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- Start of Business
- QUESTIONS TO THE SPEAKER
- QUESTIONS WITHOUT NOTICE
- DISTINGUISHED VISITORS
QUESTIONS WITHOUT NOTICE
Trade: Import Risk Analysis
(Ripoll, Bernie, MP, Vaile, Mark, MP)
Snowy Hydro Corporatisation
(Gash, Joanna, MP, Howard, John, MP)
(Beazley, Kim, MP, Howard, John, MP)
(Tollner, David, MP, Downer, Alexander, MP)
(Beazley, Kim, MP, Howard, John, MP)
(Henry, Stuart, MP, Costello, Peter, MP)
(Smith, Stephen, MP, Howard, John, MP)
(Lindsay, Peter, MP, Nelson, Dr Brendan, MP)
(Macklin, Jenny, MP, Howard, John, MP)
(Vasta, Ross, MP, Costello, Peter, MP)
Snowy Hydro Ltd
(Windsor, Antony, MP, Howard, John, MP)
(Moylan, Judi, MP, Downer, Alexander, MP)
(Macklin, Jenny, MP, Hardgrave, Gary, MP)
(Keenan, Michael, MP, Abbott, Tony, MP)
Oil for Food Program
(Rudd, Kevin, MP, Vaile, Mark, MP)
- Trade: Import Risk Analysis
QUESTIONS TO THE SPEAKER
(Gillard, Julia, MP, SPEAKER, The)
Divisions: Recording of Votes
(Gillard, Julia, MP, SPEAKER, The)
(McMullan, Bob, MP, SPEAKER, The)
- Parliamentary Behaviour
- PERSONAL EXPLANATIONS
- PERSONAL EXPLANATIONS
- SNOWY HYDRO LTD
- MATTERS OF PUBLIC IMPORTANCE
- AUSTRALIAN TRADE COMMISSION LEGISLATION AMENDMENT BILL 2006
- ROYAL COMMISSIONS AMENDMENT BILL 2006
- Queensland Liberal and National Parties
- Regional and Northern Maintenance Services
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- East Timor: Friends of Ermera
- Queensland Liberal and National Parties
- Mrs Dorothy Edwards CBE
- Start of Business
STATEMENTS BY MEMBERS
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APPROPRIATION BILL (NO. 1) 2006-2007
APPROPRIATION BILL (NO. 2) 2006-2007
APPROPRIATION (PARLIAMENTARY DEPARTMENTS) BILL (NO. 1) 2006-2007
APPROPRIATION BILL (NO. 5) 2005-2006
APPROPRIATION BILL (NO. 6) 2005-2006
- QUESTIONS IN WRITING
Tuesday, 30 May 2006
Ms ROXON (8:22 PM) —I would like to take this opportunity on the appropriations bills to raise a number of issues. All of them are of interest to my electorate but one of particular interest is access to telecommunications, especially broadband access. I would like to spend quite a bit of time on that because it is an issue that is increasingly becoming a problem, despite my holding an inner-city seat in Melbourne. You might be surprised to know that, Mr Deputy Speaker Adams, since you come from a regional area, but it is a very real issue for my electorate too. We often talk about the problems with broadband access and telecommunications and the digital divide being an issue just for regional Australia but, as you will see when I make my comments, this is actually a very real issue even for people that are only a few kilometres from the CBD. I would also like to touch on two issues of particular interest to my portfolio area, as the shadow Attorney-General, that relate to community legal centres and family relationships centres, and I will do that later.
I was very disappointed that in this budget there was no money at all dealing with expanding access to broadband internet across the country. There is no new money in this year’s budget for broadband technology that would link Australia to the rest of the world at the click of a button, no new money for broadband infrastructure that would place Australia at the cutting edge of developing information and telecommunications technologies and no new money for broadband infrastructure that would open up educational opportunities for our children. These things are of great concern to me, particularly the restrictions we might be placing on our children. Increasingly, the need for information and the internet as a research tool is becoming part of everyday schooling, but it is not yet part of everyday home access and facilities. It did not surprise me that there is not anything in the budget for this sort of change, because the tired old Howard government does not seem to be that interested in fresh ideas for Australia’s future. The government has failed to recognise the potential applications and uses for broadband technology and has left Australia lagging behind while our international competitors pass us by. Given the well-established significant social and educational benefits of home computer use and internet access, the neglect of broadband infrastructure is holding us back.
