NBN committee plagued by partisan politics

Independent MP Rob Oakeshott has warned that the latest parliamentary committee report into the NBN may be the last before the election if divisions along party lines continue.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

Rob Oakeshott, Independent MP and chair of the joint parliamentary committee group investigating the National Broadband Network (NBN), has slammed Labor and Liberal committee members for sticking to their party policies in an election year, rather than approaching the review in a bipartisan way.

In the fourth of the six-monthly reports from the committee tabled in parliament on Thursday, Oakeshott said that the latest report had "proved to be the most difficult of all four".

"It has been several months of disagreement between committee members on some very basic points in this report, that have seen the report delivered later than planned. This is disappointing," he said.

Oakeshott said that the committee is becoming less concerned about overseeing the NBN and more concerned about the individual members' party platforms ahead of the 2013 federal election in September.

"In my view, this is an early warning sign that the topic of higher speed broadband technology is likely to feature strongly in political debate throughout 2013, an election year," Oakeshott said.

A fifth report from the committee is due in July or August, but Oakeshott warned that a report may not be achievable if the MPs continue to disagree.

"Instead, I think the committee has become somewhat stuck on a policy dispute between different build options, and will only deepen divisions on this in the pre-election period. If we can manage to produce a fifth report, there is a danger it won't mean much from an oversight perspective," he said.

"Despite the opportunities to report and provide oversight on a number of important aspects of the current rollout, there is every chance the next report will be nothing more than a compendium of political statements and election promises.

"If this is all we can produce, I could write it now, and it makes the entire committee process worthless and a waste of time for all involved."

The committee made eight recommendations, including that the NBN performance report include established business plan targets, and the actual results for each six-month period and audited financial statements. The committee has recommended that NBN Co further examine the possibility of opening up NBN Co towers to mobile telecommunications companies to improve mobile coverage in regional Australia. NBN Co has already flagged it is open to this idea.

Coalition: Stop the contracts

In an estimates hearing earlier this month, Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham asked NBN Co CEO Mike Quigley whether NBN Co was looking to sign four-year contracts. Quigley would not confirm the length, but said that NBN Co would look at changing contract periods if it was an advantage for NBN Co to do so.

He indicated that a number of the contracts would be signed in the middle of 2013.

In his dissenting report, Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull said NBN Co needed to keep in mind that the government may change after September 14 before entering into any new contracts.

"NBN Co and its board should be clearly mindful of a possibility of a change of government, and the need to alter contracts down the contract," he said.

"NBN Co and its board should ensure suitable flexibility is written into the terms of future contracts. If this is not possible, then the likely costs of changing and lengthening contract terms need to be weighed against perceived benefits."

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