Mar 2, 2016

Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Access Regime and NBN Companies) Bill 2015 – Second Reading

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (18:03): I rise to oppose the Telecommunications Legislation Commencement (Access Regime and NBN Companies) Bill 2015, although it is understood that the government will gut its own legislation through a series of amendments that it has flagged to remove parts 3, 4, 5, 7 and 8 of the bill. That is of course, I think, symbolic of what the government has done when it comes to the National Broadband Network: it has gutted its own policies when it comes to the NBN.

I had the great honour of being the communications minister at the end of the period in which we were in office. What I saw were professional public servants, a professional board led by its chair Siobhan McKenna and an organisation that is so important for transforming Australia’s infrastructure.

The current Prime Minister, who was appointed the communications minister after the election by his dear friend Tony Abbott as the shadow Minister for Communications, was given the task of ‘destroying the NBN’—that was the task, direct quote from Tony Abbott, when he appointed Malcolm Turnbull as the shadow minister for communications.

I think that he was very much the shadow minister for ‘fraudband’ rather than broadband and the copper economy rather than the digital economy. We saw Malcolm Turnbull as the communications minister set about destroying the NBN.

There is a fundamental difference in views: we on this side of the House supported fibre to the premise, fibre to the home and fibre to the business. We saw that as essential as enabling people to connect to water, electricity or other utilities. Fibre and fast-speed broadband are not something that should be kept from people on the basis of their income; it should be accessible for all.

Those opposite, with the approach of the current Prime Minister, have a very different philosophical view. You have fibre to the node or a fibre to the fridge-type box on the corner of streets and then the old copper wire into people’s homes or businesses. If people are wealthy enough, they can connect up to high-speed broadband through fibre So we change it from a universal system to one that reflects people’s wealth.

One of the things that is extraordinary is that in 2016 access to high-speed broadband is essential for any student at school and any business, and it is particularly important in regional Australia. One of the issues of the NBN is that access to high-speed broadband can, in a country such as Australia, break down some of those spatial inequalities that are there. If you can establish a business in a regional centre—like Coffs Harbour, where I turned on the NBN as the minister and as Deputy Prime Minister in 2013—then that makes living in those regional cities and towns much more attractive. The overheads of living in a regional city are often far less, in terms of rent or ownership of business premises compared to if you are in the CBD of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane or Perth.

We saw the NBN as very much an equity issue. The National Broadband Network should be rolled out right around the country. We know that that is world’s best practice. We know that in government we achieved the structural separation of Telstra and other significant reforms which essentially had laid dormant under 12 years of the Howard government.

In terms of the principles that were being rolled out, the government has this absurd proposition that somehow they have a mandate for what they are doing. Of course, when people such as journalists at the ABC have been critical of the NBN, they quite clearly have been intimidated into not being able to express their views. Indeed, it is quite extraordinary that an article written by Emma Alberici after she hosted a debate between myself and the now Prime Minister on Lateline was published after the federal election and not before, because of so-called checks that needed to take place.

While in opposition Malcolm Turnbull had this to say:

We are going to do a rigorous analysis, we will get Infrastructure Australia to do an independent cost-benefit analysis.

Instead of appointing Infrastructure Australia, which is what Malcolm Turnbull said repeatedly in terms of those issues, Mr Turnbull appointed a collection of former Liberal Party staffers and advisors and critics of the National Broadband Network to conduct his cost-benefit analysis. The Senate select committee into the NBN had a look at the Vertigan panel’s independent cost-benefit analysis to broadband. What that Senate select committee highlighted was a number of absolute shortcuts and failures when it came to a proper cost-benefit analysis. The extraordinary circumstance now whereby the government purchased in 2016 through the National Broadband Network some 1,800,000 metres of copper—that was the last amount purchased—is almost beyond belief in 2016. But what that shows is just how hopeless the government’s approach was. That is why what we have seen from the government is a doubling of costs and a halving of speed under the government’s own analysis.

The costs appear to be going up and up and up. We saw the extraordinary payment to Telstra for the existing network. It takes a special kind of profligacy to engage with Telstra the way that they did. They are now finding out, funnily enough. In the strategic review that took place in December 2013 they said it would cost $55 million to fix up the copper. Two years later they are saying that figure is $641 million. That is much more than a tenfold increase. In the strategic review they said that there would be $2½ billion of revenue this year and next. Now they say that figure is $1.1 billion—much less than half. They said that the fibre-to-the-node cost for the home would be $600. The actual cost, two years later, they find to be $1,600. That is an increase of 167 per cent.

All of those issues show what a failure it has been. Indeed, this government, when it comes to the NBN, shows its lack of vision for this nation. There can be no more visionary a project than the NBN, because the NBN will have an impact not just on our economy, but on the way education services are delivered, the way health services are delivered, the way that our entire national economy functions and, importantly, the way that regional economies function. That is why it is so disappointing that the National Party tail has just wagged itself at the end of the Liberal Party dog. They have failed to stand up for the interests of regional Australia when it comes to the NBN. There are people over there, including the now Leader of the National Party, who used to say quite strong things about universal service obligations and the need to have the same service available in the bush as in the city, but they are pretty quiet about that now.

Fundamentally this government stands condemned for the fact that Malcolm Turnbull said that the rollout of the NBN would be completed in 2016—this year—at 25 megabits per second minimum speed. This Prime Minister also went down to Tasmania and said very clearly that the Tasmanian rollout, which was contracted, would be continued and should have been completed by now. Everyone in Tasmania, by right now, was going to have access to the NBN, and yet you can stand on a street in Launceston and look across the road and one side does not get it and the other side does get it—with an extraordinary impact, of course, on house prices, which the government likes to consider that it is interested in, due to an accident of where the lines were drawn on the map. The people who missed out are going to miss out forever under this government’s plan, because they will not get fibre to the premises.

I think this goes to the heart of the competence of the person that we now have as the Prime Minister. He made big promises. He was very critical of the former government. He had one job and one job only. He did not do anything else. He did not do media reform. He did not do anything else, except maybe plot against Prime Minister Abbott. He certainly was very conscious of that, and of spending time taking selfies on public transport—which he now, of course, does not fund. But the fact is that a doubling of the cost, a halving of the speed and inequitable distribution so that we will have haves and have-nots, suburbs divided on the basis of access to NBN—

Ms Butler: And the delay.

Mr ALBANESE: and the delay in times, the blow-out in terms of delivery, show that this Prime Minister could not deliver as communications minister, so it is no wonder that he is all at sea when it comes to providing national leadership for Australia.