SPEECH - ADDRESS TO COMMSDAY MELBOURNE CONGRESS 2018 - 9 OCTOBER 2018

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I acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land on which we meet and pay my respect to Elders past and present.

I extend my acknowledgment to Grahame Lynch and the team at Communications Day for their relentless pursuit of news and analysis in the comms space, which enhances discourse in Australia, as well as my thanks for the invitation to address you today, in what may be the last major CommsDay event that I address before the next Federal election.

Looking back, looking forward

Taking stock, Australia has now had five years of the Liberal-National Government during this critical time in the evolution of communications.

The year 2020 fast approaches.

Given so few months remain between now and then, the dialogue about the communications sector will increasingly turn to matters beyond 2020.

Indeed, in his speech at the CommsDay Summit earlier this year, which I understand was more substantive than his appearance this morning, the Minister for Communications stated he’d like to “talk about the future of the telecommunications industry beyond 2020”. 

Given it is a mere 15 months away, it’s hard not to discuss matters beyond 2020, but I keep an open mind.

Disappointingly, all that talk amounted to was a set of observations on past, current and near-term developments due to occur around 2020, rather than the articulation of any vision, strategy or roadmap for the decade to 2030 or beyond.

On Australia’s fixed-line market beyond 2020, the Minister observed that the initial build of the NBN would be nearing completion. 

This had been forecast for some time and, in sincerity, I am not sure how restating what is already set to occur leaves the industry or the market any better positioned for what comes next.

On the future of Australia’s mobile market beyond 2020, the Minister observed that both Telstra and Optus had announced their intention to roll out consumer offerings for 5G in 2019, and that a Government report said 5G would increase productivity and economic growth in Australia.

Leaving aside the fact it was industry that requested expedited release of spectrum for 5G services 18 months ago, it is instructive to compare this Government’s short term view of the future with that of a regional counterpart.

While in 2018 the Australian Government has only just begun to talk about the future that awaits us in 2020; back in 2015 the Japanese  Government was already looking to 2030, publishing its ‘Future Vision for Revitalising Local Economies with ICT’, which touched on realising 5G and ‘Beyond 5G’ for mobile access.

It is no surprise that Japan has similar forward-looking strategies for sectors such as healthcare, for example.

Finally, on the future of the regulatory environment beyond 2020, the Minister noted a few regulatory changes that have recently been implemented as well as a set of changes now before Parliament, with the aim of having certain regulatory, funding and policy frameworks in place by 2020.

Again, very little beyond contemporary observations was offered. 

The Minister did note in passing that he was optimistic 2018 would mark the passage of a new Radiocommunications Bill, set to be introduced into Parliament later this year.  

Back in 2016, when he was one year into the role, the Minister stated in a CommsDay interview, and stated that the exposure draft of the reforms would be available later that year. “That’s the game plan”, he said.

At that point the exposure draft was already running a year behind, with the original timetable flagging September 2015 as the timeframe for release of a consolidated reform package, with passage of the legislative package by mid-2016.

In fact the first exposure draft did not emerge until mid-2017 and now, some 18 months later, there is still no sign of the second exposure draft let alone the introduction of the new Radcomms bill into Parliament.

However, Labor is confident that the Department is focused on progressing the spectrum reform agenda to implement the recommendations of the 2015 Spectrum Review, given that report notes that the sector is estimated to be worth around $177 billion to the economy over 15 years.

And Labor notes the ACMA is progressing as best it can, including with consultation on its Annual Work Program. 

But the Spectrum Reforms seem to be one of those things that lit Malcolm Turnbull up, and for which there was a bit of a fizz, but then nothing.

Four and a half years ago, in May 2014, the then Minister for Communications Turnbull, announced the review of Australia’s spectrum policy and management framework.

So long ago was that announcement made, that the link to the Minister’s release on the Department’s Spectrum Reform webpage directs people to Pandora’s Archive!  

The question is whether the Government, now in its sixth year in office, will see these reforms through. 

Principles and values 

One of the reasons the Spectrum Reforms may be stalling is the lack of policy direction under this Government. 

A month after the Minister’s CommsDay Interview in 2016, I addressed this forum for the first time, by discussing the principles I believe should be applied to communications policy-making in Australia and proposing what I consider to be necessary as an overarching strategy for the digital economy.

To date, however, the Government is yet to articulate a coherent, forward-looking and integrated whole-of-government policy framework, with measurable outcomes.

As I’ve noted in other fora, the Government, now into its sixth year in office, has failed to produce a Communications Policy Roadmap to guide the transition of the sector in this time of change, despite the Minister’s acknowledgment of the need for one and statement that it’s something the Government is working on.

They have failed to produce a digital economy strategy, a 5G strategy or a digital inclusion strategy. Over a year I called for a public dialogue on the future of television and broadcast standards evolution, in view of the advent of 4k and 8k TV, and the government is yet to commence it.

