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Wednesday, 13 February 2013
Page: 1354

Mr BALDWIN (Paterson) (17:57): I rise today to address Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2012-2013 and Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 2012-2013, which together are termed the additional estimates appropriation bills. These bills seek to appropriate funds from the Consolidated Revenue Fund for additional expenditure requirements that have arisen since the last budget. In total these bills seek to appropriate $1.27 billion for government departments and agencies.

I think it is timely when considering these bills to discuss Labor's record on economic management—or should I more correctly say economic mismanagement, to be exactly precise? When the government walked away from its so-called non-negotiable budget surplus promise for the next financial year, it was an admission that it had lost control of the economy. It lost control through wasteful and excessive spending, long after the global financial crisis gave it cover to do so. We have seen unprecedented levels of waste from this government: pink batts, overpriced school halls, cheques to dead people, blow-outs on border protection and, in my electorate of Paterson, an absolute mismanagement of the digital television switchover. These are symbols of this government's incompetence.

This government has delivered the four biggest budget deficits in our nation's history, with a cumulative value of $172 billion. Labor is now the highest spending government in Australia's history. At first it could almost get away with it because the previous coalition government left it with a $20 billion surplus, zero net debt and an unemployment rate of around four per cent. But now the continued economic mismanagement of this government is hurting the country. It is hurting every Australian, reaching right down to every constituent in Paterson, with the rising costs of living. I cannot stand by while Labor spends millions on a 'Get digital ready' television advertising campaign, for example, but invests a pittance in upgrading or installing new regional television towers in areas like Paterson, ignoring my warnings to upgrade them and address the issue at a local level. In November last year the analog television signal switched off in Paterson. For well over a year beforehand I repeatedly warned the government that entire suburbs would be without television reception if the digital towers in the area were not fully upgraded and more installed. This came on top of extensive delays for those residents who were eligible for the Household Assistance Scheme. Many pensioners, older Australians, veterans, and people with a disability and their carers were forced to wait months for the promised high-definition set-top box, demonstration of the new equipment and instructions on how to use it—and the 12-month warranty service and technical support. Once these residents finally received the Household Assistance Scheme package there were still problems and my office has been inundated with calls from residents whose television reception has actually worsened.

So after waiting months for a service promised to them by this government, a large number of these people have found that the service they were provided was subpar either because their antenna was aligned incorrectly or because their area actually receives very little digital television reception. Many of my constituents in Anna Bay were visited multiple times by government contracted technicians under the HAS scheme who, at first, aligned antennas in the area to the Mt Sugarloaf transmitter, which is almost 70 kilometres away, and provided very, very poor reception. This was done just weeks before the new self-help transmitter was due to be installed in Anna Bay itself. After multiple representations from my office on the half my constituents the technicians returned to these households and realigned the antennas to the new local transmitter.

The mind boggles at the kind of waste and mismanagement. I would love to know what the cost to the Australian taxpayer is for every return visit made by a government contracted technicians carrying out the HAS package. The waste and mismanagement continues. Just last week my office was contacted by Brian Hansford of Corlette in the Port Stephens area. This is a notorious black spot for digital television reception in my electorate, the subject of many speeches in this House. Many residents in these black spots are simply unable to pick up a digital television signal because of the geographical features of the local area. For these residents, the government subsidised Viewer Access Satellite Television—VAST—scheme and it is their only option.

After trying a range of things to get digital television reception, including an antenna, mast and booster, Mr Hansford was approved for the VAST scheme last month, after first being concerned he would not be granted approval and contacting my office for some help. After contacting the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Stephen Conroy, we confirmed that Mr Hansford was eligible to access VAST. But just last week Mr Hansford called my office to advise his application for VAST had been rejected.

The time line goes like this: Mr Hansford applies for VAST then calls my office because he is concerned his application will be rejected; my office confirms with Senator Conroy's office that he is eligible for the VAST; someone from the government's Digital Switchover Taskforce calls Mr Hansford and confirms his application will be approved. Then one week later Mr Hansford is told by VAST that his application has been rejected. This whole confused mess has come about because of the government's mismanagement of every aspect of the Digital Television Switchover, including their decision to waste millions of taxpayers' dollars on an advertising campaign to make themselves look good instead of investing in more television transmission towers.

What are Paterson residents who are not eligible for the Household Assistance Scheme meant to do now they have outlaid hundred or indeed thousands of dollars upgrading their televisions and antenna, like the government instructed them to do? They spent this money to get digital ready because the government told them to do so. The government, in fact, spent millions of on an advertising campaign to promote the switch-over and the steps Australians needed to take to continue to receive television services. What the government did not tell my constituents was that they were spending millions of dollars on positive PR campaigns and little or nothing on upgrading television towers servicing large parts of my electorate of Paterson. The areas of Bulahdelah, Tomaree Peninsula, Tilligerry Peninsula, Medowie, Tea Gardens/Hawks Nest, Booral, Brandy Hill, Dungog—all have a high number of residents who are unable to access sufficient digital television reception. My constituents have done everything right. They have upgraded their televisions, they have installed new antennas, and they have paid for boosters, set-top boxes and the increasing energy prices that now go along with operating their televisions, yet they have patchy or zero reception, where before they received a perfect signal from the analog system. I have contacted the minister many times with regard to regional upgrade requirements in these areas, but until such time as upgrades happen, if indeed they happen at all, my constituents are experiencing very poor and, in some cases, zero reception. This is a very serious matter. My constituents rely on their televisions for entertainment and as their news source, including news on events such as natural disasters. This is particularly so for older Australians, who make up a very high percentage of residents in the Paterson area. Depriving these people of television reception, after advising them to spend money they do not have to upgrade their existing television, is both irresponsible and heartless.

