House debates

Monday, 22 November 2021

Private Members' Business


6:29 pm

Photo of Rebekha SharkieRebekha Sharkie (Mayo, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That this House:

(1) notes that:

(a) a delegation from the Regional, Rural and Remote Communications Coalition (RRRCC) has approached Members of the 46th Parliament via a virtual delegation to highlight priorities for improving regional telecommunications;

(b) the RRRCC is a group of 21 like-minded organisations and advocacy bodies which have joined together to highlight their collective concern about the lack of equitable access to reliable and quality telecommunication in regional Australia;

(c) telecommunications is an essential service in a modern world, supporting social connectivity, business activity, and the delivery of health and education services;

(d) every Australian, irrespective of where they live or work, should have access to quality, reliable, and affordable voice and data services with customer support guarantees; and

(e) there is ongoing inequity in the access to telecommunications experienced by Australians living in regional, rural, and remote areas, compared to their urban counterparts; and

(2) calls upon the Government to ensure that regional, rural, and remote Australia is best positioned to retain people and grow in the long term, by:

(a) establishing a rural, regional and remote communications fund to resource ongoing investment in regional telecommunications through the Mobile Black Spot Program, Regional Connectivity Program and through state and territory co-investment programs;

(b) continuing its commitment to expanding the mobile network in regional Australia through the Mobile Black Spot Program or a similar program (such programs must continue to promote competition by requiring open access for all networks and the criteria for such programs reflect changing technologies and commercial circumstances);

(c) ensuring no mobile network user is disadvantaged by the switching off of the 3G network;

(d) having the Australian Communications and Media Authority investigate and monitor widespread mobile outages in regional and remote Australia, and the reliability of mobile infrastructure;

(e) ensuring there are adequate upgrade plans and pathways for regional Australians using ADSL services that provide access to higher quality or equivalent fixed broadband services;

(f) bringing about further enhancements to NBN Sky Muster in order to reflect consumer and small business needs, including more affordable plans, and a mobility product;

(g) legislating telecommunications as an essential service in all states and territories, recognising telecommunications providers as 'essential users' in natural disaster areas, and ensuring the rollout of NBN Disaster Satellite Services appropriately complement MBSP 5A upgrades to power supplies at base stations;

(h) ensuring any alternative technologies for voice service delivery be proven to have greater reliability and performance quality for regional, rural, and remote consumers;

(i) creating appropriate minimum service guarantees and performance benchmarks for connection, fault repair and appointment keeping timeframes for NBN and other statutory infrastructure providers (these obligations and timeframes must support maximum connectivity during natural disaster events and customers must be adequately compensated when baseline timeframes are exceeded);

(j) introducing adequate performance quality metrics for all services, including NBN Sky Muster, monitored against independent benchmarks;

(k) committing to funding the regional tech hub service beyond the current one-year funding period, and working with the RRRCC and state and local governments to identify and deliver digital capacity building needs beyond the remit of the regional tech hub project;

(l) creating a targeted, concessional NBN broadband service to support low-income residents in regional, rural and remote areas, and reconfiguring the existing telecommunication allowance to meet the needs of low-income, mobile-only consumers;

(m) supporting remote communities, in particular Aboriginal and Torres Strait communities, to have access to affordable telecommunications equipment so they can maximise access to services such as medical services; and

(n) requiring retail service providers to be transparent about the limitations of the more affordable services they provide to low-income consumers.

I was recently invited to participate in an online meeting with the Regional, Rural and Remote Communications Coalition. This group is made up of 22 volunteer-run organisations and advocacy bodies that have joined together to amplify their voice and to improve telecommunications for regional Australia. I was in Canberra when we met, and my team member's NBN connection was so slow that, when she tried to join the meeting, she couldn't participate. This experience is, sadly, all too familiar in regional Australia, and it is why I'm moving this motion to highlight the priorities of the coalition.

