The Senate has voted in favour of legislation proposing the structural separation of Telstra, bringing to close a week of lengthy debate and an abnormal lengthening of sitting days for both houses of Australian Parliament.
The Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer Safeguards) Bill 2010, which has been debated in Australian Parliament since late 2009, will result in the forcible separation of Telstra’s wholesale and retail arms while also providing greater powers to industry watchdogs the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and the Australian Communications and Media Authority to regulate telecommunications. The bill forms a foundation for future legislation to be introduced surrounding the NBN, and paves the way for the acceptance of a $9 billion Financial Heads of Agreement between Telstra and NBN Co next year.
The passing of the bill today preceded a last-ditch effort by the opposition to pass amendments to the bill that would mandate the Productivity Commission produce a cost-benefit analysis of the NBN by 31 May 2011. Liberal senator, Simon Birmingham, offered to provide party support for the bill’s passage, provided the Labor party accept the demand for such an analysis.
However, Conroy disregarded the offer, calling the amendment “poorly drafted”.
“This is a cheap political stunt at the end of a long discussion,” he said.
Independent senator Nick Xenophon also opposed the amendments, saying the production of a single report from the commission would pale in comparison to the ongoing advice it would provide to a continuing parliamentary inquiry into the network, secured by the senator in negotiations with Prime Minister Julia Gillard earlier in the week.
The Greens also opposed the amendment.
“There’s nothing wrong with the terms of reference that’s been proposed [in the amendment], it’s what the coalition proposed to do with,” Senator Scott Ludlam said in the Senate.
Following debate on amendments proposed by the opposition, Greens and independent senator Nick Xenophon, the Senate voted in favour of the bill’s passage at a ratio of 30 to 28.
A spokesperson for Telstra could not provide a timeframe for the structural separation, but said the telco was encouraged by the Senate's progress.
"Our position remains that, on balance, we support the passage of the Bill because it delivers greater certainty as we work towards finalising definitive agreements," they said.
The bill’s passing means members of the House of Representatives will be called back to sit on Monday in order to sign off on the bill, a move that Greens leader Bob Brown attacked as a waste of taxpayers’ money.
The Gillard Government has already begun to move forward on legislation required for the rollout of the NBN, this week introducing two new bills to the House of Representatives incorporating NBN Co and establishing access arrangements for the network.