Minister for Communications Stephen Conroy has won the support of the Greens, independent Nick Xenophon and Family First's Steven Fielding to have the government's telecommunications reform legislation debated before the end of the year.
All cross-bench senators today threw their support behind Conroy's wish to have the Bill — Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer Safeguards) Bill 2009 — debated before the end of the year.
As the Senate's sitting year draws to a close, Conroy has desperately scrambled to have the Bill, which would see Telstra's split, debated in the Senate. The Bill had been caught in a holding pattern as senators decided whether Conroy's release of documents earlier this week satisfied the Opposition's 13 May motion to defer debate on any Bills related to the National Broadband Network (NBN) until those documents were released.
"In effect, this means that the Senate will not be able to debate this Bill on telecommunications regulatory reform. I think that this interpretation of the Senate order is broader than even perhaps Senator Minchin imagined," said Conroy yesterday.
The documents contained detailed information about the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission's valuation of Telstra's network, and are believed to contain an explanation from the NBN Expert Panel as to why the government abandoned the first $4.7 billion NBN proposal. Citing "commercial-in-confidence", Conroy however only released 16 pages of the Expert Panel's 893-page report, which Minchin today said did not satisfy the May order.
Conroy last night had asked for the legislation to be made exempt from the 13 May order on the basis that it related to telecommunications reform, and not the NBN. "These reforms are required, independent and irrespective of the NBN," said Conroy.
"I am asking the Senate to support this motion to ensure that important reforms to improve competition and strengthen consumer safeguards can be considered by the Senate independently and separately of any Bills which specifically relate to the roll-out and regulatory design for the NBN."
Conroy clarified that the government would not push for a vote on the matter until 16 November, the last week of the Senate's sitting year because he would be in Egypt at a UN conference on Internet Governance.
Minchin today said he was disappointed with the cross-benchers' decision, but accepted the weight of numbers. Due to Conroy's handling of "commercial in confidence", however, the Senate agreed to conduct an inquiry into its use. Both Ludlam and Xenophon objected to Conroy's handling of the documents relating to the first NBN proposal.