MATTERS OF PUBLIC IMPORTANCE;Broadband – 23 Nov 2010

Senator BILYK —It is always amazing to listen to Senator Fisher. She comes in here and she makes up information. She is out there trying to scare the members of the public yet again by scaremongering and trying to oppose things for the sake of opposition.

Once again we hear the call from the opposition to release the business plan for the NBN. Once again we know that it is just a cheap political stunt to cast unfounded aspersions on the project and on the government. As we said previously, the National Broadband Network business plan will be released towards the end of the year. Once we have had time to fully analyse the 400 pages of highly technical information, some of which is still commercial-in-confidence—

Senator Brandis —Why are you hiding it from parliament?

Senator BILYK —This continued attack on the NBN is just a diversionary farce to get away from the fact that the opposition have no policies, no vision and, if they are not careful, no future.

The opposition has had 20 broadband policies, none of which they managed to successfully implement. They oppose the NBN not for any public cost-benefit reason but simply because they are too petty to see the government succeed where they have continually failed. The government is not being secretive; it is being prudent.

We are not reckless like Mr Turnbull, who when he was environment minister paid $10 million on unproven technology to electrocharge the atmosphere to milk unseen moisture from the skies. In contrast to the reckless Mr Turnbull, the government’s actions are showing this project—Australia’s most significant infrastructure investment since the Snowy Mountains scheme—the respect that such a significant investment deserves.

We are not going to rush into it. We are not going to be bullied by those on the other side coming out with their bizarre comments just to delay things. The NBN will deliver sig-nificant benefits for all Australians, and particularly for those in my home state of Tasmania. Tony Abbott may think that the inter-net is only good for Facebook and email, but those in rural and remote Australia have the vision to see the profound effect that the NBN will have on meeting their future health and educational needs as well as the profound economic benefits which will result.

I will take a few moments to provide just a few examples of projects in Tasmania that rely on fast broadband and which would benefit from the NBN. Recently, the CSIRO launched its TASICT centre. The TASICT aims to promote employment growth and wealth creation throughout the Tasmanian economy by accelerating growth of its ICT industries. And who was there at that launch? Senator Barnett was at that launch, celebrating the obviously welcome local investment delivered to Tasmania by the CSIRO. Would it not be ironic if Senator Barnett did not welcome it, because one of the factors that led to the CSIRO’s decision to establish the centre in Tasmania was—guess what?—the fact that Tasmania was the first recipient of the NBN rollout. That is a $30 million investment that Tasmania was not likely to have seen without the National Broadband Network.

The Tasmanian government has recently developed an innovative new school to provide flexible learning opportunities for Tasmanians. The Tasmanian eSchool brings together Distance Education Tasmania, the Centre for Extended Learning Opportunities-Online and the Online Campus into a single school from 2011. Assisted with a $4.9 million grant from the Australian government, the Tasmanian eSchool will provide services through cutting edge technology.

Of course, if we provide a connection speed of 100 megabits per second through optic fibre this would allow for a primary or secondary student to log on at home and participate in a virtual classroom. At the moment virtual classrooms are a reality but they are not supported by high-definition video in Tas-mania. We need that video to deliver better pedagogical outcomes to distance education students so that they can interact with the teacher through reading and conveying body language and so that the teacher can dem-onstrate visual concepts with their hands. Such students will also be able to interact with other students and collaborate on projects.

There are a number of reasons why students may need to study at home. They may be very remote and have difficulty with transport or have a disability making it difficult to leave their house. Their parents may be full-time carers and unable to drop them to and from school. While there are many primary and high schools throughout Tasmania, the University of Tasmania has only three campuses. Distance education is provided by UTAS, but it is limited in scope and cannot deliver the quality of face-to-face lectures or tutorials. A family from Dover, St Helens or Strahan wanting to send their child to university has only two options: either they move house or they pay to accommodate their child on campus in a residential college. Alternatively, the child may need to work part-time to pay their rent in a residential college or share house which, of course, can be very disruptive to their studies. Imagine how much that family or student could save if they could have their lecture or tutorial delivered straight into their home.

The benefits to health are just mind-boggling. Many elderly patients in need of specialist treatment find it incredibly disruptive to have to travel long distances to receive that treatment. Imagine if a patient requiring a visual examination by an ophthalmologist could stay at home rather than having to visit the hospital. A high-definition video link could mean the examination could take place without the patient having to leave their home. If their webcam is not up to scratch, the hospital could lend them one—and soon televisions will also be video conference units. Other more basic consultations, including GP consultations, could be provided via this method. For certain consultations, this could alleviate some of the difficulties that remote communities face when trying to secure a GP. With the NBN, patients who have to travel interstate for highly specialised surgery may have the option of receiving the surgery at their local hospital. A high-speed data link could allow the surgeon to deliver the instructions to a less specialised but still qualified surgeon, or instruments could be developed that respond to a surgeon’s instructions remotely.

Opposition senators interjecting—

Senator BILYK —Of course, those on the other side do not want to hear this, and that is why they continually interject. They do not care about the future of Australia or the people of Australia.

