Senator Mary Jo Fisher on life, the NBN and everything


profile A lawyer with a strong background in dealing with farmers’ workplace issues, South Australian Senator Mary Jo Fisher probably never expected to become so involved in the highly technical world of information technology and telecommunications.

In fact, the politician strongly denies being an IT expert of any stripe and promptly corrects herself when — for a moment, in a recent interview — she claims to be “if anything, a nerd”. “A nerd in my language is somebody who knows about IT, so I’m definitely not,” she says.

However, despite her best intentions, Fisher is currently enmeshed in all things “nerd”. As deputy chair of the Senate’s Environment and Communications Committee, Fisher has become one of the chief figures in the Federal Opposition charged with keeping the Federal Government and its multi-billion-dollar National Broadband Network initiative accountable to the people.

To an outsider, it’s not immediately obvious where Fisher’s interest in the NBN comes from.

“As far as the NBN is concerned,
it’s a shitload of money.”
— Senator Mary Jo Fisher

After growing up in a farm near Beverley, in Western Australia, the Senator graduated with a law degree in Perth before moving to South Australia, where she held roles in the state’s bureaucracy and then later successively for Federal Workplace Relations Ministers in the Howard Government. Later, in 2007 she began her mandate as Senator, filling a vacancy created by Senator and Minister Amanda Vanstone.

The occasion to get her hands dirty in the ferocious arena of telecommunications came soon after her election to the Senate, when she used to chair the NBN Senate Select Committee. “I got involved very soon after the 2007 election,” she recollects. “So, I remember when “lord love” Kevin announced NBN round 1, so what we thought it was a lot of that time in a $4.7 billion spend on fibre to the node; we started examining that in the committee I was chairing. And then of course within 12 months … they ditched that promise and embarked on an enormous ten-fold spend.”

Money allocated by the Gillard Government to the rollout of the NBN is indeed what comes to Fisher’s mind, when she responds to a question about where her interest for the NBN rollout comes from. “As far as the NBN is concerned, it’s a shitload of money,” she says, adding that the rollout of the NBN is the biggest infrastructure spend in Australia’s history.

Fisher is known in parliament for the vehemence and passion with which she attacks every issue she is interested in. At Senate hearings into the NBN, she can come across as relentless — peppering Conroy or NBN Co or departmental officials with dozens of questions about the project — all backed up with facts and figures quoted from an extensive library of sheets of paper stacked in front of her.

That role has led to some incredibly fraught late-night confrontations between Fisher and arch-nemesis, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, during the Senate Estimates process — through which Fisher’s dry, biting wit has become somewhat legendary in NBN circles.

“Hansard doesn’t record rolling of the eyes,” Fisher told Conroy, for example, in one late night session in October. And then, when an exemption had been granted on a certain matter: “Is that why you ran straight to the Governor-General for an exemption instead of debating this process in the House? … Thank you for that non-answer.”

Today, Fisher continues that tenacious trend in the interview, immediately moving on from her personal interest in the NBN to her views on the lack of of a concrete cost/benefit analysis for the project, which the Senator believes, could have answered lots of the questions the Opposition was now asking about the NBN.

“How much should taxpayers be funding building of infrastructure in areas where the private sector would do it in a second because they can make money from it?” she demands to know. “If we had the fundamentals, if we had a cost/benefit analysis, it would have answered lots of these questions and would have resolved lots of these issues, so that we could move on.”

Fisher believes a lack of analysis and clarity — two of her personal hallmarks — are the issues responsible for the Opposition’s hostility to NBN Co. She attended the Senate’s Environment and Communications Committee the day before the day before this interview, on a day on which the committee was investigating several key pieces of legislation associated with the project.

Speaking about the two bills, Fisher says there is a real risk that NBN Co could become a retailer in its own right and therefore to be in competition with other providers in the market. She says the Government denied NBN Co would be competing with other providers when scrutiny was required, but at the same time hypocritically tried to exempt NBN Co from analysis by the Parliament’s Public Works Committee’s analysis for commercial in confidence reasons.

“In my view, they argue on the one hand that NBN Co is not in competition (…) and that on the other hand they go to the Governor-General and claim that NBN Co will be in competition,” she said. “And that therefore there will be commercial issues raised, and it should be exempt from consideration by the Public Works Committee.”

