Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Protecting Services for Rural and Regional Australia into the Future) Bill 2007
8 August 2007
Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (7.16 p.m.)—I rise to speak on the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Protecting Services for Rural and Regional Australia into the Future) Bill 2007. This bill seeks to introduce legislation that will prevent the $2 billion principal of the Communications Fund established in 2005 from being drawn upon to deliver telecommunications services to rural, regional and remote Australia. If this bill passes the Australian parliament, enshrined in legislation will be a provision requiring that only the interest earned from the Communications Fund can be spent to provide for the telecommunications needs in rural, regional and remote Australia. This is extraordinary legislation. This suggests that the earnings of the Communications Fund that will be available for spending will be up to $400 million over a three-year period or some $133 million per year. This is meant to implement the recommendations of the regional telecommunications independent review committee that is yet to meet.
So what is the motivation for this bill? Firstly, the motive for drafting this legislation as outlined by the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts in her press release of 21 June 2007 is to prevent the ALP from using the Communications Fund to provide a national broadband network should a Rudd Labor government be elected. This is an extraordinary motivation for legislation. It is evidence, if there was evidence needed, that the Howard government is no longer motivated by the long-term national interest. It is simply motivated by its short-term political interests. In the remaining three to four weeks of parliamentary sittings before the next federal election, the Howard government is more concerned about preventing the Labor Party from delivering high-speed broadband services across Australia than getting on with the job and delivering such a service themselves. This is a government that has simply stopped governing.
Let us be clear on the level of absurdity of the proposition before us. This legislation would mean that the Howard government would completely undermine the coalition’s own 2005 funding commitment for the provision of telecommunications services to rural, regional and remote Australia. The member for Gippsland, a member of the National Party, in his second reading speech in this House representing the minister for communications said:
This bill will ensure that rural and regional premises are not left stranded without reliable and up-to-date services in the future.
Of course it will ensure that occurs because that is the policy of the coalition. This bill is simply a political stunt destined to backfire, not only because Labor intends to oppose this legislation at every possible opportunity but because it will create further division between the Liberal Party and their coalition partner, The Nationals. I wonder what Senator Joyce will have to say about this legislation. Barnaby will go bananas when he understands what this legislation means.
The clear fact is that $400 million of funding over a three-year period is completely inadequate to provide services to the bush. The years 2000 and 2002 saw the completion of two government inquiries into the adequacy of telecommunications services in rural, regional and remote Australia—namely, the Besley and Estens inquiries. Both determined that services in the bush were in need of improvement and continued financial and strategic assistance by the federal government. During the 2004 election year the government claimed to have taken a ‘proactive approach’ to improve telecommunication services in rural, regional and remote areas and described their efforts as ‘genuine’. In that same year the Prime Minister stated that a satisfactory level of service in the bush was a precondition for the full sale of Telstra. We know that there is not a satisfactory level of service in the bush. While the Treasurer considered the Deputy Prime Minister’s $2 billion ask for the Communications Fund an idea that could be financially irresponsible—it would ‘raise interest rates’—Queensland Senator Barnaby Joyce considered $5 billion to be a far more adequate allocation. Incidentally, the Treasurer later decided the fund was a fair proposition and, indeed, in the spring of 2005 came the birth of this $2 billion Communications Fund. At that time Labor senators in the dissenting report said:
Labor Senators do not believe that the quantum of the Communications Fund will be adequate to address these problems. Officials from the department made clear that no independent, needs-based modelling was done to determine the appropriate size of the fund. The touted $2 billion is just a number that the Government persuaded the National Party to accept. No evidence was presented to the inquiry to suggest that a $2 billion fund will be sufficient to address the future telecommunications needs of rural and regional Australia.
We know that it is no longer $2 billion. We are talking about approximately $400 million over three years—just $133 million per year.
The Australian Labor Party makes no apologies for wishing to provide a long overdue high-speed broadband network to all Australians, regardless of where they live. This government has failed to address issues. It is a weak, timid and pathetic response to Labor’s commitment to a high-speed, fibre-to-the-node broadband network which would offer 98 per cent of the population broadband services some 40 times faster than most current speeds and improve services for the remaining two per cent. The government proposes a dual system of telecommunications services. Australians living in inner suburbs, such as the one that I represent, in the five major cities will have access to a fibre-to-the-node network. But if you do not live in inner Sydney, in Brisbane or in Melbourne and you are in the outer suburbs of those cities or in rural and regional Australia then what you will have to put up with is a pathetic, substandard service—fixed wireless WiMAX, obsolete technology and connection speeds which are shared. Industry experts predict that the average broadband speed will be some 512 kilobits per second. This is not broadband; this is fraudband which the coalition wants to impose on the residents of outer metropolitan areas and rural and regional communities. It is an extraordinary proposition.
