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Thursday, 14 March 2013
Page: 2245

Mr McCORMACK (Riverina) (11:17): I rise to speak about the review of the National Broadband Network rollout. It is a very important review. Broadband is already rolling out in the Riverina, certainly in Wagga Wagga. My good friend Joe Dennis was in Wagga Wagga just recently talking about the National Broadband Network. Parts of Wagga could have internet download speeds of 140 megabytes per second as early as mid-next year, according to NBN Co. Representatives were in the city on 6 March to dispel myths about the controversial multibillion-dollar project and to inform outlying areas of fewer than 1,000 premises about the services which will become available as part of the rollout. Mr Dennis, who is a consultant with NBN Co., said the rollout will be staggered. It will happen incrementally in three-month blocks, he said. The trouble with the NBN rollout is that it is just too slow and the take-up rate is not as high as the government would like. I can see the member for McEwen shaking his head. But I am correct on that: it is too slow and the take-up is not high enough. The trouble with this whole project was that it was initially going to cost $38 billion. We do not actually know what the figure might be now; it could be $50 billion or it could be $55 billion. The member for McEwen is again shaking his head. I am sure he will correct me and say no, it is going to come in under budget and on time. But it is just not going to happen.

Mr Mitchell: You don't want that.

Mr McCORMACK: We do want it to happen. We do want better broadband services for regional areas. But I will tell you what I would like to happen, and that is a better regional telecommunications fund to fix some of the black spot areas of mobile telephone communication. It is something I hear about every day from the people I represent. I am sure that you, as a regional member, hear it as well. I hear complaints about regional telecommunications and the black spots in our particular areas—your electorate of McEwen, my electorate of Riverina, the electorate of Flynn in Queensland and electorates in other parts of Australia. I hear far more complaints about poor mobile coverage—and I am sure that you do and that my Nationals colleague Ken O'Dowd, who is sitting right beside me, does as well—than I do about people wanting to download games faster than they can now.

Mr Mitchell interjecting

Mr McCORMACK: Well, it is games, and other things as well, which perhaps are not going to add to the nation's coffers.

Mr Mitchell: Education?

Mr McCORMACK: It is certainly education—and, if you are going to interject, I will throw in medicine, too. I know that there is a doctor in Temora, Dr Ash Collins, who is particularly keen to promote e-health in Temora. But the speeds that he has at the moment enable him to do that, and the NBN has not actually hit Temora yet. There are a lot of hospitals in my area that are quite happy with the download speeds that they have now. Medicine in real time is more important in regional areas, where there are far fewer specialists and far fewer doctors than in metropolitan areas. I would like hospitals to prioritise things a little better than they are now, certainly with the public health dollar. That would enable prostate biopsies to be performed in the theatre at Wagga Wagga Base Hospital and palliative care services for Wagga Wagga, which are not happening now.

Getting back to the rollout of the NBN, about 99 per cent of Australia's population has mobile phone coverage. However, 77 per cent of Australia's landmass has no reliable mobile coverage. That, I believe, is a far greater problem than having fibre to the node rolled out to as many premises as are lucky enough to have it. I was speaking to an NBN representative just last week who said that one of the biggest problems was that they were able to do a certain amount of rolling out of the NBN until they hit rocks. The ripping up of lawns and all those sorts of things are causing great distress for a lot of people. If the NBN just went up the main streets of particular towns and cities, certainly throughout regional Australia, you might think that it was not such a bad project. But the fact is that it is not going to towns of fewer than 1,000 premises. It is not being taken up in some areas by people who simply do not want to have to pay the high costs. And certainly we do not want our children and grandchildren to be saddled with a $50 billion debt when we are already $260 billion in debt.

I have been criticised for saying it—and the member for McEwen would probably know the sorts of critics who are out there—but I believe health is No. 1 and education is not too far behind when it comes to priorities for spending of taxpayers' money by the Commonwealth. There was no cost-benefit analysis done of the National Broadband Network before Labor just decided that this would be a good thing. They got on a plane and wrote down a few things on a coaster: 'School halls; that comes before health. What else can we do? Pink batts in roofs would be a good idea. We'll rip people's lawns up and lay this expensive fibre network which a lot of people do not need, or do not want, and cannot afford. But, hey, we'll do it, because we'll not have to worry about how we pay it back. We'll not have to worry. The coalition will do that. We have not produced a surplus since 1989, so why start now?'

An opposition member: Why start now? Why break the habit of a lifetime?

Mr McCORMACK: Exactly. Wyatt Roy will be a grandfather—in fact, I do not know whether Wyatt Roy, the member for Longman, will even be with us by the time Labor produces a surplus. And certainly there has not been one produced in his lifetime.

Mr Mitchell: Yes, there has.

Mr McCORMACK: No, there has not. The last time Labor produced a surplus was 1989 and Wyatt Roy was not born.

Mr Mitchell: He was born then!

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Order ! The member for McEwen is speaking next and he can have his say then.

