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Tuesday, 15 March 2005
Page: 23

Senator EGGLESTON (2:07 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, Senator Coonan. Will the minister please advise the Senate of how the Howard government is helping improve telecommunications in rural and remote areas of Australia? Is the minister aware of any alternative policies?

Senator COONAN (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —Thank you to Senator Eggleston for the very timely question. As senators on this side of the chamber would be aware, this government is vitally interested in telecommunications services for rural, regional and remote Australians, and that is because we understand the potential these technologies have to change the way people live and work and to bring them closer to information and services than ever before. In our remote communities, families can access medical specialists half a continent away, students can access virtual classrooms and farmers can monitor weather and market information that is vital to their businesses.

Once communities have access to this technology, there is no going back, and that is why the government has rolled out a range of programs to help rural, regional and remote communities access high-quality telecommunications. One great example is the Telecommunications Action Plan for Remote Aboriginal Communities, known as TAPRIC. The program was given $8.3 million over three years to specifically assist remote Indigenous communities, providing community phones, culturally appropriate internet content and an internet access program. The program is subsidising the cost of equipment for remote Indigenous communities who want to set up small public internet access centres with PCs, printers, cameras and power equipment. Some 135 communities have been assisted to date. In conjunction with the government’s Higher Bandwidth Incentive Scheme, or HiBIS, a further 40 communities are expected to receive equipment and funding to allow high-speed internet access. The program has addressed the need for improved take-up and effective use of internet and broadband as well as the need to improve support for public internet facilities. It is certainly proving very popular with remote Indigenous communities.

Of course, it is not just Indigenous communities that are benefiting from HiBIS: the Howard government’s $107.8 million subsidy HiBIS scheme is improving access to broadband services at reasonable prices in regional and rural areas. Already 259 communities have access to ADSL, thanks to HiBIS, and another 260 communities are to shortly join them because of these subsidies. This is making a real and substantial difference to the lives of regional Australians.

The senator asked if I was aware of any alternative policies. As we all know, at the moment alternative policies are pretty thin on the ground. Mr Beazley has already signalled he is going to be pursuing his small target strategy again, but the government’s support for improved telecommunications in remote communities, through TAPRIC and HiBIS, has received praise from an unlikely source: someone who was quoted in this morning’s Sydney Morning Herald as calling it a ‘terrific initiative’. Who is that, you might ask. It is none other than Senator Kim Carr. It is gratifying to see the ALP recognising the good work this government has done to improve telecommunications. Senator Carr has correctly identified one of the programs that are delivering real benefits to rural and regional Australians, and there are many more of them. We have spent more than a billion improving services, a lot of it spent in rural and regional Australia, and we will continue to take the tough decisions that will deliver better communications for all Australians, irrespective of where they live.