SUBJECTS: Newspoll, Malcolm Turnbull’s second-rate NBN, the future of 5G technology.


PETA CREDLIN: Welcome back. One of the biggest costs to taxpayers in history, if not the biggest, is the multi-billion dollar rollout of the National Broadband Network, or the NBN. With so much at stake it's critical that the rollout delivers Australians the services they've been promised, regardless of where you live. Now this is an infrastructure rollout that's been a political football, I have to say, from day one, with Labor and the Coalition having very distinct plans for the NBN.

We know that the Coalition, indeed it was Malcolm Turnbull who was Communications Minister at one time so this is very much his NBN, well what they're offering is a very different plan to Labor's. And I know you've asked me many times, viewers, to explain the NBN and a lot of the differences between the two major parties as we get into an election year. So I've asked Labor's Shadow Minister for Communications Michelle Rowland to join us tonight to discuss the Opposition plan for the NBN. 

Thanks very much for your time Michelle. Delighted to have you on the show. I want to get into the NBN because it's complex, you can't do anything in life now without decent internet at home, so people want some further information and they want to get beyond the politics but I am going to start with politics because today is a Newspoll day and I can't let this go. You're a frontbencher, you have won virtually every poll now since the last election, so that's almost two years that you've been ahead in the polls. That's no mean feat but the Opposition Leader is becoming more and more unpopular. Now I worked for a very unpopular Opposition Leader at one time who became a landslide winning Prime Minister but is Bill Shorten still maintaining the support of his caucus after now having had the longest run of negative approvals in Newspoll history?

MICHELLE ROWLAND, SHADOW MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: Well Peta, as you would well know, being Leader of the Opposition is a tough job. You have to balance that very fine line between criticism of the government and presenting yourself as the alternative government. And Bill has made it very clear that Labor is not going to pursue this small target strategy. I think we've produced more positive policies and put those out there and made some tough decisions that go to things like budget repair, but also go to the things that we want to do as a Labor Government. We're not going to be the dog that caught the car. We are going to be a party that is ready for government. And I think when those things happen, inevitably you get some blowback, especially from the government who seek to attack you as Opposition Leader. But I can assure you, Peta, that Bill has the full support of the caucus.

I think that this next election is going to be very close. The only person that doesn't seem to think it's going to be close is Malcolm Turnbull who is already talking about being in a better position than John Howard was in terms of the polls leading into an election. So we know that this is a tough fight, but Peta as I said this morning on Sky as well, I think one of the great mistakes that this government is committing in relation to Bill Shorten is underestimating him. I don't think anyone could've predicted the results that we had in 2016, where we saw Malcolm Turnbull essentially whittle down what was a very comfortable majority. And this wasn't just due to his failings; this was also due to the tenacity of Bill Shorten as Opposition Leader. 

CREDLIN: Look, I 100 per cent agree with your point about poll analysis because I only ever cared about a primary vote number in a published poll. I was never interested in things like the negatives, but it means it's a talking point in the media for two or three days around a poll. It unsettles colleagues and it stops the Opposition getting out its message, or the government if indeed they're the ones with these negative polls, as it is for the Turnbull Government. 33 Newspolls in a row that are all in an election losing position isn't good for their backbench either but you're from Western Sydney; you're in one of the most tightly contested seats. You were part of a landslide win and you've kept that win, despite some pushes against you and seats around you that have fallen back to the government. They've been won back since then but Luke Foley had some pretty sage comments last week. I know he was criticised for the 'white flight' phrase but immigration is really biting out there, and congestion and other issues. How do you see it in your seat of Greenway?

ROWLAND: Peta, I think the overall issue goes to people's quality of life. And I don't think that we would be a community that is rightly complaining about issues such as traffic congestion, issues such as local infrastructure deficit, where even, you may have seen in the weekend Telegraph, to get to one of my local train stations you need to park about a 20 minute walk away just to do your daily commute. That's before you even get on the train. So there is a serious issue of infrastructure deficit in these growing suburbs and I think it goes to all levels of government. It goes to everything from Local Government planning to State Government policies, but I think overall it's about people's quality of life. And when they don't seem to feel that there is a government that is listening to them, then that's when they take it out in the polls or at the next election, whenever that may be.

CREDLIN: Well, one of the biggest jobs for government is rolling out infrastructure and the NBN, on the books at the moment, is a $48 billion cost. It's also almost up there with the submarines, in fact I think it's more than the submarines. Certainly will be once it's completely rolled out. Your policy is very different than the government's policy. In simple terms, can you explain to viewers the difference? 

ROWLAND: I think there is three things I can break it down into Peta. I think firstly, there are measures that need to be taken now, because as the rollout progresses more and more and we get near the end of this government's term, we will be limited, any future government will be limited, in what it can do. So it's really about first-hand decision-making now. And Labor has been pushing very hard from the outset to maximise the amount of fibre in the network. Now Labor, of course, had a Fibre to the Premises plan in 2013. We know that that's now history because Malcolm Turnbull shifted it to a multi-technology mix. But we still maintain, and I articulated this view over a year ago, that at the very minimum we should be rolling out fibre at least to the kerb, at least to the driveway, as it's called, because that minimises the amount of copper in the network. Now, the government took it's time but has since adopted that position for some of Australia. However, we still have large parts of Australia that will be stuck with a copper-based network. So I think the first thing to note is our commitment to maximising the amount of fibre that's in the network.