A Government with a coherent vision for its industry, consumers and citizens would signal its intentions and lay out its program – particularly in a sector with such high value benefits at stake.

The Government has imposed this discipline on the ACMA when it comes to laying out a five year spectrum work plan, yet it doesn’t lay out its own plan.

Now, why is this important?

Does the average punter even care about this?

The answer is yes.

Focusing on the NBN main game

Politicians often get told that they should get out and listen to the people.

I can assure you, I don’t need any encouragement.

Since becoming Shadow Minister I have held up to 50 forums in my portfolio area across the country.

These forums are very often a useful distillation of the public mood on key issues.

On Sunday I held a mobile office in a predominantly Liberal voting part of my electorate.

Such exercises are a regular feature of a marginal seat holder in Western Sydney for the past 8 years.

I had a conversation with a gentleman who reminded me of something I have long known — the public is acutely aware, and increasingly angry, that the political will to act in key policy areas has been lacking in Australia.

This was a reminder that one of the key challenges faced in the labour movement is to restore the faith of Australians in the capacity of the democratic process to deliver meaningful improvement to quality of life, and to demonstrate that politicians can put the national interest ahead of their own.

The past twelve months have been a challenging and busy period for the NBN project.

We have seen the HFC pause in late 2017, which led to further cost increases and rollout delays.

In December, the wholesale pricing changes took effect.

The ACCC and the ACMA have established rules and programs aimed at improving consumer outcomes and industry accountability.

In regional Australia, the fixed wireless network has been tested under the growing weight of consumer demand for data.

And more recently the latest NBN Corporate Plan revealed further cost increases.

It was with some amusement, but mostly frustration, that I observed the $1,800 per month internet bill of a Minister receive more coverage and scrutiny by the mainstream media than the $2.1 billion cost increase to the NBN revealed in August.

I’m sure that is probably telling us something.

A lot has been said about the NBN and where we are today.

The political debate has been robust and highly partisan, which is what you would expect when articulating points of policy difference in a matter involving significant taxpayer expenditure.

Indeed, I’ve opened my comments this morning with a lengthy criticism of the performance of this government and the Minister.

And I appreciate that has been to the frustration of some here, for there are some issues in politics whose history, for a variety of reasons, make it difficult to find a middle path.

But from time to time, in some policy areas, a period of opportunity presents itself that provides room to make things less contested.

Energy policy was one such space, where that moment was unfortunately not seized.

The National Energy Guarantee was an opportunity to address many years of disagreement between the major parties on several key aspects of energy policy.

There would continue to be disagreement about emissions targets, but that could at least occur within a framework in which both parties had a stake.

The downfall of the National Energy Guarantee was not a result of partisanship.

It was an implosion within the Government itself – a product of history, entrenched positions, and of course the persistence of a few climate sceptics who still remain in the Parliament today.

There is a headline in today’s papers about the latest climate change report that echoes what that gentleman told me on Sunday: “the political will is to act even as costs climb higher.”

I mention this because I want to draw a comparison with the NBN.

The departure of the former Prime Minister means the primary architects of the National Broadband Network — from both sides of politics — are no longer in Parliament.

The NBN rollout has also reached a point where it is almost entirely in design, construction or deployed — a reality which cannot be undone through political will or legislative change.

As a result there is likely to be less emphasis on the issues which have been the focal point for the last five years, and a greater focus on the medium term policy settings – namely, the economics of the NBN.

The big inflection points in NBN policy were arguably 2007, 2009 and late 2013.

The next inflection points will likely come in the next term of parliament.

Looking forward, this becomes the main game.

In formulating and shaping the medium term settings difficult decisions will need to be made by whoever is in Government after the next election.

Australians know that to the extent major parties are unable or unwilling to find common ground on fundamental national objectives, there is a risk politics will continue to extract a transactional cost as the next round of key decisions arrive.

The debate over energy policy has shown this is not in the public interest. As of today, Australia effectively does not even have an energy policy.

As a party vying to be a credible alternative Government, Labor recognises the history and politics of the NBN do not have much practical bearing on the decisions which have to be made next.

To the extent they do have a bearing, it’s more to do with what we have learned from the process so far.

This is an opportunity to step back and examine with clear eyes what we want to achieve with the NBN going forward, to return to its objective.

The result of this is that there can be room for a different type of debate.

I’m not suggesting there will be a flowering of bipartisanship on the NBN.

But as we move into the next phase, the Australian people increasingly expect its elected representatives to deliver on those policy objectives.

In practice this means being more selective about where we have our debates and why we have them.

So today I want to suggest a few starting points.

I consider an important opening step is that NBNCo should have a good working relationship with the Government of the day, and a professional relationship with the Opposition – irrespective of who is in power.

Second, where possible, the major parties need to identify common ground on outcomes they want to see into the future.

