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Wednesday, 15 February 2006
Page: 253

Ms LIVERMORE (5:04 PM) —In speaking on the Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2005-2006 and the Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 2005-2006, I would like to raise some issues of concern in my electorate. I do that in the context of the second reading amendment moved by the member for Melbourne on behalf of the opposition because while the government is quick to pat itself on the back for its economic credentials and the size of the surplus it is failing—in my electorate, certainly—to create opportunities and invest in the services and infrastructure that we need to maintain the economic growth and prosperity that Australia has been enjoying over the last 15 years or so.

In particular, I would like to talk about Telstra. I did not plan to raise Telstra, its services and the National Party’s sell-out of my electorate and other regional areas in agreeing to sell Telstra late last year but, when I opened the Financial Review on Tuesday morning and saw the article about the exchange at Senate estimates between Senator Ian Macdonald and Senator Coonan, I could not resist. While we expect to see a bit of conflict and biffo between Labor senators and government ministers, you can imagine my surprise and glee at seeing government members doing the same thing. It seems that the regional members in the government are starting to wake up to the contempt with which they will be treated by a privatised Telstra.

The issue that Senator Macdonald raised was the government’s 2001 election promise of mobile coverage for our highways. He mentioned a number of regions in Queensland, as you would expect from a senator representing Queensland. In particular, he mentioned the span of coastline between Rockhampton and Mackay. That is a road travelled by me when I service the northern part of my electorate and also by many of my constituents. I was pleased to hear the senator make those remarks because that is an incredibly busy stretch of road which has a reputation for being a high accident zone. The issue of mobile coverage on that stretch of highway is very important to people in my electorate and visitors to our electorate as well.

It is not just the area between Rockhampton and Mackay that is a problem for people in my electorate. Also when you travel on the highway west of Rockhampton, which is increasingly popular for tourism and also for the mining workforce in our area as the coal boom continues apace in the Central Highlands and the Bowen Basin, you find big gaps in mobile phone coverage. Far from the government living up to its promise of providing coverage on these highways, we know very well that has not happened, and the exchange between Senator Macdonald and Senator Coonan at estimates the other day seems to indicate that the government is now washing its hands of that promise.

People ask me, ‘Is mobile phone coverage an issue in your electorate?’ People in my electorate can tell you exactly where the phone cuts out. When you drive out of Rocky to Westwood it cuts out. When you drive north of Rocky and get to Yaamba it cuts out. People can tell you, within a few kilometres, exactly where the coverage cuts in and out, so anyone who thinks this is not an issue in my electorate is kidding themselves. The blame is laid squarely at the feet of Telstra and increasingly at the feet of those government members who voted to sell Telstra and privatise it completely. I applaud Senator Macdonald’s stand on this matter and I join him in condemning the government for failing yet again to carry out an election promise and for betraying the people of rural and regional Australia by moving to privatise the rest of Telstra.

Another good one from Telstra is its decision to shelve the CDMA network in favour of the so-called 3G technology.

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

Sitting suspended from 5.10 pm to 5.22 pm

Ms LIVERMORE —As I was saying before the break, another Telstra issue that is causing some concern in my electorate is Telstra’s decision to shelve the CDMA network in favour of the 3G technology before the software that will enable this technology to gain coverage comparable with current equipment is designed. This is incredible; people in my electorate cannot believe that they went out and bought the gear and the CDMA handsets in order to plug into the CDMA network, all on the urging of Telstra when that was the technology of choice. That Telstra is going to turn around and throw that out is unacceptable and is causing a great deal of anger in my region.

Another area that I wanted to speak about that is of concern to people in my electorate and electorates right across the country is aged care. In surveys that I conduct in my electorate it shows up consistently as an issue of major concern to people and a priority area for governments to focus on. I am sure that is the same for many other electorates. There have been a couple of issues in my local area just in the last couple of months that have really brought this to the forefront, and both of these issues relate to the staffing shortages—the workforce shortages—that we know about in aged care.

