Over the last few weeks we have been inundated with reports of the Barnaby Joyce saga. One aspect of the saga has involved a call for transparency in the provisions of the agreement between the Liberal Party and Nationals – the Coalition Agreement – pursuant to which they operate as the Government for all Australians.
The timing of these calls for transparency into the provisions of the Coalition Agreement may be quite timely from the perspective of the NBN Joint Standing Committee on the National Broadband Network, the committee formed to provide annual reports to Parliament on the progress and roll-out of the NBN.
Throughout 2017, the Joint Committee conducted its work to prepare its first report. It travelled around Australia with the specific objective of taking the inquiry outside major metropolitan areas and gathering evidence in regional Australia. The Committee received evidence of the opportunities the NBN is providing for economic and social benefits in rural, regional and remote Australia and focussed on the potential opportunities in innovation, telehealth, digital inclusion and education. All of which reinforced what was always an objective of getting fast, affordable broadband into rural Australia.
The Committee took particularly extensive evidence of experiences related to the Sky Muster satellites, of which there are now two in operation. Evidence from farmers, the AMA, businesses, individuals, and communities raised these themes among others:
- satellite capacity was being allocated to NBN users on metropolitan fringes who could be covered by a fixed broadband technology, seriously impacting satellite availability and usability for those in rural areas;
- some communities were allocated satellite coverage when adjoining communities were connected with fixed wireless or FTTN (fibre to the node, using existing copper wires into the premises);
- limitations in the Sky Muster plans of one per householder restricted rural users where businesses were also run from home.
In the Joint Committee’s September 2017 Report the majority recommended that the Government direct NBN Co to:
- complete as much as possible of the remaining fixed line network using FTTC (fibre to the curb) at a minimum (or FTTP);
- create a regional and remote reference group to support the rollout of the NBN in rural and remote Australia;
- identify areas currently designated to be served by a satellite connection that previously were set to receive the NBN by FTTN or fixed wireless, and explain why the change has occurred;
- consider providing the capacity for separate business and residential Sky Muster plans to be made available at the same location when business grade plans are introduced in 2018;
- set a benchmark for reasonable data allowance on Sky Muster plans, by reference to average data use across the fixed line network.
The five Liberal Party members of the Committee published a Dissenting Report and did not support these recommendations. Although the Nationals sole committee member, Andrew Broad MP for the Mallee, did not join in with his Coalition colleagues in the dissenting report – as you would expect given the recommendations were for a better NBN for his and his fellow Nationals’ regional constituents.
What a surprise then when the Government issued its Response to the Report in January 2018, speaking as the one Liberal and Nationals voice:
- did not support abandoning FTTN;
- did not support a regional and remote reference group;
- did not support NBN identifying and explaining move of services from satellite to FTTN or fixed wireless;
- did not support setting reasonable data allowance on Sky Muster plans;
- supported separate business and residential Sky Muster capacity in principle.
Question: Why would the Nationals agree to the Government in which they are a partner rejecting recommendations for a better NBN to meet the needs of and correct the deficiencies for their constituents – even one as non-confronting as a regional and remote reference group – when there was nothing to challenge the evidence of those constituents?
The Government response says the Committee does not acknowledge the work being done by NBN Co to ensure Australians living outside metropolitan areas have a good experience of the NBN. The Government lauded NBN Co’s work in all roll-out aspects and affirmed its almost un-challengeable decision-making power in the roll-out.
There have certainly been improvements in the Sky Muster service which is acknowledged in the Report and based on the evidence of the witnesses.
A question really must be asked about the politics behind a rejection by the Nationals of sound recommendations for improving the NBN in the bush. As we have heard much of lately regarding the Coalition Agreement in the context of the Barnaby Joyce scandal, could questions be asked whether the Coalition Agreement has played a part in the Nationals not fighting for recommendations for the betterment of their constituents in the NBN roll-out?
And while NBN Co may indeed be making progress, questions could also be asked as to why NBN Co needs to commission consultancy reports on which to base the claims on its website and its blog that Australia’s NBN is an industry leader in regional and rural investment and will deliver world leading satellite in terms of download and upload speeds, affordability, and peak data allowances. Those consultancy reports do not match the lived experiences of those using the services in rural, regional and remote areas.
The Government rejection of the Standing Committee recommendations, and the NBN Co spin on the reality of the NBN rollout in the bush, highlight the lack of transparency and accountability in the NBN rollout outside metropolitan areas. And those charged with delivering for the benefit of the taxpayers in those areas should be asked what are the political realities – in this case the realities of the Coalition Agreement – being accorded priority over the rights of the constituent taxpayers.
The Joint Standing Committee announced on 18 February 2018 that it will be conducting an inquiry into the NBN Co business case – and the rollout of the network in rural and regional areas. The vested interests in the entrenched politics of the NBN need to be exposed and there needs to be an explanation for why the Coalition Government and NBN Co continue as they do with deaf ears to the submissions of the taxpayers footing the bill. The Joint Committee needs to seize the opportunity of the new inquiry to probe into the lack of transparency, accountability and politicisation in the project vital to Australia’s digital future and global competitiveness.
Anne Hurley is former Chair of Internet Australia, former CEO of Communications Alliances and owner of global e-commerce business.