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Paul's Blog: The 2010 Parliamentary Year Finished Today

The 2010 Parliamentary year finished today - with the House of Reps recalled to Canberra to pass the NBN legislation.  Our last day was supposed to be Thursday 25 November – but then the Senate took longer than the government had hoped to consider the NBN Bill, and so the government insisted on the House of Representatives coming back for one last sitting day today.

It was a strange feeling being back in Canberra for this short (three hour long) sitting day.  At primary school I can remember having a recurring nightmare during school holidays – in which the holidays had been summarily cancelled and I was back at school.  Today felt a bit like that nightmare!

The bells rang at 12 noon to signify the recommencement of the sitting.  (It was in theory a continuation of the sitting from Thursday, which had suspended.)  There were three Bills to be voted on – but the real action was over the NBN Bill.

This Bill had passed the House last week and then gone to the Senate.  After a lengthy debate, finishing last Friday afternoon, the Senate passed the Bill – but with amendments.  Because of those amendments, the Bill needed to be reconsidered by the House.  Unless the amended Bill was also passed by the House again, the Bill would not become law.

Accordingly, today’s sitting gave those of us with an interest in doing so the opportunity to speak on the Bill one last time.  Under the standing orders, if the House of Representatives is considering a Bill which has been amended in the Senate, the House has a further debate, with any Member able to speak for five minutes.  Given my strong interest in this issue, I took advantage of the opportunity to make some remarks, seeking to summarise all of the reasons why I do not think this Bill should have been passed. (You can see the text of my remarks here.)

The government seemed frustrated that the Opposition wished to debate the merits of the Bill.  As far as I am concerned, if the government of the day recalls Parliament then they should expect that Parliamentarians will debate the issue to be voted on - not merely vote for the Bill in some kind of rubber stamp exercise.  Indeed Australians have the right to expect nothing less of their Parliamentarians. After going to all the expense of recalling Parliament, it would be quite wrong for the Gillard government to seek to constrain the Parliament, on that day of recall, from doing its job in a thorough fashion.

While I am clearly opposed to the totality of the Bill, and voted against it without hesitation, there is one component of the Bill which I support (and would have happily voted for had it been brought forward as a separate piece of legislation, as indeed the Coalition suggested.)  This component will thoroughly change the rules for setting wholesale prices charged by Telstra when competitors such as Optus use Telstra's network. It dumps the old 'negotiate-arbitrate' model and replaces it with a model under which the ACCC can set prices up front.  This is a much better approach, and consistent with what I argued for in my book "Wired Brown Land."

Unfortunately the Gillard government has linked these sensible reforms together with a whole range of other provisions directed towards forcing the break up of Telstra - and the associated plan for taxpayers to punt $35 billion on building a huge new government owned broadband network. Under this deal Telstra will be paid $11 billion of taxpayers' money to shut down its network, thus leaving the field clear for the government owned NBN to operate as a monopoly. Such a deal would be illegal under the Trade Practices Act as anticompetitive if it were not for the fact that the NBN Bill specifically allows it. 

Fundamentally I believe the Gillard government's NBN plan is a very bad one. Yes we need to improve Australia's broadband infrastructure; no this is not the right way to do it. That is why I cast my vote against the NBN Bill.

The day ended with the Bill passing the House with the support of the Government and the independents. But there is plenty more water to go under the NBN bridge…