Interview with Fiona Parker – ABC Central Victoria – Thursday, 28 January 2016



FIONA PARKER: The National Broadband Network is being rolled out across the country but in a pretty different form than originally envisaged. We know Labor had initially planned a fibre to the home network to 93% of Australian households. It’s a very expensive infrastructure project, one they said was needed, but one that the Coalition said it could do differently and more efficiently. Hence their use of more wireless towers and what the now Government says is now a faster roll out timetable.

Well not so says the Opposition. Jason Clare is the Shadow Communications Minister and he is in Bendigo at the moment and in our studio now. Welcome – thanks for visiting.


PARKER: You are here to talk about what you call communications issues in our region, but those who are in places already connected to the NBN via a tower might actually be quite pleased with the way the Government has gone about delivering fast broadband to the country. Aren’t they delivering this project?

CLARE: Well they’ve kept the fixed wireless towers and satellite services that were part of Labor’s NBN, but they’ve scuttled the rest. Labor’s plan was, as you say, to deliver fibre to the home of 93% of Australians and then fixed wireless towers and satellite to the remaining 7%. They kept the 7%, but instead of delivering fibre to everybody’s home for many, many Australians they’ll get a second rate copper version of the NBN called fibre to the node.

That means that the optic fibre will go down the street to about half a kilometre from your home and then there’ll be a big box in the street that will connect the copper line, the copper pairs that connect to your house at the moment to the fibre network. Now that’s what Bendigo will get unfortunately. Bendigo was set to get fibre to the home like Ballarat has already received, but instead now because of the changes Malcolm Turnbull made to the NBN, Bendigo will get fibre to the node. It was also promised to get it this year – everyone in Australia actually was promised that they would get the NBN by Malcolm Turnbull this year- that’s not going to happen either now.

PARKER: But there were delays under the Labor Government as well.

CLARE: Yes. One of my biggest criticisms of our Government was that we were rolling it out too slow and we needed to speed up. One of my biggest criticisms of Malcolm Turnbull is it’s still rolling out too slow. They said they’d do it all by this year and that everybody in Bendigo and Australia wide would have access to the NBN by the end of this year. Now that’s blown out to the end of this decade. So there are two big problems with the way Malcolm Turnbull has delivered the NBN. One is that he is delivering a second rate slower service, and the other one is that the promises he made, he’s not keeping. The cost has blown out from $29 billion to $56 billion, so it’s almost doubled in terms of what he promised he’d deliver.

PARKER: But how do you know under Labor there wouldn’t have been cost blow outs. Your project was destined to be a lot more expensive in the first place.

CLARE: Here’s the thing. Under Labor it changed from $43 to $45 billion. Pretty small compared to Malcolm Turnbull where it switched from $29 billion to $56 billion. And not only that, that’s not the only broken promise. The other one is time. As I said, it’s 2016, it’s January 2016. Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott said that everyone would have it by the end of this year. That’s not going to happen, it will be at least 2020 and my best guess is that that’s optimistic. They’re saying that they can connect half the country in the next two or three years. If you look at their construction program, it looks like a ramp that Evel Knievel couldn’t even jump. I think for the whole country it’s going to take until 2021-22 before they finish building this second rate copper version of the NBN.

PARKER: It’s all very well for you to criticise that but given that Labor was looking at pretty big time delays with the rollouts which you have already acknowledged as cost blow outs. How do you know the situation wouldn’t have happened, if you were still in Government? Especially given it was fibre to the home, which is a more intricate project in itself.

CLARE: Two and a half years is the answer to that question. Malcolm Turnbull has been in charge of this for two and a half years and he has made a lot of changes which have proven to be mistakes and he’s got no one else to blame for that but himself. When you are put in charge of a job and you say you can build it for $29 billion and it blows out to $56 billion. When you are put in charge of a job and you say you can do it this year, and it blows out to the end of the decade, you don’t normally expect to get promoted to the top job in the country. But that’s what happened. Most people would get in trouble off the boss, or might get the sack if they blow their budget by 100%, but that’s not what has happened here, and Malcolm Turnbull deserves to be accountable for the changes he has made that have messed up the NBN.

PARKER: He’s still delivering the project though, he’s still delivering the NBN.

CLARE: Well, it’s a second rate version of the NBN. What the people of Bendigo are going to get is going to be a slower copper version of the NBN, not what the people down the road in Ballarat are getting, which is optic fibre all the way to the house.

PARKER: Isn’t this just sour grapes that the Government didn’t go with Labor’s initial plan of fibre to the home.

CLARE: Look it’s not about Labor or Liberal. It’s about what the country needs. I get in this job to see what other countries have got – placed like Singapore and Japan and South Korea have all got the fibre network which is going to make their businesses more successful and set them up for the future. When I was here last year, I met with a company in Bendigo with Lisa Chesters – they make parts for the mining industry. Now that means they do a lot of work with Japan. They burn discs with the work that they do and then get on a plane and fly to Japan to deliver those services to companies in Japan. It’s faster to do that than to try and send the file. Now if they were in Ballarat, they would be able to do that with the press of a button. If they had the NBN now, they’d be able to do it.

