Conroy on Minchin's 'Luddite' delays

This afternoon Communications Minister Stephen Conroy described his opposite, Senator Nick Minchin, as a Luddite as he took questions from reporters on the Opposition's attempt to block the government's wide-ranging telecommunications industry reform legislation, which includes provisions to force the break-up of Telstra.
Written by ZDNET Editors, Contributor

Q&A This afternoon Communications Minister Stephen Conroy took questions from reporters on the Opposition's attempt to block the government's wide-ranging telecommunications industry reform legislation, which includes provisions to force the break-up of Telstra.


Communications Minister Stephen Conroy
(Credit: Federal Government)

The coalition is attempting through amendments to defer consideration of the legislation until the completion of an implementation study into the NBN project, which is expected to be completed by February 2010. The complete transcript of Conroy's doorstop interview with reporters at Canberra's Parliament House is below, starting with an opening statement from the minister himself.

Conroy: The Opposition's decision to block and defer the Telstra legislation is a real blow for Australian consumers, because a decision to delay debating this Bill is a delay that allows Australians to be paying higher prices, getting slower speeds, getting less choice and getting less innovation in the telecommunications market. And those in the Opposition that are signalling they intend to block and defer this legislation should hang their head in shame.

They had 11 and a half years to devise a broadband plan. They had 18 failed broadband plans during their 11 and a half years.

And after two years of Opposition, they're no further advanced. What Australians want to see is cheaper prices for broadband, faster speeds for broadband, more choice, and importantly, more innovation.

More innovation so that small businesses can put themselves on the world market. So that our kids can get a world class education with the best possible infrastructure. And Nick Minchin and the Opposition deserve the strongest condemnation for, once again, showing no leadership in the telecommunications and broadband sector.

Do you still intend to pass the Bill this year?

Conroy: Absolutely. We intend to press ahead. We've tabled the Bill in the last Parliament, the Senate committee has heard it and reporting. There is no reason whatsoever to delay. What we need is certainty for Telstra investors, the market in general so that we can get on with delivering a world class broadband network to all Australians.

Will you consider amendments the Opposition put forward?

Amendments that are constructive that move towards delivering the network are something we have an open mind to, but amendments that are about rejecting what is the strategy, the legislative underpinning in this Bill — that take away the powers to increase the ACCC's powers, that take away the fines and penalties that we are introducing for Telstra, that take away the capacity to save telephone boxes all around the country (like this legislation does) — are not acceptable.

Will you reach out to the Nationals to split them off from the Libs?

I can't speak for Barnaby Joyce and the National Party. I saw the announcement that it was a joint Coalition position. But I've also seen commentary in the morning's papers that perhaps not everyone in the National Party agrees with the Luddite position being adopted by Nick Minchin. I mean, this is a Bill that strengthens the universal service obligation. It strengthens the protections for consumers. It gives more power to the consumer watchdog, the ACCC.

That's what the majority of this Bill is about. I know there's been a majority of focus around the Telstra and the structural separation, voluntary separation argument. But this Bill is a substantive piece of consumer legislation that dramatically strengthens consumer protections; and we won't be backing down on that. And Nick Minchin is being exposed for being a complete Luddite.

Why do you need to get it through in the next month when a lot of the safeguards start in July next year?

Well, we need not to have the Opposition continue as they have done with CPRS show a complete lack of leadership. Why aren't they able to stand up and say they support stronger consumer protections? Why don't they want cheaper prices for broadband? Why don't they want faster speeds with broadband? Every day of delay leads to consumers being worse off. There are powers here that are critically important for the ACCC to be able to regulate this market, irrespective of the implementation study being done around the NBN.

So when this goes through in, say, November, we can see cheaper prices immediately?

No, this is a Bill that is about delivering the structure in the industry. It is a Bill about reforming the industry. And that will take some time to fully implement. NBN will start to come on stream, as you've seen from the announcement from David Bartlett and the Prime Minister today, there are six or seven new towns in Tasmania now being targeted as the second stage of the Tasmanian NBN roll out. This is a roll-out that is happening on the ground today in Tasmania. We have now announced six or seven more towns to be fibred up so that they can begin this education revolution, this environmental revolution.

...blocking this legislation is going to be a blow to consumers. Are you saying that without this legislation and without structural change in the industry, this is going to compromise your broadband plans?

