House debates

Thursday, 31 May 2018


Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2018-2019; Consideration in Detail

10:30 am

Photo of Michael McCormackMichael McCormack (Riverina, National Party, Leader of the Nationals) Share this | | Hansard source

It's a great pleasure to speak on the appropriations bills which form this year's budget, a budget which is delivering the vital infrastructure Australians need, want, demand, expect and deserve; a budget building the road and rail required to get families home sooner and safer; a budget investing in congestion-busting projects and productivity improvements which boost local economies and create local jobs. For the information of the House, I propose that during the debate today ministers will hear a number of questions from members on both sides of the chamber before responding to questions, to ensure that interested members can participate in the debate. I also acknowledge my colleagues, the Minister for Regional Development, the Minister for Urban Infrastructure and Cities, and the Assistant Minister to the Deputy Prime Minister, and the fine job they are doing in delivering the government's infrastructure agenda.

First, I want to outline how our budget backs the long-term infrastructure needs and priorities of communities around Australia through our decade-long infrastructure pipeline of investment. The Liberals and Nationals have, again, demonstrated that our government has a long-term plan for land transport infrastructure, evidenced by our record investment. We're getting on with the job of delivering the major infrastructure needed to bust congestion, drive productivity, remain globally competitive across all sectors, and help create jobs and economic growth in urban and regional areas to sustain Australia's strong economic position. In the 2018-19 budget, the government has committed $75 billion over 10 years to upgrade and build infrastructure across the nation, building our future.

To address a common misconception, let me be quite clear: infrastructure investment is not falling over the forward estimates. In fact, we're investing more than $8 billion every year within the budget forward estimates. Where it is appropriate, we're delivering a proportion of our infrastructure commitment through financing and equity mechanisms, which helps ensure the taxpayer gets a better deal. Grant funding is not the only or always the best way to support the delivery of major infrastructure. Our $5.3 billion equity injection towards the new Western Sydney Airport and our $9 billion equity injection to deliver the inland rail clearly demonstrates they are equally valid alternatives to grant funding. We know Australians just want us to get on with the job and build the infrastructure Australia needs.

Our 10-year commitment will bust congestion in metropolitan areas, move freight efficiently to our ports and markets, better connect our regions to vital services and create more jobs across the country, getting that produce from farm gate to port to markets. At its heart is a pipeline which will benefit each and every state and territory with funding for more than 40 priority projects and three new major initiatives. Through the pipeline, the government has also demonstrated its leadership in the identification of infrastructure priorities. We will actively engage with state and territory governments and the private sector to determine the optimal timing, delivery models and funding structures to achieve value for money for taxpayers and a proper sequencing of delivery, which is possible thanks to our longer-term pipeline approach. I'm delighted that the Victorian and New South Wales governments have already come on board and signed intergovernmental agreements for the inland rail. It's critical to ensure the market does not overheat and drive up delivery costs and, where projects can start earlier, of course, we will realign our funding. We want those projects delivered as soon as possible.

As we're all aware, major infrastructure projects require detailed planning and development, and must include broad consultation with communities being affected. They need careful consideration of environmental and heritage issues—so you can't just announce a project one day and put shovels in the ground the next. The pipeline will see substantial investment in urban and regional road projects and deliver vital investments in strategic freight corridors across regional and country and coastal Australia. It will also include investment in urban rail initiatives which will transform the way people commute across their cities for work and leisure. These projects have been prioritised based on their capacity to drive Australia's economic growth and unlock the potential of our cities and indeed our regions. Key projects include the $5 billion Melbourne Airport rail link; Metronet in Perth; the Beerburrum to Nambour rail upgrade in south-east Queensland, with $390 million going towards that vital project; the Coffs Harbour bypass on the Pacific Highway, with $971 million for that project; and the North-South Corridor in Adelaide.

A key budget announcement is the $3½ billion Roads of Strategic Importance initiative to support the regional freight industry, improve safety and grow the visitor economy. It was a budget for infrastructure—a very good budget indeed.

10:35 am

Photo of Anthony AlbaneseAnthony Albanese (Grayndler, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Tourism) Share this | | Hansard source

Unfortunately for the latest infrastructure minister in the rolling maul that is the appointment of infrastructure ministers under this government there is a huge gap between the rhetoric and reality. Unfortunately for this minister budget papers actually have figures in them. Those figures show what the investment is. The figures show that in 2017-18 the government promised expenditure of $8 billion on infrastructure but delivered $7.2 billion. Next year, in 2018-19, that will fall to $6.3 billion. In the year after that it will fall to $5.6 billion. In the year after that it will fall to $5 billion. And in the year after that, 2021-22, it will fall to $4.5 billion.

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

Sitting suspended from 10:36 to 11:11

This reduction in investment comes off the back of a reduction across the board that we've seen over the time of this government. Average annual investment in the nation's transport, energy, telecommunications and water infrastructure doubled under the former federal Labor government, from $29.1 billion per year to $57.7 billion per year. That's across the board. Investment in infrastructure has fallen by 17 per cent, to $48 billion, under the Abbott and Turnbull governments. In the case of transport infrastructure the decline has been even greater, at 22 per cent. When we were in office, we went from being ranked 20th among OECD countries when it came to investment in public infrastructure as a proportion of national income to being ranked No. 1 when we left office in 2013.

According to the World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Index, Australia has slipped from 18th of 148 countries in 2014 to 28th under this government. Australia is going backwards. Of course you don't have to regard just Labor's view. Infrastructure Partnerships Australia said:

It’s concerning to see that the Federal Budget has cut real infrastructure funding by $2 billion over the forward estimates.

…   …   …

At a time when our population is growing and our cities are more congested than ever, we need to see infrastructure dollars trending up not down.

The chief executive of the Australian Automobile Association said:

This budget fails to appropriately reinvest the taxes paid by Australian motorists …

He continued:

… land transport infrastructure commitments over the forward estimates have declined since last year’s budget …

This government has the an approach: 'We'll talk about what is happening in 10 years time,' rather than talk about what is happening across the forward estimates. Take, for example, the Coffs Harbour bypass: one per cent of the funding is available in 2018-19 and over three-quarters of the investment is pushed out beyond 2022-23. That's the case across the board. The minister raised a so-called $5 billion for the Melbourne Airport rail link, but it's not in the budget. There's no $5 billion in the budget. What we have is a commitment to equity funding, which I'll talk about in my next contribution, but it's not real.

The problem with this government also is that it hasn't invested the money that it said it would in each budget. In its first four budgets—2014-15 to 2017-18—it said it would invest $29.6 billion. That is what it said it would invest in those years. The actual expenditure is $24.9 billion. That is a $4.7 billion cut in what was actually invested, and means a 20 per cent underspend in major road projects like the Western Sydney Infrastructure Plan, black spots, bridges renewal and the heavy vehicle safety program. Now, from time to time, things will be put off because of weather or because of changed circumstances but, across the board in every program every year, this government hasn't delivered what it said it would do. It is no wonder that the Parliamentary Budget Office found last year that, over the next decade, Australia's investment in rail and road will halve from 0.4 of GDP to 0.2. That is precisely the opposite of what the government needs if we are going to truly have economic growth into the future. (Time expired)

11:15 am

Photo of Luke HartsuykerLuke Hartsuyker (Cowper, National Party, Assistant Minister for Trade) Share this | | Hansard source

I am pleased to speak on this budget in greater detail and to reflect on the important budget announcement that was made to the benefit of the people of Cowper—that is, the $971 million commitment by this National-Liberal coalition government to build the Coffs Harbour bypass. I would like to thank the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Infrastructure and Transport for his strong support in bringing this project to fruition, an absolutely vital project. We have been waiting for this project for a long time. The federal government has been committed to the upgrade of the Pacific Highway, with $5.64 billion to complete the duplication, and now, the icing on the cake, the missing link—the construction of the Coffs Harbour bypass—will become a reality because of this government working with the state government to provide dual carriageway, get rid of the traffic lights, get the trucks out of the main street and make our roads safer.

It is a great outcome for the people of Cowper. I would say that there has never been a budget announcement in my time in this place that has been as positively received as the funding for the Coffs Harbour bypass. There has been discussion over many years as to the priority that the government has placed in completing the upgrade works and we have, I think, rightly taken the view that the No. 1 priority was to save lives, and saving lives is done by eliminating the two-lane sections of the highway where terrible accidents were occurring.

