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Monday, 14 September 2009
Page: 9439

Mr FORREST (5:46 PM) —I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak on the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (National Broadband Network Measures—Network Information) Bill 2009. This is not the bill that tells us about the detail of the National Broadband Network; it is simply a bill that allows the government to collect the information in order to design it. This is information that it will need from telecommunications providers, not just Telstra but all the others, and from railways and roads authorities to know where easements are and infrastructure is and so forth. That is why the opposition have recommended a sunset clause. This is a perfectly sensible approach. If this national broadband $43 billion super network ever gets up, and I endorse the member for Tangney’s sentiments in that regard, it would not make any sense at all, nor would it be fair for the government to be the depository of information that its competitors would have.

The way this has been undertaken is another perfect example of lack of consultation. There is absolutely nothing but confusion out there. The member for Tangney says it is two years—to give them the benefit, it is 22 months—since the government were beating their chests at the last election about providing a broadband network that they alleged would be superior to what the then coalition government were delivering. Sadly, all that time has been wasted. The proposal that was put by the previous government, whilst nowhere near the mega-speeds proposed in the dream that the Rudd government is proposing here of 100 megabytes a second, was affordable to a nation of 20-odd million people spread across the same area as Europe. This is a country that is not like South Korea and Japan, with their concentrated populations. This is the land of the great open plains. So the coalition in government proposed a scheme which was ultimately tendered and awarded to OPEL, a consortium of Optus and other regional players across Australia. It was something that was affordable.

The fallacy of the government’s approach with regard to its proposal is that nobody has sat down and done the commercial analysis nor is able to advise the ultimate consumers what this super Rolls Royce mega-scheme is going to cost them to use on a monthly basis. Costs per month of $200-$300 have been mentioned. For heaven’s sake, I get letters from people across my constituency complaining about paying $30-$50 a month. It raises questions in my mind as to the affordability of this dream that is being proposed by the Rudd government. It sounds wonderful as a prophetic dream and has electoral appeal, but I have considerable doubts about whether it is ever going to be delivered.

On top of that, as I speak in my position as the member for Mallee on behalf of the people I represent, the electorate of Mallee is a good example of the lucky and unlucky in broadband in terms of the way this proposal has been put to them. The unlucky are all those people living in small towns of less than a thousand people, of which there are nearly a hundred spread across north-west Victoria, who have much slower but acceptable access to broadband by the use of the copper service. Some of them dial up but most of them have access to broadband. They will be amongst the two million people spread across this vast geographic region who have been advised that even in 10 years they will not be part of this National Broadband Network.

The lucky ones in my electorate are apparently those that live in the provincial centres such as Mildura, Horsham and Swan Hill, but the stupidity is that they would already have had access to much higher speed broadband than they currently have, through the previous government’s rollout. The greatest tragedy, they advise me, is that the contract with OPEL was suspended when the new government came into power. During the election the Labor Party told my constituents that for something like $4½ million they could do better than what the coalition government were delivering. The government wasted nine months or so, could not figure out how to deliver even that and then dreamt up this multibillion dollar dream that is just a dream and will not be fulfilled.

Then there is the question about the huge level of borrowings that will have to be engaged in to provide the $43 billion. The government assure us that they are currently investigating capital participation partners for that, but no businessmen that I know will want to put up billions of dollars knowing that they are investing in a product that gives rise to serious questions about ultimate commercial viability because of the capacity of people ultimately to be willing to pay for it. That is the information we do not have. That causes me to have substantial reservations. Even at $200 a month, the cost is prohibitive and beyond the capacity of Australians to pay. How many Australians actually need a supercharged speed of 100 megabytes per second and how many regional Australians will be able to access this high-speed broadband ultimately anyway? My guess is that a lot of the people in my Mallee electorate, ranging from the Murray River in the north way down past Horsham in the western districts of Victoria, will miss out. Of course we want to see faster broadband, but at a cost which is affordable and without plunging our grandchildren into a commitment to fund the massive debt that is going to be needed to achieve this dream.

Broadband speeds in our major cities are already comparatively good. Of course people want more—they want to exchange more information, they want to watch movies and they want it to be coming faster—but broadband is already at a speed at which we can conduct our business activities. Even in those provincial locations around my electorate—whilst they could do with another 20 or 30 per cent of pipeline capacity, especially the backhaul—what they are currently getting is something that they deem affordable.

Government bureaucracies will never be able to perform with the pace that this technology requires. Ten years ago who would have thought we would be able to sit in this chamber with a small PDA in our hands and address all the information that bombards us every day as members of parliament, with the database that is in there so we remember the names of our constituents? Who would have thought, a decade ago, that that technology would be available in real time, with the member on the road in his car being able to communicate instantly with his constituents? That is the speed at which this technology is going to roll out, and governments just do not have the capacity to do that. We saw the problems that Telstra had as a government owned entity. The limitation of having to go and ask the government owner for permission to borrow $2 billion or $3 billion to achieve its ambitions just did not allow for the pace at which telecommunications companies have to operate to be competitive, to be at the leading edge and to be in front of their competitors. A government structured bureaucracy is just not able to respond at the speed that is necessary.

So I believe that the whole thing is a formula for failure. I think it is a giant con that has been perpetrated on the Australian community. It is not going to happen. Whilst I am prepared to support this bill, provided there is a grandfather clause in it to allow the government the capacity to collect the information it needs, my professional technical background convinces me that the result is not going to be anywhere close to commercial viability.

The tragedy of all this is that the potential to participate in a partnership plan has caused the telecommunications providers across the country to pause in the rollout of their own broadband infrastructure. They are waiting and wondering where this proposal of a national broadband network sponsored by the federal government might take them. The rollout of new technology, particularly infrastructure, is now stymied and has been halted.

Then there is the question of how this money ultimately is going to be paid back. I can advise you, Mr Deputy Speaker, that the constituents across my electorate are extremely worried about the size of the nation’s debt and the way it is heading under the Labor government, which does not seem to be all that conscious about debt. It cannot wait to get its hand in the lolly jar. It does not understand that this money has to be paid back. I am constantly challenged in this chamber about the government’s stimulus package and chastised because I did not support the way it was implemented. What I am going to say to the schoolchildren at primary schools and secondary schools in my electorate is: ‘Money does not grow on trees.’ Yes, it is good that they are getting an investment in their school, a new library or classroom or whatever it is they are allowed to do—and I am reminded by many of the school council parents in my electorate that they are being told what they have to invest in and are even being bullied by the agencies that implement state government education policy. In fact, quite a few of the schools in my electorate have been told that they must merge primary and secondary education into what some states call a central school—in Victoria they are called P-12s—or they will not get any money. It is absolute bullying. But what I will say to the students is: ‘Money does not grow on trees. You need to understand that all this capital that is being invested has been borrowed and you, as young Australians, will have to pay it back and probably spend your entire working lives doing so.’

The same applies to the $43 billion that is associated with this bill we are talking about here. It has to be paid back. There will not be enough revenue in any income generated on a commercial basis, if the National Broadband Network is ever implemented. People will not pay more than $200 a month, even for 100 megabytes a second. I think the National Broadband Network, as a result, will be seen as a great furphy and will not actually happen. But I will be urging the government to support the coalition’s suggestion to insert a grandfather clause in this piece of legislation just in case, by some sheer miracle, it does come off.