Thursday, September 16, 2010

The NBN and Parliamentary Practice

The National Broadband issue highlights the role for the Abbott Coalition and the self imposed responsibility of the Independents.  The Independents must now take responsibility for every decision made in the Parliament and the Coalition must ensure they are all in the Parliament and vote on every issue.

I was surprised to read in the agreement related to the functioning of the Parliament, a recurring reference to Pairs, particularly for Independents.  Pairing is a system by which the Opposition agrees to exempt one of its Members from voting in Divisions so as to allow a Member of the Government to be absent from the Parliament, presumably on Government business.  The argument put forward by Oakshott that some MPs of a differing view to himself should be denied the right to vote, for which he or she was elected, reaches high farce.  The Speaker, by accepting the position automatically exempts themselves from voting and to maintain an aura of independence, should eschew the casting vote.

The Coalition is quite correct to abandon this agreement as it was obtained under duress and the evidence is now clear as to what Oakshott had in mind, which has little to do with fair play.

In the circumstances of a hung Parliament, there should be no Pairs  and more particularly none for Independent MPs who have ample non sitting weeks to attend to their electorate responsibilities.  This responsibility will engender a significant change to their past practice, where they treated voting as a matter of choice and were frequently absent from the Parliament for all or part of Sitting Days.

There is also no need to give the Government Pairs, even though this might restrict Kevin Rudd's overseas travel.  He and other Ministers must simply adjust their travel arrangements to coincide with non sitting weeks or send a Public Servant, who would do most of the work even were they present.

Tony Abbott should attend all Divisions thus requiring the PM to do likewise.

In the environment of a hung Parliament, the Coalition, as the Party with the most elected Members, has an obligation and a right to use the Parliament in the public interest.  Practically there is now no such thing as a Private Members Bill.  Such legislation is the right of the MP who can attract a majority of the votes (i.e. 76) to approve that the Bill proceed through debate and divisions.  If the Standing Orders prevent this process, the Parliament has the power to change them and/or suspend them.  The test for the Independents is will they vote for such a process or the past process of Executive Rule?  Furthermore will they support a Government motion to gag or limit debate on any issue? 

I intend to further analyse the so called agreement  on Parliamentary Practice in a later blog as it is full of rhetoric but deficient on the issues that matter to achieve change.

All the above leads me however to the NBN as utilising the available powers of the Parliament, the Coalition can, as the primary measure guarantee the operation and intent of this proposed Government monopoly be fully transparent.

For starters by requiring this business entity be subject to the full reporting requirements of corporate law and/or the Auditor General, both in terms of prudential and efficiency audit and that its costs, revenue and borrowings be shown in the Budget.

The CEO could be ordered to the Bar of the House or a special reference be given to the Public Accounts Committee to analyse the yet to be produced business plan.

This latter proposal raised the issue of the membership of Standing Committees and the references they receive.

The present process mandates a membership of 10, being 6 members from the Government and 4 from the Opposition with the Chairman being a Government MP and the Deputy Chair from the Opposition.

Clearly in the present circumstances such a structure does not represent the will of the people and should be changed.

Questions that might arise and issues to be pursued might include - the beyond the front gate costs for installation.  The Institute of Electrical Contractors suggest adequate wiring within a home as high as $3,000.  In the case of rural property, this figure can pale into insignificance by comparison.  My own experience under a Government owned monopoly Telecom was that to run a pair of copper wires up to a typical farming residence inside the property was of the order of $6,000 to $10,000 in 1980s dollars, yet Conroy boasts that as the copper network is to be closed presumably all rural properties will have to be rewired irrespective of the choice of the property owner.  The rural Independents have been silent on this matter.

Constant reference has been made by Labor of the beneficial effect on pricing of the service arising from the competition between service providers but does this suggest some of them will be able to purchase this monopoly carriage component at lower prices than others.

My recollection of the Government monopoly was also the frequent industrial action and the consequent failure of even a simple telephone service.  Will the individual service providers be able to do separate deals with the Unions to get their clients service reinstated?  I doubt it.

I could go on but here in is the penultimate question to Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and the Independents; Why, considering that all Australian telecos operate under a government license and by even a casual study of their balance sheets they make considerable profits from that privilege, is there a need for a tax payer funded investment in communications infrastructure when the power resides within the Parliament to set the standard of service at any level it desires?  To the best of my knowledge the common old telephone service  is subject to a universal service obligation (USO) conditions.   Were one to apply for a liquor licence the licence so issued will be subject to a  series of conditions related to customer service. 

If therefore it is the view of the Parliament that the Australian people are entitled to a high speed broadband service at whatever level, then why not make that a condition of licence to all providers and let them get on with it and charge up front for that level of service and under a true competitive environment from start to finish?

If Telstra has an infrastructure advantage and it is cheaper to construct your own ,well do it.   If that is not  the case, just what are you winging about? 

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