Not at all. What we're saying is the structure of the industry has patently not delivered for consumers today. What you look at — and we've been through a 15-month study on this, we've had over 200 submissions. And each and every one of those said the same thing: the current regulatory framework is broken.

We are seeing, according to all the world's standards, some of the slowest broadband, and some of the most expensive broadband, particularly for small business, that we have anywhere in the world. So the structure of the industry (where we've had infrastructure competition) has clearly failed to deliver. We need to make this structural change so that we can start seeing lower prices created by more competition.

Why is it wrong to wait for the implementation study to come out early next year, I mean —

Well as I said, this Bill is largely — I appreciate the focus has been around some aspects to do with Telstra. But this Bill is largely about consumer protection. [Waiting for] The implementation study is a furphy, it's a fig leaf that the Opposition are seeking to use to cover their lack of leadership.

They are a rabble, and Nick Minchin and Malcolm Turnbull should get their act together and make a decision. Do you think they're going to support this or they're not going to support these consumer protections and improvements in legislation in the regulatory framework.

Either they're in favour of more powers for the ACCC to regulate this sector — this is a sector that has had one, more than, in 12 years, more than 150 access regime disputes. Contrast that with all of the other utility sectors (airports, gas, water) there's been three.

In 12 years, in all of the other sectors combined, three access disputes before the ACCC. Telecommunications — more than 150. This is a system that is broken today, and this is legislation that begins to change the framework of the regulation in this sector to improve it for consumers.

Would you be willing to transform the deadline for the implementation study so that you can get that earlier [indistinct]?

No, look the implementation study is a complex development of a business plan, of architecture of the network. For those who — and I've been lucky enough to spend some time with Mike Quigley recently, a man who's got extraordinary experience in his field. He would say to you that this is a very, very challenging time frame even today to deliver the architecture, the framework, the physical design of the network by February.

He would say that it is a very complex thing that he is developing. So just to suit the Opposition who have no plan and no alternative, are divided and a rabble and rushed, the NBN would not be a satisfactory outcome, it could lead to a worse outcome for the NBN simply to accommodate a rabble.

If it's all so complex, though, why don't we wait for the implementation study to come through, given that the consumer safeguards don't start until July?

Well as I said, we are being open and transparent. We have put this Bill forward. We have gone through the Senate Committee process. And simply because the Liberals are split and divided, and can't make a decision, they're saying, no. We'll put it off into the never never. They're not promising to pass it next year. They're not promising to support it next year. And let's be clear. They have no plan themselves, and they are simply trying to get away from the fact that they are divided yet again. This is a rabble, this leadership.

Senator, who's going to take responsibility for providing phone services to 10 per cent of households who don't get access to the fibre optic cables?

Let's be clear. It's unfortunate that Senator Minchin is struggling to understand the difference between a broadband service and a phone line. No one has suggested that the copper lines in the 10 per cent are suddenly going to vanish or that they're going to be cut off or that they're going to be pulled out, which is exactly what Nick Minchin's suggesting.

There's nothing in this legislation whatsoever that suggests that, except we are strengthening the universal service obligation. So the universal service obligation is what pays, via a levy today paid to Telstra to provide that service. And nothing is changing. And for Nick Minchin to not understand the difference between delivering a broadband network over wireless and satellite and a copper-based phone service is just embarrassing.

But [indistinct] service obligation be borne by Telstra or the NBN?

Well the NBN don't provide phone services, the NBN provide ... they move bits, to put it in really technical jargon. They move bits from point A to point B. So they're not providing a phone service. Telstra currently have the universal service obligation on them, and we're not proposing to change that.

If they roll into the broadband network, then someone's got to pay for —

That's what I said, there is an existing levy on all of the players in the market that is given to Telstra to provide —

Telstra also puts in a lot of money themselves though. Much more than that obligation.

Yes, but the 10 per cent obligation is all that will be remaining if negotiations turn out in one particular form. No one is proposing repealing the levy. No one is proposing digging up phone lines and pulling them out. Only Nick Minchin. This is just an embarrassing demonstration that Senator Minchin doesn't understand the technologies involved in delivering broadband.

This transcript was provided by the office of Minister Stephen Conroy.

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