Biting wit proved the flavour of the night at a Senate Estimates Committee hearing in Canberra tonight as Communications Minister Stephen Conroy faced off against the acid tongue of Liberal Senator Mary Jo Fisher and and that of others, in an caustic five-hour marathon question and answer session in which Conroy referred to the popular new phenomenon of “nude DSL”.
We hasten to point out to the good Minister that the correct term is “naked”.
The focus of the night was Labor’s popular National Broadband Network plan, which a host of Liberal senators lined up to examine under the harsh Estimates spotlight. Perhaps some of the most acerbic questions came from Fisher, a new Senator who was first elected in 2007 but has quickly established her credentials in the telecommunications portfolio.
“Hansard doesn’t record rolling of the eyes,” Fisher told Conroy at one point after the Labor stalwart failed to answer a question to her satisfaction.
Earlier on, she asked whether NBN Co would deliver its business plan to the public with “bits blacked out” or only after it had passed Conroy’s editorial review. “Can you tell us the range of assumptions and scenarios?” Fisher asked NBN Co chief Mike Quigley. “No. Well, you’ve got to try, don’t you,” she sighed.
In an answer that would not have seemed out of place being read by a certain Sir Humphrey Appleby, Marianne Cullen – a first assistant secretary at Conroy’s Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy – told Fisher that an exemption had been granted on a certain matter under a certain act of Parliament – “Section 6, Part 3”.
“An interesting happenstance,” replied Fisher with a vicious smile. And then to the Communications Minister: “Is that why you ran straight to the Governor-General for an exemption instead of debating this process in the House?” Later on: “Yes, Minister,” Fisher told Conroy. “Thank you for that non-answer.”
Greens Communications Spokesperson Scott Ludlam attracted his share of derision when he passed on a question from the “Twitterverse”. “Thank you for indulging my Q&A moment,” Ludlam quipped afterwards, referring to the popular ABC TV show’s use of Twitter as an audience engagement technique.
Later on the reserved Greens senator reminded the floor of who was in charge. “Do I need to yell louder? I tend not to do yelling,” he said.
During one memorable discussion, a Coalition senator held up what appeared to be a photo of a NBN Co network termination unit which he said had been attached to the bedroom wall of a house in Tasmania — complete with a glowing red neon light. To add insult to injury, the light meant the connection had failed
Later, Quigley was asked whether it was true that NBN Co had purchased chairs for its new Canberra office at the price of $10,000 each. “We’ll certainly look into it,” the NBN Co supremo laughed, after noting his company currently had just one Canberra-based employee and no actual office.
Conroy gave as good as he got during the night’s proceedings, handing out a double dose of insults to a number of Liberal senators and defending the honour of Quigley and attending departmental bureaucrats such as DBCDE secretary Peter Harris.
“Even people as old as you” could use the NBN, Conroy told 55-year-old Senator John Williams. “Notwithstanding the fact that you’re sitting there without your computer, I know you’ve been using it today.”
When Fisher asked Conroy whether he would publish NBN Co’s upcoming business plan, Conroy responded that he admired the Liberal Senator’s consistency. “A whole range of information will be made available … I’m sure you’ll be very satisfied,” he said.
At one stage, Quigley was explaining to the Liberal Senators how telephony would work in an NBN world — just take one plug out of its socket, and put another one in. “It’s magic,” quipped Conroy. “Would you like an explanation of how to connect phone to fixed line fibre? Because Mr Quigley is looking forward to explaining.”
And later, upon hearing of an 87 percent opt-in rate for the NBN rollout in Armidale, the Communications Minister sarcastically remarked that the number sounded “like a total failure”.
“You couldn’t be more wrong if you were paid to be wrong,” Conroy told a Liberal senator at one point. And later, when questioned on whether an answer to a question taken on notice was still accurate today: “It was accurate when the question was answered. The world has since moved on.”
By far the most vitriol throughout the night was aimed at the media, many members of which watched the session live online. The reporting of The Australian newspaper particularly got up the nose of Conroy, and even Quigley appeared concerned.
Some sections of Australia’s press simply weren’t interested in “hearing reality” on the lack of real costs involved in re-wiring homes for the NBN, Quigley said, adding there was a lot of “misinformation” on that and other issues.
Conroy was more blunt. “You made a claim … to be fair, you based it on The Australian, again,” he told one senator. “You’ve got to stop believing what you read in The Australian.”
“I repeat, you really don’t want to use as your source documents, The Australian newspaper,” Conroy later added. And, waving around what he said was a NSW Government press release: “Go and read the source quotes, and see if you can contort it into the story written in The Australian.”
We’ll leave you with Conroy’s thoughts on the tricky question of just how to approach what is, after all, a highly technical problem. “There is no internationally agreed definition of broadband,” Conroy told the Committee at one point.