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Thursday, 21 June 2007
Page: 9

Mr McGAURAN (Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) (9:41 AM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

Today I am bringing forward the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Protecting Services for Rural and Regional Australia into the Future) Bill 2007. This bill would amend the Telecommunications (Consumer Protection and Service Standards) Act 1999 so that the Australian government’s $2 billion investment in the Communications Fund is preserved to provide an income stream for future telecommunications improvements in regional, rural and remote Australia.

The Communications Fund was established by the government in September 2005 as a dedicated and perpetual fund to provide an income stream to implement the government’s responses to recommendations made by the Regional Telecommunications Independent Review Committee.

This bill protects in legislation the $2 billion principal of the Communications Fund so that only the interest earned from the fund—up to $400 million every three years—can be drawn upon.

The federal opposition has announced that it will abolish the $2 billion Communications Fund and spend the entire capital on a broadband network in highly commercial and predominately metropolitan areas, leaving several millions of rural and regional premises stranded without any targeted assistance for even basic telecommunications services.

The bill introduced by the government will ensure that the Labor Party in office cannot, by sleight of hand or under cover of night, abolish the Communications Fund. It will require the government of the day to introduce legislation in the full glare of public accountability. The government has introduced the bill in response to the Labor Party’s policy to abolish the $2 billion Communications Fund and thereby abandon rural and regional Australia.

This bill will ensure that rural and regional premises are not left stranded without reliable and up-to-date services in the future.

It is the government’s intention that the Communications Fund should be maintained at a minimum level of $2 billion, and the bill I am bringing forward seeks to make this intention explicit. If the Labor Party in government wishes to change the Communications Fund, it will require legislation and therefore the full scrutiny of the parliament and of the public. Labor has more than a passing habit in government of bringing matters through in fulfilment of its political ideologies, without proper public scrutiny or accountability. It will not happen in regard to the Communications Fund should the Labor Party find itself in office.

Maintaining the $2 billion for investment into the future will enable the Communications Fund to reliably generate income that will be available for future investment in telecommunications improvements in regional, rural and remote areas.

The Regional Telecommunications Independent Review Committee is required to conduct regular reviews of the adequacy of telecommunications services in regional, rural and remote Australia.

The first review is required to commence before the end of 2008, with subsequent reviews being completed every 3½ years. The reviews must consider the adequacy of telecommunications services that are significant to people living in regional, rural and remote Australia.

The committee is required to report to the government, which in turn is required to respond in a timely way to any recommendations made by the committee. Funding can then be accessed from the Communications Fund earnings to implement the responses that relate to regional, rural and remote telecommunications. This massive investment in the upgrade of infrastructure in rural and regional Australia will not be available should the Labor Party win office, for the Labor Party will abolish the fund that would provide this ongoing stream of income targeted at people who live in regional areas.

This whole process provides certainty for people in regional, rural and remote Australia that the improvements in their telecommunications services will keep pace with the rest of the nation—in contrast to the Labor Party’s policy.

In securing the Communications Fund this bill protects the long-term interests of regional, rural and remote Australia, and I commend it to the House.

Debate (on motion by Mr Snowdon) adjourned.