Recent overseas studies have shown that the presence of computers and internet use at home are strongly and positively associated with the academic outcomes of schoolchildren, particularly children from disadvantaged backgrounds. I think the Telstra ad that we see on television at the moment puts it quite well. A father is talking to his child. When the child asks about the Great Wall of China and why it was built, the father, a little bit flummoxed, says that he thinks it was built by ‘Emperor Nasi Goreng’ to keep the rabbits out. I think all of us can relate to that. The fear we have that, without the benefits of access to new and emerging telecommunications, we do not have the answers to questions that seem to be at everybody else’s fingertips is very real. We need to make sure that that father or anyone else in the community who is trying to help their child learn how to find out information, how to do research and how to get answers to questions will actually to be able to do so through the use of this modern technology that puts such a vast range of information at our fingertips.
Unfortunately, my electorate remains one of the most disadvantaged in metropolitan Melbourne in its telecommunications services. We know that access to information technology is critical in this day and age, and the lack of telecommunications infrastructure throughout Australia just serves to compound this disadvantage. We could be using broadband for interactive tutoring or internet training programs to close the digital divide. Instead, the government’s neglect has widened that divide. Business could be using broadband to process payments, maintain complex intranets, place or make orders overseas and save the hours wasted waiting for documents to download.
Broadband has amazing implications for the way Australia does business and engages with the rest of the world. Our geographic isolation means nothing when we can hold five meetings all over the world in one day via videoconferencing or download the latest DVD from America. Broadband holds great potential. It has already given us voice over internet protocol, which, if you can get effective broadband, makes STD calls obsolete. These kinds of innovative technologies could be developed in an Australian market if we had the infrastructure to support them. But, because of the Howard government’s self-serving preoccupation with selling Telstra, we do not.
The speed and price of broadband in Australia just does not stack up to what is available in comparable countries in the rest of the world. In Canada, the entry-level retail broadband plan is cheaper and offers six times the speed and 30 times the free monthly download capacity of an equivalent product in Australia. Clearly, the roll-out of broadband technology in this country is patchy at best, and that is not just in the bush. Without real government leadership on this issue, Australia will continue to be left behind countries like Canada or Korea, which has almost double the number of broadband subscribers per 100 people that Australia does.
In my inner-city electorate of Gellibrand, we have significant black spots in our broadband internet services. In suburbs that are less than 20 kilometres from the CBD, a number of houses and businesses cannot get broadband internet access at all. Altona, which is only 16 kilometres from the CBD, is clearly not rural, regional or the bush. It is part of the inner city of Melbourne. But the National Party tells us that the problems with the telecommunications services only happen in the bush. As a result, Gellibrand will not get a look in for the coalition’s $2 billion slush fund from the sale of Telstra. Particularly worrying to me is the fact that a number of small businesses, particularly in the industrialised parts of the Altona and Altona Meadows regions, cannot get access to broadband for their businesses. Numerous studies have shown us that the productivity gains to business of broadband internet are significant. How many wasted hours are spent in waiting for the new webpage to upload with a dial-up connection or in posting off invoices that could be sent by email in a second? It is businesses in my electorate that are suffering because of the lack of these services.
People in my electorate have been offered expensive wireless services or satellite broadband as an alternative to cable or ADSL, but the cost is prohibitive, and anecdotal evidence suggests that the service is patchy. The maximum speed for wireless internet is still only two megabytes per second, not enough to download any of the new video features that will be so important as this technology moves forward. While the take-up of broadband in Australia has increased over recent years, I am also concerned that, due to a lack of infrastructure, those in my electorate who are willing and able to take up this technology cannot and may even be disadvantaged by the low home internet use in the area, just as rural and regional communities are disadvantaged by the lack of infrastructure.
There is one family in my electorate with one child in primary school, another in secondary and the parents are running a business from home. They could be doing all of this much more efficiently if they could get access to broadband. Both their business and their children’s education suffer because of the second-rate broadband infrastructure in the area. This is of great concern to me because we still have significant pockets of educational disadvantage. We still have relatively high rates of youth unemployment and, although we are an industrialised region, we still have a shortage of jobs. This technology could be not only skilling our children for future jobs but making some of the businesses even more successful and able to employ more people. We are holding them back because of this lack of vital infrastructure.
