news Communications Minister Mitch Fifield has invited the Australian public to comment on whether it has more confidence in Labor’s near universal Fibre to the Premises version of the National Broadband Network, or the Coalition’s Multi-Technology Mix, in a fraught parliamentary session yesterday in which tempers again became heated over the NBN topic.
In Senate Question Time yesterday (Tuesday), Labor Senator Jenny McAllister alleged that under the Coalition, the cost of the NBN had blown out by a total of up to $26.5 billion, and asked the Communications Minister whether this amount would be funded by private debt.
After Fifield confirmed that the Government was planning to cap its equity contribution to the NBN at $29.5 billion, with the remainder of the company’s costs to come from private sector funding, McAllister then asked Fifield whether the Government would be forced to underwrite that private sector funding through an explicit government guarantee.
This is a question which has been circling the NBN project for some time. As its costs have risen, the Coalition has maintained it would not fund the project beyond $29.5 billion. However, some have questioned whether capital markets would be prepared to take on the rest of the NBN project’s funding without an explicit government guarantee that they would not lose their money in the event that the NBN project could not make a return on its investment.
In response, Fifield said:
“Let me put a fairly straightforward proposition to colleagues in the Chamber. What would colleagues around the Chamber— indeed, let’s talk more broadly: Who would members of the community—have more confidence in: a plan which was produced and overseen by former Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull or one that was prepared and overseen by Senator Conroy?”
In response, an uproar was heard within the Senate Chamber, with senior Labor Senators Conroy and Penny Wong strongly objecting to Fifield’s comment.
It is not the first time this week that the NBN has been one of the most contentious topics in the Parliament, especially in the Senate; due, it appears, to the presence of both Senator Fifield and Senator Conroy in the upper house.
On Monday, for example, Western Australian Liberal Senator Linda Reynolds asked Fifield to update the Senate on the progress of the NBN project, in the context that the company released its latest quarterly results on Monday this week.
Senator Conroy also interjected during that debate.
“I am very pleased to be able to advise the chamber that the rollout of the NBN is powering ahead under the Coalition,” said Fifield in response, detailing the NBN company’s progress. And in response to Conroy’s interjection: “If I had a word of advice for Senator Conroy, it would be: Just let go!”
Asked by Reynolds whether there were any threats to the delivery of the NBN, Fifield said:
“Well, there is a threat from someone opposite who just will not let go. But we are going to ignore that threat and just get on with the job of building the NBN.”
“Today’s results are in stark contrast to those that the other side presided over. As Professor Henry Ergas observed today in his very good column in The Australian newspaper, NBN’s revenues at the time the Coalition took office were 91 per cent short of the 2013 corporate plan objective. The company, under those opposite, did not even know how much it cost to connect a premises.”
“No wonder the Australian Financial Review referred to Senator Conroy’s approach as an expensive joke.”
Labor Senator Deborah O’Neill later asked Fifield further questions on the NBN, relating to the so-called ‘counterfactual’ which Maloclm Turnbull (as Communications Minister) and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann had asked the NBN company to carry out into a Fibre to the Premises model for the NBN.
The move has been interpreted as representing material that the Coalition Government could use to discredit the idea of the NBN returning to a near-universal FTTP model.
O’Neill also highlighted comments recently made by conservative commentator Andrew Bolt with regards to the NBN. Bolt had heavily criticised Turnbull for his handling of the project, stating Turnbull had “fumbled” the catch on the NBN and let the project blow out to twice the cost and four years behind the delivery that Turnbull promised.
Following the questions, the Senate Chamber again descended into an uproar, which ended in both Fifield and Conroy arguing across the floor on the issue of the NBN.
“I think there is only a very small number of people who are on that side of the chamber in this place and on that side of the chamber in the other place who still contend and persist with the fantasy that Senator Conroy did anything approaching a halfway decent job with the NBN. The entire nation knows it is not true,” said Fifield.
“The NBN was going nowhere very fast under Senator Conroy. As we all know, there was not the work done for the planning of the NBN that I acknowledge those opposite did in the planning of the NDIS. There was not a 1,000-page Productivity Commission report laying out a blueprint. There was a coaster with scribble on the back. That was the comprehensive plan that Senator Conroy left the nation, and, in the rollout under him, it showed.”
I suggest that readers might like to post their opinion below this article in response to the following question put to the public by Communications Minister Mitch Fifield:
“Who would members of the community—have more confidence in: a plan which was produced and overseen by former Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull or one that was prepared and overseen by Senator Conroy?”
Video credit: Parliamentary Broadcasting