Mr FITZGIBBON (Hunter) (09:27): Let's be clear what the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Access Regime and NBN Companies) Bill 2015 is all about. This bill is ideologically driven and underscores the key philosophical differences between those who sit opposite and those of us on this side of the House.
While I am a supersub in the debate, I do note that the member for Paterson is an omission from the speakers list. Where is the member for Paterson? Could it be that the member for Paterson has worked out that speaking on this bill in support of the government proposition might be a bad thing for him in his electorate, particularly his new electorate, where he now faces an uphill battle against a resurgent Labor Party in the region and boundaries which give Labor a notional advantage? It is not too late for the member for Paterson to come on down, participate in this debate and explain to his constituents, both present and potentially future, why it is that he is about to ensure that this place abolishes Labor's legislated commitment to universal national wholesale pricing.
We often have debates in this place which have a particular impact on rural and regional Australia. I concede that sometimes there are merits on both sides of those debates. You can argue philosophically, ideologically or in public policy terms which is the better approach that will best serve rural and regional Australia, but in this case there could be no debate. This bill undermines the capacity of people living in rural and regional Australia to access the NBN at the same price as those living in our capital cities. We want to ensure that, whether you are living in rural areas like Cessnock, Maitland, Burnie in Tasmania or Armidale in the electorate of the Deputy Prime Minister, you will get NBN at the same price as your city counterparts.
This is a basic philosophical question. Someone on the other side will no doubt say that the cap is still there on the wholesale price, but you will be able to work under the cap. This is where we differ. They think it is okay to let the market completely rip and let the market determine what the price impacts will be on consumers. I say something quite different. I say I too believe in the market, but where there is clear market failure government intervention is justified. What is the market failure here? The market failure is distance and geography. We want a country where those living in rural and regional Australia have the same opportunities as their city counterparts, for very many good reasons. Members of the government have to understand that we do not want everyone living in our capital cities. We want to develop populations in rural and regional Australia. To do that you need to be able to provide services in rural and regional Australia.
There is a sound economic proposition here. Cross-subsidising delivery of services in rural and regional Australia is a good thing for all of Australia. There could be no better example than this. The NBN can be a complex debate—I accept that—but people can grasp one thing very easily, and that is, it costs more to roll out a broadband service in the bush than it does in the capital cities purely because of distance. But should people who live in rural and regional Australia be disadvantaged by that? Of course not. They should not be disadvantaged by geography. If that is the approach we are going to take and we are going to accept that as a basic proposition, we will all be living in the capital cities, which of course is impossible. This is good economic policy, it is good population policy, it is good building economic infrastructure policy.
Those in the National Party who sit opposite often attempt to differentiate themselves from the Liberals, and I can understand that. But the fact is that time and again they confirm for us in their actions—not so much their words in this place—that there is nothing between those who sit in this place under the Liberal banner and those who sit in this place under the banner of the Nationals. There can be no better example than their willingness to just roll over and accept this attack on universal wholesale pricing. Every resident in rural and regional Australia today should be making contact with their local member if he or she is a conservative and asking them why they are doing this. Of course, they are already asking an even more important question in some senses, and that is, why is this government delivering a second-rate NBN service?
This is another simple policy proposition that I think people find easy to grasp. I think they do understand the proposition that the now Prime Minister tried to put, and that is, it is cheaper to roll out the fibre just to the node and allow the extra distance to the premise to be delivered by copper wire. I think people understand that. Then it becomes a debate about whether the savings that might be involved there are worth it, given the inferior quality of the NBN service they will receive because they are going across that copper network for the last mile. The problem is that even those who would support the proposition that it is an overbuild, if you like, to go all the way to premise, or the cost is too great to justify it, would be absolutely shocked to learn that it is costing some $600-odd million to repair the copper wires. I must admit I was not aware of that figure until I was preparing for this contribution. I was astounded, and I am sure all Australians will be astounded. Those with investment in copper might be pretty happy about it.
