National Broadband Network Committee Report

Mr McCORMACK (Riverina) (19:04): The National Broadband Network has been one of the most contentious issues debated in this, the 43rd Parliament. There is a good reason for that. The NBN is one of the largest, if not the largest—as opposed to greatest—investments ever made by a Commonwealth government.

It was the subject of considerable industry and political debate before construction began and will rightly be the focus of close scrutiny into the future. The estimated cost to the network has been the topic of much conjecture. On 20 December 2010 NBN Co. Ltd's corporate plan indicated that the estimated total capital expenditure for the project was $35.9 billion. But, as the shadow Treasurer told the ABC's Lateline only last night, the NBN will now be a slug to taxpayers of more than $42 billion. That figure will surely only grow. Some industry experts have warned it could exceed $60 billion. What a commercial risk—no cost-benefit analysis and no business plan. As the Leader of the Opposition noted yesterday, the cost will ultimately be more than $50 billion of borrowed money that at this point in time we cannot afford to spend. 
This is money that I have steadfastly maintained should have gone into health. Better hospitals and more specialists, doctors, nurses and allied health professionals are needed, particularly in regional Australia. 

The money being pumped into the NBN could have built many hospitals and gone a long way towards bridging the ever-widening health divide between regional and metropolitan areas. Alas, it is an opportunity lost. This is a government which cannot be trusted with money. This is a government which cannot be trusted to deliver on its promises. This is a government which has failed the infrastructure test. It failed to go even close to getting value for money with its $16 billion Building the Education Revolution program, which led to the school halls fiasco. It failed to properly manage a scheme to put pink batts into ceilings, which cost taxpayers so much money and led to houses being burnt to the ground and in some cases, tragically, lives being lost. It has failed to even so much as contemplate building the dams our nation so desperately needs for water storage and to mitigate flooding but is happy to buy water for so-called, yet not proven, environmental needs from valleys where farmers grow much of our food, thereby destroying the economic viability of those valuable regional communities. 

This government and, moreover, this Prime Minister say they are focused on jobs, and that is correct—but only some jobs: those of the Prime Minister and the coterie who still support her as talk of leadership challenges looms larger by the day. We have heard much talk about how the NBN will create jobs and wealth and will open up regional and remote areas, just like we are being told about all the green jobs the clean energy bills will produce. This government is big on talk but lazily low on delivery. The carbon tax to be implemented from 1 July will spurn investment and send jobs offshore. The NBN will bring connections of up to one gigabyte per second—at a cost to householders of course—but does it pass the equity to regional Australia test? No. Is it a good and prudent investment at a time of global financial strife? No. Does spending $11 billion buying back Telstra's copper wire network and closing it down make any sense? I am afraid not. 

Meantime, people in the Riverina—and indeed right across rural and remote Australia and in many districts close to capital cities too—simply want better mobile coverage. In many of these places there is reasonably flat country. Granted, in others hilly terrain makes mobile telecommunications difficult and an expensive exercise for the provider. Bob McCormack at Murrulebale, north of Marrar, continues to press hard for a decent mobile signal. I am pleased to report that Telstra's Riverina-Murray hierarchy has agreed to meet with locals in this district, which also takes in parts west of Old Junee, at a date convenient to all. I have only in the last hour been able to convey this good news to Bob, who is always hard to catch because his mobile is usually out of range. 

There are similar black spots right across my electorate which is, granted, at more than 61,000 square kilometres—not quite as large as yours, Mr Deputy Speaker—one of the largest in New South Wales. Still, why should people in the Riverina or the two larger electorates in this state of New South Wales, Parkes and Farrer, have mobile services that are inferior to others anywhere else? Riverina black spots include Tooma, near Tumbarumba, where both a fire and flood have taken a devastating toll on roads, bridges and properties in recent times. Lack of adequate mobile coverage proved frustrating and dangerous during these hours of need. Pockets around Gundagai, Grong Grong, Humula, Mangoplah, Sebastopol, Tallimba and Tarcutta, to name but a few, are places in the Riverina where residents, hardworking regional Australians, are denied access to decent mobile coverage. 

