Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Fibre Deployment) Bill 2011


Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (12:04): I am very pleased to enter into another debate on Australia's broadband network, which, had the coalition not been defeated in the 2007 election, would have been up and running by now. All of the elements were there. The money was put aside. We would have had a national broadband network based on fibre, wireless and satellite, and it would have been operating now, whereas the best that the Labor Party could tell us about their proposals was that they hoped it would be up and running by 2008 or 2010. I think anyone with any knowledge of the industry would have been aware that it was going to blow out beyond that. The Labor Party, and the minister in particular, keep saying that the coalition is opposed to a national broadband network. Nothing could be further from the truth. As I say, our plans initially would have had a very high speed, ubiquitous broadband network in operation now, as we speak.

I will give you some brief history about the Labor Party before getting onto the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Fibre Deployment) Bill 2011. The Labor Party were thrashing around in opposition. They had no idea what was what about anything. They went to Telstra having had a bit of a disagreement with the Howard government at the time. The Labor Party or their shadow minister, who is now the minister, had no idea on telecommunications. So they went to Telstra and Telstra said to the Labor Party: 'Look, give us $4.7 billion and we'll settle all your woes. We'll give you good and fast service right around Australia.' So what was the 2007 Labor Party policy It was $4.7 billion and they would build a national broadband networka very fast one. Since then it has been a comedy of errorsor perhaps just a comedy in itself.

The figure went from $4.7 billion up to $15 billion, then there was an assessment that cost $25 million, and that assessment said that all their ideas were silly. They then went ahead with a tender, which they pulled halfway through. In the end, we have ended up with $55-plus billion expenditure of Australian taxpayer money on what I am confident will become the ultimate white elephant. That is not to say in any way, quite the contrary, that we are against a national broadband network. But we are against the $55-plus billion network that Senator Conroy accepts total responsibility for.

People will not be able to afford this network. You do not have to be Einstein to do the figureslet me do them on the back of an envelope. We have a total cost of $55-plus billion, and rising. There are 22 million people in Australia. Divide one into the other and see what you get. Senator Conroy promised us that NBN Co. would make a profit, would pay interest on its debts and would give a return to the government. Then they were going to sell it, much to the chagrin of Senator Ludlam, who is the honest socialist in this placehe wants to keep the NBN in government hands forever, but he is open about that. Senator Conroy pretends he is not a socialisthe is going to sell it to private industry. Which private industry will pay, by the time it gets to that stage, more than $100 billion to buy a facility servicing less than 22 million men, women and children in Australia The mathematics just do not stack up. Senator Conroy knows that but he will keep saying, 'Yes, it will make a profit; yes, we will sell it off'but nobody will buy it, and he knows that.

The only way this service will continue in Australia, should Australia be unfortunate enough for Labor to remain in government, will be with massive government subsidies that will continue for as long as I live and beyond. It is the only way it will work. We have had the example, Mr Deputy President, in your home state of Tasmania, where the NBN was giving its part of the service away for free, and the retail service providers were still charging what Telstra and Optus used to charge pre-NBN. How can you run a $55 billion service if you are giving it away free Since then they have moved on. There are some prices around and about, but prices are creeping up. People are saying that they are not good prices; they are prices they used to get under the old system, and the speeds are about the same. Even under the old system, as Senator Conroy well knows, you could get 100 megabits per second if you wantedyou just had to pay for it. It would have cost a lot of money, but not as much as the NBN will ever cost you.

Senator Conroy interjecting

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I hear the minister call out about someone from Townsville. Anyone who gets a $55 billion service provided for free will be happy. Give me a $55 billion service and do not charge me for it and I will be very happyI am sure it would be good. Unfortunately, when people in Townsvilleor in Lismore or in Tasmaniafinally work out the real cost of this, they are not going to be interested. And this is at a time, I might say, when the cost of living for all Australians is going up day by day. Once we get the carbon tax, which will increase the cost of power by anything up to 15 or 20 per cent, the cost of living is going to go up again. People will simply not be able to afford Senator Conroy's $55 billion white elephant.

I will come back to that if I have time but I do want to move to the bill before us. It is all about installing fibre into greenfield sites, which is common sense. I think everyone thinks that is a good idea. But the old socialists sprout the rhetoric that there will be competition; people are going to be competing so we will get the best service because competition brings the best resultsand it does. Senator Conroy has publicly stated that the greenfield policy would be determined with input from a stakeholder reference group, including operators who would be able to tender for contracts to build, operate and transfer greenfield fibre networks to the NBN. Senator Conroy issued a press release in April last year, stating:

Since April 2009, the Government's fibre in greenfields policy has been the subject of extensive consultation, including a discussion paper, input from a Stakeholder Reference Group, one-on-one consultations and release of an exposure draft ...

The position paper released today builds on consultations with the Stakeholder Reference Group to assist with the implementation of the policy.

In a further statement on 9 December last year, Senator Conroy said:

It has been a consistent feature of the government's policy in new developments that there should be room for competing providers. This continues to be the case ... Providers can compete to provide infrastructure in new developmentsfor example, by offering more tailored solutions to developers or more expeditious delivery.

What has happened to this great commitment to competition On 13 March this year NBN Co. issued a press release referring to an agreement signed with subcontractor Fujitsu and its construction partner Service Stream:

... Fujitsu will manage the design, construction and associated works for the development of fibre to new developments.

