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Transparency about the NBN

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia-Co-Deputy Leader of the Australian Greens) (12:11): I rise to support this amendment, although I suspect it, like other amendments, has caught some people somewhat by surprise. I want to spell out my reasons for supporting the amendment. I wish the amendment were unnecessary, to be quite honest. I have a certain sympathy the Senator Fifield, as the rest of the chamber lined up to say that this bill was largely innocuous and was largely housekeeping measure. He is correct about that, but this is some unfinished business and some unfinished housekeeping which we should not be needing to deal with today.

 

The amendment that has been circulated requires nbn co to provide 'for the period beginning 1 July 2015 and ending 30 June 2022 forecasts for each financial year during the period of the following information'. I am not going to read the whole thing a couple of the ones that jumped out: the number of premises ready for services for each access technology; the number of premises activated for each access technology; revenue; operating expenditure; cash flow; and net levels of government debt. Why is this information not already in the public domain? Why do these forecasts have to be extracted by the Senate in this fashion? Why does this material not already exist?

Senator Conroy and I and those who have been participating in this debate since 2008 have had plenty of run-ins about the strategy, the performance of nbn co, some of the technology choices, some of the market choices, but the debates were always carried out against the backdrop of information that was being handed over by Mr Quigley and his team. It meant that we were able to compare the forecasts which were being generated by the government or by nbn co, when it only had a handful of staff, against the actuals. When the volume rollout finally began and we finally got a sense of who was taking up the technology, the speed tiers they were taking up, how the network was performing, how long it was taking to rollout, what it was costing per premise, we were able to go back and say, 'These forecasts were wrong and these were reasonably accurate.' At least we were acting on the basis of publicly accessible information. It was not always easy, and I can recall Senator Minchin, when he was shadow communications spokesperson, and the Greens-you can go back to the record if you like and you can find instances where the Senate was tabling orders for production of documents out of Senator Conroy when he was communications minister-but we got there. By the time the volume rollout started, everybody-whether they supported the model of the project or not-could base their arguments on the performance of the network on data and on information.

Let us go back to where this began-to before the election. Mr Abbott instructed his communications spokesperson, Mr Turnbull, to go out and demolish the case for the NBN. They sought to destroy anything that had Labor's name or the Green's name attached to it-the carbon price, the CEFC, the renewable energy agency, the minerals resource rent tax and the NBN. Anything at all that reminded Mr Abbott of the six years of achievement under the former government was to be destroyed-'demolished' was the term that was chosen.

So we had one of the bizarrest press conferences that I have ever seen, with this proposal for a cobbled together, half-baked national broadband network that was going to cost $29½ billion, and instead of future-proofing the country with an end-to-end fibre network we would use a bit of copper, a bit of HFC, some satellites, some wireless towers-we would have this mongrel network big parts of which would be obsolete on the day they are built and will need to be torn up and replaced with the kind of end-to-end fibre network that this parliament legislated for, that got the country Independents, Mr Oakeshott and Mr Windsor, across the line in 2010 to support a minority Gillard government. I am not here to speak for them, but we all know that telecommunications played a very big part not just in the election campaign but in those decisions that in part allowed Ms Gillard to form government in the first place.

They said it would cost $29½ billion. Then came December 2013, and the strategic review says actually it will be $41 billion-'we misunderstood, our election promise was not worth the paper it was printed on; it is going to be $41 billion.' Yet August 2015's corporate plan for 2016 says we are up to $56 billion. How on earth did we get here? We are stuck with an obsolete copper network that you have to scrape the garbage out of when you discover it has been taped together with gaffer tape and plastic bags. We are stuck with a reliance on Telstra, who know where the bodies are buried, and are pretty happy to offload their network, which different spokespeople at different times have said is no longer fit for purpose, back to the taxpayer. The network rollout is way behind schedule. The fibre to the node network is way behind schedule. The satellites are apparently at or approaching capacity. Australians are getting a telecommunications network that will be slower, more expensive and delivered later than an all-fibre build. What act of genius put this together? Who dismantled something that was going to work?

