SENATOR BIRMINGHAM: (South Australia) (4:38 PM) -It is a pleasure to speak on this matter of public importance, and indeed this is an incredibly important matter for Australia because there is $43 billion of money on the line here and potentially a world of debt, pain and repayments at the end of this. It is incredibly important because there is every likelihood that this government is sinking money into the National Broadband Network with no real knowledge as to how far it is going to sink and how much will ultimately be blown on the proposal. Today’s MPI is to note:

The Gillard Government’s refusal to subject the National Broadband Network to appropriate parliamentary and economic scrutiny including independent cost benefit analysis.

We are blessed in this chamber to be in the presence of the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy. Indeed, on Monday during question time in this very place, the minister said in response to a question:

It is important that robust business cases are prepared to support the investment of very large sums of public money.

Those were the words of Senator Conroy in question time in this place just two days ago. Anybody listening to or reading them might be forgiven for being a little confused, because isn’t this the same Senator Conroy who vehemently argues that a cost-benefit analysis for a $43 billion expenditure is not necessary? Let me just check again the words that he said he in this place on Monday. He mentioned ‘very large sums of public money’ and ‘robust business cases’, and if $43 billion is not a very large sum of public money, I do not know what is.

Senator Fifield -It ain’t what it used to be.

Senator «BIRMINGHAM» -‘It ain’t what it used to be’, says Senator Fifield. Indeed, under this government, as we see the cost of living for Australian households skyrocketing on a daily basis, $43 billion will not go as far as it used to go. But $43 billion is still a very large sum of public money. Senator Conroy has the gall to come into this place and argue that farmers seeking grants to upgrade their irrigation infrastructure, who might be spending millions of dollars at the most-and potentially they are spending only tens of thousands of dollars-should be subjected to a ‘robust business case to support the investment of very large sums of public money’. Yet Senator Conroy and the government can happily charge ahead and spend billions of dollars-$43 billion in total-on their National Broadband Network flight of fancy without giving the slightest consideration to doing a cost-benefit analysis or having any type of robust business case that supports this investment of a very large sum of public money.

Every day we see Senator Conroy come in here and receive a not-so-well-prepared question-a dorothy dixer-from the Labor Party backbench that reads, ‘Senator Conroy, can you please explain to us the importance of the National Broadband Network?’ And every day he bounces up with a shriller example of why we should support it. Today he basically resorted to reading his correspondence: ‘Dear Senator Conroy, we think this idea of free, hugely fast broadband is a fantastic idea. Love from an anonymous Labor Party member who happens to reside in a particular suburb.’ That was pretty much the crux of his justification today for the $43 billion. There was no business case and no cost-benefit analysis, but he had a letter from a constituent saying that the National Broadband Network is kind of popular. That was today’s response.

Yesterday he stood here and argued for the National Broadband Network on public health grounds. Senator Conroy sounded like some kind of dodgy quack selling a magic potion as he stood there arguing that this $43 billion investment in the National Broadband Network was necessary for Australia’s public health system and for regional health in particular. That is interesting, Mr Acting Deputy Speaker, because you know what? There is always a choice when it comes to government spending. One area of expenditure is the opportunity cost of another area of expenditure, and when you choose to spend $43 billion on a national broadband network you are choosing not to invest it elsewhere. You are choosing not to invest it in-say-hospitals, health services, mental health services or aged-care facilities. Those things could provide a very direct, immediate and obvious public health benefit, but Senator Conroy wants us to believe that his $43 billion National Broadband Network is going to be of public health benefit.

I agree that, as with motherhood, there is a need to provide a universally available, decent level of broadband access to Australians. The coalition agree with that. We have long advocated that. But that does not mean a blank cheque. Senator Conroy seemingly attempts to portray the fact that we question his $43 billion investment as some type of opposition to fast broadband when the truth is that we support it. However, we believe that as parliamentarians it is our responsibility, and particularly the responsibility of the government and the executive, to ensure that when public money is spent it is well spent on wise things. If money is spent-particularly, to use Senator Conroy’s own words again, ‘very large sums of public money’-it should be spent in a cost-effective way.

In this debate we are looking at the most cost-effective way to deliver universal broadband services of a reasonable speed to all Australian premises. That is the objective. How do you get there? You can get there by what is Senator Conroy’s route, which is to pluck a figure out of the air-100 megabits per second is the latest, although there was some talk of something even higher than that during the election campaign-and say: ‘This is what Australians need and so we’re going to give it to all of them regardless of the investment that is already out there, regardless of what the private sector may already be doing, regardless of the fact that there may be no demand for this, no market failure already in delivering to the overwhelming majority of at least metropolitan areas. We’re just going to roll it out everywhere, give it to everyone whether they like it or not, whether they want it or not, or whether they’ll pay for it or not.’

Never mind the fact that in the United States the Federal Communications Commission has recently published a national broadband plan. It states that across America they are aiming for download speeds of four megabits per second. The coalition have argued that we think 12 megabits seems reasonable. As a minimum, 12 is what the government is proposing to roll out to seven per cent of Australians who will not get fibre-to-the-home, so why not say 12 is your starting minimum and then let us see what the private sector and investors will deliver to the rest of the country, where they are already delivering far faster speeds in many instances?

The reason the government is scared of a decent independent cost-benefit analysis of this is because we all know the $43 billion National Broadband Network was cooked up on the back of an envelope on a plane ride that Senator Conroy had to hop on to with Mr Rudd when his fibre-to-the-node proposal, the government’s first broadband plan, fell over when they could not get tenderers to build it and deliver what they had promised at the 2007 election. So rather than accepting that they had a flawed plan, they went double or nothing. In fact they went 10 times or nothing. They took a $4 billion plan and made it a $43 billion plan. They took fibre-to-the-node and made it fibre-to-the-home, and all of this was cooked up on the back of an envelope on a plane ride. That deserves decent analysis before $43 billion of taxpayers’ money is wasted.