One of the hottest topic in the NBN political battle is the opportunity for the NBN Co to retail services to utilities, like water and energy suppliers. Fisher says the utilities made it clear they would not use the NBN, unless granted an exemption to buy services from NBN Co directly. “The Government is trying to use utilities as a prop to allow the violation of its promise that the NBN will not compete in retail,” she says.

In “the world of an NBN”, Fisher adds, one of the major issues lies in determining whether or not utilities are justified in seeking the exemption they currently enjoy. “And secondly, whether that exemption effectively means or not that the NBN Co is going to be in competition with retail service providers in terms of the services that are provided to utilities,” she says.

But despite such strident public statements about the NBN, the fiery war of words is not the only parlimentary arena Fisher is engaged in — just the most public one. Greens Senator Scott Ludlam — who also sits on the Environment and Communications Committee — said last year that 99 percent of people on the street had never heard of the various Senate Committees, but that there is a lot that could be done with such accountability mechanisms built into the parliament, which have been set up over the years at “great personal cost”.

On this front, Fisher claims to have worked very hard behind the scenes with Ludlam and independent Senator Nick Xenophon to form the new joint parliamentary committee into the NBN announced earlier this month and to be chaired by independent MP Rob Oakeshott.

Fisher says she had believed it to be part of her job in the process to expose “the pup” Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, was trying to sell to Senator Xenophon before Christmas time “to buy his vote” on the NBN. She referred to a letter Xenophon received by PM Gillard, on the creation of an NBN committee whose composition would have mirrored the structure of an already existing one which, Fisher says, had nine members from the Government and seven shared among other parties.

She claims that committee’s terms of reference would have worked in the Government’s favour, if Ludlam and Xenophon had not pushed for the creation of a new one.

“Over the break, thankfully, working with Ludlam and Xenophon – they were doing the negotiating with the government, not me – we now have arrived at what is going to be a joint parliamentary committee,” she says. “It’s the best thing we have got now, at least the numbers are more evenly balanced, and the terms of reference are more neutral.” And it’s in this arena that much of the public debate around the NBN will now take place.

Despite her criticism of the NBN, however at heart, Fisher recognises the issues that have led to its creation, noting she understands the nation needs faster, more acccessible Internet for “as many Australians as possible”. “It’s just a matter of who, what, when, where, why, how; Who gets what, when they get it, how they get it, and as I said by what means – fibre, wireless, satellite, or a mix of – and how much do they have to pay for it?” she says.

“There are NBN skeptics, I’m one myself, but I don’t think there are broadband skeptics: do you get the difference?” she says, speaking about the Liberal party’s views on the NBN Promptly, she rephrases her statement. “Perhaps what I prefer to say is we are NBN skeptics but not broadband deniers.”

Fisher adds that if a Coalition government was to be in power it would be mindful of what had already been rolled out. “We would not trash and burn taxpayers’ investment without a good reason to do it,” she said. Moreover, she said the Liberal Party truly believed in greater access to faster internet, and that a mix of technologies – fibre, wireless, satellite – was needed. “We’re seeing that we need a mix of technology to deliver, and that includes fibre, it includes wireless and it includes satellite,” she says.

Getting personal
Of course, most of Australia by now knows that while Senator Fisher does have a solid grasp of policy in the portfolios she works on, and is a worthy opponent on the debating floor, she also has another side to her — a somewhat more care-free side.

The nation watched riveted in March this year as the politician stood up in the Senate and accused Labor of “dancing a very merry dance” on the issue of the carbon tax — a dance tune set by the Greens. But while others might have left their rhetoric at that, Fisher continued the metaphor, referring to dancing the “Hokey Pokey”. “You put petrol in, you take petrol out,” she said. “You put petrol in and you shake the tax about. You do the Hokey Pokey — and Ooh! You turn right around.”

“If you’re lucky today we can ask for
some Nutbush City Limits, a Costello-esque
Macarena or ideally a little Achy Breaky Heart!”
— Senator Simon Birmingham

The Time Warp was also mentioned and on display … “It’s astounding, time is fleeting — madness, it’s going to take its toll,” said Fisher, taking a step to the left. “Let’s do the Time Warp again.”

The video quickly made its way to YouTube, Twitter and Facebook where it was set to music and was watched by thousands. Fellow Liberal Senator for South Australia, Simon Birmingham wittily commented on Twitter that if onlookers were lucky they could ask for “some Nutbush City Limits, a Costello-esque Macarena or ideally a little Achy Breaky Heart”.

