Interview with Andrew Clennell, Sky News Afternoon Agenda

ANDREW CLENNELL: Thanks for your company. 1.5 million Australian households are being promised faster internet by 2025. Next week’s Budget will include $2.4 billion to expand access to higher quality NBN services, and joining me now is the Communications Minister, Michelle Rowland, to discuss this and other matters. Michelle Rowland, thank you for your time. If we can start with this announcement; talk us through it?

MICHELLE ROWLAND, MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: Well, Andrew, we took a policy to the last election to upgrade an additional 1.5 million homes and small businesses at an investment of $2.4 billion to ensure that they can access the best‑quality fibre infrastructure under the National Broadband Network. This will be included the Budget Papers next week and it is yet another example of the Albanese Government’s delivering of its election commitments.

CLENNELL: Where are we now in terms of, I guess, Kevin Rudd’s vision of 2007? How far along the way are we? What’s changed?

ROWLAND: Well, there’s a multitude of things that have changed, Andrew, but I think there’s probably three key things. The first is that in 2013, we know that when Labor was voted out of office, the Coalition said that it would be able to build the NBN under its model for some $29 million. That’s basically doubled in cost. We had in late 2020 the Coalition Government decided that the multi‑technology mix that it advocated with a mixture of copper, fibre and HFS actually warranted reverting back to fibre. And now we’re at this point where under Labor again, we are fulfilling our promise to fix the NBN. So, we have some additional, as you say, 1.5 million premises that will be able to access fibre and this will mean that by 2025 we will have some 90 per cent of the fixed‑line footprint around Australia being able to access gigabit speeds. So, that’s really important for small businesses and consumers who are, of course, now prolific consumers now of everything through broadband, including streaming services, including education, e‑commerce, and we know that the reliability of the copper network is something that comes into question all the time, so it’s not just a matter of speed over fibre, it’s a matter of reliability as well. And here in Western Sydney, where I am at the moment, where it’s quite wet, residents here will know that when water gets into those copper pits, it certainly does impact on reliability.

But we’re very focused, Andrew, on delivering the NBN for the benefit of all Australians, including in the regions under this package. Some 660,000 of those premises will actually be in rural and regional Australia and that’s a really positive thing.

CLENNELL: Should the Government be pouring more money into the NBN because it’s still making a loss and there are competitors and the competition of mobile wifi? A lot’s changed in 15 years.

ROWLAND: Well, we have made a very conscious decision to take this policy to the last election, which was endorsed, and we see this as a very important investment in the network. We believe in this network. We have also made the announcement that for the foreseeable future, while we get the NBN back on track, we will keep this in public ownership. This is about an investment, an investment that will generate a return for the Australian people, but it is also a really key productivity measure. Studies have shown that some tens of billions of dollars in uplift to our GDP will arise as a result of enhanced fibre access through the NBN. And you talk about mobile networks.

CLENNELL: When do you – Minister, when do you –

ROWLAND: Mobile networks are currently limited by –

CLENNELL: – think we’ll see that return?

ROWLAND: Well, NBN will be publishing a corporate plan in the near future –

CLENNELL: You talk about a return.

ROWLAND: – which will obviously be impacted by this additional investment. But it is very focused on, under Government policy, of ensuring that it does complete this build, and it is also very focused on the upgrades in different forms of technologies as well, those that particularly go to rural and regional areas, such as the upgrades that we’ve got in the fixed wireless network and also satellite. So, we will see the NBN generate a return for the Australian taxpayer. This will become evident in its corporate plans over the near future. But we know that as a result of having this increased investment, this will benefit an additional 1.5 million premises right around Australia.

I’ll just end on your point

CLENNELL: All right, just –

ROWLAND: – that you’re asking earlier, too, Andrew about mobile –

CLENNELL: Yeah, sorry. I just wanted to move on if that was okay.

ROWLAND: Certainly.

CLENNELL: Just add a few other issues that I wanted to address. Let me turn to the Optus hack and your change in legislation on that front. Has the Government now got all the information it wants out of Optus and is there a copycat element, does the Government think, to this Medibank Private situation that’s cropped up the last day or two?

