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Tuesday, 23 November 2010 14:55

Nick Xenophon not a phoney NBN independent


The news that Senator Nick Xenophon has decided to act like a true independent and intends to hold the Government to account over the NBN will come as a refreshing change to many who are astounded that so-called independents in the Australian Parliament are prepared to allow important legislation to be rammed through without adequate scrutiny. The question now is whether the Government is prepared to accede to the Senator's request that it lifts the veil on the NBN business plan and if not, then what?

The fact is that there are many who believe that both the Greens in both houses and the newly elected independents in the lower house have dropped the ball by not forcing the Government to put its 400 page NBN business case on the table and open it to public scrutiny.

To its credit parliamentary members of The Greens did refuse under any circumstances to sign a non-disclosure agreement in exchange for viewing the document. However, they then let the Government off the hook by agreeing to allow through NBN legislation in exchange for a wishy washy promise that the NBN would not be privatised unless the process was scrutinised by Parliament first.

This very much seems like giving the Government what it wants in exchange for a promise to do what it would do anyway. It's hard to imagine a circumstance where the privatisation of a publicly owned communications network would not be the subject of parliamentary scrutiny under any Australian government.

Likewise, the three new independents in the lower house and Senator Fielding have disappointed many of their constituents by acting as a rubber stamp on this issue. The fact that all of these MPs support the formation of the NBN is not the point. What is at stake and what has been sacrificed is forcing Government to be accountable - and that is what independents and opposition parliamentarians are supposed to do.

Only Senator Xenophon has been prepared to stand by his principles as an independent.

Senator Xenophon strongly supports the formation of the NBN and, as part of that, he supports the structural separation of Telstra. However, he is not prepared to put his stamp of approval on anything unless the Government does what he considers to be the right thing and opens its NBN books to the Australian public while parliament is sitting.

As for the cost of the NBN, the Government effectively put an upper cap of $43 billion on it when it was announced. Since then, many supporting the NBN cause, including NBN Co boss Mike Quigley, who has seen the business plan, have claimed that the eventual cost of implementing and rolling out the network will be substantially less than that.

However, the proposed sale of Telstra's network to NBN Co for $11 billion has put a very definite floor in the cost. How much on top of $11 billion will be needed to be spent to turn Telstra's network into the NBN remains to be seen.

Among the NBN's strongest supporters are those who believe that the NBN should not be treated as a business but as a public resource that needs no business case. Providing an equal communications service to the bush as that enjoyed by cities will always be a loss maker but it doesn't matter because it is an essential service that the taxpayers should fund they argue.

However, this line will not sit too comfortably with the Government which almost certainly feels that it has to make the NBN look like a profitable enterprise that could eventually be privatised.

For its part, it is difficult to see why the Government is being so secretive. Either the NBN business case is great or it is not so great. In both cases, given popular support for the NBN in these heady times of a strong economy, both the Australian electorate and Senator Xenophon are likely to wear it.


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Stan Beer


Stan Beer co-founded iTWire in 2005. With 30 plus years of experience working in IT and Australian technology media, Beer has published articles in most of the IT publications that have mattered, including the AFR, The Australian, SMH, The Age, as well as a multitude of trade publications.



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