BROADBAND – 18 Nov 2010

Senator BILYK —We on this side of the chamber know a stunt when we see one and Senator Fifield’s motion is one of the biggest exercises in political trickery and sophistry that I have ever seen. It is just one more of a series of delaying tactics by the opposition. Senator Joyce this morning said that the government will not stand the test of transparency. Well, Senator Joyce, your motives are pretty transparent. If you look at the actions of the coalition in relation to the NBN, there is one question underlying every tactic they engage in, and that question is: ‘What can we do to delay this project? I know: let’s call for a cost-benefit analysis. Let’s introduce a private member’s bill. Let’s set up a joint select committee.’

Senator Adams —For $43 billion, why not?

Senator Colbeck —Let’s do the work that should be done.

Senator BILYK —And in Senator Abetz’s motion this morning they called for the production of documents that are going to be produced anyway—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Forshaw)—Order, Senator Bilyk. Senator Bilyk may be asking some rhetorical questions in her speech, but that does not mean that you get to answer them while she is doing it. Please continue, Senator Bilyk.

Senator BILYK —Thank you. I might just ask those rhetorical questions again in fact. ‘Let’s call for a cost-benefit analysis. Let’s introduce a private member’s bill. Let’s set up a joint select committee.’ The call in Senator Abetz’s motion this morning for the production of documents that are going to be produced anyway is just the latest in a long line of delaying tactics. As the Prime Minister has said, the government will be running a fine toothcomb through these documents. The business plan is a 400-page document full of highly technical information some of which is commercial-in-confidence. We have offered the coalition and the Greens a confidential briefing on the business case and they would be wise to avail themselves of that briefing, but I am not holding my breath about that one, and why not? It is because they have already made up their minds. I was amazed when I heard Senator Abetz this morning saying that the coalition need these documents to make up their minds on the NBN. Senator Abetz, you have already made up your mind. Your colleagues have made up their minds. You have opposed this project from the very beginning and I know you will continue to oppose it. The Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, already made this clear when he gave his marching orders to Malcolm Turnbull to demolish the NBN.

We know from your performance in government that you are not committed to innovation and you are not committed to nation-building infrastructure, because you comprehensively failed to invest in infrastructure over your 12 years in power. Malcolm Turnbull, your shadow minister for communications and broadband, has already said that, if a cost-benefit analysis were conducted and it showed the network had a net benefit, the coalition would still oppose it. Senator Abetz says that the Labor members have had a lobotomy and that our support for the network is somehow blind faith and yet your side says that you will oppose the NBN regardless of the information that is presented to you. If Senator Abetz truly has such an open mind then his party should accept the government’s offer of a private briefing. You never know; you might actually learn something from it. But, even before you have a briefing, you already have the five reports that the Senate Select Committee on the National Broadband Network produced. You have the McKinsey and KPMG implementation study, which shows that the NBN has a strong business case and is expected to generate a six to seven per cent return. There are a whole raft of studies from the OECD and Access Economics demonstrating the benefits of the NBN.

On the issue of a cost-benefit analysis, the idea of conducting a cost-benefit analysis for a technology that underpins applications that have not even been thought of yet is a nonsense—it is an absolute fantasy. Anyone who understands broadband technology knows that when you increase the speed 50-fold then you open up the possibility of new applications that have not yet been envisaged. There are too many unknown variables to conduct a proper cost-benefit analysis of the NBN, and you would have to make a number of heroic assumptions. It is no more than an exercise in crystal ball gazing. Graeme Samuel, Chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, said that a cost-benefit analysis into the NBN would be a very complicated exercise indeed and:

…if you play around with the assumptions you can end up with a high level of scepticism as to the ultimate conclusions.

In other words, the value of any cost-benefit analysis into the NBN would be undermined by the fact that you cannot guarantee its accuracy. You might as well be reading tea leaves.

Of course, I wonder if that is the next step in the coalition’s delaying tactic. If a cost-benefit analysis was released which came to the conclusion that the NBN was of massive economic benefit to Australia, I would put any money you like on the coalition then trying to undermine the credibility of the report by attacking the underlying assumptions.

Another reason why this suggestion by the opposition is a waste of time is because we already have studies into the benefits of NBN. For example, Access Economics identified that Australia could save between $1.4 billion and $1.9 billion a year if 10 per cent of the workforce teleworked half the time. They also estimated the benefits of telehealth to Australia to be between $2 billion and $4 billion. A study commissioned by IBM in 2009 conservatively estimated that a fibre-to-the-node network—and this is far inferior to a fibre-to-the-premises network like the one we are building—would boost Australia’s gross domestic product by between $8 billion and $23 billion over a 10-year period.

I would like to know, with regard to Senator Fifield’s motion, at what point in the history of the Liberal-National coalition did they decide that every major national infrastructure project needed a cost-benefit analysis to prove its worth? Can you give me one precedent for a nationwide infrastructure project being subjected to a cost-benefit analysis, and what would that analysis involve? Imagine if a full cost-benefit analysis had been done on the copper telephone network before it was rolled out. Can anybody on that side of the chamber tell me how the internet or facsimiles would have factored into the equation when the Postmaster-General took control of the Australian telephone network in 1901.