ROWLAND: Well, unfortunately, it is the case that cyber-attacks and cyber criminals are not new. What we do know is that the Optus cyber-attack has been a wake‑up call for corporate Australia, and I think this latest one is exactly in that vein. The regulations that we put through in the last couple of weeks were a result of detailed discussions with the financial services sector, also with the telcos and with the Privacy Commissioner to come up with a very targeted way of sharing information between Optus and the telcos more generally and financial institutions in order that they may do some form of tracking or tagging in order to keep Australians safe. The key issue here was identity theft and other information of people that was being used potentially for scams and, also, for other nefarious activity. So, this piece of regulations was very well targeted, very well design and, also, took into account those privacy concerns.

But you do raise a broader issue about consumers’ personal information, which is often held in these big institutions, not just telcos, but also obviously in private health insurers and many other agencies. And Mark Dreyfus, our Attorney General, is leading part of this whole‑of‑government response, including with Clare O’Neil as Home Affairs Minister, to have a really coordinated approach to what sort of information is being collected, how it is being used, and this ongoing review of the Privacy Act that has been going on for quite some time also needs to take into account these issues. I think there’s a really heightened awareness by consumers who are viewing these breaches through a privacy lens, and the Government is determined to gather all the information it can and to respond appropriately with either new legislation, new regulations or to modify existing rules that are there or clarify them ultimately for the benefit of consumers.

CLENNELL: All right, it sounds like there’s more than telecommunications legislation being amended on this one, then. I wanted to ask you about this Lidia Thorpe story this afternoon. Pretty extraordinary story. She’s a member of Parliament. She was Deputy Senate Leader of the Greens until a few moments ago and she’d been dating a bikie boss while she was on a justice committee. What’s your reaction to all this?

ROWLAND: Well, I think the Leader of the Greens political party needs to be satisfied that Senator Thorpe doesn’t have a conflict of interest or other disclosures that she needs to make in this area. Other than that, this is a matter for the Greens to determine what future action might be taken.

CLENNELL: Now, you’ve been part of these ERC discussions leading up to the Budget next week. Jim Chalmers has really painted a grim picture on the economic front. We know that’s the case in terms of inflation, that’s for sure. But he’s done that even as Chris Richardson the respected economist is saying today there’ll be another $150 billion in revenue over the forwards you’ll be booking, so what’s with the contrast here?

ROWLAND: Well, I think the key issue here, and I know this – I’m not saying this is as a member of the ERC but as someone who understands these issues and has been exposed to them as much as anyone else, there are serious structural problems with our Budget. We inherited a trillion dollars of debt. We are going to be delivering a responsible budget, just as the Treasurer has said, and we are thinking long‑term. This is a government that will be fulfilling all of its election commitments but is also very mindful of the cost‑of‑living pressures on Australia and all consumers. But we need to make sure that we deliver a Budget that responds to those concerns but is also economically responsible in the long term. I think that’s the clear and consistent message that our Treasurer has given and that’s what you’re going to see in the Budget next week.

CLENNELL: A lot of talk – just finally, a lot of talk about these stage 3 tax cuts – bit of a toe in the water from Jim Chalmers and not many others on changing them. Let me ask you: do you think someone on 150 or $108,000 in Western Sydney is rich these days?

ROWLAND: I don’t think they would be considering themselves to be rich and I think everyone’s circumstances are different. There’s a lot of people whose mortgages are going to be going up substantially as a result of interest rates. We know inflation continues to go up and we know that compared to even a decade ago, the cost of housing, even in the outer suburbs of Sydney, is very high, so I wouldn’t make assumptions about people’s individual circumstances. There are a lot of people who are doing the right thing, working hard, law abiding citizens who want to get ahead, a lot of people who have come to Australia in order to make a better life for their families. People are working hard, and I wouldn’t make any judgement or attempt to categorise them in any way.

CLENNELL: So, you look forward to giving them a tax cut?

ROWLAND: We will follow‑through with our election commitments.

CLENNELL: Michelle Rowland, thanks so much for your time.

ROWLAND: A pleasure.