And while it is likely key areas of disagreement will remain, there are some areas where there is not as much distance as public commentary might suggest.

Both parties are committed to the principle of universal access.

Both parties want broadband to be affordable.

Both parties want to act responsibly in a fiscal sense.

And both parties, I presume, want to see a sustainable funding mechanism for regional and remote services – not just in name but also in substance.

This is a basis to work from.

Third, governments need to think about how to stop creating traps for themselves.

In many ways the 2013 Strategic Review created more problems for Government than it solved.

The third attempt at misrepresenting the cost of a fibre rollout in the 2016 Corporate plan was an own goal.

The AFP raids speak for themselves.

These events become flashpoints and take on a life of their own as symbols of the battles they represent.

These might have been deemed necessary political counter-punches at the time, but inevitably they undermined trust and brought with it a hardening of positions that incurred a price well beyond the range of the moment.

Lastly, we need to recapture some of that original narrative about what the NBN was about in the first place.

In April this year, NBN made a shift and presented new research about the social and economic benefits of the NBN.

In doing so, the company sought to provide a basis in which both parties can have a stake in some of the life changing opportunities which ubiquitous access to high-speed broadband is opening up for Australians across the country.

I consider the pathways to improving the sentiment is a function of better experience, better service, authentic expectations management and an ongoing value proposition that connects with a broader narrative about the mindset we want Australians to adopt in the digital age.

What I am outlining is a candid assessment that the NBN has entered a phase where circumstances, some operational, and some arising from changes in leadership, provide us with an opportunity to shift our attention.

In terms of this main game — which I deem to be key questions about the future of the NBN and its structural settings — it would be sensible for the major parties to identify common ground on the next steps where feasible to do so.

Lastly, I want to make observations on customer experience.

In late 2016, it became clear consumers migrating to the NBN were experiencing more challenges than there ought to have been.

Labor made this its number one priority over the next 2 years as the Government was simply not taking the issues seriously enough.

This is why Labor formulated and announced its NBN Service Guarantee.

Over that period and up until now I have outlined a series of priorities:

  • Stopping the practice of consumers being sold speeds that NBN infrastructure could not deliver.
  • Seeing fibre to the kerb deployed in areas where design and construction on fibre to the node had not begun.
  • Improving wholesale accountability incentives to safeguard consumers and small businesses against excessive downtime.
  • Bringing unmonitored medical alarms used by vulnerable Australians within the scope of the NBN medical alarm assistance scheme.
  • Calling for a $20 per month price increase on the fixed-wireless network to be re-thought.
  • Improving reporting on fixed wireless congestion.

There has been good progress on some, not everything we wanted on others. But it is encouraging that there has been some progress in all of these areas.

To the credit of industry, the migration process and the experience of consumers once connected is improving.

It is clear the NBN wholesale pricing changes have been effective and industry-led process improvements focused on the migration are now bearing results.

If the improvements we are observing at a grass roots level, reflect what is occurring more broadly this is a welcome sign that will at some point translate into improved indicators on complaints.

In any case, this does not mean the task is finished.

As David Tudehope from Macquarie Telecom often reminds us, we still have much further to go.

Consumer interactions are still too complex and customer service is unfortunately still not meeting the expectations of many in the community.

We need to continue to aim high to ensure the focus on process improvements becomes the rule and not the exception.

Assistance and Access Bill

I now wish to speak address the Assistance and Access Bill — also known as the Encryption Bill — which has been the topic of some debate in recent weeks.

Protecting national security and enabling law enforcement agencies to operate effectively in the digital age is a bipartisan commitment.

Labor is committed to ensuring our security agencies have the resources and capabilities they need to keep Australians safe.

A critical element of this is ensuring Australians have confidence that the appropriate privacy safeguards and transparency measures are put in place, to ensure their rights are protected as they go about their daily lives.  

The Encryption Bill is undoubtedly a controversial piece of legislation that rightly has elicited strong reactions and concerns from industry, academia, privacy advocates and cyber security experts.

A measure of this are reports that over 15,000 submission to the exposure draft process were received.

What I want to stress today is that the Parliament’s bipartisan approach to national security does not extinguish our capacity to have robust and constructive debates.

It is proper that the capabilities of our security agencies adapt to remain effective in the digital age. Our collective task is to work together to get the details and the balance right.

I want to acknowledge Communications Alliance, and John Stanton, for not just their strong advocacy in relation to concerns surrounding the Bill, but also the constructive manner in which the industry has approached the issue.

I also want to acknowledge Internet Australia, and Dr Paul Brooks, for their working in helping to make some of the complexities of the issues more accessible to Parliamentarians, and to CommsDay for its depth of analysis in reporting on the issues.

The Bill comes against a backdrop where confidence in institutions is under immense stress.