Senator Brandis —Madam Acting Deputy President, on a point of order: the honourable senator is making a false assertion. She says the opposition do not want to hear this. When I have been interjecting, we are very eager to hear it.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Pratt)—There is no point of order.

Senator BILYK —If those on the other side are eager to hear it, I suggest that they stop interjecting. At the moment, telesurgery is experimental, but the concept has been proven overseas and could become a reality in the near future. The competitiveness of local businesses is also a compelling argument for higher broadband speeds—and I would have thought that that would be of int-erest to those on the other side, too. If someone wanted to run a data-intensive business such as digital broadcasting or a retail warehouse for downloadable content, they would have difficulty getting the bandwidth without a dedicated link. Imagine if an Australian entrepreneur could run their own multichannel digital broadcasting service from home.

What will the capability of the NBN do to our economy? When the telephone was invented, Alexander Graham Bell imagined that there would be ‘one in each city so great men can talk to one another’. But now most people have a telephone in their pocket. Those on the other side who constantly harp and do not want to pursue a relevant future for Australia should be absolutely ashamed of themselves. The economic potential of the NBN is undreamed of; the mind boggles just at the thought of it.

The opposition have made it clear that they have already made up their minds against the NBN without having read or accepted a briefing on the business case. The opposition talk about transparency. The opposition are as transparent as crystal clear Tasmanian water: we can all see that they are trying to delay, spin and frustrate the project for petty political reasons. They just want to bulldoze the NBN. It is all petty politics with them. If the Liberals and Nationals are serious about ensuring Australians have access to world-class telecommunications infrastructure and the resulting health, economic and educational benefits then they would support the NBN rollout. In fact, if they were really serious they would have done it in their 11 or 12 years in government. But what did they do? They did nothing. They came up with 20 plans but no action. And what are they planning to do in the future. I presume they will continue to do nothing

I know Mr Abbott is not the most technologically literate of men, but when he told Malcolm Turnbull to ‘demolish the NBN’, why did he hand him a pickaxe and a hard hat? Malcolm Turnbull has stated publicly that the opposition will not support the NBN even if a cost-benefit analysis proved the project’s benefits to Australia. That just demonstrates that the coalition oppose this project for opposition’s sake. All their talk about transparency is a ruse; it is nothing but a convenient excuse. The truth is that they would deny Australia the economic potential of this project because they failed to think of it themselves. They hate to see this government taking the lead on broadband, just as we did with other nation-building projects such as compulsory superannuation and Medicare.

There have already been extensive reports written about the NBN, including five Senate committee reports and the McKinsey-KPMG implementation study, and numerous Senate estimates appearances by the NBN Co. CEO, Mike Quigley. The implementation study has already confirmed that the NBN will generate a six to seven per cent return and the government will fully recover its costs, including interest on borrowings—and that is before we even consider the economic and social benefits of the network. There have also been studies into the benefits of broadband by the OECD, Access Economics and IBM. The business plan will be released once commercial-in-confidence material is removed.

If those opposite are so concerned about transparency and due process, let us have a look at what they did in government. In 2007, John Howard’s $10 billion National Water Plan went to the Department of Finance and Administration just days before it was announced. Finance officials were yet to sign off on it before it went through the cabinet. In fact the department secretary, Ian Watt, was asked to ‘run an eye lightly over the costings’ before John Howard’s announce–ment. That is what happened when you mob were in government, so do not talk to us about accountability and transparency.

The business plan for the NBN will be released in due course, as we have said I do not know how many times on this side of the chamber. In the meantime the opposition have the opportunity to avail themselves of a confidential briefing. If they are not going to take up that option then it just goes to show they are not interested in the information. In their usual arrogant way, they have already made their minds up and no amount of expert opinion is going to sway them.

But it does not really matter what they think. The Australian people know the benefits of this project and the difference it will make to their lives. They certainly know it in Tasmania, where the NBN is already being rolled out and customers are already connected. Tasmanians know what is good for them—just look at the results from the last federal election. If those opposite who are acting like Neolithic primates cannot see the value of optic-fibre broadband then maybe they should spend more time in their electorates talking to ordinary Australians and less time with their heads in the sand. This matter of public importance is just more bluster and hot air from an opposition that would not know one end of a laptop from the other.

To reiterate, this is just another delaying tactic from those on the other side. They are just trying to frighten people. First of all, they called for a cost-benefit analysis. Then they introduced a private member’s bill. Then they wanted to set up a joint select com-mittee. They are not even happy when a House of Representatives committee is set up—Senator Fisher was just complaining about that. As we know, they are going to oppose it anyway. Those on the other side are not committed to the future of Australia. They are not committed to innovation. They are certainly not committed to nation-build-ing infrastructure. How can you do a cost-benefit analysis on technology that has not yet been thought of? Those on the other side are simply wreckers, opposing for opposition’s sake. They are trying to scare people by continuing along this line. They asked us question after question after question on the NBN. We keep giving them the answers; we keep telling them what is going to happen. They do not want to hear it. They just want to oppose, to be obstructionist. I suppose that is what you would expect from people in denial. They are yet to accept that they are on that side of the chamber. If I can just talk about a letter from the NBN Co.—(Time expired)