The second point is that I've done so many public forums right around Australia, including speaking to small businesses, and the single biggest complaint they have that goes to all of these issues that you would've received yourself is the lack of accountability when it comes to NBNCo. Now this government would have you believe that 9 out of 10 customers who are connected have a great experience. Well, as you would well know Peta, you can go down to any pub, speak to any number of taxi drivers for example, and they will laugh you out of town because that is simply not happening. We are establishing a policy framework that puts consumers at the centre, not spin. And we are very determined to have a level of accountability for NBN that the retailers themselves are already subject to. 

I'll end on this point with this Peta: did you know that the retail service providers are accountable to the customer through their contract with the customer, and they're also accountable to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman, which is the independent complaints body. NBNCo is essentially accountable to nobody. This level of lack of accountability must end.

I think the third point, and you highlighted this in your opening comments, the fact is Peta, we've actually passed a milestone where the NBN has been under the stewardship of the Liberal and National Parties for longer than it's been under Labor and I can tell you as I go around Australia, people are mightily sick, not only of being treated as political footballs, being bounced between NBNCo and retailers when there's a problem, but they're quite fed up of not having a government that's absolutely committed to them as consumers. So I think we actually have reached the point, yes it is costing a lot of money, we are building a network, unfortunately, that costs more and does less, but it is my determination that the NBN actually work for Australians and we stop talking about what it is and instead focus on what it can do. So, I think just to summarise that point, I feel that the Australian public actually wants the politics taken out of broadband and that's something that I'm very keenly listening to. 

CREDLIN: I agree with you that there are lots of complaints out there. Today the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman put out its six-monthly report and in that six-monthly report it made it clear that complaints in relation to the NBNCo are up 200% right. So that's a huge amount of complaints. Last week in Senate Estimates, Bill Morrow, who is the CEO of NBNCo, admitted for its Fixed Line service, I think that's the term, I want to get that correct, but they won't meet the 100Mbps speeds that people were promised. And today in The Australian newspaper Ben Packham had a story which I found this probably the most extraordinary recent NBN story but it's revealed that 480 of the NBN staff are on salaries of $200,000 plus and 120 earn over $300,000. Now this is a company that's got a litany of complaints against it. As you say, consumers don't feel like they've got much right to complain and where to they go to complain at all, yet their money, taxpayers' money, is pouring out the door to NBNCo for salaries and to build what is looking like a substandard service. What will Labor do differently Michelle?

ROWLAND: Well Peta, we need to be informed by the realities on the ground where we are. But I can tell you this: consumers will be front and centre of our policy, and we are formulating a suite of initiatives around that.

CREDLIN: What does that mean Michelle? Does it mean that they will be able to complain directly to the NBNCo, will the ACCC have a stronger role for NBNCo, will it be answerable to the TIO? What does it actually mean?

ROWLAND: Well we had recommendations Peta, and all of those things you mentioned are part of the mix. We had recommendations out of the Joint Standing Committee into the NBN which recommended that the TIO have a broader remit so there is that level of accountability. We also called for the ACCC to be that tough cop on the beat, to actually be scrutinising what speeds people were receiving. It actually took the Minister for Communications over a year, he sat on that recommendation for over a year Peta, which I think will come to the astonishment of many of your viewers, when it was well past overdue for the regulator to step in and do that speed monitoring program. But it also means Peta, you would understand this, we currently have a Customer Service Guarantee that essentially applies to Telstra and is limited to voice services, where if you miss an appointment, for example, for a connection or if they miss an appointment to rectify a fault then they are actually liable to the customer. There is no such regime that exists in the broadband world. And one of the biggest complaints I receive Peta, is people who take days off work who end up waiting at home for NBN contractors to turn up. They wait a second day and the contractor doesn't turn up. Peta, I've been at small businesses where they've told me that they've gone for weeks on end without not only a broadband service but a phone service.

CREDLIN: I'm aware of those complaints, but look as technology changes more and more people are thinking twice about a fixed line service. They're looking at things like 5G. Australia has always got to, because of our geography and small population, keep ourselves abreast. Where do you think government's going to go on things like 5G?    

ROWLAND: Well Peta, you're absolutely right in terms of Australia having been a world leader in the various generations of mobile services and 5G is very exciting. It's really going to be a game-changing technology. It has been described as the technology that will usher in the fourth industrial revolution. And I have been critical of this government's approach to 5G. In fact, late last year I called them out at an industry conference for not having a 5G strategy and a 5G vision, and lo and behold a couple of days later they ended up releasing a 12 page document which they called essentially their framework for 5G. It didn't talk about anything to do with digital inclusion however. So I think this just demonstrates that this government is reactive when it comes to 5G. But it is in all our interests to have 5G succeed in Australia, and the networks have done an excellent job.

CREDLIN: Michelle, a good strong 5G network right across the country, as much as you can in terms of population spread, will that make the NBN almost redundant?   

ROWLAND: Look, it's a really interesting question Peta, and I think that, over time, we've come to understand that both mobile networks and fixed line networks are complementary rather than substitutes. But that can change depending on what type of customer you are. We know that around 90% of broadband traffic is actually now carried through fixed line networks but it wouldn't take much, just a minor increase of a switch to mobile services, to have a dramatic impact on NBN's bottom line. And I think where the NBN is susceptible Peta, is areas where the network is not up to scratch; those areas, for example, that have Fibre to the Node, that have that copper-based solution. And where people aren't enjoying the speeds that they paid for, people will more readily turn to 5G and that will have serious implications for NBN's long-term revenues.

CREDLIN: Well thank you for your time Shadow Minister. I'm a hard marker, I worked for two Communications Ministers and I'm impressed at how across you are of the brief. We didn't get to the ABC. I'd love to talk to you about the ABC as well but thanks for your time.

ROWLAND: Thank you Peta.