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Environment and Communications Legislation Committee
Department of Communications and the Arts

Department of Communications and the Arts

CHAIR: I welcome Senator the Hon. Scott Ryan on behalf of the Hon. Mitch Fifield. Minister, would you like to make an opening statement?

Senator Ryan: No.

CHAIR: Dr Smith, welcome back to estimates so soon. Would you like to make an opening statement?

Dr Smith : I thought I might just update the committee on what we have done in process terms since the last time we met three weeks ago, following the concerns that were raised about the timeliness of the responses to the questions on notice. Since we last met, on 9 June I wrote to all of our portfolio agencies setting out the concerns of the committee but also reminding all the agencies of the timeliness of questions on notice. We also met with NBN at officials level and I have written to Bill Morrow reinforcing the importance again of providing responses to the committee by the due date. Both Bill Morrow and I are engaged on this issue and will work actively to improve the time lines, including through increased internal reporting being put in place within NBN Co itself. Both of our organisations will put in administrative arrangements and processes that will be, I think, very helpful in early tracking of how we are going, and we intend to provide early advice to the committee as we move through this process on whether we see any potential issues well before the due date of QONs. We have also been providing QONs to our agencies as they become available rather than in bulk packs, if you like.

CHAIR: On behalf of the committee, we thank you for those efforts and we look forward to working with you on that process. Thank you very much.

Senator URQUHART: Are you able to provide us with a copy of the letter you sent off to NBN and the portfolio agencies?

Dr Smith : I can certainly do that.

Senator URQUHART: Is Minister Fifield coming later or do we have you for the duration, Minister Ryan?

Senator Ryan: You do not have me for the duration because I have to leave at some point. Senator Fifield called my office not long ago. He is urgently detained and I agreed to fill in.

Senator URQUHART: But you do not know if he is coming; I have some specific questions for him.

CHAIR: I understand his duties as Leader of the Government in the Senate have temporarily delayed him, but it is his intention to be here as soon as he can.

Senator URQUHART: Thank you. I will kick off then. Dr Smith, in additional estimates question on notice No. 299 I asked for the date that the minister requested the NBN electorate and state and territory briefs in the period between 1 March 2016 and 2 July 2016. I have also requested the dates when the department subsequently provided these briefs. The response to question on notice No. 299 refers to the answer to questions on notice 300 and 316. Question on notice No. 300 proceeds to provide the dates for the period 2 July to 30 November 2016; however it does not provide any dates for the requested 1 March to 2 July 2016 period. And question on notice 316, in response to the question on what dates did the minister or his office request electorate and/or state and territory briefs between 1 March 2016 and 2 July 2016, was that 'The department does not retain copies of electorate and state and territory briefs provided prior to 2 July 2016 in the database. Collating information would involve an unreasonable diversion of departmental resources.' That is the answer. Can you tell me how this is relevant to this specific question about what dates the minister requested NBN electorate briefs between March and July 2016?

Dr Smith : I will ask Andrew Madsen to reply to that. I understand we will be getting into the electorate briefs. I just wonder whether it would be helpful if we gave you a broad overview of how we go about producing the briefs as a pretext to that.

Senator URQUHART: I would actually like to work through the questions initially. It is my intention to try and get through all my questions so that we do not have to come back. That is our endeavour tonight. So I would appreciate not having too much time consumed by you providing information that does not actually answer the questions, if you know what I meant. I am trying to do this in a timely manner.

Dr Smith : I understand.

Mr Madsen : The department only provides briefing in response to requests from the minister's office. So the dates we provided are the dates on which the minister's office has requested copies of those sets of electorate briefings.

Senator URQUHART: Is it correct to say that the minister's office did not request the electorate briefs that I requested between March and July 2016 and, therefore, you do not have them?

Mr Madsen : No, that is not correct.

Senator URQUHART: I do not want to put words in your mouth. I am trying to understand what you are saying.

Mr Madsen : We have not returned copies of any briefs that may have been provided during that period in our central database, but we have retained copies of briefs that were created from July onwards.

So we have been able to go back and identify the dates on which those sets of briefings were requested by the minister. That is the information we have provided in the response.

Senator URQUHART: If you did not keep them, how did you track them? How did you know what you had provided?

Mr Madsen : We know back to July of 2016 because we have retained the copies that were generated during that period, but we have not prior to that.

Senator URQUHART: Can you explain to me what you mean by not retaining copies of the briefs? Are they PDF files?

Mr Madsen : The briefs are generated as a report from a database that we maintain. The database is updated weekly with information from NBN on progress of the rollout. The briefs are effectively a print-out from that database at a point in time. They are generated when we are required to do so or requested to do so. We do not normally retain copies of individual briefs for the purpose of tracking the NBN rollout, because the database retains that information and updates that information on a regular basis. Once the briefs are generated and sent to wherever they are intended to go, they have served the purpose from our perspective.

Senator URQUHART: Did you provide any NBN electorate briefs prior to the 2016 election?

Mr Madsen : I am almost certain that we would have, but I do not have that specific information.

Senator URQUHART: Right. Are you saying that you create briefs with no electronic copy?