Let us look at the technology differences, which is why Labor welcome the opportunity to have this debate about broadband, a critical infrastructure. WiMAX solutions are simply not scalable when compared to the enormous potential that exists with fibre networks. The WiMAX solution proposed by the Howard government will actually be severely affected by interruptions to line of sight vision. Here we are in 2007 with a proposal which is considering telecommunications technologies which will be unavailable if the topography is not suitable. If there is a hill in the way, if there is a structure or a building in the way, the system simply will not work, and the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts has had to concede that that is the case. If it is raining or if there is a weather event in between the transmission tower and where people are seeking to get access to broadband services it will also not work. The government produced these maps, but at the bottom of the maps there is a disclaimer. Essentially, it states: ‘These maps are theoretical only.’
Mr Bowen—What does it say?
Mr ALBANESE—It actually says on one of the two pages of disclaimers:
Depictions of WiMAX and other wireless coverage on these maps do not take into account local topographical features.
That is absolutely extraordinary. Some people may have witnessed the Prime Minister at the launch of this policy, where he got out there with the businesspeople involved with this proposition and he said, ‘This is your spectrum.’ They said, ‘No, Prime Minister, it is not ours.’ He had so little knowledge. So stuck in the middle of the last century, so incapable of leading into the future was this Prime Minister that he did not even understand that the government’s broadband plan does not have its own spectrum to broadcast and that, indeed, it will be a shared spectrum. Those are just some of the problems that exist.
The radius from each site is the next major problem. It is a huge technical problem for those who seek access to broadband technology. WiMAX is only able, in theory, to transmit up to 20 kilometres in ideal circumstances—that is, in a laboratory. In practice, industry experts suggest that the coverage will be more like five to 10 kilometres. Compare this with optic fibres and you can actually connect Australia to the world. They can span thousands of kilometres—an extraordinary proposition.
Next is the issue of ownership and risk. Of course, there is no risk to the government in undertaking a joint venture to fund a nationwide fibre-to-the-node network, because broadband is essential. Broadband will bring enormous benefits to Australia. If anything, the Howard government’s plan is a risk to our economic prosperity because, unless we are prepared to invest in infrastructure, prepared to take on the challenges so that we can compete in the new, globally competitive economy—and telecommunications are an essential component of that—we simply will not have the economic growth and therefore the employment and living standards in coming years to which Australians aspire to.
Labor is totally opposed to the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Protecting Services for Rural and Regional Australia into the Future) Bill 2007. This legislation is, of course, just the latest communications proposal from the Howard government. They have made some 17 different broadband program announcements in less than five years, but none of them has given Australia the national broadband network that we need to be competitive with the rest of the developed world.
There are many issues that draw a vast distinction between Labor’s comprehensive broadband plan and the government’s policy, and I outlined some of those earlier in this debate. However, I believe price to consumers is a critical issue. Unlike the Howard government, Labor does not believe that a government should set consumer prices. Prices should be set by an independent regulator—after negotiations with the parties—who will ensure the best possible outcomes for the consumer. What will achieve the best outcome for the consumer is establishing a structure which encourages the market to work. Labor’s fibre-to-the-node network is open access. This will ensure more competition between providers, which will lead to a lowering of prices.
The Howard government’s proposed program, even for the cities to which it is restricted, has no starting date. The government has said that it will form a committee—that is what the government has as its plan to move forward. Because Labor is prepared to move to that superior technology of a fibre-to-the-node network, Labor’s plan will ensure that we move more quickly to where we need to end up. We know that it is unsustainable to think that Australia would continue to be in the position we are in now. We know that the Howard government’s half-baked proposals for cities, and very inferior and second-tier proposals for rural and regional Australia and outer suburbs, are unsustainable in the long term. Therefore, the more quickly we move to a fibre-to-the-node network, the more quickly we will be in a position to actually compete with other countries in our region.