These people, I know because of the concerns expressed to me, are far more interested in improved mobile access than they are in the rollout of the NBN. This is not just an issue of convenience; farmers do not necessarily want to chat while they are operating their headers. They do want to be able to call someone in the event of emergency. This comes down to a matter of safety. An overturned tractor, the whiff of a potential bushfire, the need to call if someone is in distress and requiring help ought to be of paramount importance to all. 

Admittedly, there will be benefits associated with the NBN. With the amount of taxpayers' money being poured into this project, you would certainly hope so. These benefits certainly include health. I know one doctor in my electorate, Dr Ashley Collins of Temora, who is eagerly awaiting faster upload-download speeds to assist his marvellous innovation, TeleMedicine Australia. Dr Collins is the first supplier of medical technology for telemedicine at primary care and aged-care level in Australia. This includes telemedicine carts, telemedicine devices, complete telemedicine encounter management solutions, and applications software for both live and store-and-forward telemedicine. 

TeleMedicine Australia designs and produces highly advanced, easy-to-use carts, a wide range of customisable telemedicine carts equipped with a high-definition quality videoconferencing system suitable for general practitioners and primary care clinics, aged-care facilities and rural and remote hospitals. The cart can gather and register medical information from patients and share it with the GP and/or consultant during a live video consult or through the store-and- forward system, hence the need for fast internet speeds. 
I have written to the new health minister as well as the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy on behalf of Dr Collins seeking meetings with them because I know how interested they will be in what he is doing, and I would like to think they will be able to help him progress TeleMedicine Australia further. Dr Collins is closing the gap between city and country access to specialists and could potentially revolutionise the way health care is delivered to Australians in rural, regional and remote areas, alleviating burdens already affecting access to medical services in these areas. 

While obviously hands-on medical treatment will always be a better option than videoconferencing, the NBN will, once it is delivered to Temora and via Dr Collins, hopefully put local patients within reach of medical help they could otherwise not have hoped possible. I am thrilled that this technology is already in place in my electorate—that is, TeleMedicine Australia—even before the NBN and I congratulate Dr Collins on his accomplishment thus far and his genuine desire to ensure Australians anywhere in the country have access to top-level specialists. 

Given the restricted number of GPs and specialists in rural locations, including Temora, Dr Collins's initiative has great potential and the NBN could certainly enhance that. This is where the NBN can help the bush. But the rollout is not, from all reports, going well. The government is yet to release an exact map or list which will identify which towns will not receive the fibre. As a rule of thumb, towns with more than 1,000 premises will get fibre-to-the-premises connections. Those centres with fewer than 1,000 houses will not. Across the Riverina electorate that is a lot of towns and villages. 

Taking advantage of having the NBN come to a nature strip near you will also come at a high cost. People generally have thus far not been knocking down their front doors to sign up. The rollout of the NBN, so far in electorates important to keeping Labor in office, will take time and it remains to be seen if this can happen on time and within budget. So far, Labor has not been able to do anything on time and within budget, even in its so-called year of delivery and decision in 2011. 

The Rudd Labor government failed to keep its core election promise to provide fibre to the node to 98 per cent of all Australians, leaving more than two million people outside its broadband network, including many towns in the Riverina. The coalition committed $3.3 billion to building and future-proofing a fast telecommunications and broadband network in regional Australia which would have covered the entire country. But under the Rudd Labor government this program was scrapped. No surprise there, because Labor does not really care about regional Australia. Gillard Labor has not shown anything to suggest regional Australians should have confidence in the government's ability to roll out a fair, cost-effective and efficient National Broadband Network. Hopefully, for the sake of the taxpayers of this nation, the NBN will come about on time and within budget and benefit those able to access it.

Cristy Houghton