Mr Madsen : We do not retain a copy in a centralised database of the briefs that have been created. The briefs may be distributed through a number of different channels. When we created bulk lots of briefings—as I mentioned, back to July—we happened to have retained copies of those, but we might have generated individual briefs on a single electorate at various times for various purposes.

Senator URQUHART: So you have no way of tracking that?

Mr Madsen : Those briefs would end up in the normal advice that we would provide to the minister.

Senator URQUHART: But am I correct in understanding that you cannot tell me which electorate briefs you would have provided prior to the 2016 election?

Mr Madsen : I think what we would say is it would take a very exhaustive search across a number of different systems for us to identify a complete set of those briefs.

Senator URQUHART: But you could do it.

Mr Madsen : It would be possible. We would have to look at each of the systems to see what has been retained. We have indicated it would be a very significant commitment of resources to undertake that search, so we have provided the records that we can access that are readily available.

Senator URQUHART: Secretary, are you satisfied that your department is producing for the minister electorate briefs that you do not have any records for?

Dr Smith : That is why I wanted to move through how we think about them. I think of these in some ways as any other briefs, but sometimes there are requests for individual briefs and sometimes there are requests for a batch of briefs. Given it is an electronic database, that data is changing constantly. Given the requests that we get, I am satisfied that we do not retain those briefs. It is a constantly renewed database.

Senator URQUHART: Don't you have a record of any other brief?

Dr Smith : We do.

Senator URQUHART: But you do not have a record of these briefs?

Mr Madsen : We do. It is just that they are not centrally located. They are scattered across a range of different systems. We might produce a brief that is part of, say, the minister delivering a speech. We might produce a brief that relates to that speech and gives him information about the rollout at that point in time. That would be part of our ministerial briefing system.

Senator URQUHART: Isn't the department required to keep an electronic record of every brief that the department provides the minister?

Mr Madsen : We would have kept those copies of those briefs, but that is not the only system through which an electorate brief may be distributed. We may have produced it and provided it to another department for their information, and that would have just been distributed over our email system. It may have been used internally within the department for our own purposes. So there are a range of different channels through which those briefs would have been distributed. Some of them would have been captured as part of, say, our ministerial briefing process, but others would not. They just might be on our email system.

Senator URQUHART: Were the briefs that were provided to the minister's office by email or hard copy?

Mr Madsen : They would have been provided by email.

Senator URQUHART: So you would have an email record of those.

Mr Madsen : We may have.

Senator URQUHART: Sorry; what do you mean you 'may have'? I am sure you have a sophisticated system of emails and a database. You cannot just say to me that you 'may have'.

Mr Madsen : Perhaps what I should have said is that it would have been sent from an individual officer, so we may have to go back and look at email accounts for a range of different officers.

Senator URQUHART: Yes. If they were sent by email, you would surely have the record of it being sent and would then have a date.

Mr Madsen : I would have to check what email records have been retained back through that period.

Senator URQUHART: How long do you keep email records for?

Mr Madsen : I am not familiar with that aspect of the department's procedure.

Senator URQUHART: Are these not a public record covered by the Archives Act? Are they different?

Mr Madsen : We would see them as a print-out from the database at a point in time, and so they—

Senator URQUHART: But you are providing them to the minister's office.

Mr Madsen : Where we are providing them as part of a brief to the minister's office, that brief would be retained, but for other purposes they might not be.

Senator URQUHART: Right. So they are retained when you are providing them to the minister's office.

Mr Madsen : If they are going up as part of a briefing package.

Senator URQUHART: How else would they go if they were not part of a briefing package?

Mr Madsen : They may just be distributed by the email system.

Senator URQUHART: Explain that to me. What do you mean by that? You just send a copy of a brief or something to the minister's office but not necessarily as a briefing package?

Mr Madsen : That is correct. If the minister were being briefed to attend an event at a location, that event briefing may include the electorate brief to provide him with information about the NBN rollout at that location.

Senator URQUHART: All right. Has the department's procedure prior to 2 July 2016 changed, or has that always been the procedure?

Mr Madsen : It is just that we have happened to collect retained copies of the batch brief updates back to that date. Prior to that, we have not retained copies.

Senator URQUHART: So it has changed.

Mr Madsen : It has changed.

Senator URQUHART: What was the purpose of that change?

Mr Madsen : I am not aware of that. It is prior to my time working in this area.

Senator URQUHART: Is there any reason why dates where the minister's office has requested batch updates of NBN electorate briefs prior to the 2016 election cannot be provided? You have said to me you would send them in an email, so you would be able to track that back.

Mr Madsen : I think I have indicated that we would have to search across a number of different email accounts.

Senator URQUHART: And how many would that be?

Mr Madsen : I am not certain.

Senator URQUHART: Hundreds?

Mr Madsen : I would think there may be several dozen accounts that it could have been sent from.

Senator URQUHART: But would you not know who was sending briefs to the minister's office?

Mr Madsen : We would know the area in the department it was sent from, but that team will have changed over time. People will have moved in and out of that team.

