news Federal Parliament hasn’t even been back in session for a week, but a political brawl has already erupted between the largest three parties over whether and how new parliamentary sub-committees will be established to provide oversight of the National Broadband Network project, in yet another sign that the initiative has become increasingly politicised.
Under the previous Parliament, before the September Federal Election, there were several avenues for the NBN project as a whole and NBN Co specifically to be held to account by the broader Parliament, aside from NBN Co’s ongoing obligations towards its shareholder ministers, the Communications Minister and Finance Minister of the day.
The principal avenue for that accountability to take place was the Joint Committee on the NBN, which counted members from both houses of Parliament and was chaired by independent MP Rob Oakeshott. Greens Communications Spokesperson Scott Ludlam sat on the Committee, as did then-Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull and other parliamentarians with an interest in the NBN, such as Labor MPs Ed Husic and Michelle Rowland and Liberal MP Paul Fletcher.
The Senate also had its own chance to examine the NBN separately through its Standing Environment and Communications Committee, which deals with the telecommunications portfolio as a whole.
On 17 October this year, the day after new Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced his Cabinet, appointing Turnbull Communications Minister as has long been expected, Ludlam wrote to Turnbull directly congratulating the Member for Wentworth on the appointment and requesting that he re-establish the Joint Parliamentary NBN Committee as soon as Parliament resumed. The letter can be downloaded here in PDF format.
“The Joint NBN Committee has provided an opportunity for industry, local government and other stakeholders to provide expertise to the parliament,” wrote Ludlam. “I believe the Joint Committee has an essential role in ongoing oversight while providing an important opportunity for the government to explain its approach to this critical infrastructure. I also believe its membership should be provided with the opportunity to input to the NBN Co’s internal review and examine its final report.”
It is believed that Turnbull never directly replied to Ludlam’s letter on the issue. Instead, it is believed that Labor and the Coalition have negotiated separately to re-create the NBN Joint Parliamentary Committee.
That effort, however, has been thrown into doubt by a pre-emptive motion which passed the Senate this afternoon, led by Ludlam and Labor backbencher Kate Lundy, who many believed would have been an ideal candidate for a Shadow Cabinet position in the Communications portfolio due to the Senator’s long service in the field. The motion, which passed with Labor’s support, will establish a Senate Select Committee into the NBN.
Speaking in the Senate today (YouTube video), Ludlam said of Turnbull: “He has not re-established the Joint NBN Committee and I do not believe he that he seeks to. That is why this select committee is necessary-to police, to the degree that we can, the shambles that is now being presided over; as anybody with any knowledge of construction of that network is being washed out of the organisation [NBN Co].”
“It is absolutely essential for an investment of this scale, given the privatisation mentality that this government seems to be bringing to the debate, that we salvage whatever we can from the wreckage that Mr Turnbull is now presiding over,” Ludlam said. “So I would encourage members from all sides of this chamber to participate and to do what we can to retrieve the best we can from the wreckage of this government’s broadband policy.”
The NBN Senate Select Committee will consist of seven senators — three each from the Coalition and one from the Greens. Its term of reference is available online.
However, the long-term fate of parliamentary oversight of the NBN still remains unclear, with the new Senate Select Committee set to expire when the new Senate takes its seats on 1 July 2014. The final make-up of the Senate is still unclear, with Ludlam’s own seat still in doubt, and it is unclear to what extent new party entrants such as the Palmer United Party would support either the new NBN Senate Select Committee being extended or a new Joint Committee into the NBN being created.
Turnbull’s office has stated that it would ultimately prefer a joint committee situation with respect to the NBN, as it had been working towards.
Fascinating political situation here. What appears to have happened is that the Greens tried to re-establish the old NBN joint parliamentary committee, but were ignored by the Coalition and to a certain extent Labor, most likely because the Coalition at least, and maybe Labor, wanted to keep the Greens and/or other minor parties such as the Palmer United Party out of the future committee.
At some stage, Labor’s enthusiasm for the Joint Committee renewal appears to have waned, and the party appears to have begun to believe that a Senate Select Committee would offer it a better chance to hold the Coalition Government to account on the NBN, due to the dominance which Labor and the Greens will hold over the Senate until mid-2014. A NBN Senate Select Committee may suit Labor better in this period due to that control, despite the fact that it will necessarily exclude Labor’s Shadow Ministers in the portfolio, MPs Jason Clare and Michelle Rowland.
This is likely why Labor worked with the Greens on the separate Senate Select Committee, and Lundy would be the logical Senate candidate to work with Ludlam on getting the effort up. I also suspect Stephen Conroy of being involved in this one — the former Communications Minister is the Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate and usually has a hand in these kinds of shenanigans.
The caveat, of course, is that the Senate will change on 1 July 2014, so it’s my understanding that this NBN Senate Select Committee will expire at that point. In the meantime, I hope the two major sides of politics can come to an agreement about re-establishing a more comprehensive Joint Committee featuring the actual Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet MPs responsible for the portfolio. I’d like to see representatives of both the Greens and the Palmer United Party on that joint committee as well. But perhaps that’s ultimately wishful thinking.