If governments of the past had adopted the same attitude to major infrastructure projects we would not have a telephone network, we would not have a rail network and we would not have had a Snowy hydro scheme. We would be still communicating in semaphore and using kerosene fridges. Imagine what that would have done for our economy and society, and imagine what it will do if we lag behind South Korea, Japan and Singapore, who already have national optical fibre broadband networks. And can anybody on that side tell me where the cost-benefit analysis was for the privatisation of Telstra under the Howard government? At what point in that process did you consider the costs to rural and remote consumers of having a private monopoly running most of the telecommunications in this country? Of course we did not need a cost-benefit analysis to tell us that this would hurt people in rural and remote areas. We did not need a cost-benefit analysis to tell us that having a private, vertically integrated company dominating the market would not provide real competition for consumers. At least the NBN is going to enhance services to remote consumers, not diminish them. If we are going to deliver for regional Australia the opportunity for telemedicine, for virtual classrooms, for remote monitoring of community care clients and, as I said before, for a range of applications that possibly have not even been thought of yet, it is the most important thing.

I know that in my home state of Tasmania my constituents want this network. I know that my federal colleagues in this place—certainly Senator Polley and Senator Carol Brown, who have both spoken before me today—want this to go ahead. I know that my colleagues over in the other place all support it. The Premier of Tasmania, David Bartlett, with his forward-thinking capacity obviously wants it and was happy for Tasmania to be the pilot state. Even the Tasmanian Leader of the Opposition wants it. So there is something odd going on there between federal senators and the state Leader of the Opposition, Mr Hodgman. The people in Tasmania are ready for it and they are already signing up to it. They are signing up, just to name a few paces, in Midway Point, Scottsdale and in Georgetown with reasonably priced plans delivering up to 50 megabits per second.

The other day, after I had given a speech on the NBN, Senator Fisher asked about knowing the difference between ‘megabits’ and ‘megabytes’. Yes, Senator Fisher, I do know the difference between megabits and megabytes. Seeing Senator Fisher was quite helpful last sitting week in pointing out this verbal slip, I thought I might return the favour to her! This morning Senator Fisher suggested that NBN stands for ‘nobody knows’. This is not the first time I have heard Senator Fisher say this. I think I will help her a little bit and do her a little bit of a favour, because ‘knows’ actually starts with a ‘k’. I am not sure where she gets her spelling lessons from, but I think she needs to improve a bit there.

Anyway, I am really glad she highlighted the fact that the NBN would deliver speeds of 100 megabits per second and eventually 1,000 megabits per second through optic fibre broadband to 93 per cent of homes and businesses, because it highlights the importance of upgrading our telecommunications infrastructure to the next generation of technologies. We know from the research that the demand for internet bandwidth has been increasing exponentially in Australia and we have just about reached the limit of what can be provided within the existing infrastructure. If the trend since 1985 continues, we will need speeds of 1,000 megabits—or one gigabit—per second by 2020 to meet the needs of Australian internet users and to compete internationally.

We know that the copper network is starting to reach the limits of the bandwidth that can be delivered and we know that we can dramatically increase the bandwidth with an optic fibre network. This is why, as the member for New England, Tony Windsor, says, it has to be done with fibre. Of course, wireless broadband is useful and important and will be used to serve those consumers who are not in the 93 per cent who will access the network through optic fibre. But, under the best conditions, wireless cannot deliver the sorts of speeds that Australians will need in 10 years time. South Korea is already upgrading to 1,000 megabits per second. While the opposition huff and puff about the cost of the network, I have never heard them talk about the costs of not doing it and what the failure to deliver the NBN would deny to Australians. They do not want to acknowledge that.

We all know—and I think that those on the other side, if they were truthful, would acknowledge it—that the NBN is the largest nation-building project in Australia’s history and will help lift Australia to the top of the world rankings in broadband access. It will drive major productivity and growth opportunities and ensure our children get the best education in the world. I am at a loss to understand how those on the other side can oppose that. I know that for 12 years they did nothing. My colleague Senator Polley and others have pointed out how many plans they had. However, they never did anything, they never pushed it. But, as soon as we take some action, there is a lot of sour grapes happening from that side.

In regard to the international experience, a report delivered to the United Nations by the Broadband Commission in September 2010 has recommended that governments should adopt national broadband strategies because ‘they are a social asset that provides one of the most cost-effective and efficient means of delivering services to citizens’. This is exactly what is happening in countries such as Japan, Korea and Singapore as was identified by John Stanton, CEO of the Communications Alliance, after a recent Austrade organised visit to these three countries. In an article on the ABC’s technology news website on 11 November Mr Stanton pointed out that Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communication has projected a value-add to the economy over 10 years of a fibre-to-the-premises rollout in the order of ¥73 trillion, or around $908 billion. Importantly, Mr Stanton noted that the Japanese tried to go a step further and capture the wider economic value of these enhancements in people’s everyday lives but were defeated by the challenge of too many variables and different indices. He added that Singapore and Korea have not attempted to undertake such an economy-wide cost-benefit analysis.

It would be great if those on the other side stopped playing politics and actually did something constructive for the people of Australia. As I said, the people in my home state of Tasmania tell me they want the NBN. I do not know where the people are who Senator Abetz says he talks to who have concerns with it, because everybody I talk to is champing at the bit to make sure it happens. So I think it would be prudent for those on the other side to stop following their leader’s lines—especially the Tasmanian Liberal senators, who, as Senator Polley mentioned, did so abysmally at the last election. Without doubt, the NBN made a difference to their vote. If they have any sense, they will start supporting this within Tasmania and for the whole of Australia.