The second, but still important, priority was getting those trucks out of the main street and freeing up our local towns from the incredible impost of the through-traffic that was occurring on the Pacific Highway. We have seen recently tragic accidents still occurring on these small amounts of unduplicated highway still to be upgraded such as at Warrell Creek, a five-kilometre section that still has accidents happening. North of Glenugie, a fatality occurred there tragically whilst the duplication process is proceeding. So it just reinforces the fact that decisions the government has made have been the right ones and now we can move on to the Coffs Harbour bypass.

The Mayor of Coffs Harbour, Councillor Denise Knight, said she was thrilled with the announcement. She said, 'We have waited a long time for this and it shows what we can do when all levels of government work together.' This bypass will be great, not only from the point of view of through traffic but this bypass will form an important part of the local road infrastructure, meaning that local people will be able to choose where to come on and off the bypass and, in doing so, take even more pressure off the existing highway alignment, which is absolutely choked at peak times, absolutely choked at holiday times.

It is certainly a very welcome development. This is part of this government's absolute commitment to building the infrastructure that Australia needs and, particularly, building the infrastructure that regional Australia needs. Greater connectivity through these Pacific Highway upgrades means that our businesses have a greater competitive advantage. This is a fantastic announcement for the people of Cowper. It is a fantastic announcement for the people of broader Australia because many people from Sydney, for example, travel the highway on a regular basis. It will make their holiday travel and business travel far easier. We wouldn't want to have invested $5.64 billion in the Pacific Highway only to have that investment effectively downgraded by the massive congestion which we know would be coming in Coffs Harbour if this work wasn't complete.

So I would like to ask the minister to update the House on what the likely impact of this project will be on road infrastructure, and the benefit such a project and others like it would bring the community. I would also like to ask the minister could he advise the House on the latest estimates for the completion of the project.

11:19 am

Photo of Anthony AlbaneseAnthony Albanese (Grayndler, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Tourism) Share this | | Hansard source

If you look at Budget Paper No. 2, there are some very interesting tables that tell the story of this budget, from page 137. 'Infrastructure Investment Programme—Australian Capital Territory infrastructure investments'—the figures there are 0, 0, 0, 0 and 0. For 'Major Project Business Case Fund': 0, 0, 0, 0 and 0. 'Infrastructure Investment Programme—New South Wales infrastructure investments', again: 0. 0, 0, 0 and 0. 'Northern Territory infrastructure investments', 'Outback Way', 'Queensland infrastructure investments', 'Roads of Strategic Importance', 'South Australian infrastructure investments', 'Tasmanian infrastructure investments', 'Urban Congestion Fund', 'Victorian infrastructure investments'—you have the same pattern; the same figures. Guess what they are? Let's see if the minister can indicate. I'll give him a big hint: they're all the same, mate. It's just a dash. Not a single dollar of new investment in this budget for any of those programs—not one. All we've seen in this budget is an allocation of funds that have already been appropriated—allocated to some specific projects—but they're way off into the never-never. So you have these grand announcements with big figures, like $5 billion, but there's nothing there. Again, for the north-south rail in New South Wales, there's nothing actually in the budget. For projects in Tasmania, there's nothing actually happening. With regard to New South Wales, there's nothing actually happening. There is no reason why you would have so little investment in the Coffs Harbour Bypass—why you would defer that for four years before there is any actual investment, at least outside the forward estimates. That's the story of this budget.

The other story is the so-called 'innovative financing'—a ticking time bomb for this government; a fiscal time bomb. The fact is that you can't fund public transport like Melbourne airport rail off-budget, because, to fund something with equity funding off-budget, you need to achieve two primary things: firstly, the revenue for that particular piece of infrastructure has to be higher than the ongoing maintenance and operating costs; secondly, you have to have a return on capital. No public transport project in Australia currently has income—fares paid—that is more than the operating cost. The average is around 20 to 25 per cent. That's why this is fake funding of a project, just like the north-south rail link through Badgerys Creek airport is fake funding.

This is what Infrastructure Partnerships Australia's CEO, Adrian Dwyer, said:

Ultimately there are only two ways to pay for infrastructure—tickets and taxes ...

We can’t finance our way out of a funding problem.

Marion Terrill from the Grattan Institute said:

... there’s a real risk that these equity investments will end up not even making a positive rate of return, never mind a commercial rate.

…   …   …

If infrastructure projects are never going to make a commercial return, the government should stop pretending they will.

Steven Anthony from Industry Super Australia said:

We’re opening up the potential for more unfunded liabilities but we don’t need more time bombs.

Garry Bowditch from the University of Sydney said:

Prospects of commerciality and off-budget financing delivering good long-term outcomes do seem fanciful.

Over and over again—any expert. The tragedy here is that Mathias Cormann, the finance minister, knows that. That is why he opposed it. That's why he won't defend these projects being regarded as off-budget. It's simply a con. A future government will have to deal with this, just like it'll have to deal with the real economics of the Inland Rail project and whether, as John Anderson said in a report to the government, it will not produce a return on capital in 50 years. Budgets should be about real investment and real expenditure and real commitments and real rail lines and real roads. This budget is anything but that.

11:25 am

Photo of Andrew GeeAndrew Gee (Calare, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I believe in the future of regional Australia. I want to see it thrive and prosper so that it continues to provide an unbeatable lifestyle for generations to come—and I know that the Deputy Prime Minister does as well. The budget this year made a huge contribution to regional Australia with the announcement of the Murray Darling Medical Schools Network, in which the Deputy Prime Minister has played a major role. The doctor shortage in country Australia and country New South Wales is well known. In some country communities you have to wait weeks or months just to see a GP, let alone a specialist. When GPs leave a community, when they retire or move towns, it is sometimes very difficult to replace them. Infrastructure was a major part of that announcement of $95 million. There will be bricks and mortar built in our country communities to train doctors in the bush for practice in the bush. I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his work in that regard—

Mr Albanese interjecting

Mr Deputy Speaker, I ask that you restore order to the House.

Mr Albanese interjecting

Photo of Steve GeorganasSteve Georganas (Hindmarsh, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source


Photo of Andrew GeeAndrew Gee (Calare, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. This will make a real difference to the lives of people in country communities.

We also had in the budget the extension of the Building Better Regions Fund. That was another major victory for folks in country Australia. In the electorate of Calare, the fund recently delivered a major investment in the form of funding for the second race track at Mount Panorama. The Deputy Prime Minister, as a keen motor-racing fan, will be delighted to know work is progressing and that project is underway.

As well, we have $588,000 for the new domestic violence centre and refuge in Orange, which is very welcome. At the moment, when families need refuge from domestic violence they have to leave town and go to neighbouring communities. When you have children, that is very difficult. So the Building Better Regions Fund has made a real difference to the lives of people in country communities.

Another major announcement I am extremely happy with is Roads of Strategic Importance. Roads are very dear to the hearts of country people. The tyranny of distance is the scourge of so many country communities. If we can connect our communities by building better roads we can make a real difference to the lives of country people. As I mentioned to the House yesterday, one of the key projects I am working on at the moment is a new crossing at Dixons Long Point over the Macquarie River between Orange and Mudgee. Folks have been trying to get this project up and running for 100 years and no-one has been able to do it. I am in the process of bringing all of the parties together. We have the reports done. If all governments work together we can make this happen. Roads of Strategic Importance offers communities in our area the opportunity to access greater funding for these key strategic road projects.

Another strategic road project I am interested in pursuing is the continuing upgrade of the Bells Line of Road over the Blue Mountains into Lithgow, which is the gateway to the golden west. There has been some good work carried out on the Bells Line of Road, but we need to be getting people into the central-west of New South Wales and one of the best ways of doing that is by improving our road infrastructure. So that is another important project I'm currently working on.

The Liberal-National government has been very successful in the Bridges Renewal Program in recent years. There have been a number of key infrastructure improvements in that regard in my area and I am very pleased to see that that will be continuing. The budget sees the Liberals and Nationals extending funding through the popular Roads to Recovery Program, another fund helping local government to maintain and upgrade roads. We also have the black spot funding program, which, again, has made a real difference to the lives of so many people in country Australia.

