I am pleased to be speaking on the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Access Regime and NBN Companies) Bill 2015.
This is a bill about the NBN and, unlike the member for the Riverina, I will speak about the National Broadband Network—because it matters to us who live in regional Australia. If you do not live in one of the major metropolitan centres, you rely on fast, reliable and affordable broadband. It has to be ubiquitous and it has to touch regional Australia. In regional Australia you are more likely to have people operating home-based business who are relying on broadband. You are more likely to have businesses which are relying on the internet to market their goods and to purchase their raw materials or their inputs. You are also more likely to have kids who are relying on broadband services to deliver education and, of course, entertainment. Also, the importance of having broadband to stay connected with kids who may have moved to town to go to university or to go to school or may have moved to another city around the world cannot be discounted. So it matters a lot to people in regional Australia.
That is why it is so disappointing for Labor MPs to see this bill make its sorry pass from the Senate down to the House of Representatives—because it really is another sorry step in the saga of the government's mishandling of the National Broadband Network. When the member for Wentworth mishandled the whole Godwin Grech affair, all he did was trash his own reputation. But, in mishandling the rollout of the National Broadband Network, what he is doing is trashing the communications future of the entire country—and, for that, he must be held to account.
The original plan for this bill, as the member for Blaxland has just pointed out, was based on the Vertigan committee's report. It was amended in the other place after it was introduced only at the last minute. Its original plan was to remove wholesale price requirements which were put there by a Labor government at the lobbying of the former member for New England, Tony Windsor. He was very hot on this point because, being a member from a regional electorate, he could understand the importance of ensuring that we have uniform wholesale pricing so that people who are living in regional Australia are not paying exponentially more for their broadband services than people living in big cities. Axing this reform will mean that Australians living in the bush will pay more for essential communication services than their brothers and sisters in the big cities.
I can understand how a proposition such as this would get through the Liberal Party caucus—because they have little interest and not much knowledge about the needs of people in regional Australia. I can understand how the member for Wentworth, with some of the finest broadband in the country, would think that this was a good idea—because he does not know what it is like to live in regional or rural Australia. I can even understand how it got through some of the members of the Senate. But what I cannot understand is this: how did it get through a cabinet which now has a National Party deputy leader who has specific portfolio responsibility for regional broadband? I cannot understand that, unless she was asleep at the wheel—and not for the first time.
This is the same minister who is responsible for regional health and let proposals through the cabinet, through the ministry and through their caucus—and potentially through the parliament—that would have introduced co-payments, a GP tax, which would have had a devastating impact on members living in rural and regional Australia. So I can understand how it got through the Liberal Party party room, but what I cannot understand is how it got through the joint party room made up of National Party members and why the National Party members in the other place all stuck their hands up for it. That I cannot understand!
I cannot understand why the member for Riverina, who stood talking for 15 minutes about how committed he was to broadband in rural and regional Australia. stuck his hand up in the ministry meeting and voted for the abolition of universal wholesale pricing. And his colleagues in the other place stuck their hands up and voted for the abolition of a provision protecting constituents in rural and regional Australia. For the life of me, I cannot understand it except to say that, once again, they are obviously asleep at the wheel.
The member for Blaxland has drawn the House's attention to an article that appeared in today's Sydney Morning Herald. Mr Acting Deputy Speaker, you are from Victoria, and I am from New South Wales, so I probably read The Sydney Morning Herald more than you do. It is no secret to anyone in this place that The Sydney Morning Herald has been a champion of the member for Wentworth, who, in his rise to the top job, knocked off the member for Warringah to become Prime Minister of this country. But that article is particularly critical of Mr Turnbull's mishandling of the communications portfolio. It talks about Turnbull's NBN plan being in 'absolute crisis'. And it is in absolute crisis. Those on the other side will oppose the amendments that are going to be moved by the member for Blaxland to provide more transparency to the operations of the NBN. They are opposed to the provision of information such as that leaked toSydney Morning Herald journalists yesterday.