Senator URQUHART: I have some real concerns, Secretary, that the evidence that has been provided here is entirely unsatisfactory. It does not seem to make any sense to me. From me sitting here it appears that some information is being withheld. I do not know whether that is right or not, but that is what it appears to me to be.

CHAIR: There are a number of ways one can interpret that comment, Senator Urquhart. Are you actually saying that they are deliberately misleading the committee?

Senator URQUHART: No, I am not saying that.

CHAIR: Would you clarify your intent?

Senator URQUHART: I am saying that we are hearing 'I don't know', 'I imagine'; we are getting a lot of evidence like that. To me it appears that they may not be telling me everything, and I just think it is entirely unsatisfactory.

CHAIR: I just want to clarify this intent further, because the official has answered that they do not know. Unless you are actually saying that they are lying—

Senator URQUHART: No, I am not saying that at all.

CHAIR: You might not like the answer, but if the official does not know then I do not think it is unreasonable that they advise you that they do not know.

Senator URQUHART: I am not saying they are lying; I am saying that the information that I am getting is unsatisfactory in that I am getting responses like 'I imagine', 'We may be able to find it', 'It's across a whole range of email addresses'. It just seems to me like you are not telling me the whole story to get the picture, to be able to explain to me why we cannot get the information about the electorate briefs prior to—

CHAIR: I understand the point you are making, and I might just ask the secretary and the officials: if you can use more precise language, I think that would help.

Senator URQUHART: I talked about the Archives. The Archives say:

Information created, sent and received as Australian government business is a record.

I am sure you are aware of this, Dr Smith and others at the table. It then says:

This information provides evidence of what your agency has done and why. Managing, protecting and storing information in the right place will keep it accessible and usable.

All government employees including contractors and consultants are responsible for managing information and records.

Yet you do not seem to be able to tell me where you are managing the records and the information you have on these electorate briefs.

Dr Smith : I will ask Mr Robinson to go into more detail. As I mentioned—and we are certainly not wanting to withhold information—we see this as a very normal briefing process, of which there is information contained on a database of which there are requests that come in different forms. We would expect, obviously, to retain those briefs that go up in a formal process. We would expect to retain the information on our email system. It is really in what form those requests come and the tracking of information ex post on that—information that has been put within those briefs. I will ask Mr Robinson to comment as well.

Mr Robinson : I think as Mr Madsen said, and he certainly should correct me if I get it wrong, we get these requests in various different forms. Sometimes it is just one electorate; sometimes it is for a group; sometimes it is for the purposes of briefing in speeches or visit briefs or the like. And so the range of areas where this information potentially is prior to July last year is just really wide. It is not that we have not retained it; it is just that it cannot easily be sourced and extracted. As I understand it, since then we have batched up those electorate requests. We have the information in a batched form on the dates that I think is in one of the questions on notice.

Senator URQUHART: Which is March to July.

Mr Robinson : Yes. Our method really did change at that point. Prior to that, it is really that we just cannot easily access the full range of areas where this information might have been put.

CHAIR: Can I clarify that? So what you are saying, Mr Robinson, is that the database that you extract this information from is not a static database, that it changes all the time? So when you do a report, it is at a particular point in time, and next time you generate a similar report you will have different information in it?

Mr Robinson : That is right, yes.

CHAIR: Thank you.

Senator URQUHART: I am talking about the period between March and July 2016, and then 2 July to 30 November. Can I again ask you: are you not able to provide that information?

Mr Robinson : We do not believe that we can easily provide that information.

Senator URQUHART: I did not ask if you could easily provide it, or do it with difficulty.

Mr Robinson : I would be willing to go back again, and perhaps provide you with an expanded answer as to the range of types of points where that information might be available, if it is that last July period. I certainly would be open to taking it on notice, essentially, and going back and trying to provide more information about what the issue is for that period, and whether we can provide more information.

Senator DUNIAM: Just on that: there was mention before of a number of different databases. How long would it take you to provide the information? Is it a significant task?

Mr Robinson : For that period, the information is potentially in normal ministerial briefs in separately provided information; it is potentially in meeting briefs and speeches et cetera. They may have been provided by email, often probably, and they are probably registered on various parts of our correspondence systems et cetera. But it is just such a wide range. We are happy with going back and trying to provide more information to explain what that range is.

Senator DUNIAM: I am just interested in whether this is a laborious task, as in it will take up a significant amount of resources to track down all of this information across all of these systems and different formats et cetera.

Mr Robinson : Yes, it will take some time.

Senator DUNIAM: As long as we understand that when we are asking these things.

Senator URQUHART: Mr Robinson, I am happy for you to do that, but I just think it is unsatisfactory. What I would like to do is to seek a private briefing later to get my head around the process and to try to work out why you cannot provide this information to us.

I will move on to the response to question 314, where I asked what information contained in the electorate briefs was considered sensitive or commercial and why it was considered sensitive or commercial. You will recall that this followed from a previous response I received on a freedom of information request. The department's response to question on notice 314 says:

The Senator’s initial request captured a more detailed version of the electorate brief which contains more detailed data. As advised in the hearing on 24 March 2017, some of those briefings include very granular detail on matters commercially sensitive to nbn relating to take-up rates in particular.

