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Thursday, 3 December 2015
Page: 9829


Senator BILYK (TasmaniaDeputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (14:18): My question is to the Minister for Communications, Senator Fifield. On 12 December 2013 Mr Turnbull said that his strategic review of the NBN was a 'thorough and objective analysis'. I refer to leaked nbn documents—

Senator Ian Macdonald interjecting

Senator BILYK: which show that the cost of fixing up the old copper network that Mr Turnbull bought back from Telstra has blown out by up to 900 per cent. Did this government direct nbn to roll out a second-rate network on the basis of advice that was hopelessly wrong?

Senator Wong: Mr President, on a point of order: Senator Macdonald interjects on every opposition question every single time. I am asking you, as President, to get him to desist.

Government senators interjecting

A government senator: Are you serious?

Senator Wong: Yes, I am serious. He does it every single time on every single opposition question. Frankly, I know that you hear it, and, with respect, Mr President, something ought to be done about it.

Senator Cormann: Mr President, on the point of order: Senator Wong may well be right that, on occasion, Senator Macdonald interjects on opposition questions. But the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate interjects on every government answer. On the point of order: there should be one rule for all. If there is a rule that the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate wants to impose on this side of the chamber, she should comply with it herself.

The PRESIDENT: On the points of order: both points of order are absolutely correct, and I remind all senators, as I have done on numerous occasions this week, that interjections are disorderly during a question or an answer, or at any other time. If I had to pull up every senator for every interjection, we would not get to question 1, possibly. Every senator has a responsibility not to interject.

Senator Sterle: Good one, Macca. Now we are all in trouble!

The PRESIDENT: Yes, Senator Sterle; you all are in trouble.

Senator FIFIELD (VictoriaManager of Government Business in the Senate, Minister for Communications, Minister for the Arts and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Digital Government) (14:20): I could answer Senator Bilyk with one word by saying 'no'. But I will not do that, because there has been a bit of action between Senator Bilyk asking her question and my opportunity to answer, so I will give a fuller answer. I think Senator Bilyk is referring to a leaked document from the nbn, which appeared in The Australian newspaper today. Let me share with you a media statement from nbn co, headed 'nbn refutes cost claims', which says:

nbn has refuted the accuracy of claims made in today’s media, saying that any costs related to build of the nbn network have already been included in the Corporate Plan released in August.

So the headline in the paper today saying 'new cost blow-out' is wrong. Nbn updated its figures in the August corporate plan. The release goes on to say:

With 550,000 Fibre-to-the-Node premises now in construction and a further 40,000 able to connect, nbn is confident that the cost per premises for Fibre-to-the-Node, as outlined in the Corporate Plan, is accurate.

As released in August this year and discussed at length, nbn has a comprehensive plan built from a true history of actuals and experience in building the network at scale.

It then goes on to say:

Risks and mitigation plans for the network are outlined in the Corporate Plan, and the revised peak funding figure takes these scenarios into account. We have produced a peak funding range and provided a contingency, as prudent measures to manage a project of this size and complexity.

Senator Bilyk, I appreciate the opportunity to provide comfort and reassurance to you. You do not need to be worried about the mischaracterisation of that document in the paper today. It was an early draft, it was an internal planning document and, because what is contained in there is commercial-in-confidence and the final numbers may have varied, I will not speak further to that.

Senator BILYK (TasmaniaDeputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (14:22): Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I again refer to Mr Turnbull in December 2013 when he said:

... all forecasts in the Strategic Review ... are both conservative and achievable.

Yet leaked internal nbn documents show the cost per home for rolling out this government's second-rate copper NBN has nearly tripled, from $600 to $1,600. What is conservative or achievable about this outcome?

Senator FIFIELD (VictoriaManager of Government Business in the Senate, Minister for Communications, Minister for the Arts and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Digital Government) (14:23): The strategic review which Senator Bilyk refers to was based on the best available information at that time. Obviously, between that time and the corporate plan, nbn had real-life information available, so it updated its peak funding numbers, which took into account all of the available information. It is a matter of record that that which was inherited by this government in relation to the NBN was a train wreck. Senator Conroy, we know, did not take a technological approach to the NBN; he took a theological approach. We have, in fact, moved from a faith based system under Senator Conroy to one that, in terms of delivery, is technology-agnostic. There was the whole system of belief that developed around Senator Conroy, of which, I have said, he was the high priest. We are taking a real-life approach, unlike that of Senator Conroy.

Senator BILYK (TasmaniaDeputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (14:24): Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. I again refer to leaked nbn documents which reveal that the cost of patching up the copper network is nearly 10 times what the government budgeted in December 2013. When will this government concede that the Prime Minister's second-rate copper NBN is a debacle?

Senator FIFIELD (VictoriaManager of Government Business in the Senate, Minister for Communications, Minister for the Arts and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Digital Government) (14:24): We will deliver the NBN quicker and at lower cost than those opposite would have. This government and nbn management take a clear-eyed view of the NBN and they update, as is appropriate, in the corporate plan. Senator Conroy, in contrast, sought to create a culture of fear and denial in the nbn organisation. Anyone who came forward and said anything other than—

The PRESIDENT: Pause the clock. Order, Minister.

Senator Wong: Mr President, I rise on a point of order going to direct relevance. I know Senator Conroy is big enough and tough enough to listen endlessly to Senator Fifield's obsession with him, but we were not asking about Senator Fifield's obsession with Senator Conroy; we were asking him questions about this government and their policy.

The PRESIDENT: Thank you, Senator Wong. I did hear the minister say at the beginning of his answer, basically, that he did not concede. He did not use those words, but that was the inference drawn, and that was the question: would the government concede. I will ask the minister to continue.

Senator FIFIELD: This government is being open, up-front and transparent, as is nbn co, but Senator Conroy only wanted to hear good news that did not reflect the reality from the nbn organisation.

Senator Wong: Mr President, I rise on a point of order. How is a question, which—

Senator Cormann: Are you the protection racket for Senator Conroy?

Senator Wong: I will take the interjection. The protection racket is on Mr Brough. We have seen it all in here and we have seen it in the other place.

The PRESIDENT: No, you will not take the interjection. Senator Wong, stick to the point of order.

Senator Wong: I ask you, Mr President, to rule, in response to a question about government policy, on how it can possibly be relevant and in accordance with the standing orders for the minister to consistently and persistently talk about a senator who is no longer a minister? How can it possibly be 'directly relevant' as per the standing orders, which you, Mr President, are obliged to uphold?

The PRESIDENT: Thank you, Senator Wong. As I indicated earlier, I believe the minister, by inference in his answer, indicated that the government did not concede. I have always allowed ministers to enhance their answers, providing they stay on topic. I will be listening carefully to the minister's response.

Senator FIFIELD: Mr President, I am guilty as charged. My fondness for Senator Conroy has been laid bare. I admit it. But I reject the assertion that nbn's costs are not taken into account in the corporate plan.