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Tuesday, 11 February 2014
Page: 18

Mr TURNBULL (WentworthMinister for Communications) (13:20): I wish to thank the members who have contributed to this debate on the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Consumer Protection) Bill 2013. An efficient and responsive consumer protection regime is a vital element of our telecommunications landscape, particularly—as many honourable members, including the speaker preceding me, have observed—as Australians increasingly rely on telecommunications technology to support all of their work and everyday activities. There used to be a time when we spoke—and we still do, in fact—of the digital economy. The reality is that the economy is a digital economy. That is the economy. All of our transactions and all of our commerce are being conducted, in one way or another, in the digital sphere.

The various measures outlined in the bill, which I gather has the support of the House, seek to improve consumer safeguards while reducing the regulatory burden imposed on the telecommunications industry when developing or altering its governing codes. The self- and co-regulatory frameworks which form the foundation of the Telecommunications Act 1997 have served consumers and the industry well. But as new devices and technologies enter this dynamic market and consumer preferences change, traditional regulatory frameworks are at increasing risk of being left behind by technology. So, importantly, amendments in this bill will give the companies and organisations that develop these industry codes additional flexibility to respond more quickly and efficiently to the evolving telecommunications sector.

As honourable members have discussed in this debate, the particular amendments to the Telecommunications Act in this bill will permit industry codes to be varied or revised without the rest of the code becoming obsolete. The telecommunications industry is a fast-changing and exponentially growing sector. Its co-regulatory framework in which industry, government and consumer groups work in partnership has to be equally dynamic. It cannot be always playing catch-up; it has to be able to move with the times. The bill improves the transparency and accountability of the industry code development process by requiring code developers to publish their draft codes and variations on the web as well as submissions received from industry and the public. In addition, the bill incorporates changes to the code developers' reimbursement scheme allowing them to be reimbursed for those costs associated with varying consumer related industry codes.

A core element of the telecommunications industry self-governance regime is the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman scheme. The TIO provides an independent alternative dispute resolution service for residential and small business consumers of fixed line, mobile and internet services in Australia. This bill will implement a number of measures to improve the TIO scheme's effectiveness and efficiency. In particular, the bill establishes a performance framework that will ensure that the TIO scheme complies with fundamental standards of fairness, equity and efficiency. Importantly, the proposed amendments will also enable these standards and the entire TIO scheme to be periodically reviewed and adjusted as community expectations evolve. Finally, the bill makes amendments to the Do Not Call Register Act 2006. The proposed amendment will empower the Australian Communications and Media Authority, ACMA, to pursue more effectively those telemarketers and fax marketers which may be using third parties overseas and other intermediaries to reach local consumers, in breach of the Do Not Call Register provisions.

Sixteen years ago the Howard government introduced the Telecommunications Act 1997, as the honourable member for Bradfield and my parliamentary secretary reminded the House just a few moments ago. This enabled a new era of competition in Australia's telecommunications sector while establishing a comprehensive co-regulatory framework to protect the interests of consumers. The guiding principle was progressively to remove regulatory barriers and constraints on genuinely competitive conduct and actively engage with the telecommunications sector to transfer much of the responsibility for regulation to the industry itself. The coalition government, the Abbott government, has vowed to continue this work of removing red tape and by so doing to continue to lift Australia's productivity. So this bill is part of a broader package of reforms of the telecommunications industry.

At the heart of those reforms is the consumer. Everyone in this chamber recognises that Australia needs a world-class telecommunications network. We may disagree about some engineering issues about the design and construction of such a network but a critical issue is to make an honest and adequate appraisal of what consumers face in the network today. A number of honourable members have spoken about the NBN project. I want to remind the House of the way in which the government have approached the NBN since the election. We undertook that we would tell the Australian people the truth about the state of the project and what the options were for completing it, and to do so independently.

Ms MacTiernan interjecting

Mr TURNBULL: The NBN Co itself conducted a strategic review with the assistance of some external experts, including KordaMentha and the Boston Consulting Group. It was published just before Christmas. What that showed is that, under Labor's plan for the NBN, consumers would have faced internet price rises of up to 80 per cent and a total funding cost of $73 billion.