Deputy Prime Minister, could you please tell us how the Roads of Strategic Importance initiative has come about and the ways in which you envisage that regional communities, like those in Calare, will benefit from new road infrastructure?

11:30 am

Photo of Anthony AlbaneseAnthony Albanese (Grayndler, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Tourism) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to make a contribution about City Deals and urban policy. In Senate estimates this week, the cities division was unable to confirm when Darwin, Hobart and Perth would finalise their city deals, but was explicit that Geelong would receive its city deal in September/October this year—coincidentally, just ahead of the Victorian state election which is being held in November. This follows the finalisation of the Hobart City Deal, just prior to the Tasmanian state election, and it follows the Townsville and Launceston city deals, which were more just matching promises that Labor had previously made prior to the 2016 federal election.

We know that city deals should take a bottom-up approach. I know, from discussions with the Western Sydney mayors, that there's a great deal of concern that, indeed, they're not really partnerships; they're more impositions from the top down. If City Deals are going to be successful, they do need to be from the bottom up and they do need to have proper funding mechanisms. If that is done properly, there's no doubt that they can achieve a substantial amount.

Similar to the government's announcement of the creation of the Infrastructure Financing Unit in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet last year, I'd be interested to know of the minister why that was transferred from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet into the minister's department? What projects have been approved for private sector infrastructure investment as a result of that? It's pretty clear that this body, a bit like some other more fanciful off-budget financing, was an attempt by the government to look like it was doing something when nothing was actually happening. What is actually happening on the ground, of course, is that we're seeing underinvestment in infrastructure.

The budget shows that Victoria is still being short-changed. They're receiving eight per cent of infrastructure investment in this financial year, despite being 25 per cent of the Australian population. We're seeing that South Australian investment will fall from $832 million in the current financial year down to $236 million across the forwards in 2021-22. We'll see funding in New South Wales fall from $2.67 billion in the current financial year to $825 million in 2021-22. In Queensland, we see many of the promised announcements being put off on the never never—projects like Cooroy to Curra and the M1 upgrade—with the overwhelming majority of the funding being outside of the forward estimates. In Tasmania, the same thing is happening, with three out of every four dollars in the budget not being there in terms of the forward estimates—being outside of that. Even in Western Australia we're seeing funding fall from $1.16 billion this year to $411 million in 2021-22. In the Northern Territory, it falls from $222 million down to $61 million in 2021-22. In the ACT—essentially, the ACT is being ignored. The last major project in the ACT supported by the Commonwealth government was, of course, Majura Parkway, which, like other projects funded by the federal Labor government, they were happy to go to the opening of even though they opposed the infrastructure investment at the time.

This is a government that has not matched its rhetoric with real funding, with real dollars, with the real approach for urban policy that's required or with the real approach for regional economic development that is required.

11:35 am

Photo of John McVeighJohn McVeigh (Groom, Liberal Party, Minister for Regional Development, Territories and Local Government) Share this | | Hansard source

The 2018-19 budget promotes new jobs, a stronger economy and stronger regional communities across all local government areas and, of course, Australia's territories. Some of the key regional development announcements in the 2018-19 budget, of course, were the next important steps in the coalition government's decentralisation agenda. Regional Australians deserve the benefits that flow from Public Service jobs just as much as those who live in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra. We are following a measured and methodical process to investigate and deliver on this agenda. This measured and methodical process, this important step, is another example of the coalition delivering more and better paying jobs across Australia's regions, be it in Darwin, Shepparton, Wodonga, Toowoomba or Dubbo, for example. With this step, nearly 100 jobs will be moving from the Public Service strongholds of inner-city Sydney, inner-city Melbourne and Canberra, which will make a marked difference in the communities in which they will transition. This means new families moving into towns, investing and spending more, bringing more children to local schools or the local football club, in turn requiring more expertise and skill in regional communities. This is a positive decentralisation plan in action and I can confirm, as minister, that there is plenty more to come.

This budget includes an exciting commitment of $200 million to deliver a third round of the Building Better Regions Fund, bringing our total commitment in this program to $641.6 million from 2017-18 to 2021-22. The program is about supporting rural, regional and remote communities to partner with governments and other stakeholders and to take advantage of the immense opportunities available in regional Australia. A key priority for the third round will be to help stimulate local economies, particularly by investing in the tourism sector. Forty-three cents of every tourism dollar is spent in regional Australia, and the number of domestic international tourists visiting our regions grows every year. The government wants to help regions unlock their tourism potential and has therefore earmarked $45 million from the third round of the BBRF for tourism related infrastructure projects that will help grow that regional tourism. Round 1 of the fund resulted in 257 projects delivering over 20,000 jobs. Round 2 is close to completion, and successful applications will be announced mid this year.

This builds on the announcement of over $272 million in the last budget for major transformational projects for the Regional Growth Fund. The response from regional Australia was enormous, and initial applications are currently under assessment. The Building Better Regions Fund and the Regional Growth Fund are clear examples of our government's commitment to regional development.

So too is the Stronger Communities Program, which all members of this House would be familiar with. There is an extra $22.5 million for 2018-19 for round 4 of this highly successful program that means so much to all of our local communities right across the country. Earlier this month, I visited the Mount Major walking track with the member for Murray, for example, through this program. There is great news for Dookie and the broader Goulburn Valley in that particular example. It was even great news for the member for Whitlam, who is here in the chamber, in his electorate—12 projects, including $10,000 for upgrades and new equipment for Albion Park Little Athletics, which I'm sure celebrates alongside his community.

Whether it's our regional funding programs, whether it's our decentralisation program—

Mr Stephen Jones interjecting

I acknowledge those opposite don't want decentralisation, they're not interested, they want to just focus on inner city public-servant jobs. Companies such as Adaptapack and the Cottee family—that we've assisted through programs to relocate out of Sydney into Nowra and Lismore, for example—are all about our government delivering in spades for regional Australia. We have a plan, we're delivering on that plan, and it's a pity those opposite are not interested in regional development whatsoever.

11:40 am

Photo of Stephen JonesStephen Jones (Whitlam, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Regional Services) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the minister for his contribution, and particularly for the fact that he's focused so much on the controversial and, many argue, completely failed and botched decentralisation program, and I'd like to ask some questions about that. On 19 April last year, the then Minister for Regional Development—they have had two since then, but the then Minister for Regional Development—the then Senator Nash, said that government had embarked on a massive decentralisation program. The program was referred to in Budget Paper No. 4, but no funding has been attached to it and, according to the 2017 budget paper, business cases for entities being considered for relocation are expected to be completed by December 2017. You don't need to be a maths genius to know that that was five months ago. We could have reasonably expected there would be some big announcements in this budget—and indeed, we were encouraged to expect big announcements in the budget. Sadly, no such thing has been the case. On budget night, we found out what was being planned: 98 jobs earmarked for decentralisation and, if you look at the details, 82 of the 98 jobs are moving public sector workers from one capital city to another capital city. Some of my favourites include the 40 jobs that are going to be relocated from Canberra to Adelaide, and the 25 jobs—and this is a cracker—that are going to move a massive 20 kilometres, from the CBD of Sydney—

Government Members:

Government members interjecting

Photo of Stephen JonesStephen Jones (Whitlam, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Regional Services) Share this | | Hansard source

They're making a lot of noise because they're dreadfully embarrassed by this, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Photo of Andrew GeeAndrew Gee (Calare, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm reluctant to intervene, given—

Government members interjecting


Photo of Stephen JonesStephen Jones (Whitlam, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Regional Services) Share this | | Hansard source

Twenty kilometres, from Sydney to Parramatta—

Photo of Andrew GeeAndrew Gee (Calare, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Member for Whitlam, I will just stop you there. Could we have some order in the chamber please.

Photo of Stephen JonesStephen Jones (Whitlam, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Regional Services) Share this | | Hansard source

Some decorum would be very good, I thank you for your protection, Deputy Speaker.

Photo of Andrew GeeAndrew Gee (Calare, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Well, what's good for the goose needs to be good for the gander. Please proceed.

