news Former Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has blindsided the Government in the Senate, successfully passing an amendment to an otherwise innocuous piece of NBN legislation that will enforce a degree of radical transparency on the NBN company.
The Senate this morning debated several pieces of legislation concerned with surface-level telecommunications regulation, the Communications Legislation Amendment (Deregulation and Other Measures) Bill 2015 and the Telecommunications (Numbering Charges) Amendment Bill 2015. Both were expected to pass Parliament in relatively short order.
However, Labor Senator Conroy — the author of the original NBN policy in his tenure as Communications Minister in the Rudd and Gillard Governments — unexpectedly ambushed the current Communications Minister, Senator Fifield, by introducing a key amendment to one of the bills this morning.
The amendment — available online — stipulates that the NBN company’s board must prepare a report setting out key financial and deployment forecasts for the rollout of the National Broadband Network, for the period beginning 1 July 2015 and ending 30 June 2022.
Conroy’s amendment calls for the report to contain a large amount of information, some of which the NBN company does not currently provide publicly, such as the number of premises which it anticipates will be ready for service for each access technology as at the stipulated dates, the number of premises activated, the NBN company’s key financial details such as revenue and earnings, the amount of government and private sector funding it has and will take and much more.
The NBN company, under the Coalition Government, has proven more transparent on some measures — such as publishing more regular statistics about its rollout — but in general has withheld much more information about its rollout than it did under Labor.
Conroy’s amendment stipulated that the detailed report he requested must be provided to the Communications Minister of the day, as well as being published on its website and tabled in Parliament.
In the Senate this morning, Conroy said there was no other Government Business Enterprie in Australia that was allowed to hide information about its operations as the NBN company did.
The Senator said NBN chief executive Bill Morrow — who has sought to withhold some information on the basis of a ‘Commercial in Confidence’ argument — was treating the Senate “with contempt”. The Senate does not usually recognise Commercial in Confidence as a reason for withholding information from it, unless there are very specific reasons given by the entity it is seeking information from.
Conroy also slammed what he said were the “fluffy” pieces of content being generated by the NBN company’s public relations team — which he said includes about 60 staff members. He said the NBN company was trying to hide information relating to the veracity of Labor’s original Fibre to the Premises model for the NBN.
“They can tweet and tweet and tweet, but the lie has to be maintained at all costs,” said Conroy. The Labor Senator vowed to pursue the NBN company relentlessly on the issue of transparency.
Greens Senator Scott Ludlam also spoke in the Senate this morning, pointing out that the Greens had supported NBN transparency for many years; in fact, Ludlam had teamed up with the previous Coalition Opposition to enforce NBN transparency on Conroy as Communications Minister.
Ludlam slammed the Multi-Technology Mix model applied by the Abbott and Turnbull administrations to the NBN. “We’re stuck with an obsolete copper network … stuck together with gaffer tape and plastic bags,” said Ludlam. “What act of genius put this together?”
“It’s a network that will be obsolete the day it’s switched on,” the Greens Senator and long-time Communications spokesperson told the Senate.
Communications Minister Mitch Fifield rejected the claim that the NBN company was not transparent enough, stating that as Communications Minister, Malcolm Turnbull had drastically increased the company’s transparency and noting his view that transparency had been “an illusion” under the previous Labor Government.
“This is a legislative stunt,” Fifield said of Conroy’s NBN transparency amendment.
Depsite Fifield’s protestations, Senate crossbenchers such as Senators Lazarus, Wang, Xenophon and Madigan combined with the Greens and Labor to pass Conroy’s contentious amendment.
The legislation will now be shuffled back to the House of Representatives for consideration. It is likely that the House — controlled by the Coalition — will knock the amendment back or seek to modify it in a way that would be likely to ensure it passed through the Senate.
Image credit: Parliamentary Broadcasting