The response goes on to say:

The documents released under A106-2017 are a summary version of briefing material prepared by the Department.

Do you have those briefs containing the granular detail, the non-summary version here with you today?

Mr Madsen : No, we do not.

Senator URQUHART: Right, but you can get them?

Mr Madsen : Yes, they are available.

Senator URQUHART: Why don't you have them given that you knew that we were coming back to deal with the questions on notice?

Mr Madsen : We understood that, through that FOI process, our FOI officer had engaged with your office to refine the nature of that search. As a result of that discussion, the more summary version of the briefs was provided.

Senator URQUHART: Okay, so you have not got them here, but you can provide them?

Mr Madsen : As was identified in the FOI process, the larger version of the briefs is likely to include commercial-in-confidence information. It was that process of having to go back through several thousand pages of documents to identify and potentially extract that commercial-in-confidence information that led us to identify that that would have been an extensive process to undertake.

Senator URQUHART: I know that you said that you have not got them here today, but can you tell me what date it was created—the nonsummary version—does it cover all electorates and what the title of the brief was?

Mr Madsen : I will have to take that on notice.

Senator URQUHART: So you do not know what date it was created?

Mr Madsen : No, I do not have that information.

Senator URQUHART: What is the granular detail referred to in that response that you talked about?

Mr Madsen : It is information that relates to that level of take-up in different service area modules as part of the NBN, which can include information down to individual buildings and the level of take-up in those buildings.

Senator URQUHART: What information does the summary version not include?

Mr Madsen : Particularly it would not go down to that level of detail of the in-building information.

Senator URQUHART: Is that the only difference?

Mr Madsen : No, there could be other differences as well.

Senator URQUHART: What would they be?

Mr Madsen : They could relate do a more detailed breakdown across different technologies. If you are a looking for an extensive list, I would need to take that on notice.

Senator URQUHART: If you could, that would be good. Can you also provide a more elaborate explanation about what types of take-up rates were included in those briefs?

Mr Madsen : Yes.

Senator URQUHART: You are not able to do that now?

Mr Madsen : I think the take-up rate just reflects the number of premises that had connected to the NBN at that point of time.

Senator URQUHART: I understand that you are saying the information that you are referring to as commercially sensitive has been incorporated into some of those NBN briefs. Is that correct?

Mr Madsen : That is correct.

Senator URQUHART: In question-on-notice No. 316 I asked:

For what purpose are NBN electorate briefs created?

The response was:

Electorate … briefs are created to provide general briefing about the rollout of the National Broadband Network.

If the purpose of an NBN electorate brief is to provide general briefing about the rollout, why create batch electorate briefs which contain very granular detail and commercially sensitive information? I can understand why some briefs might be developed for policy or analysis purposes, but why would that information need to be organised and produced on an electorate-by-electorate basis?

Mr Madsen : They are all used for briefing within government. The potential for them to include commercially sensitive information is managed by the more limited distribution of that material. The extent of the material does vary, as we have mentioned. There is typically a larger version of the brief and a more condensed version of the brief. Which one is used at a particular point in time might depend upon how much of that information is needed. If a more thorough analysis is being undertaken then the more extensive information is provided. For information where, say, the minister is attending an event, it might be the more summary version.

Senator URQUHART: So it depends on what they are to be used for.

Mr Madsen : Yes.

Senator URQUHART: Those briefs are then provided to the minister's office?

Mr Madsen : Some of them are, yes. As we have mentioned before, they can be used for a number of different purposes.

Senator URQUHART: What are the other purposes?

Mr Madsen : As I think we have mentioned, they might be used within the department; they might be shared with other government departments.

Senator URQUHART: Have the briefs containing very granular detail been provided to backbench members of parliament?

Senator Fifield: I do not know. I would have to take that on notice.

Senator URQUHART: They would go to your office, would they not?

Senator Fifield: As I think we have canvassed before, many thousands of briefs come to my office. Not all of them come to me. Numbers of them go to my staff. I could not tell you if those particular briefs that you have been referring to have gone to colleagues.

Senator URQUHART: But you will take on notice whether they have?

Senator Fifield: Yes.

Senator URQUHART: The response to question-on-notice No. 318 contains postelection dates for the creation of batch NBN electorate brief updates. I am sure you are aware of all the dates in question No. 318. Are these all the summary versions of the NBN electorate briefs, or do they contain a mix of the versions containing granular data and the summarised versions?

Mr Madsen : I would have to take that on notice. I have the dates on which the briefs were provided; I do not have copies of the briefs themselves.

Senator URQUHART: The dates on which they were provided were:

- 20 July 2016

- 4 August 2016

- 22 August 2016

But you do not know what was in them, what the mix was?

Mr Madsen : That is correct.

Senator URQUHART: But you will come back to me.

Mr Madsen : We can respond on notice, yes.

Senator URQUHART: Do the more recent batch updates contain information about the deployment of fibre to the kerb?

Mr Madsen : It is not available as a technology yet, so I do not think they do.

Senator URQUHART: So they do not.

