SUBJECT: Lack of transparency in NBN.
JON FAINE: Now a month or two ago we told you about the bizarre decision taken by the Turnbull Federal Coalition Government to give Rupert Murdoch's Foxtel $30 million, for which we made an FOI application in order to discover the paper trail. We wanted to know what it was for, what documents existed to explain what the $30 million was paid for and what was offered and promised in exchange. We learned through FOI, that in fact no documents existed whatsoever, so they couldn't meet our FOI request because there were no documents. Well that's been raised many times in Parliament but it seems there is also no paper trail about the NBN Co's decision to rush off to Fibre to the Curb technology. The Labor Party are hot to trot on this. Shadow Minister for Communications is Michelle Rowland. Ms Rowland, good morning to you.
MICHELLE ROWLAND, SHADOW MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: Good morning Jon.
FAINE: Explain Fibre to the Curb first please.
ROWLAND: Well, Fibre to the Curb differs to Fibre to the Node and Fibre to the Premises. It’s more or less a halfway in between them, but the benefit of it being better than Fibre to the Node is that the amount of fibre is actually maximised and it's a shorter length a copper. So it's more or less an in-between of both, but it is certainly one that is regarded as more preferable than Fibre to the Node.
FAINE: So why was it that you did a Freedom of Information application in relation to Fibre to the Curb?
ROWLAND: Jon this goes back to the months leading up to April this year and we saw NBN Co in the media and other places ramping up their efforts to downplay these calls to expand fibre and scale down their use of copper. We saw complaints continue to surge and in April the Chief NBN Engineer announced that NBNCo would in fact expand Fibre to the Curb to a further 300,000 premises. So I welcomed this step, Labor welcomed it, and said that we'd really like to know more about it and how you made this decision because the government has been repeatedly saying fibre is too expensive. So we wanted to know what the cost of this modest decision would be.
FAINE: Yes, it shouldn't be too hard to find out should it?
ROWLAND: Well you'd think not, but we were taken aback Jon when not a single executive in the NBN was willing to tell the Senate what the decision cost. And it turns out the reason given was that the government had not actually approved the decision, so we thought this was quite remarkable. An announcement was made based on an assumption that the government would approve it. So we wanted to know what was going on, so here's where it really gets interesting. We submitted an FOI request to the Department of Communications, and they responded by saying it did not hold a single document about the decision or the announcement.
FAINE: They are a remarkably document-free organisation, the Department of Communications.
ROWLAND: Remarkable. And so we then submitted the same FOI request to the NBN and they refused to process it.
FAINE: How can they refuse to process an FOI?
ROWLAND: Extreme obfuscation, saying it was unreasonable.
FAINE: Sorry, so they did process it, they just didn't give you any documents is what you're saying?
ROWLAND: Well not actually, and in fact until 4.30 yesterday afternoon when remarkably, as they would say on Muriel's Wedding “Deirdre Chambers, what a coincidence!”, NBN wrote back to Labor and said “on this occasion a preliminary search will be conducted on the request as currently drafted”.
FAINE: Sorry, when did you lodge your FOI?
ROWLAND: This was lodged in July.
FAINE: And in the meantime they've been finding all sorts of technicalities or brush-off reasons for saying 'no, can't have it, can't have it, can't have it' and when we started sniffing around here at the ABC 'oh hang on, we've got something for you after all'.
ROWLAND: What a coincidence Jon, what a coincidence.
FAINE: So what we've got is we've got an accelerated roll-out for which we're not sure of the costings and we're not sure of the policy rationale is what it boils down to?
ROWLAND: That's the facts and I think what's more than this, it’s not just some philosophical issue about transparency and accountability. Of course they are really important but this is a $50 billion project under which consumers are suffering, so the public has a right to know how these decisions are being made and how they affect them.
FAINE: Ah yes, but then that's why we have Utopia and the Nation Building Authority showing us how this is really done on ABC TV. But I forgot that's a comedy. Michelle Rowland thank you, we will persist with all of these sorts of issues. Michelle Rowland there from the Labor Party in the Federal Parliament, Shadow Minister for Communications.