The technologies that broadband make possible like voice over internet protocol that I mentioned before would also be invaluable to constituents in my electorate, many of whom come from non-English-speaking backgrounds and often have brothers, sisters, parents, husbands, wives and children overseas. The prospect of being able to speak to their loved ones over the internet whenever they want is surely an exciting one for them but it is not much use if access cannot be obtained. All these possibilities are being held back by the government, who had a lack of vision in this budget for our future in this regard. They have had 10 long years to bring this country up to speed, but in telecommunications they have failed.
Labor’s broadband plan for a joint venture to deliver a national broadband network will deliver internet speeds at least 25 times faster than the current industry benchmark and provide essential infrastructure to the business community. Superfast broadband is estimated by the government’s own broadband advisory group as having the potential to add $12 billion to $30 billion to national production every year. Not only will Labor’s plan provide the telecommunications services we need now; it will also lay the future foundations to adapt technologies as they develop by providing the necessary infrastructure. It will provide equal access to broadband internet in the city and in the regions and banish broadband black spots like those in my electorate.
It is a national investment that will set up the next wave of economic growth needed to secure the future of our children. The piecemeal and patchy services currently available do not meet Australia’s infrastructure needs for the 21st century and the needs of hundreds of people in my electorate. People in my electorate deserve access not only for their children to this sort of technology for their studies and future employment prospects but also for the businesses that they are trying to run today without these services.
Secondly, I want to turn to an issue that is of concern to me in my portfolio area—that is, community legal centres. Sadly, the budget does not contain any new funding at all for community legal centres. When I say it does not contain any new funding, it does not even have a CPI adjustment for the small amount of money that is allocated to community legal centres. They do an enormous amount of good work. They provide services to the community, ordinary families and ordinary working people, who may have problems with their neighbours, problems with the law, a dispute with Centrelink or a family dispute. All of those are reasons why people may need legal services but cannot afford them.
Community legal centres provide a free service, and often advice given early prevents people going to court in the future. These services provide enormous value to the community. They are under extraordinary pressure, and the government has not even indexed their meagre budget. On top of this, we have seen a huge legislative program from this government that is going to increase the amount of work that these community centres will need do to. Unfortunately, we believe this program is going to disadvantage millions of Australians by attacking their rights at work, introducing new rules in both family law and the welfare system and forcing more people to seek advice and remedies through the legal system. It is a shame that the budget could not see its way to indexing current community legal centre funding to cover the costs of inflation. This appalling neglect of CLC funding has led to a number of CLCs suggesting that they will have to reduce service hours to be able to cope with existing, let alone increased, demand.
The Howard government’s extreme industrial relations changes will increase the volume of people seeking legal advice on their employment contracts by encouraging individual contracts and reducing the role of the Industrial Relations Commission and trade unions in resolving disputes between employees and employers. Of course, this will have the result of workers having fewer places to turn to find advocates or even just information about their rights. Community legal centres will become one of the few resources left for working people to seek that advice free of charge.
By removing protection against unfair dismissals, the new laws will increase the number of people seeking a remedy for unlawful dismissals through the courts, which inevitably again means more work for CLCs. Put on top of that the Welfare to Work legislation, with its stringent and onerous reporting requirements for single parents and disability pensioners, and we are going to see an increase in the number of people seeking assistance to appeal decisions on their Centrelink payments or to have payments reinstated. Social security disputes already make up a large proportion of the workload of community legal centres, and this will only increase as Centrelink customers come to terms with the new laws.
Then there are the complex changes to family law which were passed earlier this year, not to mention changes to the child support system, which are also close upon us. These changes affect some of the key principles in determining residency and parenting arrangements and they also create new penalties for those who breach court orders. There is no doubt that these changes will increase the number of families that are seeking advice about how the changes might affect their arrangement. In fact, given that the government is planning a national advertising campaign about these changes, we should expect a flood of people walking into CLCs for advice and information. Even though—a matter that I will come to in a moment—the government is setting up new family relationship centres, those centres are expressly asked not to provide legal advice. There will, whatever happens, still be some people who will need legal advice, and the CLCs will be the places that people will turn to.
