Review of the NBN rollout – 5th Report
18 June 2013
I am very pleased to speak in support of the fifth report of the Joint Committee on the National Broadband Network. We come into this place to talk about the biggest infrastructure project in Australia’s history and to have those opposite come forward and rubbish it, I think, says everything about their debate on the NBN that has gone on in this 43rd Parliament. Much to the coalition’s despair, and unfortunately for them, the NBN keeps getting more and more popular as a policy.
I am disappointed because, for the last speech that the member for Wentworth is going to make in the 43rd Parliament on the NBN, I really wanted him to give a blow-by-blow account of the ‘fraudband’ launch. How awkward was it? It was awks to the max! The Leader of the Opposition was moving into the shadows and saying, ‘Come into the dark, Malcolm. Come to the dark side.’ I thought he was going to start speaking like Darth Vader. It was absolutely embarrassing to watch, but amusing at the same time. I was hoping that the member for Wentworth was going to talk about that, but alas, no. Their comments are despite the fact that people like Vince Cerf, the father of the internet, has given his blessing to this project on many, many occasions. This is despite the fact that we had the CeBIT conference in Australia only a couple of weeks ago where, again, we were lauded as a government for our forward-thinking policy on this matter. As well, the ITU holds up Australia as an example of best practice in national broadband rollout.
One of the biggest complaints I still get from people is not that the NBN is happening but is, ‘When am I going to get it?’ People have waited for so long in backwaters of not only regional Australia but outer metropolitan cities as well. I was disappointed he has left the chamber, because the member for Cowper talked about the government abandoning regional Australia.
He is the bloke who sold out on regional Australia. I will give you some facts and I will give you some evidence to support that in just a moment.
Just to go back a bit, firstly, I feel sorry for the member for Cowper having to come in here and push the member for Wentworth’s lines on this matter. But let’s not forget that when Telstra was fully privatised, when those opposite were in government, the Nats were absolutely sold down the river. They took all the elements that should have been about regional accessibility and affordability, moved them into a separate piece of legislation and told everyone that that would be okay. The member for Chifley mentioned it but I will talk a bit more about the sell-off process that not only led to issues with the Telstra pits that we see today but also made Australia, and confirmed Australia’s position as, an absolute broadband backwater—behind countries like Estonia and many countries of Eastern Europe.
I will not have the member for Cowper coming in here and saying these things. He talked about mobile and fixed. I feel like I have been giving this same lecture, the same lessons, to some people opposite over and over again. The inability to understand the difference between mobile, wireless and fixed wireless is simply beyond me. It is a debate that was settled many, many years ago—that mobile and fixed are complementary, not substitutable, and that fixed wireless services require a backbone. In this case you look to the best backbone that you can build to maximise capacity, and that is a fibre backbone. It is no wonder that mobile operators are enthusiastically embracing the NBN for the opportunity to fibre up their base stations.
The member for Cowper talked about the lack of mobile access. In the early 2000s we had an attempt to introduce USO contestability in Australia. We had a pilot project for the Pacific Highway, running through the member for Cowper’s own electorate, for which bidding was done, and which resulted in absolutely no measurable improvement. So the only thing that was done on this matter by those opposite when they were in government on this matter was an absolute, abject failure.
I will take up a few issues to do with regional Australia, which is one of the things I really want to talk about in relation to this particular report. There is the issue of a universal wholesale price under Labor’s NBN versus there being no equivalent under the broadband plan of those opposite. I will quote from the Hansard of the public hearing on Friday 19 April. I specifically asked the question of Ms Teresa Corbin of ACCAN:
I presume you are also aware that the government has imposed a universal wholesale price for the NBN and, in light of your comments about affordability, how important is it not to discriminate against people who live in outer metropolitan areas and regional areas?
This is very important to our members.
I went on to ask:
What feedback do you get already from consumers living in regional areas in particular about things like the digital divide?
She went on to explain how it is very important for people living in regional Australia to have the same opportunities for affordability and accessibility as those living in the city. Yet again, I am disappointed he did not stick around. I ask what the member for Cowper did to improve broadband in his electorate when he was part of a government? How many failed plans did we have from those opposite that produced no measurable improvements in broadband across Australia?
I would like to turn to something the member for Wentworth took some time mentioning—chapter 4 of the dissenting report, and specifically item 4.1. To be quite frank, I find it rather tawdry that those opposite want to come in here and start talking about—it is like a gossip chapter—the new chair of NBN Co. and the CEO of NBN Co., quoting various articles from News Limited, from The Australian and the Australian Financial Review. They have a recommendation in which they cannot even spell Ms McKenna’s name properly, but I digress.