That is not to mention the community based nursing homes and lodges in my electorate, places like Bulahdelah Nursing Home, whose residents' only source of outside entertainment and communication is their television. There is no subsidy for these residences or the nursing homes. And what use is a VAST system when the local news is not broadcast until after 8 pm. Country people need local news and information at six o'clock, like the rest of the nation. To date I have made over 250 representations to Senator Conroy's office on behalf of my constituents, and that is only a small part of the number of people who have actually contacted my office. They have all experienced dramatically worse television reception since the switch-off of the analog signal. Make no mistake; this is one of the biggest problems in my electorate of Paterson at the moment. Local newspapers, the Port Stephens Examiner, the Maitland Mercury, the Dungog Chronicle, the Gloucester Advocate, the Great Lakes Advocate and the Myall Nota, have all covered this issue and are eagerly awaiting a solution to the problem, as indeed we all are.

The government's digital switch-over task force has attempted to explain away the reception problems in Paterson as a result of atmospheric ducting, meaning that on a hot and windy day signals from distant transmitter sites are carried further than normal, causing interference. I refuse to accept that it is my constituents who should accept poor television reception every time it is hot and windy, which is often the case in coastal areas like Port Stephens.

On the day the analog signals were switched off in Paterson, Nerida O'Loughlin from the Digital Ready Executive Director, appeared on ABC Newcastle and said:

The Government put in place a strong framework for introducing digital. Firstly the broadcasters are required under law to provide signal for digital which are equivalent coverage to what they had for analog.

Fail, fail, fail.

Under law, broadcasters must provide the same level of coverage that was provided by the analog signals before the switch-over. This has simply not happened and the minister is doing nothing about it. Last month I wrote to Senator Conroy and asked what the government was doing to ensure it keeps its promises and forced broadcasters to provide equivalent coverage under the digital television system. I am yet to receive a response. But actions speak louder than words. I am out there every day fighting for my constituents on this issue while the government has been conspicuously silent. I have used the term 'economic mismanagement' throughout this speech but, now, when I use this term in connection with the government I am not only referring to their incompetent administration of the digital television switch-over; I am also referring to the way that they have placed backroom deals and pork-barrelling above the interests of the people. Three years ago, Labor needed the member for Lyne, Rob Oakeshott, to help them form a government. Since that time, they have ignored the needs of Australians living in areas adjacent to the Lyne electorate in favour of pouring money into Mr Oakeshott's region.

The Bucketts Way is a road around 150 kilometres long. It runs from Tinonee near Taree in the Lyne electorate to Twelve Mile Creek near Medowie in my own electorate. It passes through the town of Gloucester in the electorate of Lyne. When the previous coalition government delivered $20 for funding upgrades to the Bucketts Way road, four council areas—Taree, Gloucester in the north, and Great Lakes and Port Stephens in the south—worked together to get the job done. The works were along the entire length of the road.

The Labor government allocated a further $10 million in funding for the Buckets Way, and guess where it all went. That is right. It went straight into Taree and Gloucester, which makes up about half the length of the road. Great Lakes and Port Stephens received nothing, despite Great Lakes preparing the report for the funding submission. The member for Lyne needs to understand that his constituents, particularly those in Gloucester, drive the entire length of Bucketts Way; they do not stop at the border of my electorate. They travel to Newcastle in the south and to Taree in the north. Upgrading the whole road and making it safe for everybody who travels on that road should be the priority. What is needed is passing lanes along the whole length of the road, not just in the member for Lyne's electorate.

Indeed, trucks from Armidale are now travelling to Newcastle via Thunderbolts Way and then Bucketts Way, because it is quicker for them to do so. This has increased not only the general traffic load on Bucketts Way but the heavy traffic load. Upgrading the entire length of the road and installing passing lanes is more pressing than ever before in the light of the safety concerns this presents. Yet these safety concerns mean nothing to the government and the member for Lyne, who are only concerned with shoring up their respective positions.

This latest injection of funds into Bucketts Way was not based on need nor on the report. It was based on looking after the best interests of this government and the member for Lyne, at the expense of anyone else who uses that road outside the Taree and Gloucester areas.

The additional estimates appropriation bills before us today have brought about a timely discussion of this government's economic mismanagement. The abandonment of a surplus that Julia Gillard, Wayne Swan and Penny Wong promised, on 650 occasions, that they would deliver is tantamount to an admission that they have lost control of the nation's finances. Members even put out glossy brochures claiming that they had actually delivered a surplus—more mendacious statements from a Prime Minister and a Treasurer who, remember, promised: 'There will be no carbon tax under a government I lead.'

Federal government revenue is now more than $70 billion higher than it was when Labor took office. Yet, in 2011-12, net debt hit an unprecedented $147 billion. Regardless of the government's rhetoric it has a spending and a forecasting problem, not a revenue problem.

The mismanagement of the digital television switchover in the electorate of Paterson and the backroom deals that see funding directed to electorates based on anything other than need are both indicative of this government's economic approach. And, as we have seen, the approach is definitely not working. Given that it took over a decade to pay off the $96 billion debt that we inherited from the Keating government, I hate to think how many generations to come will have to suffer as we pay off this massive and mounting debt that this government cares very little about in accumulating on behalf of this nation.