While the government is increasing all these pressures on families, single parents and anybody who is in the workforce, it seems to be intent on reducing access to free legal advice and assistance by systematically undermining the community legal centres. So it is very unfortunate, despite other things having been allocated money in this budget, that nothing has found its way to the community legal centres. They have been long suffering under the Howard government, and we have seen time and time again that the government has preferred to spend public money on private legal services and advice for itself, to the tune of more than $170 million each year, while the entire community legal centre program, which provides legal services free of charge to the broader Australian public, gets only $24 million each year. Surely we can allocate our money better than that.
On top of the pressures on the existing services, we have not got any new services in a number of areas that desperately need them. All of the indicators show that the electorates of Bendigo, Hindmarsh, Richmond, Cowper, Paterson, Greenway, Hinkler and Dobell are in great need of community legal centres. I know that you, Mr Deputy Speaker Causley, having a community legal centre in your electorate, would be very well aware of the good work that they do and the struggle that they have in trying to provide outreach services to those neighbouring electorates that do not have them. But again we see nothing in the budget that acknowledges (1) that the existing service is under pressure, or (2) that there are actually new growth areas that are not serviced and that need services and that the government will have to put some money into doing so.
I think it is also particularly important to note that some of the specialised services, like the Women’s Legal Service and the Aboriginal legal services, are not being adequately funded. In the current debate in which we have been dealing with questions of abuse and domestic violence in Aboriginal communities, we cannot simply talk about increased policing; we also need to talk about what other things might assist in increasing conviction rates and we need to look at how we provide support to victims, how we provide advice to victims and how we increase community education and awareness. All of these things are done regularly by community legal services and we should look at whether providing some further assistance to these services could also be part of our solution to what is a very serious problem.
We do need to support people in the Aboriginal communities that are prepared to speak out and want access to justice, and we should make sure that we provide them with support. So far, the Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs has been ignoring the federal responsibilities that exist for providing some of this support and has been focusing just on territory and state responsibilities. But this neglected program is one that does help Australians of all colours and backgrounds to get access to justice when they cannot afford expensive lawyers fees, and we need to seriously revisit it.
In the short time remaining to me I want to also talk briefly about family relationship centres, because this is one of the programs that the government has allocated money to in the budget. We are pleased about and have supported the existence of these centres and we know that there is some extra money in the budget that has been allocated on top of the money in last year’s budget, because the roll-out is happening slowly. But that extra money has been allocated because new work is going to be given to the family relationship centres in addition to what was originally intended—that is, a big chunk of advice on child support matters, which is going to dramatically increase the work and expectations for these family relationship centres.
I am concerned that, despite the money being allocated and us broadly being supportive of the program, there are already signs that it is being mismanaged and that it has been plagued by political interference and bungling from the beginning. We recently obtained departmental advice that was given to the Attorney-General from FaCSIA on the areas most in need of these family relationship centres. To my surprise, the list that the Attorney announced significantly differs from the FRC locations that were recommended to the minister. The electorates of the Minister for Health and Ageing, the Assistant Treasurer, the Minister for Workforce Participation and even the Prime Minister were favoured when the government ignored departmental data to make sure that the centres were distributed on political grounds, not on the basis of need.
Two centres were ranked highly for Melbourne’s west—one in my electorate and one in the member for Lalor’s electorate, in Melton. We received only one, to be located in a neighbouring electorate. But, although only one centre was ranked as suitable in northern Sydney, they have magically received two, one in the Prime Minister’s electorate and one in the health minister’s electorate. It is of great surprise to me that the western suburbs of Melbourne were recommended to have two, they got one and we find that one of them has moved to the northern suburbs of Sydney, where all the indicators of need from FaCSIA—such as child support customers, single parent families and parenting payment recipients—rank very low.
I am concerned that although the Attorney says that there is no political bias, we are not able to see how these centres are being allocated on the basis of need. Even some of the electorates which do not have community legal centres, such as Bendigo, Richmond and Patterson, will not get family relationship centres. The neighbouring services will be under extraordinary pressure. We do not see sufficient money being allocated and we do not see the Attorney taking these issues seriously. (Time expired)