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Tuesday, 2 December 2008
Page: 34

Senator LUNDY (4:01 PM) —It is my pleasure to speak to this interim report and particularly to advise the Senate that government senators did lodge a dissenting report from the majority report of the Senate Select Committee on the national broadband network. There were several reasons for this, not least of which was there were so many inconsistencies in the expression of the opposition senators in how they reflected on progress to date with the national broadband network. We have heard that this is an interim report and we know, thanks to the advice of the minister in the chamber, responding to questions during question time, that we are mid-process and that the government has in fact received bids that will now be considered by an expert panel. That notwithstanding, I think it is important to go through some of the contradictions and inconsistencies in the opposition senators’ position and then to reflect on some of the broader issues.

With respect to the opposition senators’ claim to support the need for broadband infrastructure investment in Australia, they have done everything possible to obstruct and undermine the government’s NBN process, including the advent of this committee in the first instance. Opposition senators who claim to want to see broadband infrastructure be speedily delivered to the Australian people, particularly, as we have heard today, to those areas underserved, their whole message is completely undermined by their calls for another full round of public consultation. Even today we heard the chair choose to quote witnesses supporting delays in the process in speaking to the report. I would like to refer specifically to clauses in the majority report. Clause 2.127 of the report notes:

The committee questions the appropriateness of the timeline for the evaluation of the RFP, believing it will not permit the necessary level of scrutiny by either the Expert Panel or the ACCC to select the successful proponent for the NBN.

Similarly, clause 3.99 of the opposition senators report states:

Firstly there is the criticism that the timeframe not only for the assessment of proposals, but for the legislative and parliamentary processes required to make the changes to the regulations and legislation, is inadequate.

Yet, clause 3.123 notes:

The committee believes that it is in the interest of the government, the industry and the Australian people to ensure that delays to the timeframe for the implementation of the NBN are kept to a minimum.

You cannot have it both ways. The opposition senators cannot sit on both sides of the fence. Do they want us to get a move on with this proposal—as we have made the commitment—and have a process in place, or do they want to specifically delay it? It is still unclear.

There is also acknowledgement that there are problems, serious problems, with the current regulatory regime. Clause 3.9 of the government senators’ report states:

Government Senators agree with the sentiment expressed in the Majority Report that the NBN provides an opportunity to address the failings of the current regulatory regime implemented by the former Government.

What this demonstrates is that there was broad acknowledgement—I think that is a fair comment by all senators on the committee—that there were failings with respect to the current regulatory regime and they did need to be rectified as part of this process.

Specifically, with respect to the requests for proposals, I would like to take the opposition senators to task about some incorrect information. The majority report is critical of RFP processes and often incorrectly states details of the RFP process. I would like to counter some of that misinformation and incorrect facts in the report. For example, the time frame for the ACCC is acceptable according to the ACCC; the RFP does ask proponents to indicate the extent to which proposals are able to prioritise areas that cannot currently access minimum speeds of 12 megabits per second; the government has taken into account migration issues in the RFP; and stated based solutions are allowed. It is not good enough to misstate the facts as they are, and, looking at the evidence that was received in the inquiry, I felt that it was important to correct the record.

Another major issue is that the process is specifically designed to maximise competitive tension—with six bids the government’s process is completely vindicated—and a lot of the criticism against the RFP would have applied to the previous government’s, the opposition’s, FTTN processes, for example, the regulatory settings definition of open access. Again, the criticism that the opposition is now trying to level at the government about the national broadband network processes could be applied to themselves in spades, because they had far less information available and a far less rigorous approach to the policy they placed on the table. That is not surprising when you consider that it comes after 11 years and 18 failed broadband plans, about which I know my colleague Senator Conroy has gone into great detail.

The majority report also takes time to try and justify the OPEL approach. OPEL, as we know, did not meet the terms of its contract, with 72 per cent of premises underserved. As I just mentioned, their approach to the FTTN network was very vague. Their FTTN proposal—and this is really important to hear when opposition senators are talking about the needs of underserved areas in rural and regional Australia—focused on metro and major regional areas. It had no speed requirement and did not service the whole of Australia.

The policy of the former government and now opposition was always to create a two-class system for telecommunications in this country, and there is nothing they can do to change the fact that their policy was completely inadequate in this regard. It shows that we are dealing with an opposition that has a spoiling plan, not a constructive plan to support Labor’s comprehensive proposal to get a national broadband network up and running. Labor has a process and it is a sound one. It has been run by a very rigorous process, as we know. Senator Conroy responds to questions about that proposal on a daily basis during sittings. I suspect that the coalition is feeling the frustration of not being able to thwart Labor in its worthy endeavour of building a national broadband network.