Senator Fisher conducted this interview from her office in Adelaide and getting in contact with her was easy and done quickly; so we asked her why – being so open to media – she did not have an active Twitter account like colleagues Ludlam and Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull do. Perhaps some of this parliamentary frivolity would help to enliven up the social media sphere.

“That’s a work in progress, I’m considering to embrace the Twitter sphere,” she says. “I’m not talking about any Federal colleague here – but I’m not impressed by the banality of some of the Twitter messages that seem to catch attention. So I think Twitter can be very good to communicate with people, but I’m still thinking how to best do that as a pollie.”

And despite being not a “nerd”, does Fisher use technology much herself? The Senator says she used to have a broadband connection at home, but that these days she tended to rely on her BlackBerry only — adding with a touch of humour that while much of the IT jargon around was still hard to understand at times, it wasn’t worth worrying about it.

“It doesn’t concern me that I don’t know so much, when our Shadow [Turnbull] knows so much about IT and the modern world of communication,” she says. “People like me are a good balance for him.”

Image credit: Office of Senator Mary Jo Fisher


  1. “We’re seeing that we need a mix of technology to deliver, and that includes fibre, it includes wireless and it includes satellite,” she says.

    Funny. That’s exactly what I thought the NBN was made up of. What exactly is she proposing as a superior alternative?

    The Senator says she used to have a broadband connection at home, but that these days she tended to rely on her BlackBerry only

    Excuse me if I don’t take someone seriously, that would find switching to a shitty Blackberry a superior experience to a fast home broadband connection.

    • She doesn’t look like she has kids left at home. So THEY don’t need the internet.

      How much time DO pollies actually spend in their normal homes (awake and able to use the internet – not asleep)? I would be surprised if it was more than 1 or 2 hours a day. The rest of her time is in her office, up in canberra, or in hotels/out on the street in other cities attending “events”.

      She has broadband in her office.
      She has broadband in her hotels.
      She has broadband in canberra.

      I’d say she is on broadband (read a desktop computer) 90% of the time she uses the internet.
      The other 10% is responding to emails from her blackberry.

    • In my experience (IT support wihin goverment) most senior politicians don’t even use their smartphone/blackberry as anything but a basic mobile phone. In most instances their PA prints most of the emails they need to read an places them on their desks. The tech savvy politition is few and far between.

      • Many “pedestal” occupations have the same. I started in corporate IT in a law firm. Had a partner ring up one morning to tell me he couldn’t log in to his PC because it was telling him his password had expired.

        It had been expired for 18 months.

  2. @ Renai LeMay
    ” I consider it an item of self-sacrifice that I allocated this story to Marina :)”
    Self sacrifice or self preservation ?? She may be intelligent, or quick witted, or a good public speaker, or even (dare I say it) a good politician, but by gawd she grates!

  3. So, do you reckon the answer to the great question of “Life, the NBN and everything” would be 42 billion?

    Well, that would buy you one NBN with six billion change, and you get the 36 billion back in fifteen years, too.

  4. Dear god. A $1 in the jar everytime a politician says ‘skeptic’ or ‘denier’ would go a long way to helping crisis affected regions.

    Quigley deserves a medal of valour just for the amount of oversight committees he has to appear before.

    As long as the NBN makes reasonable progress by 2013 I just can’t see that they’ll actually make more than cosmetic changes to it if the coalition get in. Prior to the next election the NBN will dutifully update their plan for the next 3 years and announce at least 1 years worth of rollouts. I can’t imagine any politician campaigning locally against a specific rollout in their electorate.

    It will be fascinating to see what creative zinger of a policy they come up with. I would guess it would be an early sale to a private entity that’s not an existing Telco.

      • Shit like what? ISPs lobbying to get the best possible deal? Why would that surprise you?

        • Uh did you read the article?

          CVC charges mean that our quotas will be significantly lower compared if the NBN didn’t go through (this is something that I have been saying for zonks, seems like the ISP’s are finally speaking out, at a ripe time when there is debate about NBN in the parliament)

          Of course NBN can just be forced to abandon CVC charges due to political pressure, but then you can completely forget about NBN paying itself off, which in such a case will mean it will require significant taxpayer funds to pay it off (i.e. NBN will be a spectacular financial loss)

          Removing CVC charges will be the only thing that can guarantee that the NBN will offer similar pricing for internet plans that we have NOW and allow for internet plans quotas to grow naturally in the future (as they have been in the past)

          Michael Wyres must be shooting himself in the face now

          • Uh did you read the article?

