Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has tabled in parliament his brief piece of legislation designed to force the Government into disclosing key financial details of its flagship National Broadband Network project and conducting a cost/benefit analysis into its construction.
The bill — dubbed the National Broadband Network Financial Transparency Bill (2010) — is a mere eight pages long and can be downloaded online (PDF). It would mandate — as Turnbull has previously outlined — two key moves by the Government and NBN Co relating to the project.
Firstly, if the bill goes ahead, NBN Co must prepare a business case for the National Broadband Network and publish it by 19 November this year. This point might not be too hard for the Labor Government to comply with, given that NBN Co itself has already put together a business case, which is expected to be delivered to the Government in the next week.
However, Turnbull also stipulated in his legislation that the business case must contain a great deal of detail, some of which NBN Co may not have catered for in its current business case.
10-year forecasts of the NBN’s key financial and operational indicators — including costs, revenues, cash flows, end of year balance sheets and more must be included — as well as internal rates of return on the capital invested in the project.
Secondarily, Turnbull’s bill would require the Productivity Commission to prepare and publish a cost/benefit analysis into the project by 31 May 2011. The commission would be required to analyse the current availability of broadband across Australia (including identifying areas where services are of a lower standard/higher price than in capital cities) and consider the most cost-effective and speediest options by which all Australians could receive fast broadband.
In addition, the commission would need to analyse the economic, productivity and social benefits likely to flow from better broadband, and the applications that would be likely to be used. And a “full and transparent economic and financial assessment” would be conducted into the NBN, as well as a number of other matters, such as the NBN’s likely value if it was privatised after five years.
Speaking in parliament this morning Turnbull said he wanted to stress that the bill was not intended to delay or hold back the NBN’s rollout to test sites, as Labor has repeatedly claimed. “Indeed, the passage of this bill would have no impact on that timing,” he said.
“It is simply an attempt to establish the facts to provide Parliament with an appropriate level of financial understanding of this, the largest expenditure of taxpayers’ funds on an infrastructure asset in our nation’s history.”
Turnbull noted that Labor intended to release much of the financial information discussed in the bill anyway — for example, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has already pledged to release sections of NBN Co’s business case.
“I welcome that,” he said. “Nevertheless, I believe that it will give parliament much greater comfort if that transparency is a statutory requirement rather than simply a promise from the executive.”
With Labor slamming the legislation as a delaying tactic and likely to oppose it, the bill’s fate will rest with the independents and the Australian Greens. This morning Greens Leader Bob Brown was reported to have said the issue would be discussed in the Greens’ party room this morning, while independents Tony Windsor and Bob Katter have said they won’t support the bill.
The views of several others — Rob Oakeshott and Andrew Wilkie, for example — are not yet known.
Image credit: Office of Malcolm Turnbull