The government have been extraordinarily negligent in the way that they have dealt with these issues. They have responded, and this legislation is a product of that response, to the fact that Labor’s broadband strategy has been well received by consumers and well received by business. It is a part of Labor’s comprehensive strategy to deal with infrastructure. In the past 24 hours we have had a debate about the increase in interest rates. Labor will continue to argue that one of the threats to the economy, as has been indicated by the Reserve Bank of Australia, is the failure to invest in skills and infrastructure—the failure to invest in our human capital and the failure to invest in our physical capital. Of those infrastructure shortfalls, communications is a critical component. It is one of the four areas—along with energy, water and transport—that Labor have identified as our priority, because we have a comprehensive infrastructure plan.
Labor will create Infrastructure Australia, a statutory authority made up of representatives of Commonwealth and state governments and the private sector. It will be a statutory authority that will drive the prioritisation of infrastructure and coordination that Australia needs. We will of course have an infrastructure minister—something that this government has not bothered to do because they do not regard the coordination of infrastructure as a necessity. That body will conduct an audit and establish an infrastructure priority list. When I listen to the criticisms of those opposite—and it happened in question time again yesterday—they say, ‘We have AusLink’. That is infrastructure; nothing else. Telecommunications, energy, water, a coordinated approach to infrastructure for the nation for regional and rural Australia and urban Australia are simply not on the agenda of the Howard government.
Let us be clear: the earnings of the Communications Fund, which this bill provides for to sustain the rollout of telecommunications services in rural, regional and remote Australia, are simply not enough. Labor makes no apologies for using the Communications Fund to build a national broadband network that will vastly improve telecommunications services across Australia, including rural, regional and remote Australia. The Howard government has ceased to govern for the national interest—in fact some would already argue that they have ceased to govern completely. This legislation is at best a political stunt against the Labor Party, but one that undermines their coalition partners in the National Party. I wish therefore to move the following amendment:
That all words after ‘That’ be omitted with a view to substituting the following words: “the House declines to give the Bill a second reading and condemns the Government for it failure to invest the $2 billion communications Fund in a national fibre to the node broadband network to ensure:
(a) parity of service and metro comparable pricing for all Australians serviced by the fibre to the node network;
(b) the state of broadband services in Australia is turned around, after the past 11 years of neglect under the Howard Government;
(c) Australians to have access to the best available telecommunication technologies;
(d) Australians in rural and regional areas have improved telecommunication services, including access to e-health and e-eduction, which are only possible over a fibre to the node network. The interest earned on the Communications Fund (up to $400 million every 3 years) is not enough to ensure this;
(e) 98% of Australians, including those in rural and regional areas, have access to future proof telecommunications technology; and
(f) the two per cent of people that the new fibre to node network will not reach have a standard of service, depending on the available technology, that is as close as possible to that provided by the new network”.
Labor moves that amendment to put very clearly the choice that is there: on the one hand, under the government, essentially up to $133 million a year for rural and regional telecommunications; under Labor, a comprehensive $4.7 billion program done as a private-public partnership to ensure that all Australians have access to high-speed broadband, not just because this is a communications issue somehow viewed in isolation but because telecommunications are a driver of economic growth. Without being competitive in the area of telecommunications as a vital piece of infrastructure we cannot compete economically. This legislation would ensure that we will increasingly have a two-tiered system whereby people, because of where they live—such as in your electorate, Mr Speaker—will not have the same services that are available in my electorate in inner Sydney. That is what this is about.
If you live in inner Sydney you are going to have high-speed broadband services—not as good under the government’s option as what we are putting forward but nonetheless better in comparison with people in outer suburban areas or in rural and regional Australia. That is not the only matter. This government, because of its tired leadership that is old in its ideas and incapable of moving forward with the challenges in the new century, just do not get how vital this is for education, health and our future economic and social development. This is a tired old government that has been here for too long—that this week told the rest of the Australia that it has given up on governing, that it is simply about trying to buy its way to another election victory regardless of the economic consequences—and not just regardless of the economic consequences but regardless of the fact that it is neglecting the big issues and challenges which need to be taken on if we are truly going to be able to move forward in Australia’s long-term national interest rather than just the short-term political interest.
In this case, however, I cannot understand how any regional or rural representative, whether of the Liberal Party or of the appendage laughingly called the National Party, can possibly support this totally inadequate legislation. I can understand how the member for Gippsland, who represents the communications minister, can support this—because I have met him. Anyone who meets him understands why he could support totally inadequate legislation—because he is simply not up to it. But I would call upon other members to stand up for their constituents and demand the same services for all Australians regardless of where they live. I commend the amendment to the House.
The SPEAKER—Is the amendment seconded?
Mr Murphy—I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.