. I suspect that, if the Liberal senators were not so unruly, they and you may have been able to hear what the minister was saying.

The PRESIDENT —There is no point of order. Senator Conroy, continue. You have 46 seconds remaining.

Senator CONROY —This is again an argument about those on this side of the chamber, who seek to transform Australia’s economy, to lift our productivity and to ensure that Australians get access to a world-class—

Honourable senators interjecting—

The PRESIDENT —Senator Conroy, resume your seat. When there is silence on both sides, we will proceed. If people want to debate the issue, there will be plenty of time post question time. As I said, I understand general business this afternoon will be devoted to this issue as well.

Senator CONROY —I do accept Senator Carr’s argument that even the NBN would not help Senator Macdonald’s productivity. Even the NBN will not lift that. This is a debate about those who want to transform this economy and the Luddites on the other side, who simply want to block and demolish the National Broadband Network. They had 11½ years to modernise the Australian economy, and they had 19 failed plans. (Time expired)