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Monday, 19 October 2015
Page: 11652

Mr MITCHELL (McEwenSecond Deputy Speaker) (20:59): I rise to once again discuss an important issue affecting a large number of people in the electorate of McEwen. This is the issue of mobile black spots. This is not the first time I have talked on this issue and it will not be the last, unfortunately. A number of communities in my electorate of McEwen have been identified as high-risk areas for bushfire in the state of Victoria. A large part of my electorate has felt the brunt of bushfires over the 10 years, as has yours, Mr Speaker. We have identified more than 70 mobile black spots in these areas, and when we say 'mobile black spots', we are talking about the areas that have little or no mobile reception. We are talking about people being unable to receive the urgent emergency messages the CFA sends out.

Within the last few weeks, communities in McEwen—in Lancefield, Benloch and Cobaw—have already experienced the devastation and terror of bushfires, and we are not in the worst part of the season just yet. I spent time at Benloch the other weekend helping people get information they needed while they were at the evacuation centres. One of the things that people repeatedly told me was how the lack of real-time communication in these areas meant they were not sure when or how to put their fire escape plans into action.

The FireReady app, a bushfire awareness tool put in place following the Black Saturday bushfires, could not be used by some of the residents of Lancefield. Despite what the Minister for Communications tries to get everyone to believe, this is because of the mobile black spots. The minister told ABC News last week that the communities I have consistently been fighting for—the communities where houses burnt down in the bushfires in the last two weeks—did not qualify for funding under the Liberal government's Mobile Black Spot program. Basically, he is telling these residents and those in surrounding communities that have also been affected by fire—and are continuing to rebuild from the Black Saturday fires, in particular—that their safety and their communication needs do not matter.

Let's take a look at the government's Mobile Black Spot program. In its consultation phase, this program was all about mobile coverage—extending the existing coverage in regional areas and increasing competition between the telcos by giving regional consumers a choice of provider. In terms of black spots, though, Australian communities have been sold out. When the program rolled out, we saw a change in name from the mobile coverage program to the Mobile Black Spot program. It probably sounded really good to the new Prime Minister and his departmental executives, but it has done nothing but mislead the people who need it most.

Out of the $100 million set aside for this program, $80 million is for existing mobile network expansion and $20 million is for mobile black spots. But before we get excited about the money for mobile black spots, it is important to know what the Department of Communications considers a black spot to be. According to its own discussion paper, the $20 million would be spent on base stations to:

… improve mobile coverage in locations with unique coverage problems such as areas with high demand for services during seasonal holiday periods.

You know where I am going with this: there are black spots, and then there are black spots.

This means that the Liberal government's Mobile Black Spot program is just weasel words. Without even considering the unique circumstances of terrain and topography that create black spots in my natural-disaster-prone and bushfire-prone electorate, the Liberal government believes that mobile base stations for ski fields are more important. In the meantime, real black spots in electorates like McEwen struggle to be included and recognised in both the Mobile Black Spot and NBN rollout programs. Instead, this government believes that rolling out a large number of base stations in electorates held by National and Liberal representatives is, compared to other electorates, a great return for the community.

The recent Lancefield-Cobaw bushfire was not of the same scale as other ones that we have had, thankfully. But we expect this year's bushfire season to be pretty bad. So what are we doing about it? The communities in my electorate can rely on me to keep working with the telcos, the CFA, local government and businesses—and even the insurance agencies—to try to prepare our communities for the fire season ahead. Unlike the Liberal government, I know these communities and the risk they are facing. Whether it is the use of cells on wheels or other infrastructure options, I will be investigating options to ensure that the bushfire warnings and any evacuation messages can be received by the people who need them most.

If I could provide some advice to the Minister for Communications, it would be this: do not try to hoodwink the Australian public. You cannot have a program on mobile black spots and then turn a blind eye to where they really are. If you do, call the program what it is: base stations for ski field selfies.