Photo of Stephen JonesStephen Jones (Whitlam, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Regional Services) Share this | | Hansard source

I ask these questions of the minister: has the National Party established a new branch in Parramatta? At what point in time did Parramatta become classified as a regional or rural city? I welcome the minister's answers to those questions. Ten jobs are being relocated from Canberra to Darwin, and I do congratulate the government for doing that. Clearly, Darwin is a regional area. But I have to say, 82 of the 98 jobs moving from one capital city to another hardly constitutes decentralisation.

If we look at the total number of Australian public servants—and Hansard will have to be very careful to get the decimal points in the right place—approximately 0.0005 per cent of the entire Australian Public Service is being decentralised in this massive announcement. If you look at what's on the other side of the ledger, this is where it gets really interesting, and I'm going to ask the minister to directly answer this question. There are 1,280 jobs being cut from the Department of Human Services. Anybody who knows anything about the Australian Public Service will tell you that the most decentralised agency in the Australian Public Service is the Department of Human Services. They're the people who employ Centrelink and Medicare workers, run child support agencies et cetera. Can the minister guarantee, as a part of their great decentralisation agenda, that none of those 1,280 jobs that are earmarked to be cut from DHS over the next 12 months are going to be cut from a regional or rural location?

You can't be moving 100 jobs, mostly to capital cities from one capital city to another, and then slashing over 1,280 jobs and be saying 'We've done a great job here,' because you simply have not. The net result is ripping jobs out of regional Australia.

I ask the minister: does he agree with the former Deputy Prime Minister that your decentralisation program is BS? Isn't it true that your plan for decentralisation has been nothing more than a ruse to provide cover for the former Deputy Prime Minister in his disastrous plan and initiative to move the APVMA out of Canberra into his electorate as part of a pork-barrelling election commitment? Do you agree that this has been a complete fizzer— (Time expired)

11:45 am

Photo of Paul FletcherPaul Fletcher (Bradfield, Liberal Party, Minister for Urban Infrastructure and Cities) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm pleased to have the chance to address the chamber on the extraordinary and extensive infrastructure program that the Turnbull-McCormack government has committed to, a $75 billion infrastructure program over the next 10 years. Before I turn to highlight some of the strengths of that program, it is necessary to just correct a few of the usual egregious range of completely misleading and inaccurate statements made by the shadow minister. Shiftiness seems to be a characteristic not confined to the Leader of the Opposition, I regret to say.

For example, the shadow minister said that the city deal for Geelong had been politicised because it was proposed that the date by which it would be finalised falls before the date of the Victorian election. If the Labor shadow minister has a concern about that point, I invite him to take it up with the Labor government of Victoria, because a city deal is a deal between multiple levels of government, and as it happens, in this case, the Geelong city deal involves a state government which is of one political persuasion and a federal government which is of another. But the Turnbull government is not interested in this kind of narrow, short-term political thinking. We want to deliver outcomes for the people of Australia and the people of Geelong.

An insight into the shiftiness of the shadow minister was provided by his very next point. After bagging the government for, in his view, trying to inappropriately conclude the city deal for Geelong with some alacrity, in his very next breath he complained that Victoria was being short-changed when it came to infrastructure spending. There is a yawning logical inconsistency here. Argument No. 1: you're going too quickly on Geelong—which is of course in Victoria, I highlight. Argument No. 2: you're not giving enough to Victoria. I don't have the time to point out how completely inaccurate his claims about Victorian infrastructure spending are, but when you just look at the impressive array of projects we've committed to—$5 billion for the Melbourne airport rail link and $1.75 billion for the North East Link, that vital missing link in the Melbourne motorway network—it makes the point very powerfully that this tired claim that the shadow minister trots out repeatedly is as threadbare and as inaccurate as just about everything else that he says on the topic of infrastructure policy.

Let me turn to another example: the question of what the shadow minister really thinks about equity investment in public transport. If you look at a document issued some time ago—in fact in 2009, when the Commonwealth minister for infrastructure was the very man who now occupies the position of shadow minister—it contains this interesting statement. I'm reading from a document headed 'Nation Building Plan for the Future—Building Australia Fund—investing in port and rail projects'. This is from Budget Paper No. 2, page 415, in the 2009 budget. It says:

The Government has made provision for a possible equity contribution of $365.0 million in 2009-10 in relation to the Gold Coast Light Rail project.

Well, this is confusing. This is very confusing. The shadow minister, normally expected to be a beacon and paradigm of consistency in his logic, it turns out, on this occasion, was saying one thing in government and now in opposition is saying absolutely, diametrically, completely the opposite. Can you trust a word this man says? I could talk about the Oakajee Port common user facility, where there was also a commitment for a possible equity contribution in 2009 by the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government in which the present shadow minister was then the Minister for Infrastructure. What about his equity contribution to the Moorebank Intermodal Terminal in Sydney? We could go on but, sadly, time does not allow us the sufficient opportunity to fully and comprehensively detail the shadow minister's egregious and consistent inaccuracies, but it is a troubling behavioural pattern. Happily, we're ignoring that and we're getting on with delivering $75 billion of infrastructure all around the country because what we care about is delivering outcomes for Australians.

11:50 am

Photo of Stephen JonesStephen Jones (Whitlam, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Regional Services) Share this | | Hansard source

I'd like to ask the minister some more questions regarding the government's failed decentralisation agenda and I'd also like the government to respond to some of the confusion that they've created throughout regional Australia. You may be aware that, over the last 12 months, the then leader of the National Party and the Deputy Prime Minister, the member for New England, had been running around the country, as his deputy had as well, encouraging regional councils to make bids to the Commonwealth and suggestions to the Commonwealth about relocation of Commonwealth agencies and employees into regional Australia. I sit on the Select Committee on Regional Development and Decentralisation, which has received many submissions from regional councils and regional bodies who are excited about these prospects. Over 200 submissions have been received—submissions such as that from the Rockhampton Regional Council that said:

Relocating Commonwealth entities in regional centres such as Rockhampton would be extremely positive and welcomed.

This week the Rockhampton council are again calling on the government to bring jobs to Rockhampton. Labor has always been very sceptical about the government's agenda and its commitment to deliver on this decentralisation plan. There is a reason for that and, particularly when you look at a place like Rockhampton, you can understand why. Since 2014, Rockhampton has lost a total of 50 public sector jobs. These were people employed by the Commonwealth. On this government's watch, 50 jobs have been taken out of Rockhampton. We can understand why the people of Rockhampton are very, very sceptical when the government says to them 'We're going to relocate some Commonwealth jobs out of Canberra into Rockhampton.' The people of Rockhampton are saying 'We'd like the 50 jobs back that you've already cut out of our region; that would be a damn good start!' They're very sceptical of comments by the local member, who says she supports decentralisation when, on her watch, we have seen 50 jobs already lost from that region.

We ask: can the minister guarantee that when the government prosecutes its agenda to cut 1,240 jobs out of DHS—that is, the agency which employs staff in Centrelink, the Child Support Agency and Medicare—that not one of those jobs will come from the region of Rockhampton? Because if they cannot guarantee that not one of those jobs will come from the region of Rockhampton, they have misled the people of Capricornia and the region of Rockhampton, because they have not delivered any new jobs but those people in Rockhampton stand a very good risk of losing the existing jobs in that region.

I'd also like to ask the minister some questions about the Regional Growth Fund, the Building Better Regions Fund and the Regional Jobs and Investment Packages. These were announced with great fanfare during the election and during the 2017 budget. But what we have seen is persistent delaying from the Minister for Regional Development—twice removed. There have been three ministers for regional development since November last year so it's not necessarily the fault of this minister. Can the minister guarantee that there'll be no further delay in announcing the guidelines and assessing the applications under the Regional Growth Fund, round 3 the Building Better Regions Fund, the $260 million that was announced in the most recent budget?

Can the minister guarantee that guidelines will be issued for this fund, that applications will be available for applicants to make well prior to the next election and that this will be a free, open and transparent process?

