[the australian] LABOR has secured the passage of its National Broadband Network laws through an eleventh-hour deal that the Nationals claim could force rural and regional Australians to pay more for future internet services.
Country independents Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor yesterday agreed to a deal that stopped short of guaranteeing uniform pricing for higher speeds under the $36 billion NBN.
In a frantic bid to salvage support for the NBN, Labor wooed the pair with a written guarantee that the NBN Co would continue to offer - where possible - uniform pricing across fibre, satellite and wireless technologies for speeds above the standard 12 megabits per second. However, the Nationals accused the independents of selling out the bush because they took the government at its word and did not back an opposition amendment to enshrine uniform pricing in legislation for future higher speed broadband access.
The government's assurance to the regional independents came despite Broadband Minister Stephen Conroy last week warning parliament it "could potentially bankrupt the NBN" if the NBN Co was forced to charge the same wholesale prices across all platforms to access the same speeds above the entry-level package.
Seven per cent of all Australians, who live in outer regional and rural areas, will receive their NBN services via satellite or wireless services. These technologies are unlikely to deliver the same ultra-fast speeds in the future at the same cost available on the fibre network.
Anthony Albanese, Senator Conroy's representative in the House of Representatives, said the government had offered a guarantee to the independents that "with regard to future technologies, the principle of uniform wholesale national pricing will be applied where possible".
Senator Conroy said last night the deal cut with the independents was "entirely consistent" with the comments he made in parliament.
While the government was negotiating its deal with the regional independents, the Nationals tried to force their hand by moving an amendment in parliament to change a key piece of NBN-related legislation so all users pay the same for higher broadband speeds. Nationals MP Luke Hartsuyker, who moved the amendment, accused the independents of being duped by a government that could not keep its word over a carbon tax.
"It is vital that this uniformity be enshrined in legislation and not depend on a promise from a government that has a track record of not keeping those promises," Mr Hartsuyker said.
The regional independents hit back at the opposition, saying it had never supported the massive government-owned fibre network and was only making political mischief by entering the fray on the day parliament was recalled to force the bills through.
Mr Oakeshott said yesterday the Coalition was "dripping with shameless hypocrisy and inconsistency". He accused the opposition of moving an amendment that would push up the cost of the $36bn network despite having long argued the government was already spending too much on broadband.
Mr Windsor accused Mr Hartsuyker of trivialising the debate over the NBN, saying the network had the potential to overcome the "disadvantage of distance".
"I cannot believe that any member who represents, or purports to represent the country areas of this nation, would actually find arguments to vote against it," he said. "My question for the member for Cowper is: if I support this amendment, do you support the National Broadband Network: yes or no?"
Fellow rural independent Bob Katter also attacked the opposition's position. "I haven't heard the opposition put forward a single solitary piece of technology, and yet they think we should wait for some sort of science fiction fantasy to jump out from behind a bush and provide a service," Mr Katter said. "Well, too bad for you. We've got an offer on the table and we're going to take it."
Senator Conroy said last night: "With the agreement of independents Rob Oakeshott, Tony Windsor, Andrew Wilkie, and Greens MP Adam Bandt, the government has committed to prepare a community impact statement on all future policy decisions on technology, speed and/or price, with a view to continue the application of uniform wholesale national pricing where possible.
"It is outrageous that the opposition blocked consideration of this resolution by the house."
Opposition communications spokesman Malcolm Turnbull attacked the commitment made to the independents as doing "little more than assure NBN customers of the level playing field that they have been promised since the start of the project".
Mr Turnbull said Senator Conroy's claim that uniform pricing for all higher speeds across technologies could bankrupt the NBN was an example of "such outrageous and utterly false hyperbole" that has been a "commonly used bow in his rhetorical quiver".
Nationals senator Barnaby Joyce said the government was hypocritical for cutting an agreement with the independents in the House of Representatives when it had panned a similar amendment moved by him in the Senate.
Senator Joyce also accused the independents of being "gullible" for taking the government at its word rather than forcing it to be drawn into the legislation.
"They could have forced it, but they didn't," he said. "Today the independents have failed on behalf of regional Australia."
Senator Conroy said last night the passing of the bills would ensure structural reform of the telecommunications industry and promote competition.
A spokeswoman for the NBN Co said yesterday the debate on the floor of parliament about future high-speed technologies was entirely hypothetical.