            Yes I did. ISPs saying the NBN needs to reduce it’s wholesale prices or “bad stuff will happen.” Sounds like standard lobbying language to me.

          • Sounds like you don’t know what they are talking about (or what you are talking about for that matter)

            They are not talking about wholesale (AVC) charges, they are talking about CVC charges, which NBNCo relies on to pay itself off. If NBNCo’s CVC charges are lowered, it will NOT pay itself off in any sane amount of time. It will require additional funding from the government, it will not pay itself off

            Of course anyone that read the business case in an unbiased, objective and intelligent manner would have realized this, and it has been reported before by unbiased journalists (and no it hasn’t been reported on Delimiter).

            The ISP’s have just waited for the right time to say this, such as when NBN is being debated in parliament, as it is now

          • I know what they’re talking about.

            They’re saying wholesale charges are going to be higher under the NBN than they are now. They want the charges lowered, “or bad things will happen”. They’re not actually saying anything new – you yourself have been saying all along that the CVC is going to make the wholesale cost of connecting to the NBN higher than ADSL for ages. It’s no surprise the ISPs agree with since lowering CVC is going to benefit them.

            Personally, I’m going to reserve judgement until ISPs actually start releasing plans on the final pricing. It’s only a couple of months away now after all.

            Lobbying is the intention of influencing decisions made by legislators and officials in the government. Sounds exactly like what they’re doing to me.

          • Its not more so about the lowering costs, its the pricing model that they have chosen which (basically) charges per bandwidth, something that doesn’t exist at all under ULL/LLS

            Such a pricing scheme is very difficult to manage, because if its too high (as the ISP’s are apparently complaining) then it has a severe deterrent on the amount of bandwidth users can download per price, if its too low then it will have no impact and NBNCo will make a loss.

            If NBNCo removed CVC charges (and still be expected to be financially viable) they would have to start charging at a minimum of ~$36 for 12/1, and with ULL at $16 for everywhere but the incredible rural areas, thats not going to go down to well and its political suicide (since for the low budget light users it will significantly increase their prices, with the CVC charges are low for very light users). Its likely that ULL prices will drop even further in the next 4-5 years (as has historically been happening) which would increase the price differential even further between our current CAN and NBN

            Remember though, lowering CVC (without raising costs in another area) will hurt NBN’s financials significantly, to the point where it will require tax payer funds, and thats the critical point. If its bad enough it can turn into a financial deadsink for NBNCo

          • Also this is not lobbying, this is a act against government intervention. Its due to government intervention that CVC charges (something ISP’s currently do not pay) are being forced with a monopoly.

          • Transit of the actual data is one of the cheapest costs for any ISP, and furthermore providers like PIPE do not even charge per MB for transferring of data.

            In US, local bandwidth basically has “free” cost, in Australia is different mainly due to the international links, which since require significant capital investment they incur a premium.

            Clearly the ISP’s know what they are talking about more then you do, and with your record of fudging numbers I will stick to trusting them thank you very much ;)

          • Fudging numbers? Teehee…that’s a good one…

            Now, since you admit transit backhaul is “…one of their cheapest costs…” after previously saying it is “…(something ISP’s currently do not pay)…”, how do you explain completely contradicting yourself in two consecutive posts?

            There are also no bandwidth charges under the NBN plan for AVC pricing. The equivalent network component in an ADSL network is the “ULL/LLS”, not the CVCs you are trying to compare it to.

            Also interestingly, you state “…its the pricing model that they have chosen which (basically) charges per bandwidth, something that doesn’t exist at all under ULL/LLS…”. Bandwidth pricing for ULL access does not exist now, and will not exist under the NBN. So that one is a dead argument too.

            Of course anyone that read the business case in an unbiased, objective and intelligent manner would realise this.

            For those interested in ACTUAL pricing models – (not the made up ones) – please check out the link below, the presentation slides from NBN Co at a recent industry forum, demonstrating pricing examples, demonstrating pricing for combined AVC and CVC charging. As you’ll see, the CVC component of the charges are MINIMAL compared to the AVC pricing.