When the Prime Minister was directly responsible for the NBN we saw nothing but bungling and political statements masquerading as policy—and it is all starting to unravel now. We were told that, under Mr Turnbull's direction, their second-rate National Broadband Network could be delivered for just under $30 billion. This is swiftly changing. We were told in December 2013 that there would be an $11 billion blow-out—and it gets worse from there. In August last year, just before he bailed out as communications minister, we were told it was going to blow-out by over $26 million. Labor has seen these massive cost blow-outs being announced again and again and again, but what we have not seen is the government sticking to the rollout deadlines that they promised. What we are seeing from the Prime Minister, the minister who was formerly responsible for communications, is cost blow-outs and further delays.
We have seen, through the internal progress report, that they have fallen even further behind in the rollout of the National Broadband Network. They were promising it was going to be done quicker, better and cheaper—but slower, worse and more expensive is what we are getting. By the company's own assessment, the giant infrastructure project has fallen two-thirds short of its benchmark construction timetable. Connection costs to each house or business are also blowing out. The final design process for connections, needed before construction can start, is running further and further and further behind. At the date of the report, 1.4 million households were to have been approved. But the figure is sitting at less than half of that, with less than 660,000 households connected. The report, which was never intended for public consumption, has disclosed that the project is drifting, the cost blow-outs are increasing and the rollout schedule is in further delay. We know that this is entirely the fault of the Prime Minister and the coalition parties. Their supposed fibre to the node was going to be the quick fix—not as good as Labor's program, but quick and dirty: 'We'll get it to you; it won't be as good, but it will be just what you need.' But we are finding that the technology mix that is required for this second-rate NBN is one of the factors that are causing delay. As the member for Blaxland has said, when you run a broadband program based on a fibre-to-the-node program, as opposed to the passive wiring system that takes the fibre optic cable, delivering superfast broadband all the way to the household—when you stop it at the node and try to connect the copper to the node—you need a power source, a battery source, at each and every one of those nodes.
This is indeed a part of the delay that is being visited on households right around the country, including in my own electorate. What frustrates people in my electorate is that parts of the electorate are getting fibre to the household and parts of the electorate are getting fibre to the node. In some of the suburbs—quite densely populated suburbs—they can literally throw a tennis ball across the backyard onto the roof of a person who is getting fibre to the household and is very happy with it whilst they are still struggling, unable to get a port for an ADSL connection. These are the circumstances faced by people in rural and regional Australia today. The member for Wentworth, an electorate with some of the finest broadband connectivity in the country, is blind to this, because he just does not get regional Australia. I would expect the Nationals to be jumping up and down about it, but they are not. They seem to be choking under the bridle of their Liberal Party masters, but we know that in electorates like mine it really does matter.
I conducted an extensive survey of over 1,025 households and businesses in my electorate, and the response I got from them was absolutely shocking. People who are running small businesses or home based businesses were saying that they had to move house, from where they were currently living to another region, because they could not get fast, reliable broadband. And when your business is relying on broadband, this is not an optional extra; it is absolutely critical. There were people like Sara, from Oak Flats, who wrote to me and said:
We run two home businesses and it interferes greatly with our income. We also experience frequent drop outs.
There is no National Broadband Network here.
Paul, from Albion Park Rail told me:
I run a small business from home … I'm considering a move to where the NBN is connected just so I can work at a decent speed.
There may be parts of Australia where people would look at this and say, 'No worries.' But when you live in a region where unemployment is stubbornly two per cent above the national average, every small business that moves from your region, every job that is lost from your region, matters critically, and that is what the member for Wentworth, the Nationals and this Liberal Party government just do not understand.
Shannon, from Mittagong, has told me that the internet is affecting his productivity, meaning that he spends more time commuting to and from work instead of working from home when he can. He says:
We cannot obtain a fast internet connection. I work from home and commute to Sydney, and require fast speeds to work.
Over 12,000 people are in the same position as Shannon from Mittagong, and 12,000 people weekly make the trip from my electorate to Sydney to find employment or to work because the jobs just are not there in regional Australia. The broadband network is going to make an enormous difference to their lives, but it is being delayed, it is costing more and it is going to be half as good, under this Liberal government, because they just do not get the needs of regional Australia.
So, as I said earlier, this is not an academic issue. This is not an issue of politics posturing as policy. This is an issue that is making a difference to people in my electorate on a daily basis. As I said at the outset, when the Prime Minister, the member for Wentworth, mishandled the Godwin Grech affair, all he did was trash his own reputation. But in mishandling the rollout of the National Broadband Network he is trashing the future of the communications systems in this country, and that is simply not good enough.