Great competition! No doubt Fujitsu is a good company, and it is no doubt capable, but they got the nod to put in NBN's fibre. What happened to the competition, Senator Conroy, that you issued media release and media release about What happened to all your pious statements in this chamber and elsewhere about the great benefits of competition, when at this hurdle you roll over and give it to one contractor It is the same with the NBN. We did not like the old telecom monopoly. We saw how far behind our telecommunications were, so we brought competition to the telecommunications industry. Thanks to the Howard government, the number of new services in the last decade or so has just exploded. That was with competition. What does Senator Conroy do He brings in the biggest monopoly of any sort that Australia has ever known with this $55 billion-plus edifice.

I was talking about industry consultation. Let me demonstrate the sort of consultation shown by Senator Conroy. I have a copy of a letter addressed to Senator Conroy and it states:

Firstly, can I applaud you sir on your manipulative, sneaky, underhanded attack on our Shire. With one letter you have reinforced in my mind that the Gillard Government is unfit to govern this great country of ours.

Your statement in the letter, and I quote: "I have been in regular contact with Carpentaria Shire Council about the upgrade of its retransmission towers'

the mayor says in his letter

is a blatant untruth.

The mayor concerned is Councillor Fred Pascoe, a very intelligent, able and capable mayor of one of the biggest shires in Queenslandup in the north-west of Queensland, incorporating Normanton and Karumbaand that is what he says in a letter to Senator Conroy: 'Your statement, Senator Conroy, is a blatant untruth.' Fred Pascoe is not the sort of person who makes statements for any purpose other than the truth.

Senator Conroy interjecting

Senator IAN MACDONALD: You are saying that Councillor Pascoe is in the National Party. I do not know what political party Councillor Pascoe is in, if he is in any. I suspect he is not, but he is very well respectedan Indigenous leader, I might add, but that is almost irrelevant to thisand the popularly elected mayor of this council. He is not one of those given to hyperbole or one who ever takes part in the partisan political debate.

He is furious at the way Senator Conroy has 'consulted' on the analog-digital conversion. It is a different issue to the one we are debating, but I mention it in the context of competition and consultationwhich I have been talking about in relation to this billthat Senator Conroy talks about. Here is Mayor Fred Pascoe telling Senator Conroy that he tells 'blatant untruths'. Senator Conroy in that regard is following his leader, Ms Gillard, who you will remember a year ago promised there would be no carbon tax under a government she led and then a few months later did the exact opposite. Senator Conroy clearly is following the standard set by his leader.

In his letterwhich I am sure Senator Conroy has and will be aware of; it is published today in a newsletter in Karumba, so I am not giving away any secrets hereCouncillor Pascoe goes on to say:

You told us that analogue services will be switched off come 2013 and that you will not be funding Councils to provide the upgrade to our retransmission towers to provide FREE TO AIR television to our residents.

And basically that is all you have told us.

Why have you not provided us with the answers to our questions, such as:

What is the real total cost to households after the satellite subsidy

What is the cost to caravanners who represent a major tourist trade for our area

Who will organize the installation of the Satellite dishes required

Will your Government organize contracts for the maintenance of such infrastructure

Here is a telling question, Senator Conroy:

Why do towns like Normanton, Karumba, Burketown, Croydon, Georgetown, Julia Creek and Richmond have to pay for "free-to-air" television when towns like Mount Isa, Cairns, Townsville and virtually every other city/town on the east coast of Australia do NOT have to pay one cent

This letter goes on to say:

Why is your Government wasting taxpayers' money in providing an inadequate subsidy to householders when it could spend substantially less by funding the upgrade to our retransmission towers If the towers are converted to digital, householders will only need to buy a set top box from as low as $40 per TV, rather than spend somewhere in the vicinity of an extra $300 for the installation of a satellite dish, after you have provided the subsidy and another $279 for every additional TV in the house.

The responseor should I say silence from you and your departmenthas been deafening.

Councillor Pascoe goes on, in frustration, to say to Senator Conroy:

I would have preferred you to have spent your energy in sending a letter to all householders answering some of the questions above rather than shoving the blame on the Carpentaria Shire Council on your unfair decision to make towns in the bush pay for "FREE TO AIR TELEVISION".

If you know Fred Pascoe well, you would understand why he says at the end of his letter, 'I hope you sleep well at night, sir.'

Senator Conroy is not a bad fellow. You might remember, Senator Conroy, you helped a little bit with the Karumba airstrip. That is in this shire. As far as the rest of us are concernedI do not know about in the Labor Partywe know that you are not an evil man. I think you have the best interests of the country at heart. Because of the background of Labor Party ministers, you have absolutely no idea of business and moneyif there is a problem, just throw someone else's money at it. You will never have to pay; you will just get the taxpayers to cough up a bit more.

I raise this in the hope that Senator Conroy might go back to his office, send a bullet through to his department and office, and get some answers for Mayor Pascoe, his council and the people who live in this remote community. I know the transmission towers are an ongoing issue, Senator Conroy, but you have not been listening. You have been working through the principles on the basis of what happens in Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane, or even Toowoomba or Armidale, but these are very different communities. I know you have been up there, so you should understand. In this, my contribution to the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Fibre Deployment) Bill, I urge you to get some answers for Mayor Pascoe and his community. You will understand from the tone of the letter, most of which I have read into the record today, that this is not a whinge. It is not a political comment but a genuine plea from some very disadvantaged people for a little bit of help. It will not cost you much money, Senator Conroy, compared to the $55 billion you are wasting on the NBN. This would cost you a pittance. I ask that you address those concerns at the same time that you take some notice of what Senators Birmingham and Joyce have said, and what Senator Humphries will say, in the chamber about how you got this deployment bill wrong. The coalition will be moving amendments in the committee stage and I hope you will see the merit in those and perhaps support them.

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