news Communications Minister Mitch Fifield has again invited Australians to comment on whether they would prefer the Coalition or Labor versions of the National Broadband Network, defending the Coalition’s Multi-Technology Mix from criticism by Labor and conservative commentator Andrew Bolt.
In Senate Question Time late last week, Fifield was asked a number of questions about the NBN project by Labor Senator Jenny McAllister, the chair of the Senate Select Committee into the National Broadband Network.
McAllister firstly asked how anyone could have confidence in the Government’s financial costing numbers with respect to the Multi-Technology Mix version of the NBN, when they have changed a number of times over the past two and a half years.
In response, Fifield said the NBN company was “learning from experience” and was becoming much more precise in terms of its costings.
“That is an important point, because our predecessors had no fix, they had no handle, on the costs of the scheme,” said Fifield, referring to the previous Labor Government. “This government has had to put in train with the board and management of nbn co processes to determine, to get a realistic handle on, what the true expenses of the NBN are because the NBN was left in such bad order by those opposite.”
Fifield alleged that the “sum total” of preparation work for the NBN policy was a “coaster” written by former Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, with some of his “hieroglyphics”. The Minister added: “I return to something that I posed the other day to this chamber: in what plan would you have more confidence? Would it be one developed by Senator Conroy or one developed by Mr Turnbull?”
McAllister further asked Fifield if he could guarantee the Government’s rollout plan for the NBN — which calls for the MTM rollout to be finished by 2020 — would be achieved, noting that NBN chairman Ziggy Switkowski has described the company’s rollout plan as “heroic”.
In addition, McAllister asked Fifield whether he agreed with comments published by conservative commentator Andrew Bolt, who had severely criticised the performance of former-Communications Minister, current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, in deploying the network.
Bolt wrote in late October this year that 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. In response, Fifield said:
“When Dr Switkowski, the chair of nbn co, was referring to ‘heroic’, I think he was referring to the incredible efforts of the staff of nbn co, who are giving their all to this project … But I do not deny for a second that this is not an ambitious project. It is a very ambitious project with a very good board and very good management who have oversight.”
“It is an ambitious project but it is a realistic project. What we know for sure is that the multi-technology mix approach being pursued by nbn co will see the NBN rolled out much faster than it would have been by those opposite and at much lower cost to taxpayers, and I think that is great news.”
In response to the question regarding Andrew Bolt’s comments, Fifield said:
“The 2016 corporate plan represents the most robust corporate plan developed by nbn, and it provides an accurate reflection of the business. We are confident that the network can be completed by 2020.”
“In fact, for the past two years, the company has successfully met its rollout targets. That is the first time that has happened. We have confidence in the board of nbn. We have confidence in the management of the nbn. We want to see them get on with the job of delivering fast broadband sooner and at less cost.”
Fifield’s parliamentary performance was seized upon by Shadow Communications Minister Jason Clare — who sits in the House of Representatives (not the Senate).
In a statement following Fifield’s comments in the Senate, Clare said the Communications MInister had refused to rule out further delays in the rollout of “Malcolm Turnbull’s second-rate NBN”.
“The Turnbull Government has form here,” said Clare. “In April 2013, the now Prime Minister promised his second rate NBN would cost $29.5 billion and said his plan was “very conservative”.”
“In December 2013, the now Prime Minister said his second rate NBN would cost $41 billion and the assumptions were “conservative and achievable”. In August this year, the now Prime Minister admitted his second rate NBN would cost up to $56 billion and said “all of us can have real confidence in the numbers”.”
“The Communications Minister is still learning his job but it is clear that he doesn’t have much confidence in the numbers associated with the second rate NBN.”
So who came out ahead in this exchange between McAllister (with a bit of help from Senator Conroy and Jason Clare, no doubt) and Fifield?
Personally, I think this one was quite balanced — with both sides attacking and defending well.
Labor made some very valid points … the cost of the NBN under the Coalition has changed constantly over the past few years, to the point where the Coalition’s stewardship is even facing criticism from some conservative commentators such as Andrew Bolt.
However, I wouldn’t say that Labor was able to get Fifield off-balance in this exchange. The unflappable Fifield is clearly well-versed in the details of the NBN’s history and able to verbally defend the Government’s legacy on the issue. If Labor truly wishes to rattle Fifield, it will doubtless need some heavier ammunition than it showed in this exchange.
Video credit: Parliamentary Broadcasting