Mar 21, 2007

Matters of Public Importance – Broadband


21 March 2007

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (3.51 p.m.)—This government is out of ideas, out of touch and out of time. Here again today we have the Labor Party setting the policy agenda—an agenda to secure our prosperity beyond the mining boom, an agenda looking forward to the future—against a government that is simply stuck in the past. To secure Australia’s long-term prosperity we must boost our productivity and international competitiveness. We need to implement policies for the long-term national interest, and part of that has to be investment in nation-building infrastructure, because Labor believes that Australia’s future productivity, competitiveness and wealth creation relies on world-class infrastructure.

We know that spending on infrastructure is an investment; it is not a cost. Today we have had a very significant policy announcement: that Labor would build a new national broadband network in partnership with the private sector that would deliver a minimum speed of 12 megabits per second for 98 per cent of Australians—over 40 times faster than most current internet speeds—and that we would ensure that the remaining two per cent of Australians, in regional and remote areas, have improved services. We have undertaken to have a competitive assessment of proposals to roll out an open-access fibre-to-the-node broadband network and put in place regulatory reforms to facilitate that rollout. And we will use existing government investments in communications to provide a public equity investment in a joint equity venture of up to $4.7 billion in the new broadband network. This would include drawing on the $2 billion Communications Fund and the Future Fund’s 17 per cent share in Telstra.

The government essentially had two criticisms of the proposals in question time, and there were more from the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, who was put up as the spokesperson in this debate. The first criticism, from the Prime Minister, essentially exposed the government’s position when it comes to infrastructure and investment. The Prime Minister saw spending on broadband infrastructure as consumption. Labor sees it as investment, a $4.7 billion investment in our future. The second criticism, which came primarily from the Treasurer, was that somehow we were raiding the Future Fund. Well, if the future is not about broadband, what is it about? Broadband is essential for our future.

A third criticism, which came from the agriculture minister, was that somehow Labor is now supporting the privatisation of Telstra. Let us be very clear about what has happened here. Because the National Party refused to stand up over the privatisation of Telstra, which was opposed at each and every turn by the Australian Labor Party, the privatisation has gone through. It is a reality. But we are determined to ensure that those funds are used in the interests of building the future of our telecommunications, setting up this joint equity venture that will make sure that services are delivered and that Australia moves forward into this century.

We are in a crisis. The World Economic Forum ranks Australia 25th in the world for available internet bandwidth. Rupert Murdoch has said this about Australia’s broadband infrastructure:

I think it is a disgrace. I think we should be spending—the Government with Telstra should be spending—$10 billion or $12 billion on it (so it gets to) every town in Australia.

James Packer has described it as ‘embarrassing’. David Kirk has described it as ‘fraudband’. But the Prime Minister simply cannot see it, because for 11 years the Howard government has treated Australia’s communications infrastructure as a short-term political issue, not a long-term policy investment. In recent years, we have seen a number of announcements by the Howard government. We had the Telecommunications Action Plan for Remote Indigenous Communities in 2002, the Higher Bandwidth Incentive Scheme in 2003, the National Broadband Strategy in 2004, the National Broadband Strategy Implementation Group in 2004—program after program announced by the government. But still we are falling behind the world. We are giving the world a competitive advantage against us that we simply cannot afford, particularly due to our geographical location.

One of the great things about the development of telecommunications infrastructure is that it has an ability to override that geographical disadvantage that Australia has suffered from in the past so that we can take advantage of the fact that here we have a number of natural advantages, due to our environment and due to our people, most of all. The government simply fail to see that. Let us have a look at what happens when they do establish programs. During the 2004 federal election they announced the metropolitan broadband black spots program, a $50 million bandaid designed to give the impression of government policy action. There is always some announcement at election time, but have a look at what has happened. At Senate estimates we exposed the fact that the program had disbursed only $200,000. Put this in perspective: for a $50 million program, only $200,000 has actually been spent. And it cost $1.4 million to administer. They spend more on the bureaucrats—seven times more—than on delivering the broadband infrastructure. I asked the Prime Minister about this in question time. Remember what he said: ‘I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.’ We’re waiting, Prime Minister. They know that that is the case and they do not have answers.

The minister for agriculture also said, ‘They’re going to spend the Communications Fund.’ Let us have a look at what National Party Senator Barnaby Joyce had to say about this $2 billion Communications Fund. He said he was ‘happy’ to have it described as ‘a slush fund’. That is what it is. We will actually put that fund to proper use.

Broadband is not just faster internet or toys for IT geeks; broadband is an enabling infrastructure. It enables productivity gains, creates new markets, fosters new businesses and creates new jobs. The federal government’s own Broadband Advisory Group found:

… next generation broadband could produce economic benefits of $12-30 billion per annum to Australia.

So we know that it is absolutely necessary. A statewide broadband network in New South Wales would boost the state’s economy by $1.4 billion a year, increase employment by thousands of jobs after 10 years and raise exports by $400 million over its first decade. Broadband impacts on everyday lives: the ability of young people to get a proper education; the ability of small businesses to operate and compete with big business; the ability to deliver health and essential services; and the ability to communicate at home and with the world.

It is not surprising that they are behind the game on this because, when it comes to infrastructure across the board, the Business Council of Australia has identified a $90-billion shortfall in infrastructure—not just communications but in our ports, in our energy infrastructure, in our roads and rail systems, and in our water infrastructure. Yet public investment in national infrastructure is falling. Public investment decreased from 2.5 per cent to 1.8 per cent of GDP between June 1987 and June 2006. In 2004 Australia ranked 20th out of 25 OECD countries in investment in public infrastructure as a proportion of GDP. The government is incapable of stepping into the future and governing for the needs of this century. Labor is showing today once again that we are up to the task, that we are setting the agenda and that we are prepared to take on these issues. It is time that this government got out of the way.