It is just incredible that a government which said it would cost $55 million, I am told, to fix up the copper is going to spend $640 million on a 19th century technology. I cannot believe anyone would be so stupid, to be frank. It is a stupid proposition. We are going to have a second-class service. No-one would argue—not even the Prime Minister—that fibre to the premises is not better; of course they would not. Fibre to the premise is better. Having a bit of copper along the line—it is like a chain; it is only as strong as its weakest link—having copper in the chain, makes it an inferior service. That is just a scientific fact, a technical fact. What we are really only arguing is whether you spend the additional money to provide the first-class service. Let us be clear: Labor believes in a first-class service. Labor believes that everyone in rural and regional Australia, everyone in Australia, should get a first-class service. We certainly do not believe that spending $640 million to retain a second-class service is a good economic proposition. It clearly is not.
I issue some challenges to the member for Braddon, the member for Bass, the member for Eden-Monaro, the member for Page, the member for Hume and the member for New England, none other than the Deputy Prime Minister. I often see cabinet ministers these days, as you would have noted, Mr Deputy Speaker, coming in here and talking in second reading debates about issues that are outside their portfolio responsibilities. It is not very conventional, but they are doing it on a regular basis. There is nothing to stop the Deputy Prime Minister from coming into this place—I will make sure I do not sit down for another five minutes; I am sure he can sprint from his ministerial office to the chamber in that time—and justifying why they are launching or joining in the launch of this direct attack on rural and regional Australia and why they are supporting the proposition of spending $640 million to repair a 19th century technology as part of their alternative NBN proposition.
They need to come in here and explain themselves. I could be wrong, but I think there probably will be an in-detail stage of debate on this bill, so there will be plenty of opportunities for them to come down and explain themselves. Some of them are on the frontbench now and, as I have said, that should not stop them from speaking. They have set the new precedent, and they should be down here speaking on this bill.
Here are some facts. The Prime Minister said his new proposal—here is the member for Paterson now! I welcome the member for Paterson who, I understand, will now make a contribution to this debate. It is interesting that the member for Paterson has been crowing, in his local media, about the NBN rollouts in his local electorate. The fact is since his government took power, the rollout has been slower than it was under the former Labor government and the rollout has been inferior because, no doubt, some of that $640 million the government is spending to repair copper is being spent in the electorate of Paterson. I hope the member for Paterson has done his research. He can tell the House how much of the $640 million on copper has been spent in the Paterson electorate. I suspect it is quite a bit, and I will tell you why. I have had residents in the member for Paterson's electorate call me and say, 'I now have Malcolm Turnbull's version of the NBN and it's slower than ADSL2.' The service that people are receiving in rural and regional Australia under Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's plan is slower than they were enjoying under ADSL. I can see Minister Fletcher at the table frowning, and I understand why he is frowning. He cannot believe that! You would not believe that a government could spend some $60 billion on a project that delivers an inferior service to the one that people already had under ADSL. It is unbelievable, Minister. I can understand you frowning.
The member for Paterson has joined us, and I look forward to his attempt, at least, to justify why he is joining with his government on this proposition, and why he has been prepared to just roll over and accept this inferior NBN and this $640 million investment in copper. But I am still waiting for the member for Gippsland to come down. I am still waiting for the member for Riverina. They can all speak on this bill. The members for Page, Eden-Monaro, Bass, Braddon, the list goes on. All those who purport to represent rural and regional Australia—all those Nats who purport to be different from the Liberals; to be different from the member for Paterson—but who go missing in action when they are required to be in this House, defending the people they purport to represent.
But it does not stop on this issue. We have seen, in recent days and in recent months, their unpreparedness, on a whole range of issues, to defend rural and regional Australia. Their infrastructure rollout is hopeless. It is going backwards on what the former Labor government was doing. They like to crow about the inland rail build. They are spending less money than the former Labor government. The reality is there is only one party in this place that stands up for rural and regional Australia on a regular basis, and that is the Australian Labor Party. The member for Paterson; the member for Braddon; all those Tasmanian lower house members, including the member for Bass; and, as I said, the members for Eden-Monaro, Page and others—I hope they have found the member for Page, because they could not find him in the building when we asked, in Senate estimates, for his report on cooperatives to be tabled. They all need to be down here explaining why they are not defending their local residents. People living in rural and regional Australia deserve as good a service as their city cousins, and those members should be in this place, alongside the member for Paterson—at least he has been prepared to front up; I will give him credit for that—defending their local constituents.