A bill proposing to functionally or structurally separate Telstra’s wholesale and retail arms continued to face stiff competition as it entered the Senate again this week, with amendments expected for consideration from the Coalition, Greens and independent Senator, Nick Xenophon.
The Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer Safeguards) Bill 2010 passed through the House of Representatives last week without amendments proposed by shadow communications minister. However, Liberal senators Ian Macdonald and Simon Birmingham today preempted the reintroduction of the same amendments to the bill in the Senate, which push for assurance the $9 billion heads of agreement between NBN Co and Telstra deal is subject to the Competition and Consumer Act under existing competition laws.
Greens senator, Scott Ludlam also announced amendments to the bill to ensure any proposed privatisation of NBN Co - currently slated for 2023 - is subject to parliamentary scrutiny first. Communications minister, Senator Stephen Conroy, confirmed the Gillard Government was willing to scrutinise the NBN under the Productivity Commission before privatisation.
Independent Senator, Nick Xenophon, also flagged amendments to the bill, but a spokesperson told Computerworld Australia that they were not finalised at time of writing. Senator Xenophon has so far indicated he will not support the bill without amendments, effectively block its passage through the Senate.
While Liberal senators flagged possible further amendments from Family First senator Steve Fielding - another possible obstacle for the bill - a spokesperson could not confirm whether this was the case. Senator Fielding was one of few crossbrench MPs to accept a closed door briefing on the NBN from NBN Co chief executive, Mike Quigley, and is prevented from revealing details of the discussion until the network wholesaler’s business plan is publicly released in December.
What has become known simply as the ‘Telstra separation bill’ also proposes to boost consumer protection powers for industry watchdogs the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and the Australian Communications and Media Authority. However, the bill has been blocked several times over the past year in the Senate, preventing the passage of other bills vital to the NBN’s construction.
Liberal senators used the second reading of the bill in the Senate this week to continue arguing that it was a “shotgun to Telstra’s head” and a “clumsy camouflage” for Labor attempts to create a new government-owned monopoly telco. Labor senator Kate Lundy disregarded suggestions Telstra was under duress over the prospect of separation.
“We know that Telstra has not only sought to maintain and fought for the retention of their monopoly for so many years, to imply that they would somehow be under duress to participate in a future monopoly, I think defies belief,” she said. “The fact is that Telstra and NBN Co have entered into a practical agreement, something which the coalition clearly lauded and encouraged and criticised labor’s whole process for not occurring. Now that it has occurred, suddenly it’s problematic.”
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