Senate debates

Tuesday, 16 June 2020


Rural and Regional Services

8:03 pm

Photo of Susan McDonaldSusan McDonald (Queensland, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am excited to speak tonight because of the future opportunities for regional Australia that have become apparent during the COVID crisis. Rolling out the Morrison government's COVID-19 tracking app meant that Telstra had to hit the fast-forward button on allowing text messages to be delivered via wi-fi, even if there is no phone reception. This is a major breakthrough for regional and remote communities. It means that people can do business and stay in touch with loved ones, even when they are far away from the beaten track. People in regional Australia don't require an advantage; they only require a level playing field and this is just one small example, one small step towards levelling that playing field. Communications connectivity opens the door to further enhancements for business, telehealth, education and for agriculture.

The other major consequence of coronavirus has been the realisation that many businesses operated effectively with their staff working remotely. Meetings were conducted online. Instructions were emailed or phoned in. People had to learn how to use web based drive applications to share large files. Working remotely opens up huge potential for people to move to or stay in the regions while working for big city companies. The work of Jo Palmer, the 2019 winner of the National Rural Women's Award, is a case in point. She sees location as no obstacle to having well-paid people working right around the country, be it remotely on a cattle station or even in some of our bigger regional centres, like Townsville. Regional Australia is where we build the nation's wealth. It's where you can build your own prosperity and a family. When we level the playing field for education and medicine, we allow families to stay and build a life. It's good for families and it's good for the regions, but most importantly it adds to the depth, capability and capacity of Australia as a nation.

The work of the Cooperative Research Centre for Developing Northern Australia in producing a road map for extraordinary opportunities has been terrific. Ambitious targets can be achieved by collaborating more. Given that western Queensland is not supplied with STEM teachers, it will be interesting to see if Education Queensland can be flexible enough to take up the idea of having, for example, a physics class where the students of smaller schools can be dotted all over the state but still have access to the same opportunities that we expect kids in urban locations to have. I want to applaud Councillor Andrew Martin, the mayor of Blackall-Tambo in western Queensland, for the work he has done to access the capability of internet technology for remote areas. For an investment of about $1 million, people in that remote area are achieving normal download speeds. This is a massive game changer for remote communities, and it is not a significant amount of money compared to what we spend around the rest of the country. Cloncurry Shire Council is looking to do a similar project.

Another factor that discourages people from wanting the move to the regions is access to specialist health care, but another silver lining of the virus crisis is that telehealth, via phones and the internet, was thrust to the fore and is now poised to be very much mainstream. Not only are GPs and specialists able to consult remotely via video calls, but the Royal Flying Doctor Service has professionals providing telehealth consultations to rural patients and healthcare workers 24 hours a day by phone, radio and videoconferencing. I have seen incredible technology for remote bluetooth sensing that would allow the Boulia medical centre to assess if somebody is actually having a heart attack and needs to be airlifted out of town or if they just need to go home and have a good lie down.

Key to this seismic shift in regional livability is fast, reliable and cheap telecommunications. These are all things that I am very proud to say the Morrison government is committed to facilitating.