These goals are not grandiose or radical. Regional Australia just wants equitable access to reliable, quality telecommunications. Telecommunications is an essential service in the modern world. It should be managed and regulated as such, not left to market forces. Urban based public and private sector organisations cannot continue to roll out services to rural Australia based on urban experiences. The coalition has five goals: guaranteed access to voice and data services always, including during natural disasters; updated telecommunication service guarantees and adequate service performance standards; the continuation of programs to expand mobile coverage; the building of digital capacity through the provision of independent, trustworthy technical support; and affordable communications services for regional, rural and remote Australia.

I recently hosted positive ageing forums in my electorate. One issue that was raised was how expensive mobile phone plans are for those on fixed incomes, and the need for an NBN satellite service and how expensive it is. In my submission to the 2021 Regional Telecommunications Review, I have called on the government to assist low-income households, particularly pensioners, whether that be through the NBN wholesale broadband package, an annual telecommunications payment or a requirement on all statutory infrastructure providers to offer minimum internet packages to assist low-income households.

I'm also of the view that regional Australia should be prioritised for NBN technology upgrades. The focus should be on need rather than profitability. Mayo has too many premises allocated to NBN satellite. South Australia is the state with not only the highest percentage of satellite connections—around five per cent, compared to the national average of three per cent—but the highest number of Sky Muster connections within a 25-kilometre radius of the city GPO. The number of potential NBN satellite services in that radius is 2,773 premises. Nearly 88 per cent of those premises cannot upgrade via technology choice. Available figures from last year show Hobart, which came a very distant second to Adelaide, had 264 Sky Muster connections within their 25-kilometre radius. Sydney had just 28. Upgrading is expensive. I have constituents who can drive to Adelaide from their home, but they have to pay $30,000 to $100,000 for fibre.

We need to do better for regional Australia. A good place to start is the mobile network. It needs expansion and it needs better performance standards. Mobile is not guaranteed under the Universal Service Guarantee, a fact that continues to surprise so many, as mobile connectivity is an essential service, particularly in high-risk bushfire areas. The Black Summer bushfires that we all experienced in 2019-20 on Kangaroo Island and the Adelaide Hills in my electorate highlighted our community's reliance on the mobile network to receive timely information. This is about protecting life and property. On Kangaroo Island, mobile black spots caused so much concern. The lack of mobile coverage hampered the efforts of emergency services. This government and future governments need to prioritise the delivery of reliable and affordable telecommunications for regional Australia. This is critical for our regions. This is about life and death for us. We need to have healthy, economic and sustainable communities, and telecommunications is a very big part of that.

I now seek leave to table the goals document of the Regional, Rural and Remote Communications Coalition.

Leave granted.

We need to make sure that regional Australia gets put front and centre with respect to telecommunications. It is too terrifying driving for long stretches where there is no mobile coverage. We can do better in this nation.

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

Is the motion seconded?

6:34 pm

Photo of Julian LeeserJulian Leeser (Berowra, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

LEESER () (): I second the motion. I want to applaud the work of the Regional, Rural and Remote Communications Coalition. Many of the issues they face are also issues that we face in peri-urban areas, and I have the privilege of meeting the coalition members in the context of the private member's bill exposure draft that I released backed by18 of my government colleagues back in September. What I thought I would do today is take this opportunity to provide the House with some feedback, as a result of the exposure draft we've received, not just from the Regional, Rural and Remote Communications Coalition whose work is so good and important but from ordinary citizens across the country who face terrible communications technology difficulties both in regional and peri-urban settings.

Jennifer from Beachport in South Australia has said in her submission:

I'm a falls risk and I'm a Telstra customer.

Often my service is only one bar on 3G instead of a minimum 4G.

If I fall and can't get up and can't ring out, there's a good chance I'd be there until 1 pm Friday when a carer arrives, possibly up to one week. Frightening.

I battle with Telstra internet and if the town is in holiday mode quite often I can't connect.

I pay my bills and buy my groceries online, and I experience a high level of frustration.

It can be 10 pm at night before I'm able to access internet on wifi mobile. Issues can take five days to resolve.

This is simply not good enough, especially for vulnerable Australians.

In Tasmania, Damien from Wilburville says lives have already been lost in his community. He says:

For over 11 years now we lost our Telstra Mobile Phone Reception here in Wilburville and Arthurs Lake.

