CANBERRA, Nov 23 (Reuters) - Almost half of all Australians voters want to see a business case in support of a planned $43 billion fast broadband network, a poll showed on Tuesday, as mounting political tensions over the project test the minority government’s ability to control parliament.
The super-fast broadband was a key election promise for Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s Labor, which relies of the support of Green and independent lawmakers to rule. The upper house this week began debating competition laws underpinning its construction.
But a Newspoll in the Australian newspaper showed 42 percent of respondents wanted a cost-benefit analysis of the fibre network wiring up most homes in the country, while 23 percent wanted construction to go ahead on a project the government says will supercharge national output.
“It will drive economic growth and productivity, and ensure Australia is at the forefront of the digital revolution. The Gillard government is committed to making sure all Australians, no matter where they live or work, can have access,” Infrastructure Minister Anthony Albanese told reporters.
The major conservative opposition is hoping crossbench lawmakers vote down competition legislation clearing the market landscape for the state-run network, which will be the country’s largest ever infrastructure project.
“What the government is doing here is turning back the whole history of reform by establishing a great big new government monopoly and then using the power of the Parliament to legislate in a way that will prevent other parties with fixed-line networks from competing,” said opposition communications and broadband spokesman Malcolm Turnbull.
But the influential Greens party struck a deal with the government on Monday to support laws splitting the country’s biggest phone company, Telstra Corp , into wholesale and retail arms in return for a guarantee that the broadband network would not be privatised in future without a vote in parliament.
The laws to be voted on within days are crucial to construction of the broadband as they help prevent Telstra from taking on government network operator NBN Co., which will offer wholesale high-speed network access to retailers.
With only three sitting days left this year for parliament to pass the laws, the government is in urgent talks with key independent Senator Nick Xenophon to support the package and separate legislation allowing NBN Co. to act as a monopoly.
“At the moment, it’s still pretty much a Mexican standoff,” Xenophon said in Melbourne.
The government has hired external corporate advisers to test the still confidential business case for the broadband. A parliamentary committee is also examining the network’s benefits, but will not report back until next August.
(Reporting by Rob Taylor; Editing by Kazunori Takada)