There's a lot of interest about this in regional Australia. We don't need further delay. A great fanfare has been made about the announcement of these funds. We need a guarantee that funds are going to be flowing and that it will be done on the merits of the program, not just more pork-barrelling to shore up the political concerns of National Party MPs. This is a fund for all Australia, not National Party MPs, and we want to see guidelines issued and grants flowing. This should not be run over by the forthcoming election. (Time expired)

11:56 am

Photo of Llew O'BrienLlew O'Brien (Wide Bay, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I really do appreciate the opportunity to speak about some of the key achievements of the 2018 coalition budget for the seat of Wide Bay. I also congratulate the minister, Deputy Prime Minister McCormack, for those achievements, not just in my area but also in all of regional Australia, because he is a champion of regional Australia, as is Minister McVeigh, the minister for regional development. Both are not only from the regions as MPs, but from the regions in terms of life experience and what they've achieved before they came to this place.

To the Deputy Prime Minister, I welcome the coalition government's commitment to fund the Bruce Highway Cooroy to Curra section D project, which was made in this year's budget. This is a project that will save lives by transforming one of the deadliest sections of the National Highway into one of the safest. Section D realigns the highway around Gympie along a new 26-kilometre four-lane divided corridor. This major project enables faster and safer travel between Maryborough and Brisbane, eases traffic congestion through Gympie, keeps this section of highway open in times of flood, improves access to the Cooloola coast, eliminates eight sets of traffic lights for people travelling between Maryborough and Cooroy and ensures the efficient movement of freight. This is a project whose time has well and truly come. Too many lives have been lost along this treacherous stretch of highway.

Minister, I identified the need for funding for construction of section D in my maiden speech, and I've been campaigning hard ever since. In fact, the tragedy that this highway has wreaked upon Wide Bay communities is one of the main reasons I entered politics. I wanted to raise awareness of the need to build safer roads and be part of a team that delivers these vital life-saving projects, which we've done in this year's budget. I congratulate you and the coalition government for listening to the people of Wide Bay, for coming to Gympie to see for yourself how the existing highway has passed its use-by date and for committing federal funding to start and finish the final Cooroy to Curra project. But as the project is being managed by the Queensland Labor government I do have serious concerns. With the exception of their election announcement, I've not seen any firm commitment from the Queensland government that they want to start the project as soon as possible. I welcomed their announcement at the time, but I've not heard anything about when their share of the funding will be available or when they'll negotiate milestones, call tenders and get on with the project. I want construction to start this year, but I've not heard whether the Queensland government share my impatience to get section D started and finished as soon as possible.

Minister, can you please confirm how much funding is available for section D? When can construction start on it? When does the federal government expect it to be completed? While the coalition government is fully committed to the construction of section D, can the minister advise whether there are any threats to the timing of the completion of this project?

11:59 am

Photo of Michael McCormackMichael McCormack (Riverina, National Party, Leader of the Nationals) Share this | | Hansard source

Given the fact that this debate has about one minute remaining, I would just like to thank all members who have contributed to this consideration in detail. To the member for Cowper, I congratulate him on his advocacy for the Coffs Harbour bypass and the Pacific Highway. The member for Calare asked me about the Roads of Strategic Importance. There's certainly a $3½ billion commitment by this government to make sure that those secondary byways are looked after. The member for Wide Bay has just asked me about the Bruce Highway, and I congratulate him for his passionate advocacy to see that section D duplicated. I know that Labor has accused the government in this particular debate of cutting infrastructure spending. Nothing is further from the truth. In fact, spending has increased to record levels of investment in infrastructure and the government is investing, on average, $2 billion more than Labor did when it was in government. I will take the questions on notice and will write to members about the particular queries that they have raised in this consideration in detail. I thank all members and ministers for their contributions.

Expenditure agreed to.

12:01 pm

Photo of Paul FletcherPaul Fletcher (Bradfield, Liberal Party, Minister for Urban Infrastructure and Cities) Share this | | Hansard source

The Turnbull government's 2018-19 budget contains some very impressive outcomes for the Communications and the Arts portfolio for Australian families and for building a stronger and more prosperous Australia while continuing to preserve our cultural heritage. Important new initiatives will be introduced to keep Australians safe online by countering cyberbullying and image based abuse, to attract international investment to sustain Australian jobs in the film production and related industries, to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Captain James Cook's first pacific voyage, to ensure important capital works upgrades occur at the National Gallery of Australia, and to reinstate funding to SBS that was previously removed in anticipation of legislative changes that would have provided advertising flexibility had they be enacted.

The government will provide the portfolio with $10.1 billion to deliver its priorities through the 2018-19 appropriation bills, including prior-year appropriations carried forward for the NBN rollout. In 2018-19, this funding will enable a loan drawdown of $7.6 billion towards the completion of National Broadband Network. Currently, more than 90 per cent of all homes and businesses outside major urban areas can either order NBN based services or have new network construction underway. Overall, more than 6.6 million homes and businesses across Australia can connect to the NBN and there are close to four million active services. This compares to just 51,000 connections in the six years of the previous, Labor government. What a hopeless track record, and we are fixing their mess.

In addition, this government will provide $1.3 billion to the national broadcasters, the ABC and SBS. The Department of Communications and the Arts and the Australian Communications and Media Authority will receive $634.7 million to deliver their outcomes and a further $495 million will support the cultural and collecting entities. The government acknowledges community concerns regarding online harms, such as cyberbullying and image based abuse, and seeks to ensure that all Australians can confidently take advantage of the internet. The government will provide an additional $14.2 million over four years to support the Office of the eSafety Commissioner in delivering important online safety initiatives. These include delivery of the core function to enforce a civil penalty regime targeting perpetrators and content hosts who share intimate images without consent. I'll conclude my opening remarks there. There will be much more to say about the extraordinarily good work being done across this portfolio.

12:05 pm

Photo of Michelle RowlandMichelle Rowland (Greenway, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Communications) Share this | | Hansard source

My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Communications. In December 2017 a constituent in my electorate of Greenway wrote to me expressing concerns about the internet speed she was receiving over her fibre-to-the node connection. It's an issue that I am sure many members of this place are familiar with. My constituent contacted her service provider and NBN Co, but did not receive any clarification as to why she is paying for a 25-megabits-per-second service but only receiving a 17-megabits-per-second service.

I raised this formally with the Minister for Communications, who in turn sought advice from NBN Co. I was subsequently advised in May this year that the copper connection to my constituent's premises could be impacted by coexistence arrangements. So I would like to ask the minister: could he please explain what the government's policy is when a coexistence period has expired and a copper connection is still not receiving a minimum speed of 25 megabits per second?

12:06 pm

Photo of Ross VastaRoss Vasta (Bonner, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The NBN, as we know, is one of the single largest infrastructure rollouts seen in our nation's history. A rollout of the scale understandably takes time, and the Turnbull government is delivering better broadband across Australia in the fastest and most affordable way, on time, as promised and under budget. The coalition is working hard to make sure this happens for all Australians. In December last year, the coalition announced a range of consumer protections that are now being introduced. They include new rules to be enforced by ACMA to stop complaints handballing; giving the TIO better tools to resolve complaints; mandating line tests to confirm working connection and installation; and mandating explanations to customers about how speed tiers will affect them, their families and their businesses.

In Bonner, more than 56 per cent of the NBN rollout is already completed, and more than 17,500 households have taken up an NBN service. Let me tell you, I have had nowhere near as many complaints as we all are led to believe happen if we are to listen to those opposite. I have proudly taken ownership over the NBN in my electorate of Bonner, teaming up with my NBN reps and technicians to educate locals as well as advocate for the best possible outcomes for constituents, including the extension of the newly introduced fibre-to-the-curb technology. In the last year I've held a number of NBN forums with representatives from NBN and telecommunication providers, seniors' specific forums and mobile offices around Bonner. I am in regular contact with the minister's office, and as soon as I am made aware of an area that is about to become NBN-ready, my team and I letterbox drop and host mobile offices to make sure that locals know about the service and what they need to do to make the switch. In the next month I'll be hosting two more: one at Gumdale on 5 June and one on the 14th in Mount Gravatt.

I'm not going to say to that I've had no complaints, but I will proudly stand here and say that on the complaints that I have received I have worked with the minister's office, NBN and the telecommunications providers to ensure that issues are dealt with, and my constituents are thankful for that. Cameron Day from Holland Park West contacted me last year and said:

My nbn was connected this week, thank you so much for your help!! It's good to know that there are people like yourself who get things done. I'll remember that. Politics isn't something I've care for much, however you have certainly changed that.