I have complained to Telstra for many times over the years and as a retired Volunteer Ambulance Officer we've sadly lost lives that may have been preventable if we'd had Telstra's mobile phone service.

Telstra has profited billions over the years and surely funds can be found to address this issue here in the very rural, remote and isolated central highlands of Tasmania.

Hear, hear, Damien! You're absolutely right.

In my own electorate, Margaret from Glenorie wrote:

Recently Telstra wanted to upgrade my plan and charge me more.

They can't even give me what's in my present contract.

I can't imagine how contact tracing worked in my area with the dodgy mobile communications.

As an elderly widow, I find it very scary having no guaranteed means of communication.

The only way is to have my mobile phone on a rubbish bin outside my garage and run backwards and forwards to my computer inside. This all has to be done at 3 am to 4 am when there's reception.

I could tell you many sad tales about when my husband had a terminal illness—he has now passed away—and I could not contact the outside world because of low/unreliable communications.

I went to the Telstra store to try and get help and was treated very badly and not helped at all. It was like I had crept out of a garbage pile, very. Will not be doing that again.

Just try and imagine how scary it can be when you have no means of communication with anyone and you live in Sydney.

The service from the telcos like Margaret has experienced is absolutely appalling. And those telco executives are absolutely reprehensible. They've got the same problems in Cedar Creek in Queensland. Louise wrote in her submission:

We have no mobile reception at our home. This causes constant problems. My husband and I are doctors. We struggle to do on-call from home because we've got no mobile reception and very poor ADSL internet. Our children were unable to homeschool due to poor phone and internet service. The lack of mobile reception is dangerous and leaves us at a serious disadvantage to our peers. Medical specialists are being affected in my electorate as well.

Jodie, a psychologist from Dangar Island, wrote:

I'm a psychologist and I had to go 100 per cent telehealth for all my clients during lockdown. It was so difficult to maintain connection in a very stressful time with very stressed clients. It was near impossible—very poor service.

Christie from South Australia says:

Telecommunications coverage in our area is progressively getting worse. With all the upgrades to towers, we've seen zero capacity. I sit here in my kitchen with call after call after call dropping out. I run my business from satellite NBN and hope for the best with the phones. I've had to reconnect an old copper phone line because our service is regressing. I live in an already isolated environment made even worse by having limited communications power. Mental health in regional areas is at an all-time high, and it's not hard to see why. I feel unsafe during summer, particularly on fire ban days when I can't update the alerts or get phone service. Telcos are quick to tell me what funds I can spend to get better services, but they don't seem to be willing to spend some of that to help me.

It's time the telcos took their heads out of the sand and started to deal with the real problems Australians face every single day. The appalling customer service, the outright lies they tell about connectivity, and the fact that at times of natural disaster, they are missing in action and unaccountable for failing to provide these services. Phone and internet are essential services Australians rely on. It's time we did better. Go to

6:39 pm

Photo of Brian MitchellBrian Mitchell (Lyons, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] I thank the member for Mayo for raising this important issue of regional communications. Before I get to the body of my speech, I want to make a short comment on the contribution made by the previous speaker, the member for Berowra. I'm sure he's very earnest in all of his views, but let's not forget that he is a member of a government that has allowed this state of affairs to manifest. He's also a member of the political party that we can lay this at the feet of. The cause of all this began with the privatisation of Telstra, so many years ago, under the party that he represents. So if the member for Berowra is serious about the issues he's raising, he needs to do a lot more to get his colleagues in the government on board.

The member for Mayo understands, as I do, the vital role that is played by telecommunications in a regional electorate. We share a vision of equitable access to reliable and quality telecommunications across regional Australia. We both know that our constituents, the people that we represent, are not being looked after by this government. Making a call and jumping online should not be this hard, yet, just 20 minutes from my office here in southern Tasmania, driving down Back Tea Tree Road on my way home, the signal drops out. It's a very busy road.

