BILLS;National Broadband Network Financial Transparency Bill 2010 (No. 2);Second Reading – 25 Aug 2011

Thank heavens the time has expired. Senator Birmingham, I think you should be embarrassed to move the second reading of this private senator’s bill. If I were him I would be ashamed to admit to even a skerrick of responsibility for this tripe that is barely worth the paper it was written on. He waxes lyrical as if he is some kind of virtuous defender of truth and freedom. He is not a freedom fighter. He is not a fighter for financial transparency. He is a shadow boxer. In fact, it would be fair to say that Senator Birmingham is to financial trans­parency what Port Adelaide are to kicking goals. If Senator Birmingham was serious about financial transparency, why would this bill be drafted as it has been, scrawled on a piece of paper somewhere? Senator Birmingham has presented this shambolic bill to the parliament for one reason and one reason only. The coalition are opposed the National Broadband Network. Let’s not forget that when Tony Abbott appointed Malcolm Turnbull as the opposition’s communications spokesman, Mr Turnbull’s riding orders were to demolish the NBN. In other words, he would demolish the promise of high-speed optic fibre, wireless and satellite broadband access to all Australians; demolish the revolution in health, home and community care, education, social inclusion, entertainment, business and commerce that will ultimately result from this nation-building project; demolish the opportunity to break Telstra’s monopoly and deliver true telecommunications competition to Aust­ralian consumers; and demolish any chance that telecommunications consumers in rural and regional Australia have of getting access to fast, affordable, world-class broadband services.

That is what this bill is about—demolition. It is another plank in Tony Abbott’s campaign to take a wrecking ball to services in Australia, just like his plans to dismantle GP superclinics, trades training centres and any meaningful response to tackling climate change. It is just another stunt, another delaying tactic in their desperate bid to stop progress on the rollout of the NBN. They want as few Australians as possible to get access to this network because they know that when the possi­bilities of the NBN are realised the oppo­sition will be revealed as the Luddites they are rather than the champions of financial transparency that they pretend to be.

I struggle to hear in any of the contributions of those opposite what their objection is to affordable, fast broadband. It seems to me that their only basis for opposing the NBN is their shame for their own failure to realise the economic and social opportunities it represents. It makes me wonder if they really understand the technology at all. If you asked any member of the coalition, they would probably tell you that broadband is found on a hat, fibre to the home is what you get when you return from the local store with your favourite breakfast cereal and a megabit is what you place in the mouth of an extremely large horse. Should we be surprised that anachronistic neander­thals would want to demolish the NBN? Mr Abbott and the Liberal-National coalition have a one-word vocabulary when it comes to their response to the rollout of nation-building projects and that word is ‘no’.

Their penchant for predicting doom and gloom when Labor puts forward a major nation-building project is a tradition that has been handed down through generations of coalition caucuses. For example, when the Labor government in 1992 introduced the superannuation guarantee, the coalition opposed it, predicting that it would not provide ongoing security for retirees and would result in mass job losses across the country—the sky was going to fall. Instead, compulsory super has raised over a trillion dollars in capital for investment in Australia and has dramatically reduced the govern­ment’s liability for age pensions. In 1973 when the Whitlam government proposed the Health Insurance Bill setting up the Medibank scheme, now known as Medicare, the opposition referred to it as a socialist scheme that would destroy private hospitals, consume the resources of the country and lower the standards of health care in Austra­lia. The sky was going to fall yet again. The Medicare system has now developed into a cost-effective public system that provides universal healthcare to Australians regardless of their means.

True to their form, we have a Liberal-National coalition opposition that now says no to every positive proposal that is put forward to build the prosperity of our nation: no to the economic stimulus that saved Australia from recession and the projected loss of 200,000 jobs; no to trades training centres and GP superclinics; no to receiving a fair return on the resources that belong to all Australians so that we can boost super­annuation returns and cut income tax for business; no to a price on pollution, the most cost-effective means of achieving real action on climate change; and the bill before the Senate is the opposition’s way of saying no to the National Broadband Network.

This is another hollow stunt from an opposition that has more tricks than David Copperfield. You can tell it is a stunt because the member for Wentworth, Malcolm Turnbull, has refused to drop his opposition to the NBN even if a cost-benefit analysis comes back overwhelmingly positive about the case for the NBN. You can also tell it is a stunt because most of the information they are seeking is already on the public record. There are thousands of pages of published information on the feasibility, viability and expected commercial return of the NBN. The government has commissioned expert independent advisers, McKinsey and KPMG, to conduct a detailed implementation study of the NBN. McKinsey and KPMG under­took detailed modelling of the revenues and costs that could be expected from the project, given the government’s objectives. The implementation study found that the NBN could be expected to pay back the taxpayers’ investment with a small return. So, before we even start to factor in any of the economic or social benefits of the NBN, there is already a positive on the cost side of the ledger.