Mr Madsen : No.

Senator URQUHART: Why not? Haven't NBN Co announced most of the locations for this? Why would they not be in there?

Mr Madsen : Some of the more recent briefs would include information on fibre to the kerb.

Senator URQUHART: So some of the more recent ones do.

Mr Madsen : Yes.

Senator URQUHART: From when? Do you know how recent?

Mr Madsen : No, I do not know when. We would have to take that on notice.

Senator O'NEILL: You would recall that there has been a line of questioning about medical alarms over a number of estimates, and certainly some quite extensive conversation in the last estimates period. On 25 May the minister was asked to explain why the government and NBN Co have excluded users of non-monitored medical alarms from the scope of the $100 million alarm subsidy scheme. Why did the minister make this request of the department?

Senator Fifield: I made the request of the department to look at the issue of non-monitored medical alarms.

Senator O'NEILL: The department was not always involved, was it?

Senator Fifield: The request was for the department and NBN Co to work together on the issue. I asked because of an issue that I think everyone around the table is aware of. The Medical Alarm Register, as you know, forms the basis of the information for NBN Co to be aware of both people who have monitored alarms and those who have non-monitored alarms, so that NBN Co can provide advice to them. The medical alarm subsidy scheme, as designed by NBN Co, applies to monitored medical alarms. The basis for NBN Co's decision is that there was an Australian standard that relates to that, but as I have indicated here before, I have asked for work to be done to look at the issue of the non-monitored alarms.

Senator O'NEILL: So there is an indication of a change from previously. When did you make this request of the department? As I recall from evidence previously it was exclusively in the domain of NBN Co for a period of time.

Senator Fifield: I will check, but typically with issues of this nature the department has a skill set, NBN Co has a skill set and they work cooperatively together. We can take on notice when the formal request, if you like, went forward.

Senator O'NEILL: Dr Smith, you cannot advise me of that this evening?

Dr Smith : Not of the exact date. I can check with my colleagues as to whether we would have that information on hand and get back to you.

Senator O'NEILL: That would be great if we could get to it this evening. As Senator Urquhart indicated, we are trying to get through this quickly. What scoping work is being done with regard to this issue?

Mr Robinson : As you know and have referred to, there is a scheme in place for monitored medical alarms. NBN Co has operated a register for a couple of years, which includes registration of monitored and unmonitored alarms. As the minister has indicated, he has asked the department and NBN Co to work on the issue. Fundamentally I would say we are trying to see what options there are for unmonitored alarms, and the challenge is defining good unmonitored alarms that should be able to be facilitated and work well on the network. The challenge for us when looking at these options is that currently there is an Australian standard for what the monitored alarm arrangements should be.

Senator O'NEILL: But for non-monitored?

Mr Robinson : For non-monitored there is no Australian standard. That is the challenge of looking at options, but the minister has asked us to, so we are working with NBN Co on options to help the people who rely on those devices.

Senator O'NEILL: For roughly how long have you been working on this project with NBN Co?

Mr Robinson : I would have to check the exact date.

Senator O'NEILL: Is it a couple of weeks, or months?

Senator Fifield: It is a number of months.

Mr Robinson : I think the minister has made public comments that this is happening.

Senator O'NEILL: What is the role of NBN Co in this process that you are undertaking, and what is the role of the department? How are those delineated?

Mr Robinson : We are working together. NBN Co are strong on providing advice about the operational and technology issues. They also have the capacity, scale and contacts in the industry to help us look at the options. That is what they bring to the discussion. The department works on the possible regulatory and policy issues associated with that, and the provision of advice to the government. That is pretty normal. We do that on a whole range of issues that arise in relation to the project.

Senator O'NEILL: Does one option include expanding the scope of the subsidy scheme to include users of non-monitored alarms?

Mr Robinson : It is a bit early for me to comment. It is still being looked at and considered.

Senator O'NEILL: If NBN Co's role is to look at non-monitored alarms and find a standard that makes them work with the system, surely there must be some way to redress the inequality of access that currently exists.

Senator Fifield: That proposition has been put to government, but Mr Robinson and I would hesitate to be any more specific on where our consideration is at, because there are potentially commercial or market implications if we outline it in any greater detail at this point.

Senator O'NEILL: When did you receive that proposition as you described it?

Senator Fifield: It has been a proposition that a number of providers of non-monitored alarms have raised since they first started talking about the issue.

Senator O'NEILL: Have you had formal advice to that end from the department?

Senator Fifield: The department and NBN Co are looking at the range of propositions that have been put forward to them.

Senator O'NEILL: Are you talking about the proposition as a piece of technology, or the proposition as a policy response to inequitable access to monitoring?

Senator Fifield: There are monitored alarms and non-monitored alarms, and once a non-monitored alarm becomes a monitored alarm, obviously it ceases to be a non-monitored alarm, so I am not speaking about that; I am speaking about the issue, which I think was your starting point, of the medical alarm assistance scheme and access to that, and also the issue of technology and standards. They are amongst the range of issues that have been put to government and are being looked at.

Senator O'NEILL: Put to government by whom? Has the department put to you a proposal?