Further down the Tasman Highway, towards stunning Port Arthur, one of the busiest tourist destinations in the country, you'll find the same issue. There's no connectivity. Conara, in the Northern Midlands, just off our busy Midland Highway and barely half an hour south of Launceston has the same story. Not only no mobile connectivity, but this is a small township that is on satellite. I was pleased to hear the member for Mayo draw attention to this issue, as there are far too many places that are on satellite that should not be. Satellite should be a last resort for remote homes that can't get any other service. Conara and the town of Fingal, in the municipality of Break O'Day in my electorate, are both townships that use satellite. They should be on fixed wireless at the very least. In far too many places across my electorate, no bars, no internet, nothing.

I once met with a constituent from Interlaken in our Central Highlands who was mobility impaired. She could barely walk, let alone safely drive. Yet she still had to drag herself into a car and head east for 45 minutes just to find a signal so that she could call her family for assistance. Not good enough! Throughout my electorate there are black spots, and not just on isolated country roads: the back blocks of Bicheno and a section north of Triabunna, swathes of the Central Highlands—it shouldn't be this way. There are black spots even in fairly well populated areas—as I say, Conara, Fingal.

Telecommunication is not a luxury anymore. It is an essential service to modern society. Smartphone technology and internet access support social connectivity, business activity and help deliver health and education services. Every Australian, no matter their postcode, should have access to quality, reliable and affordable telecommunications. It is laughable that a government hell-bent on moving services online—My Aged Care, all the Centrelink services—can also fail to make connectivity a priority for their voters and for Australians. There must be equitable access to these services. We must close the digital divide between country and city, but under this Liberal government we are seeing a growing inequity. We've seen Australians, and Tasmanians in particular, who live in rural, regional and remote areas left behind. A recent survey conducted by my office found almost 80 per cent of the 400 respondents had experienced issues with their internet connection: poor speeds, service dropouts, limited assistance from operators—the list goes on.

Reliable quality, high-speed reception and internet is not a luxury or a 'nice to have'; it is essential 21st century infrastructure. We've wasted 20 years of this century. Let's get serious about it now. It's clear that this tired Liberal government cannot be trusted to deliver to regional Tasmanians. But Labor does have a plan to tackle this growing issue. An Albanese Labor government will secure quality high-speed internet for more Australian families and businesses by expanding full fibre NBN access to 1.5 million premises.

6:45 pm

Photo of Anne WebsterAnne Webster (Mallee, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

WEBSTER () (): In my electorate of Mallee, poor connectivity continues to be a significant issue. The last time I counted, there were 520 black spots—a cause for great frustration for many people. Over the last two years in my office, many constituents have told me about the ongoing challenges that they experience.

Fred Siciliano is a stone fruit grower from Woorinen. He continues to put up with slow, unreliable and sometimes non-existent mobile coverage. As a small-business owner, Fred has invested vast sums of money in attempting to resolve the issues. Sadly, it has resulted in little improvement. Living in between two major phone towers, he frequently must leave his property to be able to conduct a virtual meeting with overseas clients. At times, he's had to stand on a chair or climb on a roof—I hear it over and over again—in order to get a signal. He's not alone. Many across Mallee endure the same thing. It is simply not good enough. The pandemic highlighted students learning from home issues, disrupted in virtual classrooms because their internet would drop out. Teachers, too, were struggling to conduct online classes because they couldn't get reliable reception at their homes.

I recently supported the member for Berowra's private member's bill that seeks to make telecommunications companies accountable for their poor coverage. The bill argued for telco executives to be personally liable for poor customer service and failure to meet the needs of customers. While the coalition government has invested $15 million to address poor connectivity in Mallee, many people remain disadvantaged with deficient services. Rural residents in Mallee often live long distances from towns and, when an emergency occurs, they cannot afford to be unable to access connectivity to call emergency services.

Under the proposed bill prepared by the member for Berowra, telco executives and companies would also be financially liable for preventable deaths caused through their inaction. Under this legislation, negligence will no longer be tolerated. We still have a long way to go to ensure every Australian has access to reliable connectivity wherever they are. But this government is working to deliver vital measures to make sure that we get there. The Liberal-National government has been on the front foot to address issues of coverage. This funding has seen 1,270 new base stations across Australia through the Mobile Black Spots Program. In Mallee alone, this program has delivered $9.5 million towards greater coverage across the electorate.

