House debates

Tuesday, 30 November 2021

Grievance Debate

Morrison Government: Timber Industry, Morrison Government: Telecommunications Industry

5:55 pm

Photo of Libby CokerLibby Coker (Corangamite, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Failing to act on matters of significance for Australians seems to be a Morrison government speciality. The full impacts of two such failures are now impacting people in my electorate and many others across the nation. Australia is in the midst of a severe timber shortage and, as a result, a housing shortage. Timber suppliers and building industry managers across my region are calling the timber shortage a national crisis that will have significant knock-on impacts for jobs and for the economy. but the Morrison government is doing little to fix it. In essence, the building industry is struggling to get essential timber products such as roof trusses for housing builds. Delivery delays for roof trusses in my electorate are already out to eight months or more. The timber shortage will continue to send timber prices and the cost of housing through the roof. That's placing huge stress on the building industry and on mum-and-dad home builders—the ones who've struggled to scrape the funds together to enter the housing market.

Building companies are financially stretched, and jobs are under threat. The current spate of building company collapses are, in large part, due to material shortages. Shortages mean that jobs don't get done. People can't get paid, so there's a cash flow crisis. Dreams of would-be home owners are being shattered, while others are seeing their homes left unfinished as their building company collapses. This is leaving small subbies and tradies in the lurch and often owed large sums of money when companies go under. My office is hearing tragic stories from people caught in this nightmare of having all their savings tied up in a half-built house that may never be finished. The stress of pending financial ruin, the fear of not having a place for their family to live in, the legal mire to sort through to get answers from liquidators are very real for these people. It's a crisis that has been a long time in the making and one which this government should have foreseen and moved to mitigate or alleviate—and it's not going to end anytime soon, according to one of the nation's leading prefab manufacturers, Timbertruss, based in my region in Geelong.

Construction is a huge driver of the local economy in my electorate and in other areas of the nation. The construction industry in the Geelong regional economy accounts for about 9,700 jobs within the City of Greater Geelong, 1,350 in the Surf Coast shire and 500 in the Golden Plains shire. Currently we still import around 35 per cent of our timber from overseas, bringing it long haul from Canada, Finland and other countries like Czechoslovakia. Sourcing timber from overseas is costing between 85 and 125 per cent more, and this is inevitably being passed on to the builder, leading to a concerning increase in the cost of housing. It's not only about cost. It's adding significantly to our carbon footprint, when the timber industry should be contributing significantly to carbon retention—as would happen if we had a sizeable national timber plantation estate.

Currently there are only 2,750 hectares of new plantations of softwood nationally, yet we need 400,000 new hectares of plantations by 2030 just to meet future demand. The Morrison-Joyce government promised to meet a one-billion-plantation-trees target in 2018, but they have failed to deliver, doing next to nothing on this promise. In fact, a concessional loan program set up to help meet the one-billion-trees target is yet to even open. An amount of $500 million was promised before the last election towards this target—once again, hollow words.

A recent joint report by Master Builders Australia and the Australian Forest Products Association says Australia's timber shortage will escalate. By 2035, the nation will be short 250,000 home frames. That's the equivalent of the housing stock in the cities of Greater Geelong and Newcastle combined. The flow-on impacts for apprentices, local carpenters, electricians, roofers and plumbers and the related retail sector are already being felt.

I am seriously concerned that our nation is in the early stages of what looks likely to be a long-term crisis, with potentially huge economic ramifications. That's why I've recently called for an inquiry and a national task force to be set up to develop a national supply chain and sovereign capability to address Australia's timber supply crisis. The Morrison government has yet again dropped the ball on this issue, which is so crucial for my region's jobs, for the local economy and for this nation's economy. The coalition claim to be good financial managers, but this doesn't seem to add up, to me.

I would now like to turn to another Morrison government failure, the telecommunications industry. This is a significant issue in my electorate, where, despite being next to Victoria's second-largest city, Geelong, there are abysmal connectivity problems. Pockets of my electorate don't have any connectivity. Good connectivity is essential in the modern world. If we didn't know that prior to the pandemic, we certainly know it now. How can it be that, just a few kilometres from my electorate office, in the suburbs around Geelong, Bellarine and Surf Coast, they have to rely on the oldest version of antiquated ADSL dial-up technology for their data communications? Now their telco is talking about phasing out ADSL in their peri-urban area, and they live in fear they'll be left with no data communication, no option, other than expensive and time limited satellite. There have to be adequate upgrade plans and affordable pathways for regional or remote Australians who are using ADSL, before their services are discontinued.

Then there's the NBN, or the lack of it, which is so frustrating for so many. One couple in my electorate, Mary and David, live on a small rural allotment not much more than a stone's throw away from massive urban growth development. They can't get the NBN, and only occasionally, if they're lucky, do they get mobile reception.

Even in the Geelong suburb of Armstrong Creek in my electorate, one of the fastest-growing urban areas in Australia, connectivity is poor. After getting many complaints about poor or non-existent mobile coverage and frequent dropouts, I held a virtual community meeting to better scope the problem. Often people can only get coverage outside the front door of their house or in one particular room. Sometimes whole streets seem to be dead zones for mobile reception. And, for many people, it is more than simply frustrating; it is a matter of life and death. I know of people with severe medical conditions who would be unable to call for help. Some of them were on my Zoom meeting, and I can tell you it was exceptionally emotional, listening to people in tears. It's a Morrison government failure. The government should have long ago mandated robust requirements for telcos to provide mobile services in new urban communities.

Then there were the recent storms across my electorate and more widely across Victoria which exposed the vulnerability and inadequacy of the mobile network during emergencies. Many mobile towers have totally inadequate battery backup or other emergency power options.

We know the government has rolled out a second-class, slow NBN to the nation, largely based on copper wire to the home. It's Labor that will deliver the full fibre-to-the-home superfast NBN that this government should have delivered in the first place, many years ago. Labor has pledged to invest $2.4 billion across the nation so that 90 per cent of the fixed line services, more than 10 million premises, will have world-class gigabit speeds by 2025, and I can tell you my community is very pleased about that. We need better planning, stronger minimum service guarantees and performance benchmarks and oversights for the telecommunications industry.