It is absolutely ridiculous for the member for Wentworth and those opposite to have spent so much time and energy on a chapter called ‘Unstable governance and question over board’s confidence in CEO.’ Something that I learnt very early on—and I would have thought the member for Wentworth, as someone who is always coming in here talking about all the big deals that he has done with Rupert and friends, would have lectured me on this—is that the people who you are sitting opposite to and doing a deal with may one day very well be the people on your team. You do not want to go off making bizarre accusations and relying on hearsay and gossip. You want to rely on the facts. I find it absolutely ridiculous for the member for Wentworth to choose to spend so much time on this particular issue. He does himself great discredit. It is merely an attempt to again try and smear Mr Quigley. Whatever reasons he has for doing that, they are his own and I will leave him to it.
We again had those opposite come in here and start talking about the rollout targets. But the reality is that at the end of May NBN Co. was on track to beat its revised June rollout targets and to pass between 171,836 homes and 185,808 premises with fibre by the end of June—far exceeding its set target. It must be very disappointing for those opposite to have seen support for Labor’s existing policy increase after those opposite released their policy. Prior to the release of ‘fraudband’, 73 per cent of people surveyed supported Labor’s NBN. After ‘fraudband’ was released, that went up to 78 per cent. That must be striking a very raw nerve.
I have called out MPs before who say one thing in their electorates about how much they support increasing broadband opposite but who do something else when they come to Canberra. I am going to call out a few more. You will like this one, member for Moreton. This is a special one from the member for Moncrieff. On 5 June he sent a letter out to his electorate. I do not know what is the most disturbing thing about this. The opening line reads: ‘Access to fast broadband is no longer a want; it is rapidly becoming a need for Gold Coast households and businesses.’ It is not already a need? ‘It is rapidly becoming a need’? Then there is a typo, but I digress. There are then some claims made. I quote: ‘When Labor first announced the NBN in 2007, they said it would cost around $4.7 billion and be completed by 2013. Since then, Labor changed the forecast and said it would cost taxpayers $37 billion. Now we know it’s actually going to cost taxpayers around $94 billion.’ Where does this come from?
I specifically asked the NBN Co. about this when it appeared before the committee. And remember that these committee proceedings had the same rules as the parliament. I said:
Mr Quigley, I want to go back to your briefing at the start, just to be crystal clear. The NBN costs $37.4 billion. What veracity should then be given to assertions that the NBN cost could in fact be around $90 billion?
Mr Quigley said:
I can only repeat that we are confident of the $37.4 billion figure.
Then I asked:
Do you know how that $90 billion figure was derived?
Mr Quigley said:
How on earth can these people get away with making continuous false claims? I will quote some comments from Delimiter about this particular letter:
… other elements of Ciobo’s letter are demonstrably inaccurate, delivered without context, or could be considered highly contestable, in that they do not represent mainstream thinking in the telecommunications industry from the consensus of expert opinion.
There is a lot more that I could say about that one. But in the time available I will instead move on to the member for Calare.
The member for Calare claimed a couple of weeks ago that the coalition’s national broadband policy would guarantee speeds of at least 25 gigabytes to all Australians by 2016, with Labor’s policy to deliver a mere 100 kilobits. Now, 25 gigabytes is a pretty quick download speed.
He also claimed that the coalition has guaranteed at least 25 gigs for everybody by 2016.
It gets better. We have the Leader of the Nationals on Insiders with Barrie Cassidy a couple of weeks ago. This is pretty special; it was quite embarrassing to watch; the guy had no idea. He was asked by Barrie Cassidy:
In your speech to the National Council meeting yesterday— which I presume was the Nats’ meeting — you raised the NBN … you said under the Coalition every country household will have access to high speed broad band with a minimum speed 25 megabits per second, but how much will it cost householders to have access to that?
Mr Truss could not answer. He said:
Well it will be significantly cheaper than the NBN.
Mr Cassidy asked:
The NBN, under the existing arrangements, the access will be free?
Mr Truss answered:
… there will be still charges for … signing up.
Mr Cassidy said:
Yes but we’re talking about connection fees to the house.
Mr Truss said:
Our connection fees will be lower.
He was absolutely incapable of answering the question.
The member for Chifley addressed some very important issues concerning asbestos. I too would be very keen to see what was in the documents when Telstra was fully privatised and what due diligence was done. There was the material risk in that everyone knew that many of those pits were built before World War II and would have asbestos lining in them. I do not remember any of the Liberals or the Nationals getting up in parliament at the time—and I followed the debate very closely—and saying, ‘In the future, someone is probably going to open those pits and do some work in them. We’d better cover off this risk.’ This has been uncontested: a direct result of the sell-off was the number of permanent staff that were made contractors. What was said in those public offer documents, in the sale documents, about the potential risk of having staff who become contractors rather than being directly employed by Telstra? I would be very interested to know these things.
I will end by saying that this continues to be a very popular policy with the Australian people. I know it is popular in my electorate. Firms have moved to my area just to take up the benefit of the NBN, including the Good Egg Studio at Riverstone. The member for Wentworth came to Blacktown and admitted that Blacktown would become a city divided: people who have access to the NBN and those who do not. That is not what we want from the National Broadband Network.