|Sky News - Sunday Agenda - 5 April 2009 - National Broadband Network|
Sunday, April 05, 2009
Sky News - Sunday Agenda
Interview with Nick Minchin, Shadow Minister for Broadband, Communications & the Digital Economy.
Sunday 5 April 2009
Interviewer: Helen Dalley
HELEN DALLEY: But first the National Broadband Network or NBN. This week the government is expected to choose its preferred provider and it won’t be Telstra unless Labor decides to do a deal with the telco they rejected last year. It's $4.7 billion worth of taxpayers' money, so a great deal is at stake. Nick Minchin, was Finance Minister in the Coalition Government when Telstra’s CEO, Sol Trujillo, first proposed the project in 2005 and it was rejected. Now Shadow Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Minchin, joins from Adelaide. Good morning Nick Minchin.
NICK MINCHIN: Good morning, Helen.
DALLEY: Now the Sunday Telegraph here is reporting the possibility that the NBN tender could go to a consortium, including a Chinese company with strong links to the Beijing military which was actually blocked by the US Congress over spying claims. The company, Huawei Technologies, is part of the Optus consortium. Should we be concerned about this?
MINCHIN: Well, I don't want to get into the business of commenting on particular proposed suppliers to particular bidders for this National Broadband Network, I think that would be wrong with the announcement just about to happen. I think the important thing to remember though is that...
DALLEY: But isn't this the best time to talk about who might be a good or a bad tenderer?
MINCHIN: Well, I'm happy to comment generally on that question but I don’t want to get in the middle of a dog fight between different telecommunications companies. But all I’d emphasise is that there is a very significant national security dimension to this proposal. Now Labor's proposal, which is effectively to upgrade Telstra’s existing fixed line copper network to optical fibre is a major piece of telecommunications infrastructure in this country and critical to our national security. It's used by State and Federal Governments, all our intelligence agencies, so the government will have to pay very close attention to the national security implications of any decision that it makes. But I don't want to go any further than that in talking about particular suppliers to particular tenderers.
DALLEY: All right. But obviously Australian would not want to open up the possibility for spying for the Chinese Government through our major telecommunications network, as you point out that it is.
MINCHIN: Well, I mean having been a minister for 10 years and having sat around the National Security Committee I’m well aware of the efforts that other governments make to infiltrate our intelligence and our telecommunications, and I’m well aware of the efforts and expense we have to go to counter all that. And as I say, any proposal to upgrade our telecommunications networks in the way Labor Is proposing does raise very significant national security issues. And certainly when the Government makes its announcement, I think we in the Opposition and all Australians will want reassurances that the national security dimension of this has been properly assessed and handled and remains secure.
DALLEY: Okay. At least one telco expert is predicting the winning bid could in fact be a mixture of pretty much all the bidders working together. Would you support such an outcome?
MINCHIN: Well, I’m not going to say what we will support or not until we see what the announcement is. The rumour mill has it that this Melbourne consortium, Acacia, about which very little is known, is the likely winner of this bid. But it could be that Axia and Optus, the other two national bidders, and then you've got TransACT, in the ACT and the Tasmanian Government also with bids on the table. It’s possible the government could try to pull all that together into some sort of announcement. But I suspect they’ll be many, many questions raised by what the government announces than will be answered when the announcement comes as we expect it will be on Tuesday.
I mean for us the extraordinary thing is that Telstra were dismissed from even being considered on such silly and trivial grounds. And, in fact, I thought Senator Conroy was made to look a fool by his own department when Telstra were excluded on the basis that they hadn’t submitted a small business plan for what was a request for a proposal to upgrade Telstra’s network. So the trouble with Tuesday’s announcement is we’ll never know if it's the best because Telstra’s wasn’t even considered and they’re the ones who own and operate the current network, which it is proposed to upgrade.
DALLEY: Before we talk about Telstra again and I do want to get to that quickly. The Acacia bid, now as you mentioned, that's not an existing business, it's a consortium essentially of rich business people and a former Telstra executive. Do you think that group would be able to construct and operate a very big new broadband network?
MINCHIN: Well, I think any awarding of the contract to this consortium called Acacia will raise a whole host of issues because as you note it’s not an existing business, it’s never built or operated anything like a national broadband network. We have no idea how it will raise its money, and the winner of this tender will have to raise billions of dollars to match the government's proposal. Acacia themselves have said publicly that they certainly won’t be providing fibre to the node to 98% of Australians, which is the minimum condition the government has put on this. So I’m not quite sure why they're not considered a non-complying tender themselves. So I think any awarding of this thing to Acacia will raise a whole host of issues. We'll need to know what sort of regulatory protection they’ll require; how they’re going to work with Telstra to upgrade Telstra’s network, which is what this is all about. So I think there are many questions to be answered.
DALLEY: How do you think the government will handle the very difficult issue of allowing open access to this new national network, which is particularly the area where the former Howard Government, which you were a part of, and the current Rudd Government, came unstuck with Telstra?
MINCHIN: Well, there is of course is an open access regime applying to the current Telstra Network. That’s obviously what causes many of the disputes that go on in this and the terms of conditions of that access. But the reason why we have a proliferation of broadband services in this country is that all the other carriers and Internet service providers can all access Telstra’s existing network. What Telstra had put to us back in 2005, which is really the proposal which Labor pinched and then called its own when it took to the 2007 election was to have what you might call a regulatory holiday for any new investment which they might make in their own network. And we in government found that to be an unacceptable condition.
But, certainly, any new network will have to be built on the basis of open access and then the question is how do the investors in this new network get a fair return, a commercial return, on their money. And remember the government said that this $4.7 billion of taxpayers’ money, they promised that that would be an equity investment on which they would also want a commercial return, which raises more questions, because they’d be, as the government, the regulator of this new upgraded network, but also a commercial investor in it wanting a commercial return. And what will be the terms of the access which they provide from a commercial point of view? So I don't think the Labor Party knew what on earth they were getting themselves into when they made this promise back in 2007.
DALLEY: Nick Minchin, on another matter, Kevin Rudd has been criticised this week for losing his temper at a flight attendant and having to apologise. Do you think someone in the position of prime minister has even greater responsibility to curb their anger and outbursts, particularly to those much lower down the pecking order than them?
MINCHIN: Well, he's been quite appropriately nicknamed "Kevin Rude" hasn’t he, as a result of this episode, and the worst part is that his own office tried to cover it up and pretend it hadn’t happened. Those of us who you know work and live in Parliament House have known for years that there’s two sides to Kevin Rudd, and that behind closed doors he’s prone to temper tantrums and this sort of belittling and very bad behaviour with his own staff. And as someone who for 10 years used the VIP fleet on a regular basis, I'm appalled by what he's done. I mean, it is one of the great privileges of office to be able to access Australia’s VIP fleet. The crews of these flights are extremely dedicated, hard-working RAAF personnel who I've found on all occasions were wonderful in their service. And for him to reduce a 23-year- old air hostess to tears because of a temper tantrum over his meal is completely and utterly unforgivable. And I think Australians are now seeing, gradually, another side to the bloke they elected prime minister 18 months ago.
DALLEY: Nick Minchin, we’ll leave it there. Thanks so much for joining us this morning.
MINCHIN: A pleasure, Helen.