One is the instance of the Blue Care facility—a brand new facility on the Capricorn Coast, which is a very fast growing region and particularly popular among retirees. These extra beds have been sought by the people of the Capricorn Coast since before 1998. This issue was around before I got elected. We have finally managed to get those places for the Capricorn Coast; I think it was announced at the end of 2001. The facility is built; it is sitting there waiting to open and up until a few weeks ago it had not been able to open because of Blue Care’s inability to find staff. It is in Yeppoon, of all places. It is a beautiful place with a fantastic lifestyle, and still this facility is unable to find adequate registered nurses to open its doors to the elderly residents of the Capricorn Coast who, as I say, have been waiting for this facility for some seven or eight years.

Another issue that has arisen recently is that of the John Cani hostel in Mount Morgan, which is a small rural town 30 kilometres west of Rockhampton. Unfortunately, it has been sanctioned by the Aged Care Standards and Accreditation Agency, though that is not the issue that I want to discuss today. The management there have already taken steps to address those problems, but the report that led to the sanctions really comes back again to staffing issues. It is just impossible to find qualified staff for aged care facilities. The federal government has known about this for years now; the problems are well known. The biggest problem that everyone talks about is the lack of parity—the gap that exists between wages earned by nurses in the public and acute care sectors in our hospitals and the wages earned by nurses in the aged care sector. As my colleague Senator McLucas has demonstrated, the wages gap between those two sectors has actually increased from $84.48 per week in 2002 to $191.83 per week in 2005. Is it any wonder that aged care providers are finding it difficult to recruit and retain staff when nurses can get such better wages and conditions elsewhere?

The government has acknowledged this problem. It committed $211 million in the 2002-03 budget to ensure that aged care facilities provided better wages and conditions and a further $877 million in the 2004-05 budget. But the problem is that this funding was not tied to wages and conditions. So the funding can go to aged care providers but those providers could be spending it on anything. The government has acknowledged the problem and made the funding available, but it has not gone that extra step to make sure it is fixing the problem. The government has been quite lazy and complacent about this very important issue. In the meantime the discrepancy in wages continues to blow out and the shortage of qualified nursing staff in aged care facilities is placing more and more pressure on providers, making it harder and harder to provide quality care to residents in nursing homes. As I said, there have been two classic and different examples of that in my electorate just in the last couple of months. There is a lot of work to be done by the government. In fact, the Senate Community Affairs References Committee, which conducted an inquiry into aged care last year, recommended that the government address that issue. The money is there to go into wages for aged care nurses, so let’s make sure it happens.

One of the things highlighted in Labor’s second reading amendment is this issue of the government having a surplus due to quite good economic conditions—and many of us on this side would say that that is a product of good luck rather than good management and comes off the back of many of the reforms of the Labor government in the nineties—but we are not necessarily seeing those funds returning to electorates like mine. And the boom in the coal industry that is occurring now in my electorate is contributing a great deal to the revenue coming to the government.

There are two projects on the agenda in my electorate where two communities are getting in and having a go. They are pulling together private contributions from industry to make local projects happen and we are waiting on the federal government to do its bit to help make those projects a reality. The first one is the Moura airstrip. Moura is a mining community in the Banana Shire. It is a very fast-growing community. In the middle of last year, a $1 billion expansion to the coalmine that operates there was announced. The shire council is keen to upgrade the airstrip in the township of Moura, partly to support the industry there and in recognition that, when you have thousands of miners working in the community, emergency services facilities are always very important. There is always the risk in a dangerous occupation like that that people will need urgent medical attention.

