Minister for the Department of Communications and the Arts

Senator the Hon Mitch Fifield

Minister for Communications

A/g Minister for Regional Communications

Minister for the Arts

Manager of Government Business in the Senate

ABC 774 Drive with Raf Epstein

24 October 2017

Parliament House Canberra

E & OE

EPSTEIN:
Mitch Fifield is the Minister for Communications. Part of Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull's cabinet. Good afternoon.

FIFIELD:
Good afternoon Raf.

EPSTEIN:
It's all going to cost us a bit more isn't it.

FIFIELD:
Well the good news Raf is our approach to the NBN will cost about $30 billion less than Labor's approach. It will be finished a good six to eight years sooner than would have been the case under their approach as well. And when you hear Labor talking about reverting to a full fibre network, Raf, what people should hear is that they want Australian consumers to pay more. That was the model that Labor left us with. Raf this is an important point. Raf I have just got to make this point which is an important one. Labor's model would have seen consumers paying $500 a year more for their broadband connection.

EPSTEIN:
I am not saying it is particularly outrageous for people to pay a little bit more. But in the fifth year of a Coalition Government do you think that will be the case. I don't want to get into the technical issues that NBN was raising today, but it's like they would like to tax their competitors. Or they would like to have a levy on their competitors. Or there will be a bit more government money spent on it. It's likely to be the case that right now there is going to be an extra cost. Yes or no?

FIFIELD:
Raf we have capped the taxpayer contribution, in the form of equity, to $29 billion.  So we are not going to go above that. What I think there has been some confusion about is something called the Regional Broadband Scheme, which is legislation that we currently have before the Parliament. And the objective of that is to make transparent the internal cross subsidy that NBN currently has to support non-commercial regional service of fixed wireless and satellite.

EPSTEIN:
Sure. So that is going to cost a little more. Yes or no.

FIFIELD:
No because that internal cross subsidy is already there. What we are seeking to do is to make that transparent by way of a levy. And that levy will also apply to NBN's …

EPSTEIN:
A levy is an additional cost isn't it?

FIFIELD:
That levy will also apply to NBN's fixed line competitors. But that payment is already being made by NBN to support those non-commercial services. So there will be no extra cost to NBN consumers. But we are not considering applying that to the mobile network. Because that is that is not something that is readily…

EPSTEIN:
That is what they want. They want you to apply a levy to mobile network.

FIFIELD:
The mobile network is not something that is readily substitutable for the NBN.

EPSTEIN:
Is any of this the Coalitions fault?

FIFIELD:
We absolutely take responsibility for the fact that people will get the NBN by 2020.  Which is six to eight years sooner than would have been the case under Labor. And we absolutely take responsibility that this will cost $30 billion less than would have been the case under Labor.

EPSTEIN:
So none of this is your fault then?

FIFIELD:
We take responsibility for that change in plan. And that change in plan will see people get the NBN sooner and at $30 billion less cost.

EPSTEIN:
Do you think Minister that people might rate you with a bit more credibility if you said some of it… I know you feel that Labor gave you a poisoned chalice.  I think people have heard you say that for more than four years. But wouldn't people listen a little more openly to the government if they also admitted that they didn't understand the full extent of what was required. That a little bit of it might be the Coalition's responsibility?

FIFIELD:
Raf when you say a little bit of ‘it'. Perhaps you might say what the ‘it' is that you are referring to?

EPSTEIN:
Do you want me to open up the phone lines with all the problems that people get on the NBN Minister? Or read out all the texts? I guess I will limit it to cost, time and the personal problems people have. They are all in a place. Cost, time and personal problems in a place where people would rather them not be.

FIFIELD:
Raf we absolutely accept and acknowledge that not everyone on the NBN network has the experience that we would want them to. The overwhelming majority of people do have a good experience. But there are people for whom the migration to the network hasn't been seamless. And NBN and retailers are putting a lot of work in to improve that migration experience. Which to put it in context, really is a one in a hundred year event. We're moving the entire community across from one network to a new network. That is one issue.  The other issue which we hear, and which we accept is, that when it comes to people's expectation of speed they're not always what they are expecting. And there are a couple of reasons why that can be the case. One is that we are finding that too often that retailers are sending the wrong type of modems to people's houses. And fixing that is a straightforward matter. The other issue is making sure that retailers purchase enough capacity from NBN to service their customers. And so there are couple of things that we have done to help in the regard. One is we've commissioned the ACCC to embed about 4000 probes in peoples premises so that there can be public reporting of the speeds that people are actually getting by retailer. The other things is that the ACCC have given retailers very clear guidance as to their expectations when it comes to the clarity of advertising by retailers. And if the retailers don't do what the ACCC expects then they will come down hard.

