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Tuesday, 18 November 1986
Page: 2429

Senator KILGARIFF(9.26) —I will speak just briefly to the Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 1986-87 and to the appropriation of $510,115m for the Department of Communications in Group C. I wish to voice one or two matters. Perhaps when one looks at the overall amount of the Department's budget appropriation of some $510m the matter I bring up tonight is trivial but certainly to the people of the outback it cannot be considered to be trivia. The development of communications in Australia over the last few years has been tremendous. The Department of Communications, Telecom Australia, Aussat Pty Ltd, Radio Australia and all the organisations that have been responsible for the development of communications within Australia and, for that matter, overseas are to be congratulated because overall they have made a very fine effort.

Many people think of communications as they relate to the outback as just trivia; perhaps they think they are just trivial. But, of course, the outback is Australia. The mining developments, the pastoral developments, and the farming developments bring wealth to Australia. Of course, these industries and people in the outback require communications. Over the years they have lapsed to quite a degree because, naturally, sophisticated measures of communication have developed particularly within the cities, and one can realise that. Millions of people live in the densely populated areas and to a degree there has been a period when communications in the outback have been very much wanting. Over the last few years there have been considerable changes and those changes are taking place now. We now see, whether it be on an Aboriginal settlement, cattle station, mining field, pastoral homestead or a little town way out in the outback, that things are changing. However, very many matters still need correcting-at least if they do not need correcting they need some more attention. I will speak very briefly on one or two of those matters.

Only a few days ago I spoke about the annual report of Aussat which was tabled on 11 November. I indicated then that the advent of the Aussat satellite operating above Australia will bring communications in so many ways to the people, particularly those of the outback. I also spoke briefly about the experiment that is taking place in Mount Isa-the Mount Isa School of the Air. A leaflet on the school stated:

In a major breakthrough for distance education, eight students from outback north west Queensland are taking part in a high-tech trial using satellites and computers. The year 6 students, all veterans of the School of the Air, are linked to Aussat and can talk to each other and their teachers instantly-a far cry from the days of hand-held radio and horse and buggy travel.

In my speech, I said:

The specially chosen year 6 class of eight children from various parts of outback Queensland have this voice and data satellite network. They also view a regular television program transmitted from the Brisbane studios . . . It is pointed out that there has been a very noticeable change in the children who use this high-tech equipment.

I believe this is an excellent program. Perhaps-and this is the question-the experiment that is now taking place in Queesland will have a bearing on the future of kids in the outback. But will the service be continued? I know of the problems facing the Government in respect of financial commitments and all of those sorts of things. But I think there really has to be better communication with the people of the outback. The Government has to give an indication of the future of the School of the Air. Will there be sufficient finance to see through the experiment that is being conducted in Mount Isa? High-tech equipment is being used to bring audio and visual services to the kids way out in the bush. Will we see the end of this service when the experiment closes in the first or second week of December?

There is some disappointment in the outback in respect of this matter. As I said before, this is not a criticism of Aussat. However, there was a hope that Aussat was going to bring to the people of the outback and the School of the Air the very high-tech service that is the subject of the experiment which is taking place now in Mount Isa. The people of the outback envisaged that their kids were going to have visual television and high-tech voice-all of those things that were going to bring the kids in the bush into the classroom of the towns and the cities.

Senator Grimes —What is non-visual TV?

Senator KILGARIFF —Perhaps I might have made a small error in the words that I used. However, I think it is rather trivial to bring up a mistake that I might have made. I am concerned about the service that the people of the outback expected to get.

When Aussat was established it was envisaged that many dishes would be required and purchased so that this service could be brought to the outback. As I understand the position, there is a reluctance by many people in the outback to buy dishes because at present it is proposed that only television and not telephone and high-tech voice reception will be provided. I think the people of the outback want to know what their future is going to be. I think it would be a good communication exercise if the Government told the people what is going to happen once the School of the Air experiment in Mount Isa closes down.

I would like to refer briefly to one other matter that concerns me. Hundreds of thousands of dollars, perhaps millions of dollars, is being spent by Telecom Australia on very sophisticated equipment to bring communications to the people of the outback. I believe that Telecom is doing a very good job in this respect. In the next few years we will see the old radio telephone, which involves sitting with one's finger on the button waiting for the red light to come on so that one can take one's turn, phased out. Instant telephones are being provided in quite a few places.

I am absolutely annoyed, as are very many other people, when I see sophisticated Telecom equipment in Arnhem Land which, as I said before, does not run into hundreds of thousands of dollars but perhaps millions of dollars, not being used. This equipment is to be used to provide telephones so that the Aboriginal people in the settlements in Arnhem Land will have instant communication.

Senator Mason —This is theoretically.

Senator KILGARIFF —I point out to Senator Mason that this has not happened, even though the equipment is available. This very magnificent, expensive and sophisticated equipment has been sitting there waiting to be installed because negotiations have to be held with the Northern Land Council in the Northern Territory for a lease of Aboriginal land on which the equipment can be installed. This equipment will benefit Aboriginal people who deserve, as much as anybody else, instant communications. This has not happened because, as I understand it, the Northern Land Council has held up the negotiations for land on which the equipment is to be installed at a cost, if not to the taxpayer, certainly to Telecom. The equipment has not been able to be installed because of a dispute over how much Telecom will pay for the lease of Aboriginal land. As I said, this equipment is to be used to bring communications to isolated Aboriginal people.

Senator Mason —It would appear that Telecom is more important than this Parliament.

Senator KILGARIFF —I am not too sure what Senator Mason is muttering about. If he wants to make a speech, he can do so. But I am saying that I think it is wrong that the Aboriginal people in the outback should be denied this facility and that the installation of the expensive Telecom equipment should be held up just because the Northern Land Council wants to extract a certain amount of money from Telecom. To me, there is something radically wrong with the system. I am all for sophisticated equipment being installed in the outback and Aboriginal settlements. But I would suggest that Telecom and, I suppose, the Australian taxpayer-the Federal Government anyway-should not be held to ransom by people who say: `Before you put this facility in you have to pay us ransom money-if not ransom money, then lease money-before we will allow this equipment to be installed'. I think this is a very unfortunate situation. As I have said, Telecom is doing a very good job in bringing communications to the people of the outback. The two points that I have brought up tonight may be trivial to some people. However, it is very wrong that the people of the outback, who are waiting anxiously and impatiently for instant communications, should be treated in this way.