There is a trust deficit emerging between the public and politicians, which has, for a variety of reasons here and across the globe, been accumulating over the past decade.

Trust in institutions goes to the very health of our democracy and this applies whether we are speaking about the independence of public broadcasting, the conduct of politicians, or indeed security measures that enlarge the role of Government in storing or accessing personal information.

In addressing the Bill I want to focus on two areas.

First, on the Bill itself, and second, the process through which the Bill will be considered.

The Bill is both complex and broad.

Despite being 176 pages in length, and containing near 43,000 words, it has been pointed out to me the text of the Bill only contains the word encryption once.

Whilst I remain unclear on what the full scope of the Bill is in terms of its practical application — and I’m yet to have someone articulate it to me, the proposed assistance framework does appear to go beyond encryption and potentially into the sphere of modifying devices and software at different points in the service stack.

This, to the best of my knowledge, is new territory and therefore needs to be scrutinised rigorously.

From a consumer standpoint national security legislation often deals with trade-offs between security and privacy.

From an industry standpoint, the focus shifts to the trade-offs between the national security objectives of Government, the costs to industry to comply, as well as the checks and balances which govern how and when requests for assistance are issued.

In the communications portfolio very often these security debates come down to judgements about risk, and how the tolerance of Governments for risk changes as connectivity becomes more embedded in society and indeed in some of the methods of those who seek to do us harm.

However, what I consider makes this draft legislation more complex than those which have preceded it is that we are not simply dealing with trade-offs between security and privacy, or security and cost.

Rather, we are also potentially dealing in trade-offs between security and security.

That is, the pursuit of one security objective, through the development of measures to bypass encryption to access information on a device, as one example, being traded off against the security of a broader system that may now have greater vulnerability as a result of being modified, temporarily or permanently, to facilitate that access.

These will become judgements about competing forms of technical risk to systems and devices, which are complex and can vary from circumstance to circumstance.

Another issue is that unlike a number of other national security measures that are wholly domestic in their effect, seeking to impose stringent new legal obligations on global technology companies that operate in Australia but have a global presence may have significant ramifications.

This is a different level of complexity to the Telecommunications Security Sector Reforms, which were also a challenging set of reforms for the industry and took the better part of two years to refine.

It is self-evident that the process by which these issues are considered and worked through needs to be proportionate to the complexity at hand.

The implications of such scenarios need to be tested. To do this we need time.

This brings me to the process for the Access and Assistance Bill.

It is vital that the government engages in proper consultation processes when introducing entirely new national security laws with the potential to impact every Australian who uses a phone or computer.  

Without proper consultation, public confidence in these measures, and the agencies that use them, may be undermined.

Labor was and remains concerned at the haste with which the Bill was introduced to Parliament.

We want to see an appropriate number of days allocated to public hearings to allow experts, industry and civil rights advocates to put forward their views and respond to questions in a public forum.

I am pleased that the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security has decided to establish additional public hearings, previously only one day was scheduled.

The second action Labor would like to see is for the Government engage directly with the affected industries and stakeholder bodies regarding the significant concerns they have raised about the measures in this bill, with a view to developing workable solutions.

This engagement should include a series of industry workshops to develop scenarios and stress test them against the processes and mechanisms set out in the Bill.

This will help to develop a better understanding of where legitimate objectives encounter technical barriers, or when there is an absence of limiting factors, or adequate accountability, in circumstances where requests can be issued.

Conclusion

As ever, Labor is highly engaged.

The description “leading from Opposition” has been used on several occasions, and I submit the lengthy and non-exhaustive list of policy proposals in the NBN space I mentioned earlier is a case in point.

On any number of fronts, Labor has advanced dialogue on the issues the industry wants to progress and ideas for the betterment of our economy and society – ideas that, more often than not, this Government has eventually come around to.

From NBN service levels, to medical alarms and fibre to the kerb; whether on the need for a digital economy strategy, a 5G strategy or a dialogue on the future of the broadcast platform, Labor has not been idle in Opposition.

Here I’d like to thank and pay tribute to this forum, and its participants, for the quality of engagement on issues in the Communications Portfolio.

As Shadow Minister I have addressed this forum five times over the last three years. On each occasion, it has made me think, and then challenged and refined my thinking with critiques of what has been put forward over the course of years.

The value of the relationships facilitated at this forum, particularly in view of the limited resources of Opposition, has been invaluable, so I thank industry and various agencies for their time and engagement.

Labor does not take anything for granted in the upcoming election.

It will be hard-fought and the result will be close either way.

As Bill Shorten has made clear, Labor won’t be running a small target strategy next election campaign, we’re going to be doing all we can to prove that we’re the best party to lead Australia.

If elected, Labor will be ambitious for Australia’s future and its future generations.

That’s because we believe Australians deserve a government with the principles, vision and drive to harness the potential of the advancements in the communications sector.