Last-minute talks with Prime Minister Julia Gillard have failed to convince independent senator Nick Xenophon to immediately back laws paving the way for the national broadband network (NBN).
With two sitting days to go until parliament rises for the year, the government requires Senator Xenophon’s vote to pass laws separating Telstra’s retail and wholesale arms, and allowing the telco to take part in the NBN – a key election promise.
But the South Australian senator, who met separately with Ms Gillard and Communications Minister Stephen Conroy on Tuesday, maintains the government needs to publicly release the NBN’s business plan to be accountable for spending $43 billion of public money.
Senator Xenophon told parliament in his first speech on the bill he supported its aims “because it effectively gives the parliament the last major opportunity to make sure that we are on the right track (with the NBN)”.
But he said he would reserve his position on the bill while the government insisted on confidentiality in order to see the business plan.
“No one in this place should be voting blind, and signing a confidentiality agreement … doesn’t resolve the problem for me,” he said.
“I do not believe it is a transparent, robust approach in a parliamentary democracy.”
Ms Gillard has promised to release the plan, but not until December, after a crucial report from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is completed.
Speaking after the meeting, the prime minister would only say: “I’ve been chatting with Nick Xenophon – it’s always good to talk.”
Senator Xenophon said he did not accept that the business case could not be released before the competition watchdog’s report.
He said he would also like to see a joint standing committee of parliament set up to scrutinise the rollout of the NBN, with advice from the Productivity Commission.
The government on Tuesday agreed to a lower house committee looking at the social and economic impact of the NBN as a concession to calls for more information on its value.
While the Labor caucus did not discuss the standoff on Tuesday, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott told the coalition party room the NBN had gone from being a “political positive” for the government during the election to a liability.
The coalition on Tuesday introduced a private senator’s bill that would require the government to publish the business case and refer it to the Productivity Commission for a cost-benefit analysis.
The government revealed on Tuesday it had hired external corporate advisers to test the assumptions underpinning the NBN business case, which Treasurer Wayne Swan described as “normal commercial practice”.
The finance department commissioned Greenhill Caliburn to review the “robustness” of the 30-year business plan and the 2011 corporate plan of the company tasked with rolling out the network, NBN Co.
Ms Gillard told parliament the review, which was criticised by the opposition, was part of the government’s “patient and methodical work” to roll out the NBN.
Opposition communications spokesman Malcolm Turnbull reaffirmed that the coalition would oppose a bill to structurally separate Telstra’s wholesale and retail arms, even though it supported the policy.
“Structural separation is a big issue, it’s a good issue, but the $43 billion elephant in the room is this massive infrastructure expenditure that the government is undertaking without any cost-benefit analysis,” he told ABC Television on Tuesday night.