Money down the drain as tech bills blocked

Opposition's "filibustering" could mean as much as $16.5 million in taxpayer money down the drain

Up to $16.5 million of taxpayer's money could be wasted by the end of 2010 due to alleged "filibustering" by the Federal Opposition, Australian Greens senator, Scott Ludlam, has claimed.

"It costs more than a million dollars a day to run this building and [the Opposition is] filibustering the bills," he told Computerworld Australia.

A spokesperson for Australian Parliament House clarified that yearly operating costs for Australian Parliament House are between $150 million and $175 million, extrapolated across the whole year to an average of $500,000 per day excluding MP salaries.

To the end of 2010, Parliament has a further 30 days left with both houses seated, and 33 sitting days for the Australian House of Representatives in total. The total cost of the remaining sitting days – based on the building's operational costs – would be $16.5 million.

"They've blocked and opposed [everything] and haven't put anything up as an alternative," Ludlam said. "I think the Telstra separation legislation might go through and I think that would be important if it did."

Ludlam's comments came last week, before the announcement of the Financial Heads of Agreement deal between Telstra and NBN Co. With negotiations settled between the major telco and the Federal Government, communications minister, Stephen Conroy, intends to table agreed amendments to the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer Safeguards) Bill 2009 in the Senate this week. The bill, also designed to give more powers to industry watchdogs ACCC and ACMA, will be amended to remove some of the separation conditions placed on the telco, as well as threats to take away its ability to bid on wireless spectrum.

However, blocks on the bill may continue from the Liberal party, with shadow communications minister, Tony Smith, calling the deal "desperate". The Coalition has revealed it will announce an alternative broadband plan prior to the election, but thus far the Opposition has made numerous unsubstantiated claims about the NBN and other technological proposals from the Government.

Opposition leader, Tony Abbott, has previously criticised nationalisation of telecommunications, telling Alan Jones on 2GB AM radio in May that "Telstra’s not perfect but it’s better in private hands than it ever was with the public servants running it and we don’t want a new Telecom in this country today".

Another major obstacle to the bill's passing - Family First senator, Steve Fielding – claimed victory in choosing to wait for the deal before passing the bill, but did not disclose whether he had decided which way to argue as yet.

"Family First will take its time in considering the $11 billion deal before making any decisions on legislation before parliament," Fielding said in a statement.

Ludlam and Conroy have both labelled Opposition's strategy against the telecommunications bill a "filibuster", and expressed disbelief over the bill's constant delays during the past eight months.

The Senate select committee on the National Broadband Network (NBN) suggested the government scrap the NBN in its final report, after two years of conversations with the industry, four interim reports and 141 submissions from stakeholders about how to go about the NBN and its inherent intricacies. However, Ludlam and other critics have pointed to the committee's bias toward Coalition senators, and suggested the report would merely become a political weapon against Labor in the next election.

Opposition disapproval of other technology-related legislation such as the Healthcare Identifiers Bill has also called possible filibustering into question. While the National eHealth Transition Authority (NeHTA) has admitted to tight deadlines on the project, a continued push for amendments by the Opposition could result in the unique healthcare identifiers program missing its 1 July deadline and the subsequent setback of other e-health projects like the Federal Government-funded $467 million voluntary e-health records.

In his budget reply, shadow treasurer, Joe Hockey, said he wanted to see "every state government sign up in blood" before he committed to any investment in the health IT sector, with the Opposition yet to offer alternative nationwide electronic health solutions.

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