Regional Telecommunications Review recommendations must be implemented
Posted November 10, 2015
CATHY McGOWAN (Indi) (18:49): I congratulate the member for Hindmarsh on those inspiring words, which fit in very well with what I have to say, because I am also talking tonight about infrastructure—in particular telecommunications infrastructure.
My grievance tonight is about telecommunications in rural and regional Australia. I would like to take this opportunity to highlight the findings of the recent Regional telecommunications review 2015 report and to call on the government to accept all of the recommendations as a matter of urgency. The Regional telecommunications review 2015 has a number of really key recommendations: to invest in filling market gaps; creating a government consumer communications fund to subsidise essential regional services; expanding the universal service obligation to include mobile phones and internet and have a new customer communications standard; establishing a whole-of-government approach to internet coverage in disaster-prone areas; optimising long-term satellite service capacity and performance to enable the lifting of restrictions; and increasing NBN fixed wireless footprint, including proactive investment. As the previous member said, the Turnbull government messages are about innovation being the key to our future—that we are open for business. But this will only be made possible in rural and regional Australia with government funding towards telecommunication infrastructure.
February 2016 marks the seventh anniversary of Black Saturday. Communities in bushfire-prone areas still have little or no mobile phone coverage, and many missed out in round 1 of the Mobile Black Spot Program. Indi still has approximately 100 black spot areas, and it is imperative that these areas be given priority in terms of having access. But, in making this grievance speech, I acknowledge that much has been done. We have had progress—for example, the Mobile Black Spot Program round 1 was an excellent program delivered with great professionalism. Over 30 towers were funded in my electorate—and I repeat that we came in the third most well-endowed towers in the whole of Australia. I am very grateful to the various people who were involved in that work, which I will pick up on in a minute.
The NBN rollout is also progressing very well in Indi, with over 55,000 residences to be connected over the next three years and over 40 fixed wireless towers to be constructed. It is clear that there is no one person or one group responsible for all of this work. It is a community process, so we have had many, many individuals who have taken up the work. We have had local governments, and I would like particularly to acknowledge representatives of the Mansfield LGA, who are in the House tonight, and to thank you for the leading role you and your organisation has played, particularly in forming and helping to form the Indi telecommunications advisory group and for doing the planning and the background work to enable us to make a solid case. I acknowledge the Victorian state government, who put in $20 million for the Mobile Black Spot Program, which has made a huge difference; and the federal government for the work that it has done. The telcos, mostly Telstra in my electorate, have done a really good job as well, and even the former member for Indi—it was so good to see her in parliament today—has had a role to play, and I acknowledge her work in 2013, as reported in The Border Mail by David Johnston.
So it has taken a whole-of-community approach to get the success we have achieved, but it is still not nearly good enough. The review clearly shows that these programs by themselves are not enough to address the serious impediment to regional Australia reaching its potential. Our vision—or the Prime Minister's vision—of an innovative, competitive and creative nation is something we all share in this parliament, but we have a long way to go before we are there. I would like to read into Hansard a message from one of my constituents particularly illustrating the poor service that is very common, unfortunately: 'Dear Cathy, a further update regarding current debacle. NBN technician turned up. Got up on the roof and did his tests and then informed me that I do not have enough strong signal to connect. He quoted a reading of 94.9 decibels with the borderline being 96. I was informed that it would continually drop out and would be no good. I therefore cancelled the order. I attempted to reconnect to Telstra, and they have continually informed me that it is now possible but it would take five working days to connect. I have had three such appointments.
I attended the Telstra shop in Wodonga and was informed that Telstra had sold the port I was using to another customer and that they have no others. They offered their apologies but stated that they could not do anything further. I note that on all the websites they are still saying I am in an NBN area, when in fact I am not. This does not say much for a government and for a Telstra. They spruik about what great products they have but do not deliver on their service.
There are many such stories, and I regularly hear from constituents about the business trouble they have. For example: Rosemary McGuigan in Glenrowan [West] and the trouble she has with her travel business; [Jan Ash] from [Howqua] and the problems she has with her accommodation; Sally Townsend and the problems that they have; young students who cannot get internet to do their homework; and the very sad story of Murray Taylor from Tallandoon, whose wife is recovering from cancer and they are not able to access the services that they need.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I know that, coming from a regional area yourself, you appreciate this and it is not news to you. Our telecommunications report says that we need to take a whole-of-government approach to this, we need to make the investments and we need to get over this little hump and enable all of rural and regional Australia to reach its potential. In March this year I presented to the House a private member's bill, called the Charter of Budget Honesty Amendment (Regional Australia Statements) Bill. In it, I called on the government to report twice a year on what it is doing in terms of achievements for rural and regional Australia, to release this report at the time of the budget and MYEFO, and to tell the people of rural and regional Australia how our taxpayers' dollars are being used to give us the services that we need.
In this speech tonight I would like to remind the government of some of the things that were outlaid in that private member's bill. In particular, section 19C details the content required of the twice-yearly statement, including the likely economic, social, cultural and environmental impacts on regional Australia of key government initiatives. Wouldn't it be great to know that our taxpayers' money is being targeted to meet our needs and is not lost in a general amorphous gap?
We specifically called for a regional Australia statement to be prepared twice a year having regard to the economic, social, cultural and environmental impacts of government initiatives; the economic drivers for regional communities; and the disproportionate effects that government initiatives may have on regional communities due to the lack of infrastructure. Specifically, these are: mobile phone coverage, reliable internet coverage and access to public transport. We talked about the lack of access that people living in regional communities have to government services due to cost, long-distance times and relying more and more frequently on the internet. We talked about the lack of competition in regional communities and how this absolutely adds to our cost of living and also to the cost of doing business. This is so much the case with telecommunications—we need much, much better competition.
We need a whole-of-government approach to dealing with these particular issues. In bringing my comments to a close tonight, and acknowledging my wonderful volunteers and thanking you all for coming and for the gift of your time, I also say to the government that we have the MYEFO coming up before the end of the year, and it would be an absolutely ideal time for the government to say that (1) it will accept the recommendations of the telecommunications review and, even more importantly, (2) it will actually itemise how budget measures are impacting either positively or negatively on rural and regional Australia.
My final comment is about this tidal wave of technology that is enveloping the world. It is so important that rural and regional Australia has access to that, but it is not just going to happen. It will only happen if the government has an absolute commitment to putting rural and regional Australia at the centre of its policies and to reporting back to us on what it has done and how our taxpayers' dollars are being used to give us the infrastructure we need to do our bit of the heavy lifting to make Australia the wonderful country it can be.