Eight Mile Plains resident Mr Sum recently reached out to tell me about the social and economic benefits that he and his work have received thanks to the introduction of the NBN in Bonner. Mr Sum said:

I've lived here for a decade and NBN is one of the best things to happen here. ADSL was slow and the other options were terrible and super expensive. Now that I'm connected to NBN I'm able to work from home, live stream on two HD devices. I've had my service for 6 months now and never had an issue in fact; it has put extra money back into my pocket.

With that, I would like to ask the positive impacts others have felt as a result of the NBN. Last year NBN Co commissioned data analytics and economics firm AlphaBeta to investigate the social and economic impacts of the National Broadband Network. Can the minister outline the status of the NBN rollout in Queensland and some of the key findings from the Connecting Australia research report?

12:10 pm

Photo of Paul FletcherPaul Fletcher (Bradfield, Liberal Party, Minister for Urban Infrastructure and Cities) Share this | | Hansard source

I am pleased, first of all, to make the point that the Turnbull government's expectation—indeed, it's requirement and standard—is that all lines on the fixed line network must have the capacity to deliver a speed of 25 megabits per second. If they don't deliver that, there is a requirement that they be remediated. In the case of the specific instance the member has raised, I am confident that the minister's office will get the details from you and identify whether there is a need for remediation.

Let me turn next to the question of the impact of the NBN rollout in Queensland and indeed nationally. The member for Bonner has just referred to an important report that came from data analytics and economics firm AlphaBeta about the social and economic impacts of the National Broadband Network. As the member for Bonner has outlined, in his own electorate more than 51,000 premises are ready for service and some 17,500 are connected. The contrast with the status when we came to government in 2013, inheriting six years of chaotic and incompetent mismanagement of this project by Labor, is very instructive. The number connected in 2013 was not 1,750, which would be 10 per cent of that number, and it wasn't even 175, which would be one per cent of that number. The number was 68. A mighty 68 premises in the entire electorate of Bonner was all Labor had managed to achieve in six years of rank incompetence in their attempt to deliver on this project!

By contrast, since we have come to government we have turned this project around. In Queensland, only 12 per cent of premises are still waiting for NBN construction to start. When the Labor Party left office fewer than 8,000 premises in the entire state were connected to the NBN whereas today under the coalition over 1.5 million premises in Queensland are able to connect to the NBN. The coalition's faster rollout means Australians are being connected years earlier than would have been the case under Labor's plan, and by directing NBN strategy away from Labor's gold-plated plan we have avoided home internet bills increasing by around $500 a year.

The member for Bonner, who takes a great interest in these matters, raised the issue of the report done by data analytics firm AlphaBeta. That report shows some very interesting findings about the social and economic impacts of better broadband. What it finds is that business growth rates in NBN areas have been more than five times the pace of those regions without access to the NBN. In 2017 the NBN generated an estimated $1.2 billion in additional economic activity and this is expected to multiply to $10.4 billion a year by the end of the rollout. And the evidence has found—and this is very interesting—that more women are becoming their own bosses when they have access to the NBN. The annual growth rate of self-employed women in NBN connected areas is 2.3 per cent, compared to 0.1 per cent in non-NBN connected areas. It is easy to see how. With the improved capacity to operate a business from home, with the improved capacity to send and receive large files—so important in a whole range of businesses, whether you are an architect or a graphic designer—all kinds of businesses benefit from improved internet connectivity. But it is very exciting to see the social and economic benefits being found, according to independent data analytics firm AlphaBeta, thanks to the coalition's accelerated rollout of the NBN. Again it is constructive to compare that to the hopeless delivery record of Labor, where great swathes of the country saw no benefit from the NBN. We have turned that around under the coalition.

12:15 pm

Photo of Michelle RowlandMichelle Rowland (Greenway, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Communications) Share this | | Hansard source

I didn't really get an answer to my question from the minister. This is an issue that's been raised by a number of my constituents. He made reference to the minister. The response I have has actually come from the minister and, apart from other things, notes that the department has contacted NBN regarding the matters that have been raised and that the service of my constituent over the network might be impacted by coexistence arrangements. So my specific question is about what the policy is when the coexistence policy has expired and you've still got a copper connection not able to receive speeds of 25 megabits per second.

In the same vein, can the minister confirm whether or not NBN Co will accept and investigate speed faults when a consumer on the copper NBN is receiving speeds less than 25 megabits per second. Can the minister explain what steps NBN Co will take to deliver that minimum speed of 25 megabits per second if that specific copper line is found to be incapable of delivering that speed at the end of the coexistence period?

12:16 pm

Photo of Paul FletcherPaul Fletcher (Bradfield, Liberal Party, Minister for Urban Infrastructure and Cities) Share this | | Hansard source

The shadow minister said that she did not get an answer to her question. Again I repeat that the principle is, coexistence period or no, a line must be capable of delivering 25 megabits per second. If it doesn't, that line will need to be remediated so it can deliver that speed. Of course, there is a range of ways in which that could happen. Where you've got a long copper run, an obvious way to do that is to move the equipment closer to the customer's premises so that the length of the copper run is reduced. Of course, the network is being optimised continually and, where individual lines or connections don't meet that standard, the remediation will be put in place. Again I invite the shadow minister to raise specific instances with the minister's office, and I'm sure they will be dealt with as soon as is conveniently possible.

The shadow minister complained that she didn't get an answer. What is interesting is to look at the number of times the shadow minister has been asked, 'What is Labor's plan for the NBN?' She's been repeatedly asked that question and she never, ever gives a clear answer. On Lateline she was asked by Emma Alberici:

Alberici: So, if Labor wins the next election, what is your intention? Do you go back to an all fibre network?

Rowland: It's always been our preference for fibre, and to have fibre as deep as possible into the network, Emma.

Alberici: But is that going to be your policy?

Rowland: Our policy is going to be informed by the needs of consumers and putting them at the centre.

Alberici: Well, you've just finished saying that the mish-mash of technologies, as you put it—

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

Sitting suspended from 12:18 to 12:34

Before we were interrupted, we were addressing the question of when you get answers and when you don't get answers on important matters of communications policy. I was reminding the House that the shadow minister does not seem able to articulate what Labor's plan for the NBN would be if they were to come to government. As I indicated, she was unable to give a clear and convincing explanation to Emma Alberici on Lateline. But she hasn't focused her attention solely on the ABC. She's similarly obfuscated Labor's position on Sky News when she was asked a straightforward question by a Sky News journalist: is it still your intention to roll out the NBN to each and every home, not just the node, not just to the end of the driveway? Is it your intention to do that? The shadow minister's answer was: we've always favoured fibre over copper and we want to see it as deep as possible into the network. Bill Shorten made it clear some time ago it is not our intention, if we are elected at the next election, to go out and start ripping up the copper. We would need to be informed by the realities on the ground and the stage at which the NBN is at, and the Prime Minister tells us the NBN will be finished at the end of this term.

It is difficult to get a clear answer from the Labor Party as to what their plan is and I tell you why: they don't have a plan. Labor have no plan as to what to do about the NBN other than to engage in continued sniping and criticism and trying to disguise from the reality, which is there on the record for all Australians to see—six years of rank and hopeless incompetence.

I want to make the point, because I think it's important: it's not just on the question of the NBN that is extremely difficult to work out what Labor's policy is, because we similarly see a lack of explanation of what Labor stands for when it comes to the ABC. The shadow minister was recently asked on radio in Tasmania, on 91.7 ABC Mornings by Leon Compton:

'… but my question to you specifically is do you have a policy on funding the ABC that people can easily find?'

And the shadow minister said:

We'll have a very clear and distinct choice for the electorate going into the next election. I can make that very clear.

Mr Compton asked:

But you don't, at the moment, have a policy beyond criticising and suggesting you'll be different to what the government are doing?

And the shadow minister said:

Look, I don't accept that. We are completely different in terms of being very committed to ensuring that we have a strong ABC. We also are very committed to fighting these cuts as they stand.

The shadow minister can't tell us what Labor's policy is on the ABC. The shadow minister can't tell us what Labor's policy is on the NBN. The reality is, Australians have had the chance to see how Labor actually managed the NBN and it was a dismal litany of failure. Australians are not mugs. There's a lot of talk from this side but look at their track record; it was hopeless.