PARKER: If they had Malcolm Turnbull’s version of the NBN they’d be able to do it too.

CLARE: There is no doubt and this is what I said at Woodend where I was talking to people about this on Tuesday. The slower copper version of the NBN is going to be better than ADSL that people have here at the moment. Some people don’t even have ADSL, but for people with ADSL, fibre to the node will be better, but it’s not going to be good enough in ten years’ time, it’s not going to be good enough in 20 years’ time. The things that we use the NBN for in parts of Australia are going to be very different in 10 years’ time. Just like electricity, when every home got connected 100 years ago, it was just to switch the light on. Now think of all the uses we have for electricity. The NBN is the same, we are going to use and our kids and grandkids will use the NBN for a multitude of different things in the future.

PARKER: Jason Clare is with us this morning he’s Shadow Communications Minister, and last October you seemed to indicate that the NBN will go back to full fibre optic under Labor if you were to win the next Federal Election. When are you going to release more details of that policy?

CLARE: What I said is that we will roll out more fibre. Everybody that I talk to about what Australia needs, tells me that fibre is the end game and that fibre to the node is not going to cut it. My hope is that when we look back on this debate in 20 years’ time, we will wonder what the fuss about this was all about, will wonder why fibre to the node was ever built because fibre to the node will be in a museum rather than out in the streets of Australia. But I’ve also said I can’t click my fingers if win the election and then just dump everything that Malcolm Turnbull has done, without wasting a lot of money and a lot of sunk investment. So we’ll roll out more fibre and the details of that policy we will announce closer to the election which is now this year.

PARKER: When can we expect to see them then?

CLARE: We haven’t set a date. Working on it now, finalising our policy. One of the big mistakes, that Malcolm Turnbull made when he was in my job, was he didn’t get policy right. He made all of these promises about being able to build it for $29 billion and that blew out to $56 billion. He said he could do it all this year and that’s blown out to the end of the decade. So he’s made a lot of mistakes with this policy and it’s important that I work on all the details and get them right and that’s what we are doing now with Bill Shorten and with people like Lisa Chesters who has helped to make sure our policy is good not just for big metropolitan areas but for places like Bendigo and we’ll announce our policy closer to election day.

PARKER: Do you know how much your version, NBN mark three, let’s say will cost?

CLARE: We’ve got to look at all of those things. Obviously the first questions you’ll ask me when we announce our policy is how much does it cost, how much more fibre will we be able to deliver and how long will it take to build it. So they are all the things we are working on now.

PARKER: This also includes contracts, changes to major contracts – that will be expensive if you had to.

CLARE: One of the big things, one of the big mistakes that Malcolm made was underestimating how long it would take to open up the contracts with Telstra to buy back the old copper network from Telstra that John Howard sold. He thought that you could do that very, very quickly. It ended up taking about two years to do that, and that is what has slowed down the roll out of the NBN, it’s one of the reasons why he hasn’t been able to keep his promises.

PARKER: And you’ve got a forum on in Bendigo today, I know you’ve already been around some of our region. What are you hearing from people in Central Victoria about what you call communications issues?

CLARE: That’s right, we are at the Visual Arts Centre at 11 o’clock. It will be the second NBN Forum that we’ve held while I’ve been here. We were at Woodend yesterday and unfortunately you hear stories from people that are enormously frustrated because they can’t do the sort of things people in Melbourne can do an hour or so down the road. They struggle to be able to access their emails, to be able to download any files. Netflix is a mystery to many people down at Woodend because you just can’t access the sort of services that other people in Australia take for granted. They are frustrated with Telstra because they can’t get access to a port. They are frustrated with the NBN that all the promises about when towers are going to become operational haven’t transpired. They are interested in what the satellite is going to provide for them because there are some parts of Central Victoria that will access the NBN satellite and people are interested in what’s the difference between fibre and copper. So all of those questions came up yesterday and I expect we’ll have a lot more today.

PARKER: Just on the NBN towers, there is a text message saying someone lives in Goornong and there is an NBN tower ready to go in Goornong but the feeder tower that was being built in Tallean was protested about and was cancelled so they have no NBN in the foreseeable future- they are not happy about that. Someone who lives in Warringah says their internet is and I quote absolute crap; when there is rain and Damian in Strathfield says he has issues with the copper wire that brings ADSL into his home, so he’s not happy either.

CLARE: Now just on those points, I was talking about the difference between fibre and copper. One is speed, the other is reliability. When it rains, copper doesn’t work as well as it should and as a result you get the sort of service that that person just described. So fibre and copper is chalk and cheese. It’s a lot less reliable it requires a lot more work to fix the copper.

Malcolm Turnbull thought that he could fix the copper for $50 million, and that’s blown out now to $640 million and it still won’t stop that problem which is why we’ve said consistently that fibre is the solution for Australia. On the towers, this is something that Lisa Chesters mentions in Parliament all the time. A lot of those towers have been built a couple of years ago, but because of that feeder tower that is still not switched on and if I was living in that area, I would be awfully frustrated. It’s up to NBN to get down here to Bendigo and sort this out, and get the tower set up and switch on the fixed wireless network.