            How such tiny prices per connection are designed as “…CVC charges, which NBNCo relies on to pay itself off…” is a mystery to me.


            For the record, I don’t own a gun, have never held one, have no access to one, and wouldn’t have any idea how to load one. Thanks once again for a truly childish statement.

            (NOTE FOR EVERYONE ELSE: I will shortly be accused by deteEGO of “making things up”, “twisting his words”, “not knowing what I’m talking about”, “preparing to shoot myself in the face”, “fudging figures to suit my argument”, or other such nonsense. For those just joining the conversation, this is standard practice.)

          • Don’t forget, you’re also a shill for NBNCo. That’s another that gets thrown around ;)

          • Im sorry, I will take ISP’s word over yours or NBNCo’s “predicted” (LOL) figures regarding CVC charges. If the ISP’s are complaining that the CVC charges are high enough that unlimited is not possible, then thats clearly more expensive then what ISP’s are currently playing, especially considering we have unlimited (or practically unlimited for ADSL2+ speeds) plans right now

            The figures provided from NBNCo are in direct contradiction to the ISP’s complaining that the CVC charges are too high

            Do me a favor, and don’t quote anything from NBNCo apart from the business case in regards to the charges NBNCo will put forward. They are a vested party with a vested interest, and they aren’t providing the CVC charges for all circumstances (where can I find the predicted CVC charges from NBNCo with ISP’s like TPG that offer unlimited for $60 a month, and not this silly 50gig limit plans)

          • They are a vested party with a vested interest

            And ISPs don’t have a vested interest?

          • “Now, since you admit transit backhaul is “…one of their cheapest costs…” after previously saying it is “…(something ISP’s currently do not pay)…”, how do you explain completely contradicting yourself in two consecutive posts?”

            Just wanted to post this again, because it was beautifully done, and deteego will obviously not respond to it.

            It about sums up his credibility as a whole.

          • This is entering a new dimension.

            The NBN figures ARE the figures the ISPs are working off to do their own modelling and comparisons, since the presentations ARE for ISPs.

            Unless the ISPs put their own calculations on the table for examination there is no actual way to assess their claim. It’s not a matter of trust, it’s a matter of who is prepared to show how they arrived at that conclusion, and if they’re not prepared to show their cards then the simple test will be what they ACTUALLY offer under the NBN pricing compared with their competitors. Bring on the complaints and lobbying then..

            But we’re not going to see their figures because the critical difference from the current situation is that the NBN’s costs and pricing are transparent to the ACCC and all those oversight committees whereas with your average ISP they have a mix of Telstra wholesale which is in-confidence, ULL which is public, and all the backhaul, installation, and DSLAM costs which you can only make educated guesses at depending on who owns what.

            As long as the plans are not significantly higher than today then I’m happy (and I really don’t care about unlimited), but what I do care about is that any telco is not making a 50%+ margin at my expense 10 years down the track, and with the NBN I’ll be able to determine just that.

          • Im not sure you realize, but ISP’s are never going to release their own internal costs and models of their users market share and download habits as it would help their competitors

            The ISP’s know what they are talking about, and anyone that doesn’t have rocks in their head would realize that CVC costs would have this effect.

          • Nope – I’ll still be here to haunt you for a long time to come, so you’re not getting your dream come true tonight. Time will be the judge, not you.

      • Mike can you please learn to read

        CVC costs are an artificial cost put on by NBNCo to pay for the debt that it needs to pay back, there are no CVC costs that ISP’s pay with ULL/LLS (which is what I was referring to). The cost of local backhaul is what is very cheap which is what I was referring to

        But yes, twisting around my points to make yourself look good must be fun

  5. Sadly, MJF is less interested in actually finding the truth, she is after all a lawyer, and far too interested in simply taking down her opponents. And whilst a feisty combative stance is a healthy thing, it can and is taken beyond the reasonable by many in the Coalition today…

    This is all the more obvious when someone who clearly claims to not understand the technological aspects has a massive swath of questions rattled off, most of which are asked in moral indignation at the Govt stance, but in relaity the asker has no idea what she is waffling on about…

    MJF comment on broadband connections and her Blackberry is about as superficial and shallow as they get, and exposes her political cynicism along with a yawning ignorance about the Australian telecoms market and actual usage spectrums, trends, realities and developments…

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