Regional communities need strong, reliable connectivity to do the simple things that urban residents are able to do consistently and have been able to for some time, things like connecting with family over the phone, working from home, using online business platforms and accessing emergency services. Each new mobile tower connects regional communities across Mallee to online services, increasing productivity and generating economic growth, which is why the government continues to invest in the Mobile Black Spot Program.

The government is also committed to bringing rural and regional communities up to speed in their access to telecommunications services. In this last week, almost 4,000 households in Mildura and Irymple became eligible for NBN upgrades so that they can access broadband internet with speeds consistent with residents in capital cities. These premises will now be able to access plans of up to one gigabyte per second—something we only dream of— using fibre-to-the-premises connections. These are internet plans they have previously not had access to. This rollout will create jobs in the community, ensure local businesses can access the speeds they need to thrive and improve connectivity for families across the entire region.

I met with NBN Co last week. They assure me that they continue to invest in products and technologies to meet connectivity needs and are committed to meeting the current and future broadband needs of households and businesses across regional Australia. This announcement shines a light on the broad work this government is doing to reach rural and regional communities with faster speed NBN connections that have a real and measurable impact on local communities. Improving telecommunications access and coverage is a priority for this side of the House. We will continue to work to address the concerns of Australians who endure inferior connectivity. The Morrison-Joyce government is committed to reducing the gap in telecommunications access for regional Australians.

6:49 pm

Photo of Kristy McBainKristy McBain (Eden-Monaro, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the member for Mayo for raising this motion. There is no doubt that reliable telecommunications are essential in a modern world. Every Australian, irrespective of where they live or work, should have access to quality, reliable and affordable voice and data services. Unfortunately, there is an ongoing inequality in the access to telecommunications experienced by Australians living in regional, rural and remote areas, compared to our urban counterparts. Wherever I go in my electorate, better mobile phone and internet connectivity is high on the list of priorities. I know that, everyone knows that, and the Morrison government knew that during the Eden-Monaro by-election when it made the Strengthening Telecommunications Against Natural Disasters funding commitment. The communities of Eden-Monaro found themselves cut off from the world during the darkest days of our Black Summer bushfires. That sense of isolation is now a deep part of our communities' trauma. I recently conducted an online survey to encourage Eden-Monaro residents to get in touch and tell me their experiences with telecommunications. I wish I could say that I was surprised by the results. But, as my office started mapping the hundreds of responses we received, we were left wondering if it would be easier to map out the areas where we could get constant reception.

When families were plunged into learning from home earlier this year, the issues with connectivity were further exacerbated. Some families were only able to access the internet for an hour or two a day, which is simply not good enough. Individuals and families who have been struggling with connectivity for far too long have spent huge amounts of money installing mobile boosters in the hope that that would improve their telecommunications access. Unfortunately, for many this was money wasted. When people in the cities think about mobile black spots, they expect them to be in rural areas hours away from the closest town. But in Eden-Monaro black spots can be found in the middle of town, or within five minutes of the town centre. Just last week I was driving from Queanbeyan to Bungendore, and less than five minutes out of Queanbeyan, where I could still see the main street in my rear-view mirror, I was completely out of reception. Carwoola, Talbingo, Numeralla, Dalmeny and Mystery Bay are just some of the areas where I've recently held telecommunications meetings because the situation is so dire, and the story is always the same. People have no mobile phone reception or internet connectivity at their homes, and they've spent hours trying to find a solution to no avail.

Richard, who lives in the Yass Valley, responded to my survey and explained that he's only 30 minutes away from where we are right now—30 minutes away from Parliament House—and mobile reception is best described as 'patchy'. Last year Richard had a neighbour who nearly died from a heart attack because his wife had difficulty calling triple 0. She had to get her husband into a car and drive him part of the way to Canberra just so she could call an ambulance. Countless people responded to my survey to recount their experiences during the Black Summer bushfires and their expectation that the government would address connectivity issues as part of the bushfire recovery efforts. This is what the government promised. Annette from Nerriga told me that her property was impacted by fires, and they had no landline or mobile service for over three months. Debbie from Peak View said she had no mobile service whatsoever at her home, and this made the Black Summer bushfires all the more difficult. They were surrounded by fires for six weeks with no landline and no mobile service. They were cut off from their community and they were cut off from vital information. We're almost two years on from these fires, and these communities still face an unknown situation, because connectivity hasn't improved.