Senator Fifield: I am talking about the range of issues that have been put to government by the community, or which the producers and suppliers of services have said they think government should look at.

Senator O'NEILL: When you talk about propositions, are you talking about the market coming to you and saying, 'This is what we think you should do'?

Senator Fifield: That is right.

Senator O'NEILL: My question to the department is: have you provided advice to government about the scope of the subsidy scheme and a plan to include the users of non-monitored alarms in accessing that scheme?

Senator Fifield: As I said, they are amongst the range of issues that are being examined.

Senator O'NEILL: So it is under consideration at this time?

Senator Fifield: I cannot tell you what a landing point will be because there could be market implications in doing that. That is as far as we can go at this stage.

Senator O'NEILL: So no announcement tonight, Minister?

Senator Fifield: Not tonight.

Senator O'NEILL: Maybe tomorrow! Who is the decision-maker on the next steps: the government or NBN Co?

Senator Fifield: We work on these things together. We shape these things together. We do not necessarily get caught up on who signs the particular bit of paper on a particular day. The government, the department and NBN Co will come to a common landing.

Senator O'NEILL: But, to be fair, Minister, it was not a department and NBN Co joint project for a long period of time; it was NBN Co's. The social policy was just hived off out there, with NBN Co deciding who could get it and who could not. You made a change at some point in time a few months ago, and now it is a joint project. So who is going to make the next bit?

Senator Fifield: I am the minister. I have asked for it to be looked at, advice will come to me, and we will come to a common landing.

Senator O'NEILL: So you will make the decision about whether people get access to the subsidy or not? You will not leave that with NBN Co? It is going to be your decision?

Senator Fifield: It is something that I will have a very close interest and involvement in.

Senator O'NEILL: But Mr Morrow will not be making that announcement? It will be from you, if it comes at all?

Senator Fifield: Wherever we land, we will come to a joint position together.

Senator O'NEILL: But who is making the social policy decision here: a tech company or you as minister?

Senator Fifield: I have asked for advice. I will receive advice, and then we will take it from there.

Senator O'NEILL: Who is we? You and Mr Morrow, or you or Mr Morrow?

Senator Fifield: I am not sure that anything terribly much turns on this. I have asked for advice, advice will come to me, and there will be an announcement. There will be a decision after we have received advice. I am not being difficult; I just cannot take it any further than that at this point.

Senator O'NEILL: Is it a policy decision that is now in your remit in a way that it was not previously, because it was seconded out to NBN Co.

Senator Fifield: It was not seconded out; it was an operational NBN Co decision. As portfolio minister and shareholder minister I have taken a close interest in this, and I have asked for some scenarios to be looked at, options examined and advice provided.

Senator O'NEILL: So were you responsible for it when NBN Co made the decisions, or was it responsible for it?

Senator Fifield: I would have to check, but I think those decisions might have predated me being in the portfolio. But to my understanding NBN Co, as part of its job of assisting people to migrate, established this arrangement to facilitate migration, which is part of its responsibility.

Senator O'NEILL: So NBN Co is responsible for picking the winners and leaving out the non-monitored alarms. You are not taking responsibility for that? Did it do it or did you do it?

Senator Fifield: NBN Co was looking at the issue of where there was an Australian standard as one of the things that guided it in the development of the medical alarm assistance scheme.

Senator O'NEILL: So you let technology make the decision without considering equity of access for all people who were using monitored and non-monitored alarms?

Senator Fifield: I will check the dates as to when NBN Co took those decisions.

Senator O'NEILL: And it did take those decisions, not you as the minister?

Senator Fifield: It was something that fell within the remit of NBN Co's responsibilities.

Senator O'NEILL: I might have a couple more questions on notice, I think.

Senator Fifield: Sure.

Senator URQUHART: I have some questions on mobile black spots. At the last estimates you told us that round 3 would be made up of locations identified by the government during the last federal election—effectively chosen to win votes.

Senator Fifield: Sorry—just say that again.

Senator URQUHART: I said effectively to win votes—chosen to win votes.

Senator Fifield: The government during the election campaign made, to my understanding, its announcements in relation to mobile black spot locations on the same basis that the opposition did in relation to its—

Senator URQUHART: That is what you said.

Senator Fifield: Yes.

Senator URQUHART: Yes—and that is what I have just said.

Senator Fifield: That both the coalition and the Labor Party—

Senator URQUHART: What I said was: they were chosen during the last federal election to win votes. You indicated that at that time, and you have just repeated then what you said at that time, so there is no disagreement.

Senator Fifield: The point I am making is that the approach of the coalition—

Senator URQUHART: Which is what you said last time.

Senator Fifield: was the same as the approach of the Labor Party, in that they were election commitments. They were commitments made in the course of the campaign, as parties who seek to form a government do—

Senator URQUHART: That is exactly what you said; yes.

Senator Fifield: and then those commitments, once made—

Senator URQUHART: I am not arguing about that.

Senator Fifield: If you form government then you give effect to them.

Senator URQUHART: I am not arguing with you. That is what you said.

