Tuesday, 19 June 2007
Questions without Notice
My question is addressed to the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. Would the minister advise the House how the government is expanding rural and regional telecommunications into the future? Are there any threats to the security of services in rural and remote regions?
I thank the honourable member for Mallee for his question, and I am delighted to answer it, representing the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts. The honourable member for Mallee well knows how the government’s broadband policy announced yesterday, Australia Connected, will benefit his electorate and all of Australia. For instance, I note that the 3,800 people living in Kerang, in his electorate, will receive an exchange upgrade to very fast ADSL2+ broadband. There will also be some 24 new wireless broadband sites, WiMAX sites, across the electorate, including in the towns of Bannerton, Dimboola, Dooen, Macorna, Shelford, Quambatook and Wycheproof. There are 24 towns in the Mallee that are part of the 1,361 new WiMAX sites across Australia that will begin coming online in September this year.
So the member for Mallee has a story to tell, but then again so does every member of the government, wherever they represent an electorate, because 99 per cent of Australians will receive a benefit under the government’s broadband policy and, for the one per cent, we will continue the subsidy of $2,750 to maintain broadband access. Compare that to the Labor Party’s broadband policy, which covers only 75 per cent of Australia’s population—and the remaining 25 per cent are not catered for. Too bad if you live in some of the towns in the member for Mallee’s electorate that I have just mentioned or even in some of the regional centres such as Ballarat, Traralgon, Bendigo, Orange and so on.
But as we all know, telecommunications is ever evolving, and we as a government need to continually invest in it where there is market failure or disadvantage, especially in rural and remote areas. That is why we have the $2 billion Communications Fund. That will provide, on average, $400 million of interest every three years which will be invested in infrastructure throughout regional Australia. It could be for mobile phone towers, broadband access or even back-haul fibre capabilities. So it is terribly important to have that fund.
I am asked by the honourable member for Mallee what the threats are to security of services in rural regions. Obviously the Labor Party’s policy to abolish the fund is a threat. They will abolish the $2 billion Communications Fund. The Labor Party have a policy that covers only 75 per cent of Australians, and you can easily deduce where the bulk of the remaining 25 per cent of Australians will live—regional and remote Australia. And they hope to pay for that policy by abolishing a $2 billion fund set up in perpetuity to continue to invest in regional Australia. The Labor Party simply cannot help themselves. They do not have the fiscal discipline. They will always steal from the piggy bank.
For that reason, the government is going to legislate to protect the $2 billion Communications Fund in perpetuity. So there will be no sleight of hand, there will be no smoke and mirrors, should the Labor Party come to government; they will have to come into this chamber and legislate the abolition of the $2 billion Communications Fund established for regional Australia. The Labor Party cannot be trusted to manage telecommunications policy now—and certainly not in government. For that reason, we will institute the legislative guarantees necessary to protect regional and rural Australia.
My question is to the Prime Minister. Why has the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts claimed that the government’s proposed regional WiMAX network will deliver coverage up to 50 kilometres from the base station, when Optus says that its network will only work properly over distances of up to 20 kilometres?
I have learnt from long experience not to accept from those who sit opposite analysis of statements by my colleagues. But, while I am on my feet, let me take the opportunity to say how very pleased I am with the very positive response to the plan outlined yesterday by the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts.
Mr Speaker, I do not intend to answer that particular part of the question until I am properly informed as to what my colleague said, because it has been the case in the past that some people in the opposition have misrepresented what my colleagues have said. I know it is hard to believe but, if you have had the experience that I have had, it is an entirely different thing.
I was asked a question about the radius from each site and the capacity under the respective plans. According to my advice, under the Labor plan, the broadband speeds they speak of would only be available four kilometres from the exchange; whereas ours will be a minimum of 20 kilometres from the base station. Under the Labor plan, the speed will be 12 megabits per second. Under our plan, it is between 12 and 50 megabits per second. The cost to the taxpayer of the fibre network to be built by the Labor Party if they win office will be $4.7 billion. The cost to the taxpayer of a network built after a competitive bid process if the government’s plan goes through will be a big fat zero. Under our policy, the completion date for 99 per cent of the population having access to very fast broadband will be the middle of 2009. That is in just two years time. The completion date of the Labor Party policy will be, at the best estimate, 2013—which is six years from now. I warmly thank the member for Melbourne for his question, as it has given me an opportunity to compare and contrast many of the benefits of the government’s policy.