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Rudd's $300 million broadband blow out - or embarrassing gaffe?

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The Hon Bruce Billson MP Shadow Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy

According to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd the Government’s planned contribution to the National Broadband Network (NBN) on behalf of taxpayers has suddenly blown out by $300 million.

The Government, including Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, have firmly promised that taxpayers will contribute up to $4.7 billion towards the NBN project and not a cent more.

However, Mr Rudd yesterday told Federal Parliament, while spruiking his Government’s supposed infrastructure credentials, that things have changed.

“The government will be investing … up to $5 billion on a national high-speed broadband network,” he gloated.

Mr Rudd’s comments come after Senator Conroy has repeatedly insisted that $4.7 billion will be the maximum taxpayer contribution.

“As I said, we have an election commitment: a budget of $4.7 billion. The budget papers state $4.7 billion,” Senate Conroy told Senate Estimates on 27 May.

When asked how he arrived at the $4.7 billion amount at the previous Senate Estimates back on 18 February Senator Conroy replied: “That was all we were prepared to commit.”

At a time when the telecommunications sector is urgently seeking clarity about the extent of the Government’s intervention, you have Mr Rudd now telling Parliament that taxpayers will be spending up to $300 million more than his Minister’s firmly stated position.

Mr Rudd has either made an embarrassing $300 million gaffe and must correct the public record; deliberately misled Parliament to inflate the status of the NBN project; or bypassed Senator Conroy and decided to increase the taxpayer stake on the run.

Mr Rudd’s comments come at a time when key industry figures say the Government has grossly underestimated the cost of rolling out fibre optic broadband to 98 per cent of the population. Rather than costing $8-$10 billion, Telstra says the figure could be as high as $25 billion.

In light of these troubling discrepancies Mr Rudd must also clarify whether a “50 per cent public equity” “joint venture” is still what he is looking for from NBN proponents.