Senator Fifield: If you would have formed government, you would have done the same. It is just the implication is that the coalition's approach was in some way different to the opposition's approach.

Senator URQUHART: You reminded me last time exactly what you have just said now.

Senator Fifield: I just wanted to check we are on the same page.

Senator URQUHART: Mr Paterson at the time described this approach as a 'fundamental change to the program', that there were 'coverage issues' and that some of the locations might have 'a congestion issue'. What is the difference between a location where there is a congestion issue and one with no coverage at all? Can you explain that to me. Is Mr Drew going to do that?

Mr Drew : Each of the priority locations has been identified based on feedback from the public where they have identified an issue in that spot. The coverage issue will depend on the location and the geography. In some cases it will be that there is entirely no coverage. In other cases it may be that there is insufficient capacity on the tower for the region that may cause issues, and there can be other very specific geographic issues that affect the coverage in that area.

Senator URQUHART: So are all of the round 3 locations on the department's mobile black spot database?

Mr Drew : The majority of the locations are on the mobile black spot database. I do not have the specific number, but the vast majority are. There are a small number that are not but are very, very close to other black spots.

Senator URQUHART: But not all of them are on the database?

Mr Drew : A very small number are not.

Senator URQUHART: Have you checked that the majority of them are on the database?

Mr Drew : Yes. I am sorry; I do not actually have the specific number, but I believe it would be in the order of five or 10—

Senator URQUHART: Are you able to provide that to us on notice?

Mr Drew : Yes. Absolutely, on notice.

Senator URQUHART: We have asked about the co-location outcomes of the Mobile Black Spot Program a number of times. To us it seems to be one of the ways that you can encourage competition in regional Australia by having more than one provider. At last estimates you told us that for round 1 out of Telstra's 429 base stations and a total of 499 base stations there were 74 co-locations. But there is a big difference in co-location outcomes for Telstra and Vodafone. Your figures show that Telstra has agreed to co-location on one base station, with 18 still being negotiated. So that is 19 out of the Telstra's 429 base stations, or around 4.5 per cent. Vodafone was awarded funding for 70 base stations in round 1, and there is going to be more than one provider on 55 towers. So that is nearly 80 per cent compared to Telstra's 4.5. Why is there such a discrepancy?

Mr Drew : Co-location is a commercial decision by the individual carriers, and it will be subject to their intentions with regard to providing coverage in the area and also where the towers are. In some cases the towers are in locations that are not very viable for more than one provider. In other cases the carrier may have a tower or other plans for a tower close by. It is very hard for us to tell, because it is a commercial decision, and the number of collocations may change. The numbers you are quoting are based on the initial interest that has been expressed. Later on, as the program proceeds, carriers may choose to co-locate. That is really a commercial matter for the carriers.

Senator URQUHART: But doesn't the department want to encourage competition by having more than one provider on a tower?

Mr Drew : Certainly that is the concept behind that. We try to encourage them. We have a number of aspects to the way the program works that do provide incentives for carriers to co-locate. But ultimately it really comes down to a commercial decision by the individual carrier, whether they are interested in that location—

Senator URQUHART: So all the department can do is encourage?

Mr Drew : That's right. And in some cases it is not necessarily possible. It could be a brownfield that the carrier is actually putting a tower on. It could be a tower that they do not own, for instance, or a Broadcast Australia tower, so there is no capacity for them to offer co-location.

Senator URQUHART: There is a government subsidy for co-location?

Mr Drew : The government provides a co-contribution to the tower, the carrier provides a co-contribution and, in some cases, the states and local councils will provide a co-contribution.

Senator URQUHART: So why doesn't government have a say in the co-location? Why is it left purely up to the commercial discussions with Telstra, Vodafone or whatever?

Mr Drew : All carriers had an opportunity to nominate to co-locate on the towers. There was a nomination period. It was up to the carriers whether they were interested in co-locating. I cannot comment on why the carriers have chosen to co-locate or not co-locate on different towers. We have strong encouragements and there is an opportunity for carriers to co-locate. But really it comes down to a commercial decision. As I indicated, in some cases it is not feasible because the carrier may not be co-locating on their own infrastructure, for instance; they could be locating onto an NBN tower, or it could be a Broadcast Australia tower or some other facility, and there may not be capacity there for an additional carrier.

Senator URQUHART: How were the technical specifications for the base stations in round 1 established?

Mr Drew : This is for co-location?

Senator URQUHART: Yes.

Mr Drew : I do not believe there were technical specifications for round 1. There were technical specifications for round 2 with regard to co-location but not for round 1. I think that is correct, but I would have to check.

Senator URQUHART: Who did the government consult with in terms of round 1?

Mr Drew : As far as the development of the guidelines is concerned, for both rounds 1 and 2, there was a public discussion paper for round 1 and we also went out to the carriers for both rounds 1 and 2 with regard to the design of the program.

Senator URQUHART: Which carriers?

Mr Drew : All three mobile carriers at the time—Telstra, Optus and VHA. We sought comment on the design of the program, including aspects such as co-location.

Senator URQUHART: That was for round 1 as well as round 2?

Mr Drew : Yes.

