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Monday, 8 February 2010
Page: 722

Mr TRUSS (Leader of the Nationals) (9:30 PM) —Widgee is a community of fewer than 700 people located 24 kilometres west of Gympie in my electorate. Widgee does not have mobile phone coverage and, in spite of its relatively small population, a petition calling on the Australian government to install mobile phone coverage for the Widgee community has attracted 1,181 signatures. The Petitions Committee has determined that this petition does not meet the technical requirements, so I seek leave to table it as a document.

Leave granted.

Mr TRUSS —I thank the House. Part of the reason why the petition attracted so many signatures is Widgee’s popularity because of local events, including the Widgee Bushman’s Carnival in May, the Widgee Pony Club Annual Gymkhana and Campdraft in June, the endurance trail ride in July and the Bush Balladeers festival on the last weekend in October.

The Widgee community has identified three possible sites for a mobile phone tower, including the Amamoor State Forest, where a temporary mobile phone tower is located every year for the Gympie Music Muster; a local landowner has offered land where emergency services towers are already erected; and the old forestry tower might be an option, located in the state forest.

Telecommunications companies should recognise that they have a social obligation to extend services and to roll out telecommunications services even in less economic regional communities. But the government should also have a role. The former coalition government understood that telecommunications companies could not always be relied upon to improve mobile phone coverage and access to broadband in regional areas. That is why, when in government, the coalition created the original mobile phone black spots program, which improved mobile phone coverage in communities where it was not commercially viable for telecommunication companies to make those investments. Regular reviews of the adequacy of the network, such as the Estens review and the Glasson review, identified gaps that needed to be filled. Approximately $175 million was provided by the previous government to extend mobile phone coverage through this program, delivering mobile phone coverage to upwards of 230 regional and rural communities and along stretches of at least 34 highways.

Regrettably, the new federal government has not funded the Glasson review’s recommendations, which could have helped little communities like Widgee obtain that mobile phone coverage that they need. The former government also established a $2 billion Communications Fund that was to be invested and the earnings used to improve a range of communications services in rural and remote communities. Regrettably, the federal government has taken this money for its NBN program, which now will not be extended to regions with small populations like Widgee.

The government has a responsibility to ensure that people living in regional communities have access to fast, reliable communications services. Instead of spending more than $43 billion on broadband in the capital cities, taxpayer funded improvements across a whole range of communications services should target communities where it is not commercially viable for these services to be provided by the private sector. Accordingly, I appeal to the government to help Widgee in its quest for mobile phone coverage.

I thank the Widgee community for organising this petition and all those who put the effort into collecting the signatures. They have been campaigning for mobile phone coverage for a number of years. I have raised their plight with Telstra and other telecommunications companies, and there have been times when I thought they were on the list and that one day soon they might get the mobile phone coverage that they want so much. The loss of the black spots funding was a critical blow. Communities like this one are never going to be likely to be commercially viable as far as the telecommunications companies are concerned, so there will need to be some support to enable them to receive mobile phone coverage. I call on the government to acknowledge this petition and to work with me and the Widgee community to establish permanent mobile phone coverage for the Widgee region.