Mark lives near the Victorian border and explained that huge stretches of the Monaro Highway are complete black spots. He regularly comes across people pulled over on the side of the road because they have broken down or hit a kangaroo, and they are stuck without any way to call for help. This is a main highway and travel route between New South Wales and Victoria, and people are regularly left stranded due to a lack of mobile phone reception. This government is moving more and more services online. Unfortunately, this just increases the divide between people living in the city and those in regional areas. Every day Services Australia are forcing more and more people to apply for and manage their payments online. This year, with more COVID lockdowns and thousands of people unable to work, government support was a lifeline for millions. But accessing the support was also a nightmare for many in my communities, with local service centres and libraries closed and people unable to go to family members' or friends' houses to access the internet. People were left feeling that the government's support was only available for those in the cities, not for those in regional areas. Alan from Wamboin told me that all the houses in his street have no mobile phone reception. At the peak of the pandemic, he was unable to access myGov from his house. This government needs to do better for regional communities, and reliable telecommunications is the bare minimum they deserve. (Time expired)

6:55 pm

Photo of Tony PasinTony Pasin (Barker, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'd like to thank the member for Mayo for bringing this motion to the parliament. I'm sure members in this place know that I don't often miss an opportunity to raise the salience of this issue, in particular when it comes to mobile phone service reception. A functional mobile phone service was once a luxury, but it is now a necessary business tool. In the case of regional communities, particularly for the farming sector, it's a key part of their safety toolkit.

The official statistics tell us that 99.5 per cent of the population and 33 per cent of Australia's landmass is covered. These aren't the statistics I focus on. I'm focused on the 399 community-identified black spots in my electorate of Barker alone. A recent survey conducted by the Wattle Range Council on this issue showed that residents of that local government region rated their phone service two out of five, and 70 per cent of respondents said they would regularly operate at two bars or less. That's just not good enough for an area of roughly 4,000 square kilometres with a population of 12,000 people. That might be rural and it might be regional, but it's absolutely not remote. It's just not good enough.

Every three years, there's an independent Regional Telecommunications Review, under law, to examine and report on the adequacy of telecommunications in rural, regional and remote Australia. The 2021 review is due to be reported on next month. The review has consulted widely. It has held 24 online consultation sessions. There have been over 500 participants, and the review has received a record number of submissions, at 656. But I suspect the review will discover much of what the RRRCC and this motion are saying. I suspect this because it's what I hear, day to day, from my constituents.

There's not a day that goes by when I'm in the community when I don't hear people speak about this issue or complain about it directly to me. They're paying for a mobile service that they're unable to use much of the time. I can confidently say it's the No. 1 issue that's raised with me, with daylight second. For example, I want to read an excerpt from a letter written to Telstra by one such constituent. The constituent writes:

The Peebinga area has grain and sheep producers and two Major irrigators with a large work force.

They say of Peebinga businesses:

At Peebinga we are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to being competitive in the grain, wool and lamb markets, not being able to contact agents or traders on time can be extremely costly, this is a real issue for us, not being able to use mobile phone or data services puts us at a disadvantage when we can't make or receive phone calls, text messages or emails when we are at work on the property, waiting for someone to call you back on our landline is so non-productive.

When we have a break down or an emergency situation we have to make a dash for one of our land lines so we can make the appropriate calls to get the issue attended too. This is unproductive for modern farming enterprises and is certainly unproductive for our farm which supports several families.

Luckily for the good people of Peebinga, the region received a commitment for a mobile phone tower from round 5 of the Mobile Black Spot Program. I believe this Optus tower is due to be switched on by the end of the year.

While the government's Mobile Black Spot Program has addressed the issue for Peebinga, there are many, many stories around my electorate—indeed, around this country—just like the one I've read out to you. The government is also committed to improving telecommunications services through its connectivity programs in regional Australia, and I commend the government for its action on this issue. Our government has taken action through the Mobile Black Spot Program. There's more work to be done, but it is taking that action, which is in stark contrast to the zero towers erected during the period between 2007 and 2013.