The government also released NBN Co.’s corporate plan in December 2010 which showed, based on conservative assumptions, that the NBN would support uniform national wholesale prices, deliver affordable retail prices and still generate a return that exceeded the 10-year bank rate. In February 2011 we released the Greenhill Caliburn review of the NBN’s corporate plan, which found the key assumptions underlying the revenue and cost projections in the plan to be reasonable. Now there has been some work done independently of government on the benefits of the NBN. Access Economics estimated the benefits to telehealth to be between $2 billion and $4 billion a year. A study commissioned by IBM in 2009 found that a fibre-to-the-node network would conservatively boost the net present value of Australia’s gross domestic product by between $8 billion and $23 billion over a 10-year period. I should point out that the IBM study considered a fibre-to-the-node net­work, not a fibre-to-the-home network, so we are actually talking about the value of an inferior network to the one we are now building.

So, there are a number of reports on the benefits of the NBN. But any suggestion that you can fully quantify those benefits is pie in the sky, cloud-cuckoo-land thinking. It is kind of like the Postmaster General’s Depart­ment laying the telephone network in the early 20th century and trying to predict the emergence of the internet. Anyone who understands broadband knows that increas­ing the speed gives rise to applications that could not have been contemplated before. For example, whoever thought we would have had telemedicine in days when the average internet connection was a 56K dial-up?

We have seen what has happened in other countries when they have tried this exercise. A recent Austrade delegation to Japan was told by the Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications that they had tried to do a cost-benefit analysis on a fibre-to-the-home network. They projected the value added to the Japanese economy during the period 2011-20 to be 73 trillion yen, or about A$900 billion. Adjusting for Austra­lia’s economy, that would be about A$182 billion over the same period. The study only measured the economic value to the telecom­munications companies and other industries that would benefit from the high-speed network being in place. However, when they tried to go one step further and calculate the economic value of the enhancements in the everyday lives of the Japanese people, there were so many assumptions and variables involved that the process defeated them. But I am sure Senator Birmingham, with his crystal ball and tarot cards, could show Japanese economists a thing or two about economic forecasting.

I have come across another report recently, by the Allen Consulting Group. The group conducted a series of targeted focus groups with small businesses and community organisations in the NBN’s mainland first release sites: Brunswick, Townsville, Kiama and Armidale. The businesses and com­munity organisations identified a number of opportunities presented by high-speed broad­band such as the ability to sell or market their products online with a greater use of graphics, high-definition video and other multimedia; the potential for tools that enhance person-to-person visual communi­cation to bring groups and individuals together; profiling for television ads based on specific characteristics of the viewer’s own browsing and viewing habits as a new way to market products; the use of point of view video technology to enhance online shopping experiences; and the development of smart-phone-like applications and prod­ucts. Perhaps the coalition should have a good look at some of these reports before Mr Abbott and Mr Turnbull start wandering around the streets of Scottsdale, Smithton and Midway Point, in my home state of Tasmania, with a pair of bolt cutters.

Why would the coalition want to demolish and tear up the NBN? Well, it’s quite simple: I think they are embarrassed. They are embarrassed because of their poor record on telecommunications in 12 years of government. They are embarrassed about the fact that not only did they develop 20 failed broadband plans throughout both govern­ment and opposition but when Howard left office, telecommunications for consumers in remote and regional Australia had actually gone backwards.

We know the opposition never had a real commitment to decent telecommunications services in rural and regional Australia when they were in government. Let us look at their record. They destroyed services by priva­tising Telstra. How can you have genuine competition in the telecommunications industry when most of the infrastructure is owned by a vertically integrated private monopoly? We all know that it is hard to get true telecommunications competition in regional areas because of the cost of doing business. If we want to deliver quality, affordable services to the bush, we cannot just rely on Telstra to act in the national interest. They are a private company. They have a duty to their shareholders. And we certainly cannot rely on a weak universal service obligation like the one the Howard government put in place. But they went ahead, knowing that their actions would destroy telecommunications services in rural and regional Australia, and they should hang their heads in shame for it.