EPSTEIN:
Mitch Fifield's the Communications Minister. 1300 222 774 is the phone number. He's an experienced politician so he will know of the vehement anger that is streaming across my text line. Few issues get this volume of feedback with quite as much venom.  Mitch Fifield if I can take you back to a promise the Prime Minister made in the 2013 election. Did you over promise to give everybody NBN by last year for less than what it's going to cost. Was that a mistake?

FIFIELD:
Well at the time the then opposition was operating on the best information that it had. When we came into government we commissioned a strategic review that discovered that Labor and the then management of NBN actually did not have a clue what it was costing per premise to roll out the NBN. So the costing of the NBN is something that became apparent as a result of the work that we commissioned. So we set a new timetable and we set a new funding envelope after we came into government.

EPSTEIN:
That's the same thing as saying though it's Labor's fault you broke your promise isn't it?

FIFIELD:
No. What it is, is that in government we discovered that what the Labor Party were saying about the costs of the project were wrong. They didn't have a handle on the costs. And we saw a bit of that in some of the papers today where Labor's fibre to the premise approach in some cases saw the expense of doing that being $91,000 for just one premise. So we set a new timetable very shortly after we came into government. And we set a new funding envelope. And NBN has operated within that since that time. And that's why we're confident that NBN will be completed by 2020 and that it will be completed within the funding envelope.

EPSTEIN:
Have you got the NBN at your place yet?

FIFIELD:
I don't.

EPSTEIN:
Are you due? Is it coming soon?

FIFIELD:
It's coming soon I'm told.

EPSTEIN:
Unrelated topic if I can just spend a few minutes on this. The One Nation party supported you in your media reforms. In exchange you've promised to put up legislation in the Parliament changing the ABC's legislation so that fair and balanced is in there. Are you comfortable with that sort of horse-trading. It's not something the Coalition has spoken about before. You've given One Nation that simply in exchange for a vote. Are you comfortable with that?

FIFIELD:
I'm very comfortable with the range of ABC measures that will be introduced into the Parliament. And you mentioned one of them, being to put the words ‘fair and balanced' into the ABC's act alongside the existing requirement to be ‘accurate' and ‘impartial'.

EPSTEIN:
So does it make any difference?

FIFIELD:
I'm very comfortable about doing that because it's really just seeking to enshrine in legislation that which is already within the ABC's own editorial policies.

EPSTEIN:
So why change it if nothing's going to change the questions I ask you? I don't think that you believe it will change the seven o'clock news or 7:30, so why change?

FIFIELD:
I think it's a good thing to reinforce in the ABC's act some of the commonly understood standards of journalism which the ABC themselves already reflect in the editorial policies. The ABC editorial policies talk about the importance of ‘fair treatment', I think we'd all agree that's good. It also talks about ‘a balance that follows the weight of evidence'. Again, I think that's a good thing.

EPSTEIN:
Can we include that, can we call that the Epstein amendment?

FIFIELD:
(Laughs)

EPSTEIN:
Balance following the weight of the evidence, if we could include that in law that'd be wonderful.

FIFIELD:
That that is Raf's usual practice, and should be appreciated as such.

EPSTEIN:
I'm not actually sure that it is, it might allow us to dismiss out of hand some contributors who might otherwise normally get a look in.

FIFIELD:
I'm sure you assiduously follow the ABC's editorial policies. But Raf I think there's another good thing that's being done as part of these changes. And that is to put into the ABC Charter for the first time, a specific reference to rural and regional Australia. A lot of people would assume that the ABC Charter already had specific reference. It doesn't. We'll put it there. And that will enshrine in legislation some of the good work that the ABC already does.

EPSTEIN:
Thanks for your time.

FIFIELD:
Thanks Raf.

[ends]

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