The member for Berowra has taken up the charge, and I'm pleased for him to be on our side in this fight. I'm fully supportive of what he's doing via his private member's bill. He obviously alluded to that earlier in his contribution. In particular, it does four things. I just want to reiterate them: it creates a universal mobile service obligation; it forces telecommunications companies to improve customer service; it forces telcos to be more responsible in the provision of maintenance and services to disaster-prone areas; and it bolsters competition. It's about time the telcos got serious. It's not just at marketing time that they should worry about regional and rural constituents.

7:00 pm

Photo of Susan TemplemanSusan Templeman (Macquarie, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to thank the member for Mayo for putting this motion forward. It's a comprehensive look at the various telecommunications issues that rural and regional communities face. My community faces all those issues and needs the same kinds of solutions that are being put forward. I do think, though, that it's a bit rich for the member for Berowra and the member for Barker to stand here and talk about a private member's bill that the member for Berowra is putting forward with regard to mobile communication when they have been part of a government that has been in power for nearly a decade. They have had nearly a decade to fix the flawed Mobile Back Spot Program and to think more about peri-urban areas. We're coming to the finish line of their third term of government—I hope it will be their last term of government—and they just stumble to the finish line with something that may or may not make any difference for peri-urban communities.

It's been such an ineffective response from the government. They seem to think they have nothing to do with it. They say: 'Oh, it's Telstra. Oh, it's Optus or Vodafone. Let's blame somebody else for it.' That side of the parliament sets the rules under which everybody operates. They set the rules for landline. Why don't we have a universal service provision already required for internet? These are the sorts of issues that should have been addressed. They're not new. Let me tell you, in 2013, when my house burnt down in the bushfire and all I could do was occasionally send text messages to my son in the hope that we'd be able to communicate enough for him to escape from what soon turned into an inferno, that was a big wake-up call. The Blue Mountains telecommunications showed its fragility at that point, yet here we are, eight years on, and nothing has changed.

It isn't just mobile communications; it's also NBN communications. I'm sorry the member for Barker isn't in the chamber right now, because he is the chair of the Joint Standing Committee on the National Broadband Network, of which I am deputy chair. We have a whole report ready to go, which has not yet been signed off. I confess that I was the person who held it up in March when my community was underwater. I could not attend a meeting in order to have that report finalised. But for eight months now, since the end of March, the member for Indi and I have worked collaboratively to try and get this report finalised with the chair. Yet here we are, in the last two weeks of parliament, and there is no sign of a meeting being scheduled for the NBN committee to release the report, which will deal with a bunch of the issues that are raised in this motion—the quality of NBN coverage and the challenges that people face.

This is a government that goes slow on telecommunications. They gave the Blue Mountains a tower, at Mount Tomah. Great—mobile phone communication was all set for Mount Tomah. Then it was all a bit too hard, and a year or two later they pulled the tower away and sent it out somewhere further west. That's the sort of care and concern that's been given to a community that only two years ago went up in smoke. It's a community that is subjected to the worst natural disasters you can see, yet our telecommunications system is just as it was—not much better than two years ago or seven years ago.

What we have is a government that has no sense of urgency on these issues. These are life-and-death issues. If Mountain Lagoon can't get a phone call through on their landline, they could miss finding out that they are surrounded by fire. The same applies to floods. The Macdonald Valley faces floods and fires. They describe their telecommunications as 'wholly inadequate', and they have worked assiduously with Optus to try and resolve the issue of getting the tower that they have been awarded. I can't even tell you how many years ago it was now. It just isn't happening. And it won't happen in the immediate future.

Then you've got people like Nathan and Peter and Phil, from Blaxlands Ridge who say: 'We had Telstra but no coverage. We went to Optus, not much better, and you're lucky to get one bar. The internet is a joke.' They tell me that they've spent more than a thousand dollars on mobile reception boosters and that barely gives them enough coverage. They certainly can't hotspot. This is what people are living with, and the people who are responsible and could have fixed this are sitting on that side. It's just not good enough.

Photo of Darren ChesterDarren Chester (Gippsland, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

There being no further speakers, the debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.