SUBJECTS: Labor’s National Broadband Network Announcement; Labor’s Plan For The NBN; Western Sydney & The Religious Freedoms Bill;

KIERAN GILBERT, HOST: The Shadow Communications Minister Michelle Rowland, thanks so much for your time, Michelle Rowland. The Minister Paul Fletcher was on the program about an hour ago. He says Labor cannot be trusted because of your track record on NBN. He says 51,000 premises connected at a cost of $6 billion last time you were in office, what's your response?

MICHELLE ROWLAND, SHADOW MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: It's quite a bizarre statement coming from the Minister who, on his watch, the NBN has gone from being a $29 billion project to now a $57 billion project, four years behind schedule. It costs nearly twice as much and does at least half of what it should be doing. So, it's pretty rich coming from Minister Paul Fletcher in his statements today. I think people understand, coming out of the pandemic, the reliance that Australians have, as consumers, as small businesses, as workers, as students, on the best quality broadband and the need for that to be developed and delivered through fibre. That’s what Labor's announcement is all about today. We're going to be expanding fibre access to 1.5 million more homes and small businesses around Australia. 660,000 of those are going to be in the regions, many of them are going to be in the suburbs. I see that Minister Fletcher calls this “wasteful”. Well, I look forward to every Liberal and National MP and candidate coming forward to back in Paul Fletcher, to say that investing in fibre in the regions is wasteful. Let's also be clear, part of our announcement today is also about jobs. 12,000 jobs in this project are being delivered through this extra 1.5 million premises that are being provided. We have given an intrinsic commitment here, which is essential to ensuring that this repair job is completed under Labor. That is, that we keep the NBN in public ownership for the foreseeable future. I think this is very exciting and will be embraced by Australians.

GILBERT: Previously you said that Labor's commitment was to have fibre to the home - that was the aim. This is fibre to the curb. And it's going to be demand driven. So that is adopting the Government approach in that sense.

ROWLAND: Well, indeed, we have to work with what we have at this point in time. Let's be very clear about what this Government program is. In September last year, the single biggest, most expensive, most humiliating backflip in public policy history was committed by Paul Fletcher. When, after so many years railing against fibre and promoting a multi-technology mix, including copper, they decided, hang on, we need to do this with fibre. So, they have actually done the biggest backflip on Earth. We will be working with what we have if we're fortunate enough to be elected. This will be about ensuring that if people want that connectivity, and those gigabit speeds, they are able to get it. And under our policy, an extra one and a half million premises will benefit from exactly that.

GILBERT: But it's not fibre to the home, it's fibre to the curb. That's right, isn't it?

ROWLAND: It's fibre that goes to a network distribution point in the street. If a premise wishes to order it, they obtain a fibre lead-in, which under Labor will actually be built into the cost of the network. So, it won't cost that consumer anything extra. It goes from the network distribution point in the street to the house.

GILBERT: How will Labor pay for the commitment two and a half billion dollars?

ROWLAND: Exactly how it's being paid for at the moment. The NBN is an off-budget item, funded through a mix of equity Commonwealth loans. In the next couple of years NBN Co will be generating free cash flows, which they’ll be able to use to invest in its network. That will be the way in which it will be delivered.

GILBERT: Do you feel that this is now, given the pandemic experience of working from home, for businesses, for households and so on, is this something that is treated now as an expectation as opposed to what previously might have been a cost or a luxury for households particularly?

ROWLAND: Absolutely. I think the pandemic has certainly brought this to the fore. People appreciating that there are limitations to what's able to be offered under copper. With the rise of 5G, that will be a direct threat to the copper network because 5G will be able to do so much more. Coming back to people's individual experiences, it is beyond doubt that fibre was always the best approach. Labor had the right approach when it devised the National Broadband Network. The Liberals never agreed with it, the Nationals sold regional Australia down the river. It was left to Labor to devise a plan that filled that gap where there was clear market failure in the provision of broadband. I think it's very exciting to think that some 90% of the fixed line footprint in Australia under Labor’s policy will be able to have access to those gigabit speeds.

GILBERT: Now, on the religious freedom issue. I was chatting to Andrew Clennell earlier. He raised that point about Western Sydney. A lot of people of faith in your area. Will Labor be treating this bill seriously? Would you like to see Labor’s support for the passage of a Religious Freedom Bill?

ROWLAND: We will certainly be treating this seriously. I haven't seen a copy of this bill. I do note that there is dissent within the government's own ranks about the approach that should be taken to this. But let me make this clear, and I've put this on the public record. I think it is very important to continue to listen to people of faith, to religious leaders, but also to people of different faiths. Indeed, representing a very diverse electorate, it became abundantly clear to me that Labor’s tone going into the last election was one that needed improvement. I've put that on the public record. I recognise that there are deep held views, that there have been some chilling effects on the ability for people to freely practice their religion. We need to ensure that we get the balance right. Now, whether or not the government has done that remains to be seen. But this is the key point here, Keiran. They have been in power now, since 2019, under Scott Morrison, and under the promise of delivering this bill. We are going into the last two sitting weeks of this year, possibly even of this term. The question I am receiving from people in my community now is, why have they been betrayed by Scott Morrison? Why has it taken this long to address these issues? Now they'll talk about the cover of COVID and other matters that they've been attending to. But this was supposed to be a signature policy, a signature item of delivery by Scott Morrison. Yet again, he is blaming everyone else, he hasn't delivered and just as you played in that excerpt from Chris Bowen, people of faith want to have some assurances and they want to be understood. We need to listen to them respectfully. There are progressive people who are involved in any range of activities, including climate change, including ensuring a variety of social justice issues are fulfilled. They feel betrayed by this government. We wait to see their bill when it's actually presented.

GILBERT: Michelle Rowland, thank you for your time. Appreciate it.

ROWLAND: Pleasure.