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Monday, 7 March 2005
Page: 25


Senator BOSWELL (Leader of The Nationals in the Senate) (2:15 PM) —My question is to Senator Helen Coonan, the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts. Will the minister please advise the Senate how the Howard government is connecting rural and regional Australia to high-speed internet services? Could the minister inform us whether she is aware of any alternative policies?


Senator COONAN (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —I thank Senator Boswell for the question. As Senator Boswell would know, because he accompanied me, last week I was out in far western Queensland, on one of the listening visits that I have been undertaking throughout regional Australia, looking at how services are connected in rural and regional Australia. One of the things that does come up time and time again is the way technology can simply transform the way in which people live, work and do business, particularly in rural and regional Australia. It gives them options that they otherwise simply would not have to stay in these communities, to run businesses, to educate their children and to get decent health care. That is why in July 2002 the government announced that Queensland would receive $8 million from the Australian government’s $50 million National Communications Fund.

This money was provided to jointly fund the roll-out of a broadband network to 70 regional communities to help 70,000 Queensland residents, including more than 17,000 students in rural and remote Queensland, access broadband. To illustrate just how important this network is to rural Queensland communities, it will deliver sophisticated telehealth services to up to 30 hospitals and seven community health centres; it will deliver high-speed broadband to 83 primary and secondary schools, serving 11,400 students; and 13 TAFE colleges serving 6,000 students will also have access to video streaming and video on demand.

Sadly, in a story that is becoming only too familiar, the Queensland government has simply failed to do its share to invest in this vital infrastructure. More than 2½ years after the announcement of the project, the Queensland government, which has been managing this project, has still got a very long way to go. It was only in October last year, more than 2½ years after the project was announced, that the Queensland government actually issued a tender for the majority of the network, and we are still awaiting the outcome of this tender.

This is deeply disappointing for the people who will depend on this critical infrastructure. As you could appreciate, Mr President, I am very keen to work with the Queensland government, but I certainly do expect them to keep their side of the bargain. Premier Beattie has completely failed these communities by failing to do his part to roll out this very important infrastructure. This is not only unforgivable but inexcusable at a time when the states, and Queensland more than most, are awash with GST revenue. The GST benefit for Queensland alone in 2004-05 is expected to be in the order of $760 million.

Honourable senators interjecting—


Senator COONAN —$760 million! It is about time state governments took more than the money and actually stepped up to the plate and took a bit of responsibility to deliver services to the communities they were elected to serve. It is simply not good enough for them to sit back, rake in the revenue and claim credit for a sound budget but then throw up their hands and blame the federal government because they are not prepared to deliver. The people of Queensland deserve better, and Labor senators from Queensland sitting opposite should, instead of interrupting this important information for people out there listening, go to Mr Beattie and insist that he do his part and deliver on his side of the bargain.


Senator BOSWELL —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I did ask if the minister was aware of any alternative policies, and the minister did not address that.


Senator COONAN (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —I thank Senator Boswell for reminding me about the alternative policies. The reason I did not address them was that there are none. The Labor Party made no commitment whatsoever to rural and regional Australia in the last election—absolutely no commitment whatsoever. There is an absolute dearth of policy. The only time Labor senators go out of their comfortable city electorate offices is to catch a plane to go overseas. We know that the Labor Party have no commitment to rural and regional Australia, and they have simply never advanced any policy position whatsoever to deliver broadband at affordable prices to rural and regional Australia and have never made any commitment whatsoever to provide an incentive program to get telecommunication providers to roll out services on broadband.

Opposition senators interjecting—


Senator COONAN —The Labor Party unfortunately shout and scream because they are ashamed that they have so failed the people of Australia that they have no other policies. (Time expired)