Perhaps the coalition will just continue their record of privatisation and sell off the optic fibre. After all, they need to sell something to help plug their $70 billion black hole. Anyway, where was their cost-benefit analysis for the privatisation of Telstra? I did not see anyone on that side of the chamber calling for financial transpar­ency back then. I did not see any coalition members ask what that would do to Australia’s homes and businesses and to our country’s economic development and social inclusion. I know what it did to the residents of Lunawanna on Bruny Island when their public payphone was ripped out and taken away. I know what it has done to the people who have complained to my office that they used to get coverage with the CDMA network and now cannot get coverage with 3G. And I know what the lack of broadband infrastructure is doing when people in the remote areas of the Huon Valley contact my office and say their internet connection keeps timing out. Consumers understand the bene­fits of the NBN. They are voting with their feet: 88 per cent of households have signed up for an NBN connection at the first release site near Armidale; 78 per cent have signed up in Kiama Downs, 62 per cent in Towns­ville and 52 per cent in Brunswick.

Just last month I attended a public forum held by NBN Co. at Kingston Beach, one of Tasmania’s second release sites. It was held at a small hall at the Kingston Beach Surf Life Saving Club and 450 people went in and out of that hall during the day, and at times there was barely room to move. That was 450 people in the small suburb of Kingston Beach with questions about the NBN and the possibilities it can offer them in their homes, businesses and community. In fact, I notice that so desperate are Australians to get their hands on an NBN fibre connection that Teresa Gambaro, the federal member for Brisbane, has been calling for the network to be rolled out in her electorate. It appears that the member for Brisbane has broken ranks with her coalition colleagues, who are calling for the NBN to be demolished. Well, the member for Brisbane knows what her con­stituents want, and that is true competition in telecommunications. They want access to optic fibre broadband with speeds of 100 megabits per second or, failing that, wireless and satellite broadband at speeds of 12 megabits per second.

I bet there are plenty of other coalition backbenchers who, despite being pressed into opposing the NBN, know that their constituents are clamouring to get access to it. It is about time they come clean with their constituents and say, ‘I’m sorry, I know you want access to fast and affordable broad­band, but we’re not going to give you that because our policy is to tear up the NBN.’ Or perhaps those like the member for Brisbane should put pressure on Mr Abbott and Mr Turnbull to change their policy and commit to continuing the rollout of the NBN so that every Australian gets the fast, affordable broadband services that they deserve. But what do you expect from the parties that, in government, sold off Telstra and, in doing so, sold out the people of rural and regional Australia and left them with second-rate telecommunications services?

What can you expect when even the Nationals, who purport to stand up for regional Australia, were complicit in the dismantling of Australia’s regional communi­cations infrastructure? What can you expect from a coalition that has had 20 failed broad­band plans and still cannot come up with a coherent policy? Senator Birmingham, the Australian people are looking to you for a policy, and the best they can get is an eight-page stunt. And you call it the National Broadband Network Financial Transparency Bill. Well, your motives are pretty trans­parent to all of us!

You are obviously thinking: ‘If we can just delay this project a little longer, perhaps we can stop Australians getting connected to the network and realising the benefit. If we can just delay this project a little longer, maybe we can buy some time and actually come up with a proper policy.’ Well, it is a little bit late for that. If the response I saw firsthand at the forum at Kingston Beach is anything to go by, Australians want this network. Against the tide of Australians signing up for fast, affordable broadband, the federal coalition are like stunned deer caught in headlights.

I know Senator Birmingham must have had a few minutes spare while he was waiting for his plane to board at Canberra Airport, and I reckon that if I popped down to the lounge I could probably find a coaster with Senator Birmingham’s bill written on the back of it. But real policy is not just about the opposition’s favourite pastime, opposing things. That is your favourite pastime. Real policy is actually about pro­posing a constructive alternative, and that is what you fail to do on that side all the time—not 20 alternatives; we do not want 20. We are happy with just one as long as it is decent and reasonable. So, if you on that side want some free advice, I would say that this is a pretty sorry excuse for a private senator’s bill. Get together with your colleague Mr Turnbull and put at least the same amount of time into coming up with a broadband policy—or, if that is all a bit too hard, maybe you could get on and support ours. After all, the rest of Australia has.

I notice Senator Bushby is here. I think Senator Bushby and the Tasmanian senators are very aware of what results opposing the NBN had for those on the other side in the last federal election. I am surprised that they have not got the courage to stand up to Mr Abbott and Mr Turnbull and say, ‘We need this NBN.’ In fact, this bill shows that the only people left in Australia that oppose and do not support fast, affordable broadband are the federal opposition. It is not a bad dream. I know it is taking a bit of time to adapt but, yes, you are actually living in the 21st century. It might take you a bit of time to get used to it, but I would strongly encourage you all on that side to try and get used to it, to move with the times and to acknowledge the benefits of NBN to the whole of society in regard, as I said, to education, e-health, social inclusion and the range of other areas that will make a huge difference to the people of Australia—not just to the people in cities but also to rural and regional Australians.