Senator URQUHART: So Telstra, Optus and Vodafone?

Mr Drew : Yes.

Senator URQUHART: So weren't there any technical specifications in the funding deed?

Mr Drew : For round 2, yes, there are.

Senator URQUHART: And who was consulted before they were finalised?

Mr Drew : They were developed in consultation, through the negotiations on the funding agreement, with the carriers.

Senator URQUHART: With all carriers?

Mr Drew : Yes.

Senator URQUHART: So Telstra, Optus and Vodafone?

Mr Drew : Yes. But I do not know the specific details of those negotiations; I was not involved.

Senator URQUHART: I am not asking you about the specific details. So all three carriers were consulted about the technical specifications for round 1?

Mr Drew : No, for round 2.

Senator URQUHART: And what about for round 1?

Mr Drew : I do not believe there were technical specifications for round 1.

Senator URQUHART: So there are no technical specifications—are you sure?

Mr Drew : I would have to take that on notice.

Senator URQUHART: So you are not sure?

Mr Drew : I would have to confirm that, but I do not believe there are.

Senator URQUHART: Were all mobile network operators happy with the minimum technical specifications for round 1?

Mr Drew : I cannot comment on behalf of the carriers. Obviously we came to an agreement with each of the carriers with regard to their funding agreements. I do note that Andrew Sheridan, several weeks ago, commented that co-location is something the industry does and the program has made it easier for Optus to co-locate.

Senator URQUHART: At last estimates you told the committee that, for round 2, there would be three types of minimum technical specifications in the funding deeds. Do these minimum specifications allow for antennas of all three mobile network providers? That is the ideal situation for infrastructure sharing.

Mr Drew : It is a bit more complicated than that. There are obviously different configurations depending on what the carrier wants to do and how the carrier wants to target. For instance, an antenna configuration to target down a road is very different from another type of antenna that is covering a broader range. I understand that each of the three agreements define the different types of arrangements that can be done on the tower. Obviously there is capacity for the carriers to negotiate other antenna—

Senator URQUHART: But they do allow for a minimum of three?

Mr Drew : I believe there are three different configurations. They represent what can be installed on a particular carrier's towers with the available space and capacity of the towers. Obviously each carrier builds different towers. They also build them to different standards and deploy their antennas differently. So the technical specifications reflect several different types of arrangements that could be accommodated as a standard co-location. Obviously if they want to negotiate further there is capacity to do that through commercial arrangements.

Senator URQUHART: Are the three types of minimum specifications consistent for all three carriers?

Mr Drew : I would have to take that on notice. I do not think so; I think they are slightly different. As I said, each carrier builds a different style of tower.

Senator URQUHART: Could you take that on notice and maybe give us a little more detail around the differential, if there is any.

Mr Drew : Sure.

Senator URQUHART: With regard to the backhaul arrangements for round 1 base stations, what specifications did the department put in place?

Mr Drew : There is a standard backhaul product that is available to industry and it is based on that product.

Senator URQUHART: Did those backhaul arrangements facilitate all mobile network operators' requirements?

Mr Drew : I assume they do. I cannot really comment on that because it really depends on the specific requirements of the operator at the particular site, and they may have other requirements above and beyond the standard industry requirements for a particular site.

Senator URQUHART: You do not know whether they facilitated all the arrangements?

Mr Drew : I do not know.

Senator URQUHART: How long have you been in the position?

Mr Drew : A little while.

Senator URQUHART: I am asking a lot of questions and you do not know a lot. I am not trying to be difficult; I am just trying to get to the—

Mr Robinson : Senator, Mr Paterson, who is our assistant director, could not be here this evening. Mr Drew runs part of the program and has only been doing that for a short period.

Senator URQUHART: I thought Mr Paterson would be here. I am not trying to be difficult, Mr Drew; I am just trying to get the answers.

Mr Drew : I do apologise. It is possible that it was not in all cases. There were mediation arrangements in place; if the carriers were unhappy with what was being offered in co-location, they could go to mediation. It does depend on each site as to what the carrier would want. In some cases, the carriers may be happy with the arrangement; in other cases, they may be seeking something that is different. It would be very much on a specific case-by-case basis. In each case, they would have looked at it and made a decision. So, possibly, in some cases, no, it did not suit and they may have been seeking a different product.

Senator URQUHART: Have the backhaul arrangements changed for rounds 2 and 3.

Mr Drew : Under round 2, we have changed some aspects of the backhaul arrangement. We are still developing the priority locations round, so I cannot comment on what backhaul arrangements may be in place for that. It is too early to comment on that. With regard to the backhaul arrangements for round 2, we made some amendments. We did change the backhaul product in consultation with the carriers. We also changed some of the discount arrangements; we brought forward some of the discounts they get; it kicks in at an earlier period of time for the lease arrangement or commitment.

Senator URQUHART: That is all I have for the department. I have a couple of other questions but I will put them on notice. I am sure Mr Paterson can add something, so I am happy to put a couple more questions on notice.

Dr Smith : I would just like to table that letter to Mr Morrow on the questions on notice.

Senator URQUHART: Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for that speedy response.