Ms MacTiernan interjecting

Mr TURNBULL: It also showed that the project would take an extra four years to complete and demonstrated that there were alternative approaches using a range of technologies which would enable the project to be completed for $31 billion less in terms of total funding, and years earlier. That is a great outcome for the consumer because it means they will get better broadband sooner and it will be more affordable. The honourable member for Perth in her speech, and she has been interjecting while I have been speaking, asked about technologies for better, more efficient trenching of cables, fibre-optic cables or any cables, that are available. I imagine she was talking about micro trenching technologies. I can assure the honourable member that both I as the minister and the NBN Co even more so are very aware of that. But one of the things that the honourable member should bear in mind is that her colleague Senator Conroy, while the minister, arranged for the NBN Co to enter into a comprehensive agreement with Telstra of a take or pay kind whereby the NBN Co is obliged to use Telstra's ducts and pits and, if it does not use the nominated vast quantity of them, to pay them for it nonetheless. So yes, there are in some areas more cost-effective ways of putting fibre underground than horizontal drilling and installing new ducts and they can be taken into account. But the honourable members opposite have to remember that the government is not dealing with a blank sheet of paper here. We can only play the hand of cards that we have been dealt and what we have been left with by the previous government, and that has been a shocking mess.

Let me go on in the time available to me to continue as to what we have done. Among the things we have done, we have ensured that the board now has members who have spent lifetimes in the telecommunications sector, including Ziggy Switkowski, chairman and former CEO of Telstra, and in the case of Patrick Flannigan in the business of constructing distributed linear infrastructure. We now have a very qualified board. We have identified and engaged a new chief executive, Mr Bill Morrow, who is a very distinguished international telecom executive, highly regarded around the world as a turnaround specialist in the telecom sector. So now we have a highly qualified board and, joining us very shortly, a highly qualified CEO.

There is another review going on at the moment, which will be completed in March, of the satellite and fixed wireless part of the project, which faces, as many honourable members know, very, very serious problems—a mixture of misleading information being provided by the previous government coupled with what can only be described as bungling or incompetence in terms of the management of it. That report will be completed in March. This is a very considerable and expensive mess and, as I have said many times to honourable members, there are tens of billions of dollars that at the end of the day will have been wasted because of commitments made and decisions taken by the Labor government without proper homework.

One of the other things we are doing is conducting a thoroughgoing cost-benefit analysis. Of course, that should have been done by the previous government before they embarked on this in the first place, but it is better late than never. But it would have been better if it had been done at the outset.

The bottom line is that as far as the NBN project is concerned, the government's commitment is to be completely transparent and treat the people of Australia as you would treat the shareholders in a public listed company, to provide them with timely information about the state of the project and in effect to open the books of the NBN Co, and we are doing that. Instead of having to have rollout figures dragged out of the minister with great difficulty and pain, every week the NBN Co now publishes its latest rollout figures on its website. Every week they are published there. There will be a quarterly report done by the NBN Co management on the financial performance and of course the construction performance of the project. That will be done by the NBN Co management in exactly the same way as if it were a public listed company. Maximum transparency is going to be given to this project.

Honourable members should recognise that the failure of the NBN project under Labor has resulted in so many Australians who had no broadband in 2007 still not having it today. The truth is that some Australians have very good broadband—excellent broadband, world-class broadband. Many Australians have little or no broadband. You would think that, if the government were going to spend money on a broadband project, it would prioritise those who were in greatest need. But not only did the Labor government not do that, it did not even ask the question of where those underserved areas were. So shortly, we will be releasing a set of maps which show those parts of Australia—those districts, those neighbourhoods, if you like—where broadband services are good, okay, average and very, very poor. That information will inform the construction of the NBN so that, as far as practicable, the worst served areas are prioritised. Our commitment is to prioritise the worst served areas.

Ziggy Switkowski and I went out to Blacktown recently to see some work that had been committed to and planned under the previous government, which showed the NBN fibre being rolled out in streets where there was not one but two hybrid fibre co-ax networks. Under the ground there was Telstra's HFC; up on the poles was Optus's. From either of those networks residents in the street could order a 100-megabit-per-second service, yet that area was being prioritised when areas in your electorate, Mr Deputy Speaker Craig Kelly, and indeed in outer suburban electorates in the big cities were being completely left behind. The former government did not even bother to ask the question in a systematic way as to where those underserved areas were.

There has been a massive cultural change in the management of the NBN Co. It is going to be run as a transparent business, being straight with the Australian people instead of treating it as a political exercise where any information it releases has to conform with the minister's political agenda and not otherwise.

Returning to this bill, the amendments in the bill, the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Consumer Protection) Bill 2013, will ensure the sustainability of the proven co-regulatory telecommunications framework while continuing to safeguard the interests of Australian consumers. I commend the bill to the House.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.