The mining industry has stumped up $300,000—Anglo Coal has put in $300,000—and the state government has contributed $230,000 already towards the project to make the Moura airstrip an all-weather runway, in recognition of the growth in the town. The project is expected to cost $820,000 in total. The council is very keen for the federal government to come on board and put in a share of funding to help that project go ahead. I understand an application is with the area consultative committee and it is getting quite a bit of support from our local area consultative committee. I hope that Minister Truss will look very carefully at that application and recognise that the community has already put forward a big contribution on its own behalf, through the coal company, and that the state government is also on board. We need a demonstration from the federal government that it recognises the importance of this project and the opportunities that a community like Moura is identifying for itself and that Moura needs that partnership to make it a reality.

The other project is in the town of Blackwater—another booming coalmining town in my electorate. The project is to build a health facility and a gym on the site of the current PCYC facility. That is also a project that has great community support, which is demonstrated by the support of the council and also the local mining companies. There is a consortium of four or five mining companies, including Wesfarmers and BHP Billiton Mitsubishi Alliance, together with Thiess and Yarrabee mines and a local contractor TWM, who between them are putting up $350,000 for the project. They are also seeking a federal and state partnership and funding to help make that project happen.

So, again, I would call on the federal government and particularly Minister Truss to recognise what these communities in my electorate are doing for themselves and to support that important project. The project will really enhance the lifestyle in Blackwater by providing that important sporting facility. The facility will also accommodate an allied health centre to attract more health professionals to Blackwater and will generally improve the health of citizens by making the sporting facilities available.

Finally, I want to shift tack altogether and talk about the number of calls and visitors that I am getting to my office complaining about telemarketers. Telemarketers are becoming one of the biggest gripes for constituents in my electorate and the issue is only getting worse. Last week, I had Mrs Meek, who is 83 years old, contact my office about an issue she had with a telecommunications company. Mrs Meek had received a bill from a company that she had never heard of before who were charging her for a service that she was unaware she was using. Upon investigation from my office, it was discovered that Mrs Meek had been switched from Telstra to another company after one of these telemarketing calls. Mrs Meek said that she never gave anyone permission to switch her phone but that she listened to what the telemarketer had to offer before kindly rejecting their offer.

This is not an isolated case. My office is handling many more of these complaints of telecommunication carrier switches without approval from the customer involved. These telemarketers particularly prey on the elderly by asking questions that will garner a positive response. This is then all they need to switch that person’s calls to them. This is an outrageous practice and needs to be reviewed immediately.

At the other end of the spectrum, from the elderly people contacting my office, there are young families. There is nothing more annoying for Australian families than the telephone ringing while dinner is being prepared or eaten. Anyone who has had the displeasure of answering the phone under the presumption that it may be important only to find that it is a telemarketer ringing to waste their valuable time, knows why. Many individuals have expressed to me that they no longer answer the phone at dinner time simply due to the possibility that the caller may be a telemarketer trying to sell them something they do not really want or need. These calls seem to come at the worst possible time, and many people are reporting numerous calls in one day. For example, one woman in my electorate reported a total of 15 calls in a single day. Even my electorate office, it appears, is not immune from these calls, with my staff reporting several calls every week from telemarketers trying to sell everything from insurance to holidays. So I can certainly understand why many of my constituents become angry with the callers.

Labor’s proposed Do Not Call Register is an idea that is appealing to everyone I speak to who has had the unfortunate experience of being swamped by telemarketing calls. Our proposal to fine companies that breach the list would see a massive reduction in the number of calls being made in this country. Anything that can reduce these annoying invasions of privacy should be looked at by the government. But they are ignoring our proposal simply because they were not the ones that came up with it. Instead, the telecommunications minister asserts that she needs another 12 months to implement something in this area. This is crazy. Australians want a Do Not Call Register and they want it now.

The common thread in these issues I am raising is that while the government wants to pat itself on the back for its apparently successful management of the economy—although dark clouds are gathering, from some of the figures that we see—it is just out of touch with what is really going to make a difference in people’s lives. As I said, telecommunications infrastructure, aged care and things like addressing these nuisance calls from telemarketers are important in my electorate. (Time expired)