We have had plenty of run-ins in this place about delays and about cost overruns. I think the cost overrun arguments were overblown, and they were not being reflected in the volume rollout data that Mr Quigley was putting to Senate committees. But, yes, the network was delayed-it was delayed by asbestos in the pits, it was delayed by a subcontracting pyramid that was six layers deep in some places, and it was delayed by the inherent complexity of doing something as complex as this-decommissioning a network that is decades old in some parts of the country and not particularly well maintained, and replacing it with an entirely new technology. Yes it was running behind schedule. But instead of coming in and cleaning out the messy subcontracting arrangements that had been put in place and throwing strong parliamentary oversight over the build, the coalition demolished it and now we are left with the mess that we are in today. The Senate has had to come forward with an amendment in this slightly unorthodox manner to ask for basic information so that the debate can proceed at the very least on the basis of data, and then we can have our disagreements about how they are performing.

Personally I think Mr Morrow is playing the best hand he can with a pretty rotten set of cards. Others may well disagree with that but I think he is doing the best he can with the cards he has been dealt. But he has been set up to fail. nbn co has been set up to fail. Now we read-although it is disputed, and Senator Fifield is very welcome to provide some light on this if he likes, because this unfortunately has now passed into his responsibility and I wish him well with it because I think he has been dealt a mess-that apparently there are moves to privatise this shambles, apart from the fact that you wonder where on earth you will find a buyer for a half-a-billion-dollar cobbled together mishmash of a network such as the one you are trying to build. I can well remember the amendments that the Australian Greens put forward when the Labor Party was proposing that there be an automatic assumption that when the build was complete it would be privatised, that when the network was complete it would go back to the market-despite the fact that we had just been through the argument that the wholesale network is a natural monopoly. It is like the freeway network, it is like the water distribution network, it is like the electricity network. You do not want two sets of power lines running down the street as a result of trying to set up some arbitrary form of competition at the wholesale layer. You do not want that in telecommunications networks either. You want the wholesale NBN network in public hands, where the bosses can be brought into estimates committees and cannot hide behind commercial confidentiality, where budgets are tabled, where questions can be asked and answers can be provided, and you want that at the wholesale natural monopoly layer. You want nbn co to stay in that box and to do one thing and do it well. Then you want to let competition rip at the retail layer. I think that the market structure that this parliament decided on after exhausting late-night debates, night after night, was effectively and essentially the right one.

Now we have this proposal that we somehow privatise the network. Who is going to buy it? We all know who is going to buy it-Telstra is going to buy it. So we will be back to the bad old days. They sold this obsolete copper network to the taxpayer and we are going to be handing this whole mess of garbage back to them to fix up. It may be that there are no intentions to privatise the network, and I remind senators who may be a little less familiar with what is in the act, that we removed the Labor Party's automatic assumption of privatisation. That is no longer there, so it would be up to the government of the day to initiate a sale if they chose. That was our first amendment. Our second amendments related to the fact that the Productivity Commission and a parliamentary committee would be stood up to assess whether privatisation is in the public interest. At least we would take evidence as to whether that was the case or not. I am making the case this afternoon that it would strongly not be in the public interest to privatise the network, but we would let the evidence speak for itself. The third safeguard that we placed in the bill was that any proposed sale would be subject to a vote in this parliament, as informed by the PC, as informed by a parliamentary inquiry.

What kind of network is it that this government even proposes to sell? It is a huge loss-making entity at the moment because it is barely even a quarter built, because the rollout is a shambles. Again, this is no disrespect to the people who have been dealt these cards, to Mr Morrow and his team. I genuinely wish them well but they have been set up to fail. The least we can do is not make things worse. Senator Fifield has not had the opportunity to speak on this amendment yet and I am not going to put words in his mouth but I would struggle to understand a justification for not supporting this amendment. As we have our debates about what kind of telecommunications network is fit for purpose, we see Mr Turnbull, Minister Fifield, Mr Wyatt and other spokespeople talking about agility, talking about innovation, talking about a future focus, talking, heaven forbid, about diversifying our economy away from bulk exports of depleting low-value commodities. What better way to underpin these other vitally important parts of our economy than with world-class telecommunications? My home town of Perth is in Beijing's time zone, which stretches all the way to eastern Europe. What better way to connect with the rest of the planet than with world-class telecommunications, and what we have been served up is expected to be blindfolded to the basic data underpinning the projections of this network and how fast they think they can get it built-and it is a network that will be obsolete on the day that it gets switched on. We have to be able to do better than this. So, unorthodox although it may be, this information should be in the public domain, this amendment should pass and then we can all get on with our day.

 

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