Mr McCORMACK: Problems with mobile coverage was the predominant issue raised with the Regional Telecommunications Independent Review Committee in 2011-12, not that long ago. The issue was raised at every public hearing and in two-thirds of submissions. I just love some of the comments that came from that, and I just love the way country people speak. Jim Barwick, who lives near Warialda, where Mark Coulton, the member for Parkes, comes from, said this:

For crying out loud, surely we have a right to be able to make a bloody mobile phone call without having to climb a tree or sit on a silo!

And he is right. There are farmers in my electorate who stand on top of their International tractors. My father used to have an International tractor, and they are huge red things. They are iconic in Australian rural settings. I can just picture Dad, if he were still alive, standing on top of his tractor making a phone call and saying, 'Yeah, I'll get that price for wheat.' It is just ridiculous to think that they have to stand on top of the engine of a tractor to get mobile coverage, and for poor old Jim near Warialda, he has got to make his calls from in a tree or on top of a silo. We had another comment:

… businesses are unable to capitalise on advances in technology to improve productivity—for example, agricultural applications that use mobile technology to record and process data in the field.

Mobile coverage is so important in rural areas, but it is not happening. Now, with wheat being deregulated, farmers need to have access to mobile phone coverage.

One of the most important aspects of mobile phone coverage is safety. We are a nation of fires, floods and natural disasters—not because of climate change, but because that is just how Australia is. It is a country of contrasts. It has been since time began and it will continue to be. It is just the way this wonderful brown land operates. There were fires up in Tumbarumba in late 2009 and several floods in 2010; floods in February in Ganmain last year and in fact floods in all parts of my electorate in March last year; and there were fires again particularly throughout the east of my electorate and also in Narrandera in January this year—fires that made the national news. Many of those poor people affected by those floods and those devastating fires were not able to make emergency phone calls on their mobile phone because there was no coverage. There has never been any coverage, so, when the landlines go down due to natural disaster, what happens? How in the hell do these poor people know in advance that there is going to be an emergency, and how can they make a call to get themselves help, to get themselves that emergency assistance which they so desperately require? Certainly, if we are elected in September this year, and may the good Lord let that happen, I will certainly be lobbying for better mobile coverage, as I have with ministers.

Ms Saffin interjecting

Mr McCORMACK: I can see the member for Page laughing. This is a serious subject.

Ms Saffin interjecting

Mr McCORMACK: I know you are serious about mobile phone coverage in your electorate, because I know your electorate well, and I know that you have also got problems with mobile phone coverage.

Ms Saffin: We do.

Mr McCORMACK: You do. It is so important for country members to continue to fight for better services, because governments of all persuasions tend to be citycentric. They do. That is just the nature of the beast. But I can tell you, as a regional member, we will continue to fight for better mobile coverage, for improved access to the sorts of services that we need. I know how passionate the Nationals are about representing the regional areas and I am sure that all regional members are concerned and passionate and desperate to get better services for their areas. There is no bigger thing in regional areas than health; education is another, and mobile telephone communications are also very important.

Since 2008, the Labor government have done nothing—I will repeat that: nothing—to improve mobile phone coverage in regional Australia. This is to their detriment, to their eternal shame. The Boorowa Shire Council says:

Business in general has become more cost efficient through the use of technology, there is a definite productivity contrast between those farmers who enjoy mobile coverage, and those that don't. This impacts not only on profitability and competition, but will also have a negative impact on land values.

That was from the RTIRC report, and that land values issue is very important. Real estate in regional areas is now always valued according to whether properties do or do not have mobile phone coverage. If you bought a prime piece of agricultural land without mobile phone coverage then all of a sudden your land is devalued because you do not have a tower within range. But your neighbour's land, which might not have been worth the same amount, all of a sudden is now at a higher value. It is not fair. It is not right. In a land where we should be using more wireless technology and we should be smarter with our Commonwealth money, I cannot see that that is fair. I cannot see the equity in it.

The coalition took action when in government. We spent about $145 million between 2001 and 2007 to improve mobile coverage. I will repeat again: Labor has done nothing since 2008. But we, the coalition, implemented the $15.65 million extended mobile coverage in regional Australia program, which improved CDMA coverage in 62 locations. We also funded the Towns Over 500 Program, which improved mobile phone coverage for 131 towns in regional Australia with populations of more than 500 people because we do care about towns with under 1,000 premises. We also funded two programs to improve mobile coverage along highways worth a total of $44 million. We also implemented a significant number of small projects worth more than $10 million through the Networking the Nation initiative. But you know what? We did not do enough but they have done nothing.

Those opposite are rolling out a Rolls-Royce of NBN with no cost-benefit analysis. There is no accountability but that is so typical for everything that side does. There is absolutely no accountability because they know that after September 14 they will not have to worry. From our point of view, hopefully they will not be the ones paying it back, we will. We are the proper managers of fiscal policy in this country. The public knows it and the voters know it because they went to the polls and showed they are not fools in Western Australia on Saturday, just like they did in Victoria, just like they did in my state of New South Wales, just like they did in Ken O'Dowd's state of Queensland. They know when they are being duped. They are being duped at the moment. They are certainly being duped with the NBN. There is no cost-benefit analysis, no accountability. That is typical Labor. We all know it but we also know that regional communications are so vital to get people the right coverage for safety aspects, to enable them to do business and to help regional Australia go ahead to be the best that it can be.