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Monday, 23 June 2003
Page: 17220

Ms PANOPOULOS (5:40 PM) —I rise tonight to convey my deepest concern about the appalling behaviour of a major communications provider towards my constituentsIan and Rosemary Metherall of Springhurst. This matter relates to the laying of telecommunications cables by a private company across the Metheralls' property and the manner in which it treated this family. PowerTel's behaviour displays all the hallmarks of the ugly and unpleasant qualities which can be found in uncaring, insensitive and bullying corporations.

Mr Metherall is a farmer with a large cattle property. It is trite to observe that farming land is of limited value without water. The source of water for Mr Metherall's property is provided by a network of springs which produce ample fresh and clear water. In June 2001, while Mr Metherall was in England, he was contacted by an employee who informed him that surveyors had entered the property without advice or notice. Mr Metherall learned that they were acting on behalf of PowerTel. Subsequently he received a notice of entry in August, a month after the entry had taken place. Upon Mr Metherall's return, he sought the assistance of the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman.

On the day that the work was to be undertaken on the property, Mr Metherall was required to be in Melbourne on business and asked that the works not commence in his absence. The Metheralls had not been previously formally advised of entry to their land. His wife, alone at home, received an early morning fax which instructed the Metheralls that, if entry was resisted that day, they would be subject to a fine of $10,000 per day of denial of entry. Until Mrs Metherall insisted on being provided with plans of the proposed excavations, no plans of the intended route of the cable were presented to the Metheralls. When they did get hold of the plans, they discovered to their horror that the route passed directly through the source of their water supply—an environmentally sensitive spring.

The Metheralls sought legal advice as to how they may protect their spring and consequently their water. In due course, the Ombudsman made his findings and gave directions which, in part, read:

I direct PowerTel, prior to installation of the cable and during site inspection (land entry activity) to accurately plot the position of the spring and to design, and subsequently install the cable along, a route which avoids the spring.

This energetic resistance by the Metheralls to having a cable buried across their property, cutting through a spring and without proper and meaningful negotiations was more than PowerTel was prepared to tolerate. It arrived at the property accompanied by the local constabulary. According to Mr Metherall, neither the company nor the police were interested in reading the directive from the Ombudsman. In spite of five hours of discussions Enerserve, the contractors for PowerTel, and PowerTel refused to amend their plans to avoid passing through and destroying the spring. An officer of Enerserve decided on the remarkable solution of drilling under the spring. The result, of course, was to destroy the flow of water from the spring.

The Telecommunications Act provides that work carried out on private property, like the laying of cables, shall be of `low impact'. On the first day of the construction an excavation that measured 10 metres by 11 metres and 14 metres deep was undertaken. When the company took a bulldozer into the spring to rip the cap off, Mr Metherall parked his tractor on the spring to prevent further damage, which caused the further attendance of the local police. Mr Metherall was forced to remove his tractor and stood by while a bore was drilled into the spring, causing the escape of 280 gallons of water per hour—in the very area that the Ombudsman had directed that PowerTel avoid. The proposed bizarre solution of the company was to plug the bore with concrete. The company and contractor arrived again, this time to block up the spring so as to allow for the laying of the cable. After further attempts, Mr Metherall again placed his tractor over the spring and finally the company diverted the laying of the cable to a new route which avoided the spring, perversely a course that should have been taken from the outset.

I regret that this is not the first or only occasion on which PowerTel have acted in a totally unacceptable and arrogant manner towards landowners. The imbroglio has not only caused great anguish for the Metherall family but also cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees and consultants' fees. A consultant hydrologist alone, engaged to advise on how to manage the damage, cost them $30,000. The Metheralls now find PowerTel effectively accusing them of causing damage to the bore through remedial works. It is a classic case of doublespeak. There is absolutely no acceptable reason that a farmer should find himself substantially financially disadvantaged because a telecommunications company chooses to place fibre-optic cables through his or her property. It is unacceptable and it is un-Australian.

There appear to be defects in the administration of the Telecommunications Act that place the farmer at a considerable disadvantage and at the behest of powerful corporate entities. If things go wrong, as has occurred on Mr Metherall's property, and the parties are unable to agree on compensation, the matter must be adjudicated in the courts. This only exacerbates personal strife and anxiety, and it does little to ease the considerable stress and worry that has fallen on the Metherall family. In spite of the fact that the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman is funded by the telecommunications industry, one has to accept that he acts in good faith. However, I have to say that on this occasion he failed the Metherall family of Springhurst, as there was little attempt to enforce his own direction to PowerTel.

These powerful companies know that most farmers will not be able to financially compete with them in the courts, and that has the effect of forcing farmers into disadvantageous agreements. It is of little comfort to the Metherall family that the PowerTel share price has fallen to a low of 6.9c or that the company has recently been beset by the fortunes of market capitalisation. All the Metheralls want is a fair, reasonable and equitable outcome to their ongoing complaints about PowerTel.

The Energy Australia project to install a 2,417-kilometre fibre-optic network link between Sydney and Melbourne promised so much. PowerTel stated that this project would be the:

... backbone of the fibre optic network designed to reach most large buildings in Australia's central business districts offering a full range of specialised and competitive broadband service for high speed data, internet and voice.

These are, indeed, lofty prospects, which have not yet materialised. In fact, last year the Financial Review reported that a Victorian company says that Energy Australia owes it $1 million over the botched contract to install fibre-optic cable and conceded that it would lose between $6 million and $10 million on the $25 million project it entered into on behalf of PowerTel.

The unpalatable fact is that this corporate and agricultural nightmare could easily have been avoided. The legislation allows for low-impact works on private land. The impact on not only the Metheralls' land but also their livelihood, stock, income and personal welfare has been anything but low. Here, the fortunes of a proud and hardworking farming family who care for the land have been reduced to fighting through litigation—something that should never have occurred.

This insensitive development occurred prior to my installation as federal member. However, the Metherall family has been in constant contact with my office and with me to inform me of their disgust at the actions of PowerTel and the Energy Australia project. They feel powerless in a system that is much bigger and more powerful than them. Perhaps the telecommunications companies feel that Australian farmers will just stand by while their land is insensitively and haphazardly ripped apart. In the case of the Metherall family, they have found the very opposite. Ian and Rosemary Metherall should be commended for their fighting spirit against the powerful corporations that have treated their livelihood with complete and utter disdain. Ian and Rosemary Metherall are yet to find an acceptable solution to their ongoing difficulties, but the fight will go on.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. D.G.H. Adams)—I put the question:

That grievances be noted.

Question agreed to.