12:37 pm

Photo of Rowan RamseyRowan Ramsey (Grey, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Minister, you'd be well aware that the government has spent $220 million on the Mobile Black Spot Program and that has resulted in 867 facilities in all being built throughout Australia, a mammoth build. In 2016, I chaired the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Industry's inquiry into Agricultural innovation and I can tell you, Mr Deputy Speaker Howarth, that the world is full of wonderful opportunities out there for our agricultural sector. But one of the biggest issues that keeps coming back to us from that sector is the substandard telecommunications. The NBN is a very big part of that story and I'm very pleased to report that, in fact, more than 95 per cent of my electorate of Grey is now enabled. I actually think it's 98 per cent. People are hooking on every day.

But there is an agricultural revolution happening out there and Australia is likely to be the first country using autonomous tractors on a broad scale, advanced crop electronic monitoring and stock management systems thereby removing the all too scarce component of labour from many of the regional and outback properties. The biggest priority issue raised throughout the inquiry was the lack of or unreliability of the mobile phone network. It's worth reflecting on the coalition commitment, the $220 million that we've already put in, and compare it with our Labor predecessors, who for six years put nothing into mobile phone black spots or mobile phones at all. In fact, it was much worse than that.

When Labor came to power, there was $2 billion in a rural telecommunication future fund that was put there after the sale of Telstra 3 and that, unfortunately, got hoovered up by Labor on its first attempt on the NBN. The minister was just referring to the NBN and the litany of failures. Remember that one? That was the $4.5 billion NBN network they were going to build and that was all done and busted, not a problem. In that, they hoovered up the $2 billion that was there to pay for the mobile phones, to pay for the upgrade of telecommunications in the bush in the future.

So the coalition reinvented the Mobile Black Spot Program, the first iteration of which came from the Howard government. Quite simply, it has been only the coalition that has recognised the value of this technology in regional areas for what we can do to enable that rural sector to power the Australian economy.

In Grey, the Mobile Black Spot Program has been partnered in building 15 base stations and eight small cells, 23 in all. I'm grateful. However, Grey is 92 per cent of South Australia, and we need a whole lot more, Mr Minister. I understand why South Australia did worse than the other states in the Mobile Black Spot Program. The previous government, the Labor government, through three rounds put in just a paltry $1½ million: nothing in round 1, $1½ million in round 2 and nothing again in round 3. The other states, by comparison, went hard. They poured in a serious amount of money to partner up with the Commonwealth, to partner up with the telecommunications giants to build hundreds of towers. We need that kind of performance in South Australia.

I'm very pleased to report that we have a new government in South Australia, the first Liberal government in 16 years. One of the first things they are prepared to do is put $10 million on the table to partner with anyone to fix mobile phone blackspots. They recognise the value that a better mobile phone network in the country will have to unlock the economic potential of their state. But they are wondering what to do with their $10 million at the moment, Mr Minister. I am telling them that they need to partner with us, but at this stage we don't have another round of the mobile phone blackspot program.

But I'm well aware that we now have a committee chaired by former senator Sean Edwards that is looking at what the next step should be in enhancing our mobile phone network throughout Australia. I'm urging my constituents to contact that committee and tell it where they think the mobile phone network needs to go. I'm very hopeful that that committee will recommend an ongoing contribution from the Commonwealth to that program, and certainly it will have my support and I will be lobbying to do that.

My question to you, Minister, as I draw to a close that very long preamble, is: what can we expect from the future mobile phone blackspot program, and is this government still up to backing rural Australia?

12:42 pm

Photo of Stephen JonesStephen Jones (Whitlam, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Regional Services) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the member for Grey for ripping the bandaid off the sore. I really am quite surprised that there is a member of the coalition willing to stand up here in the context of the budget estimates in this portfolio and raise the Mobile Black Spot Program. That is extraordinary. He deserves an Iron Cross for his courage and bravery in the context of this. I've got to say that, in his entire contribution, he didn't mention for one moment the bombshell that was dropped by Bill Morrow, the CEO of the NBN Co, in Senate estimates last week, where it was announced that, because of the inaction of this government, they were ditching the plan to roll out 100-gigabits-per-second wireless services to electorates like his own. There was not a word on that! The courage of this guy is extraordinary!

I would like to say something about the mobile phone blackspot program. Just to upgrade the member for Grey on a little bit of history: Labor invested $250 million in a Regional Backbone Blackspots Program. Let me explain to the minister and the member for Grey why this is important. Unless you have backhaul, all you have is a pole in a paddock. It's a pole in a paddock unless that pole is connected to the network. So Labor's record $250 million into the Regional Backbone Blackspots Program is absolutely critical to what the government is now championing as its mobile phone blackspot program.

Photo of Stephen JonesStephen Jones (Whitlam, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Regional Services) Share this | | Hansard source

No, I do want to address that. Although everybody is universally saying that there is not a cent in this budget for the continuation of the mobile phone blackspot program, we have a minister who bears the title but doesn't do the work of a regional communications minister. She is seen missing, position vacant, but bears the title of Minister for Regional Communications. She said on 23 May this year—the date is important—a couple of weeks after the budget: 'In September I'll have a new wave of investment ready to go.' So my question to the minister is this: Where is the money? Is the money in the budget? Is the money somewhere hidden in the communication portfolio? Is it included somewhere in the decisions made but not yet announced? Is it a secret that they're not willing to share with the member for Grey or any of the other regional members around the country? Is it somewhere hidden in the contingency fund? The people of Australia deserve to know. The people of regional Australia deserve to know. If the minister is right in saying, 'In September there'll be a new wave of investment ready to go,' where's the money? Where's the money, Minister? The people of Australia deserve to know.

Whilst I'm interrogating comments—helpful or otherwise—that have been made by senior members of the executive, I'd like the minister to tell us whether he agrees with comments that were made by the member for Maranoa and cabinet minister, Mr Littleproud, who said that the reason that there is no extension of the mobile phone blackspot program—they don't seem to be able to agree with each other, one cabinet minister with another, on this issue—is that the mobile network operators weren't going to play ball. So the fault is all that of the mobile network operators. Does the minister agree with the other minister, his cabinet colleague, that the reason that there is no money in the budget is that the mobile phone companies won't play ball with your government? Is that a correct statement? Is that a statement of government policy? Or is it the truth that on this issue you are as confused about their policy as the member for Grey is confused about the history of this program, and that you don't have a policy? It matters, Mr Deputy Speaker Howarth. You may be aware that there's a by-election going on at the moment, and in an electorate like Braddon, which has 110 mobile phone blackspots registered on the government's own database, they've built nine. So there are 101-odd to go, yet these guys are saying, 'Job done.' In Longman there are 29 blackspots and five built. (Time expired)

12:47 pm

Photo of Andrew WallaceAndrew Wallace (Fisher, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

As many of us in this place well know, bullying is no longer restricted to name calling, social exclusion and acts of verbal and physical abuse. These are all very serious and harmful, but bullying in our community today goes much wider than that. The national definition of bullying for Australia's schools says:

Bullying is an ongoing misuse of power in relationships through repeated verbal, physical and/or social behaviour that causes physical and/or psychological harm.

That definition has long served to capture the essence of the problem. Over the past decade, however, a new avenue of bullying has emerged and has grown explosively: abuse, harassment, intimidation, threats and social exclusion via the internet. It happens in chat rooms, online games, emails, message boards and, most prominently, over social media.

Though the vast majority of interactions over the internet are positive, for anyone struggling with bullying, depression and social isolation the online world can leave them no respite from their suffering. Today the internet has no off button, and it forms a central part of the social lives of most younger people. Mobile phones and constant connectivity can mean that the bullying never stops. Comments can be anonymous and brutal, the isolation unrelenting. At its worst, vulnerable people, who are already worrying that they might be a burden on their loved ones, can end up being encouraged to take their own lives.

Faced with this growing societal problem, the Turnbull government, I am proud to say, has taken action to introduce a range of programs and initiatives to ensure the safety of Australians online. The eSafety Commissioner was established in July 2015, under the Enhancing Online Safety Act 2015, to provide online safety information and support. A key function of the commissioner under the online safety act is to administer a two-tiered scheme for the rapid removal of cyberbullying material from large social media sites. A second function is to assist victims of the non-consensual sharing of intimate images, otherwise known as revenge porn. Minister, section 107 of the Enhancing Online Safety Act 2015 requires a review of the act. When will this review be conducted and who will it be conducted by?