PARKER: If you are just tuning in here on 91.1 ABC Central Victoria, Fiona Parker here with you and Jason Clare is here with us, the ALP Shadow Communications Minister. Just before we let you go, on another matter that is making news this morning and that is the GST. Some are seeing as divisions within the ALP on the opinion of whether it should be raised or not. Is it a problem for Labor in an election year that you’ve got the South Australian Premier Jay Wetherill advocating a rise of the GST when Federal Labor’s position is no change?

CLARE: This is very clear cut. The Treasurer Scott Morrison made it pretty clear on the weekend that this is where the Government is heading – they are going to propose to increase the GST and probably put the GST on food. At the next election people will have a choice.

PARKER: They haven’t said that definitively though.

CLARE: Well they made it more clear on the weekend than they ever have before and commentators around the country including distinguished journalists like Paul Kelly have said look this is on. So I think it’s a pretty fair bet now there will be a choice at the next election between the Liberal Party proposing to increase the GST to 15%, and will probably put the GST on fresh food, and the Labor Party which will say no to an increase to the GST.

PARKER: Well in will be interesting to see what their policy actually is. It doesn’t mean what’s happening within the ALP is that there is a big division on that crucial issue.

CLARE: There will always be people who have a different view. The view of the Federal Labor Party from Bill Shorten down is that we shouldn’t increase the GST. If you bump up the GST to 15%, it will mean that for the average family they are paying $8,700 in GST every year and I think most Australians will think that that is unfair.

PARKER: But what do you think of Jay Wetherill’s views then, he says that it’s perfectly democratic to express his views and that he should be allowed to express them and that you don’t win an argument simply by putting your hands over your ears and not wanting to hear the other side. Are you guilty of that?

CLARE: He is entitled to his opinion. He is entitled to make that point. I disagree with him, the Federal Labor Party disagrees with him. I think most Australians disagree with him as well. Most Australians don’t want the GST increased.

I said yesterday when I was asked about this, Malcolm Turnbull made a mark as a person in Australia saying that he’d make Australia a Republic. Now that he has become Prime Minster he has turned his back on that. He wasn’t marching in the streets for a GST in the 90’s, he was marching for in the streets for a Republic. Now he gets the chance to be Prime Minister and he has walked away from the Republic but he wants to bump up the GST on average working Australians.

Now I suspect the people of Bendigo are a bit like the people that I represent in Western Sydney, a lot of people are doing it tough, finding it hard to make ends meet, the last thing they need is to walk into Woollies or Coles or IGA and everything is up…. the GST has gone up by 50% – from 10% to 15% – and suddenly food that didn’t have the GST on it now has an extra 15% tax on it. That’s the last thing that Australian’s that are doing it tough need right now.

PARKER: But there are some in Labor’s ranks who think that that would be perfectly acceptable.

CLARE: There will always be, let’s be clear about it, these big political parties will always have some people agree and some people who will disagree. But the choice at the next election will be clear. If you want to increase the GST, vote Liberal, if you don’t want the GST increased, vote Labor.

PARKER: Your colleague Stephen Conroy thinks that Jay Wetherill’s comments will ultimately cost him his job, even though he doesn’t go to an election for a couple of years but Stephen Conroy said and I quote him if Jay Wetherill thinks that raising the GST is such a good idea then take it to the people of South Australia at a State Election and see how long he lasts as Premier. Do you think he’d loose an election on the GST issue?

CLARE: I’m keeping out of that. What happens in South Australia in South Australian elections is not the focus on my attention here. We’ve got a Federal Election this year. Elections change the course of Australia and what Australians decide later this year will determine whether you are paying more at the grocery shop, whether you are paying more potentially for school fees, whether you are paying more for health services, whether you are paying more every time you stop at the petrol station. If people want to increase the cost of living, then vote Liberal at the next election. If you don’t vote Labor.

PARKER: Do you think the Federal Government could lose an election on raising the GST, if you are not commenting on whether a South Australian Premier could, could Malcolm Turnbull lose an issue on raising the GST and is that why Labor is against rise rather than for any clear economic reason?

CLARE: The reason we are against it is because that it hits poorer people harder than wealthier people. It’s a regressive tax, people with a smaller amount in their pocket tend to spend more of it than people with a lot of money in their pocket. That’s why we think that the GST is a bad tax. It’s no more efficient at raising money than income tax, but the Liberal Party love the GST. Under John Howard, under John Hewson and now under Malcolm Turnbull whenever they get a chance, they’re into as quick as they can, like a rat up a drainpipe – increase the GST. You know the Liberal Party want to increase the GST. You know the Labor Party doesn’t, and there will be a big choice for the people of Australia to make later this year when the election is finally called.

PARKER: Jason Clare thank you for joining us this morning.

CLARE: Thanks very much.