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Monday, 18 September 1995
Page: 1073

Mr ABBOTT (2.30 p.m.) —I move:

  That this House expresses concern about the exemptions and privileges now enjoyed by telecommunications carriers and calls on the Government to make the erection of mobile phone base stations subject to the consent of local councils.

I say to everyone living in suburban Australia, `Whether you like it or not, there is now a mobile phone tower near you.' This is the downside of the mobile phone revolution—an ugly thicket of poles and wires, a whole series of electronic pogo sticks which now blight Australia's suburban streetscapes. Mr Deputy Speaker Vaile, it will get worse.

  By conservative estimates, the numbers of mobile phones are supposed to double before the year 2000, and the move from analog to digital mobile phones will halve the radius of the existing mobile phone base stations. That means that, instead of the existing 2,000 mobile phone towers and aerial arrays, we will have 10,000 or more of these things sprouting like toadstools all over suburban Australia before the year 2000. I support the spread of mobile phones, but I think it should be driven more by community imperatives and less by commercial imperatives. Certainly, this system should not be driven by the fantasies of engineers who have discovered yet another new toy to play with. As I said, I have no objection to the spread of mobile phones, but I believe these companies have to be made more accountable to the community which they are supposed to serve.

  Mr Deputy Speaker, if you or I want to build a flagpole in our backyards, we need to get permission from the local council. However, these telecommunications companies—Telstra, Optus and Vodafone—can put up a 30-metre high aerial virtually wherever they want. You and I have to ask the council for permission; Telstra, Vodafone and Optus simply have to tell the council that that is what they are going to do. This whole process of telling the council—not asking its permission—amounts to a fig leaf of consultation, masking the reality of untrammelled corporate power.

  Under the government's existing rules, councils have 30 days to object to any proposal to put up a mobile phone tower. Anyone who has dealt with government realises that it takes 30 days for most government departments simply to open their mail. The Minister for Communications and the Arts (Mr Lee) typically takes up to six months to answer his correspondence. The minister does not answer his questions on notice within 90 days, let alone 30 days. For two months the minister has had a petition signed by 528 residents of my electorate protesting against a mobile phone installation in Harbord. He has not returned it to me, nor to the state member who sent it to him and he has not tabled it in this parliament, even though according to members opposite not to table a petition—at least in the case of John Halden and Carmen Lawrence—is a contempt of parliament. This whole idea that the rules are adequate because councils have 30 days in which to object is just nonsense.

  Then, under the existing rules, the Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories is to investigate. We have 2,000 mobile phone towers and aerials in this country. Of those 2,000, after objections, just two have been altered. That is a paltry rate of change. What it shows is that the existing system is a watchdog that does not even bark, let alone bite. I will give some practical examples. In one case, local councils sent out letters to residents two days before a 30-metre high tower was to be built on the roof of a private hospital. In another case, work had actually commenced on a mobile phone base station before local residents were even aware. In the case of the Harbord kindergarten Telstra mobile phone base station, which turned the issue from a local problem into a national issue, the council objected—and it did so with the support of Labor Senator Belinda Neal. Public meetings were held, in which a Telstra technical expert allegedly said that he would not like his kids going to school in the shadow of one of these installations. The Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories duly objected. Then Telstra wrote back and said that there was no alternative.

  The department meekly rolled over, told Telstra to scratch its tummy and said, `You can go ahead.' It did not give any reasons. It did not seek any alternative sites. It did not look into the possibility of co-location. It did not seek confirmation of Telstra's claims in its letter. What is more, there is no evidence whatsoever that the department has done what it had said Telstra must do, namely, provide evidence of community consultation after the installation had gone ahead. Yet, notwithstanding all these grievous inadequacies, Austel, which is supposed to be the overarching regulator, said that Telstra has gone exactly by the book. That is proof that the book is wrong in the case of the regulation of these mobile phone towers.

  The problems of these towers do not just concern my electorate. They are nationwide. The mothers of the Harbord community kindergarten have been contacted by other people who are objecting to installations in Northbridge, Asquith, Forbes in country New South Wales, and in Miranda. The representatives of 13 different groups are fighting 13 separate installations in Adelaide, in Woodford, Chapel Hill in Queensland, Mount Kuring-Gai and Baulkham Hills.

  The Sydney Morning Herald reported that at least three councils—Pittwater, Shellharbour and Kiama—are fighting similar plans while Marrickville and Canterbury residents are opposing towers near their homes. People all around Australia are complaining about this threat to their backyards. These people are not latter-day Luddites; they are ordinary Australians who want to control their own backyards and who want to take control of their own neighbourhoods.

  They are asking a very simple question: why is the telecommunications industry so different? What is so special about phone companies that means they can ignore the rules that everyone else has to obey? What is wrong with the telecommunications industry? What health risks, for instance, do these installations pose that lead these companies doing this work by stealth in the dead of the night whereas everyone else must ask permission from the council if they want to do anything, even to erect a flagpole?

  I accept that we have been living with microwave ovens and electrical devices for a long time, apparently with no ill effect, but I also accept that we were living with asbestos and X-rays for a long time before we realised exactly what the health risks were. It is important to point out to the House that it is understandable that people should be worried about this industry when, for instance, Telstra received a letter from the CSIRO saying:

. . . it is inappropriate to make sound scientific judgments on safety thresholds. There are certain inadequacies in the international standards and CSIRO has commented on that issue.

The very same letter criticised the Australian Radiation Laboratory's report, on which basis Telstra said that this installation in Harbord was perfectly safe. Then we had another letter from the CSIRO to the parents of Harbord, which said:

We concluded that there was insufficient scientific evidence at the time to make any sound scientific judgement about safety thresholds.

So there we have it. The experts are not prepared to back the standards on which these things are proliferating all over suburban Australia.

  There is only one way to make these things acceptable, and that is to get these phone companies to sit down and to talk to the people, to the neighbours of these installations. The only way for that to happen is to say to these phone companies that you cannot install a mobile phone tower without first going to the council and getting permission from the council in the same way that everyone else does.

  These concerns are not simply mine. They are shared by the member for Adelaide (Ms Worth) and the member for Isaacs (Mr Atkinson) on this side of the House, they are shared by the member for North Sydney (Mr Mack) and the member for Moore (Mr Filing) on the cross benches, and they are shared by the member for Fraser (Mr Langmore) and the member for Dunkley (Mr Chynoweth) on the other side. They are even shared by Austel, which says that local councils need to be given more power.

  I say to the government: put your policy where your protestations are. You say you want more power for local councils. Well, give it to them, not in 1997 but now, before it is too late. I say to the Prime Minister (Mr Keating): has Ben Chifley's light on the hill been replaced by Paul Keating's Telstra tower on the hill? It will be a sad indictment of this government if it has.

  Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Vaile)—Is the motion seconded?

Ms Worth —I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.