Having established a strong personal interest and a high level of concern in this space, I invited the commissioner, Ms Julie Inman Grant, to the electorate of Fisher in February this year to promote the work of the commission and help educate the community on how they can be safer online. Julie was able to talk about the range of programs that are aimed at providing education to children and adults on online safety issues, including cyberbullying—the Young & eSafe youth platform and the introduction of lesson plans and virtual classrooms to help equip young people with the skills of resilience and respect when engaging in the online world—and advice on how they can report cyberbullying. Minister, how many community engagements have been done by the Office of the eSafety Commissioner and by what KPI is the office assessing that success?

To date, the eSafety office has successfully resolved some 680 complaints in relation to cyberbullying material, demonstrating a very real need for further investment in this program. Building on this progress, the Turnbull government has now introduced the Enhancing Online Safety (Non-consensual Sharing of Intimate Images) Bill 2018. This landmark legislation looks to prevent the sharing of intimate images online without consent. I'm proud to be part of a government that has listened to victims and is delivering policy that will implement the effective and timely removal of non-consensually shared images. Minister, how many reports of image-based abuse have been reported to the office of eSafety? How successful has the Commissioner been in having image-based abuse removed from the internet?

This bill will introduce a federal civil penalty regime targeted at perpetrators and content hosts who share intimate images without consent. Penalties of up to $105,000 for individuals and up to $525,000 for corporations can be applied for breaches of the prohibition. Civil penalties will allow the eSafety office to take action within hours to quickly remove intimate images and prevent these images from being shared. Could the minister please outline what other important policy measures are being introduced as part of the enhancing online safety bill?

12:52 pm

Photo of Michelle RowlandMichelle Rowland (Greenway, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Communications) Share this | | Hansard source

In 2014, the then Minister for Communications announced that he would be booting community TV off air to an online-only delivery model. Since then, the government has granted some extensions to the deadline, but right now the community TV sector is facing a 30 June deadline—only 30 days from now. Community TV stations have been making progress in creating new revenue streams through online delivery, but would benefit from a period of certainty on the free-to-air broadcast platform to support this. The sector has heard from the department and minister's office that they are working on what they have described as 'a range of options', which suggests there will be a further extension of the apparatus licence possible or likely, but with conditions.

The community TV sector needs a period of stability so that they can make the transition from a position of financial strength, as opposed to a fight for survival resulting from the cycle of short-term extensions. Certainly, certainty for the sector is a very important thing. Will the government extend community TV licences beyond 30 June 2018? When will the stations be updated on the outcome, given the looming 30 June deadline? What options is the government working on to support community TV? What alternative use will the spectrum be put to if community TV is forced to vacate the spectrum?

I have a further note in relation to criminalising the non-consensual sharing of intimate images, which the member also referred to, formally known as revenge porn. I note that Labor introduced a private member's bill in 2015 to criminalise non-consensual sharing of intimate images and have committed to implement this policy within the first 100 days of government. This bill has lapsed.

In 2017 the government introduced a bill to introduced a civil penalty scheme for the non-consensual sharing of intimate images. The opposition supports the bill, but our position—and we have stated this on the record—is that it doesn't go far enough and that image based abuse of this nature should be criminalised. I note that the government's bill was amended in the Senate to criminalise image based abuse and is now before the House. The bill is expected to pass, but what is unclear at this stage is whether this will be a civil scheme or a civil and criminal scheme.

In the 2018-19 budget, the government has provided additional funding for the eSafety Commissioner to administer a new civil penalties regime to combat the non-consensual sharing of intimate images. And I note that in 2015 the government committed $10 million to support victims of image based abuse in a number of areas. I also note that the pilot of the image based abuse portal was announced in December 2017 and that the pilot phase of the portal is intended to evaluate the volume and complexity of the reports received, before a formal launch of the portal in 2018.

Minister, could you please provide an update on the progress of the bill to outlaw the non-consensual sharing of intimate images. When do you anticipate the bill will be listed for debate in the House of Representatives? Given that the budget allocates resources for the functions I have described, can we take it that the bill will soon be on its way? Of the $11.7 million in additional funding for the eSafety office announced in the budget, how much will be allocated to administering the new civil penalties regime to address non-consensual sharing of intimate images and providing guidance and support to Australians of all ages who experience online abuse? Of the $11.7 million in additional funding for the eSafety office announced in the budget, how much will be used to implement the civil penalties regime and to implement the criminalisation of non-consensual sharing of intimate images, if this were to come into effect? On funding for the image based abuse portal, how much funding has been received to date? On what, when and where has this money been spent? What enhancements have been made to the portal since its launch? How frequently is the portal used and how is it measured? How many complaints have been made to the portal? How many complaints have been resolved and how has the resolution of complaints been measured?

12:58 pm

Photo of Paul FletcherPaul Fletcher (Bradfield, Liberal Party, Minister for Urban Infrastructure and Cities) Share this | | Hansard source

Let me first respond to some of the observations made by the shadow minister for regional communications. Parenthetically, is there a more useless and empty title than 'Shadow Minister for regional communications' from a party which has a track record of doing zero for regional communications? Over six years of government, what did they deliver in funding for mobile black spots? They delivered zero—no new base stations, no new coverage, no expenditure. It is not a very busy job being the shadow minister for regional communications. You open the window for business at the start of the day and say 'no money' and slam the window down and you are done for the day. It is not very demanding.

By contrast, as the member for Grey pointed out, we are getting on with delivering mobile base stations all around the country under the $220 million investment that we have made under three stages. Already, 523 mobile base stations have been switched on and, under the three stage mobile black spots program, we are committed to delivering 867 locations around Australia.

We also have the regional telecommunications inquiry presently underway, chaired by former senator Sean Edwards, a man from regional South Australia, who is going to bring an excellent perspective, along with his other panel members, to look at questions of regional communications and what additionally needs to be done. Let me make it very clear to the House: if you look at the track record of the coalition and you compare it to Labor's when delivering on the needs of regional Australians and meeting their communications needs, it is chalk and cheese. We are the friends of regional and rural Australians when it comes to delivering upgrades in communications networks.

Now I come to the important question of the eSafety Commissioner, and the member for Fisher has asked a series of important questions about the eSafety Commissioner. I want to acknowledge the member for Fisher's strong interest in keeping Australians safe online. I'm pleased to cast some more light on what's been achieved and the work that's presently under way. A review of the Enhancing Online Safety Act is required to be commenced prior to 1 July 2018. I'm advised that the Minister for Communications will have more to say on this in coming weeks, but be assured we are well under way in our preparation for that review. The commencement date is three years after the commencement of section 107 of the act. The review will generate a report for tabling in parliament within 15 sitting days after the completion of the report, and the report will assess whether the Enhancing Online Safety Act remains fit for purpose. Community engagement is an important priority. I'm pleased that a number of members of parliament have been able to host the eSafety Commissioner and members of her organisation in numerous community forums in recent months.

With regard to the question of image-based abuse material, I am advised that as at 30 May this year the Office of the eSafety Commissioner had received over 230 reports of image-based abuse, concerning 360 separate sites where that image-based abuse material was available. I'm also pleased to report that the commission has been successful in having image-based abuse material removed in 80 per cent of cases, despite the fact that most of those sites are hosted overseas. On average, action is taken within around nine hours—and that is extremely important—providing those who make a complaint with advice on available counselling and legal support, with links to communicate with social media services and websites, and options to contact police. On average, requests to remove intimate material are completed within five days of a request being made. The Enhancing Online Safety (Non-consensual Sharing of Intimate Images) Bill is an example of where the Turnbull government has listened and is providing what the victims have been asking for, which is effective and timely removal of non-consensually shared images. We're certainly keeping under review other options beyond the civil penalties, but this is an important area where the government—

Photo of Andrew GeeAndrew Gee (Calare, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the minister. The time allotted for this debate has expired. The debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting. The minister will have leave to continue speaking when the debate is resumed.