Government to submit NBN to Parliamentary inquiry, but senators remain unconvinced on key bill

The Federal Government will submit the National Broadband Network to a Parliamentary committee in order to judge the economic and social benefits of the $43 billion project, it was announced last night.

The announcement comes as the Government is struggling to convince independent senator Nick Xenophon to pass the telco separation bill in the Senate, a critical piece of legislation needed to proceed with construction of the NBN.

Communications minster Stephen Conroy is struggling to convince the Senate to pass the bill, and is running out of time before the current session of Parliament ends on Thursday.

Infrastructure minister and house leader Anthony Albanese announced the inquiry last night, saying a Parliamentary committee will examine the economic and social benefits of the project in order to provide more financial scrutiny.

“What this committee will look at is how the NBN will make a contribution to regional economic growth and employment to the delivery of government services and programs to achieving health and educational outcomes to business efficiencies and revenues,” he told ABC.

But not everybody is happy with the new inquiry. Greens communications spokesman Scott Ludlum says a lot more will be needed to convince the Senate, and says the inquiry should be based in the Senate.

“They really are just a creature of Government and I’m not sure what the value is of a committee like that with Government-dominated numbers marching around the landscape demanding people tell it how great the NBN is going to be,” he said.

And Xenophon, along with Family First senator Steve Fielding, remains unconvinced. Both attended private briefings last night with executives from NBN Co and Telstra, but still say they are not prepared to support the structural separation bill.

Xenophon in particular says the inquiry is not enough, and wants the Government to release the network’s business plan before Thursday – a request Conroy and Prime Minister Julia Gillard have denied several times.

“The government knows how serious I am about this,” he told ABC radio this morning. “But at the moment, it’s still pretty much a Mexican standoff.”

Xenophon has proposed some amendments to increase transparency, but is still negotiating with the Government today. The minister was contacted for comment this morning, but no reply was received before publication.

The Greens have pledged their support for the bill, in exchange for an amendment that requires the Government submit any decision to privatise the network to a Parliamentary vote.

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