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Monday, 2 March 2015
Page: 1767

Ms ROWLAND (Greenway) (12:42): I want to thank the member for Indi for bringing this very important motion to the attention of the House. It is very clear to see why the voters of Indi put their trust in her, and I want to acknowledge her diligence on this issue and lend my support to the motion that is before the House.

One of the issues with mobile black spots—and this is what a lot of people do not quite comprehend—is that it is not necessarily a bit of black in a sea of white. A black spot is often a black spot in a sea of black, which underlies how different and how difficult it is to reach many parts of regional Australia. Whilst telco companies can claim their networks cover large proportions of the population, even up to 99 per cent of the population, the reality is that these high levels of coverage only equate to about 25 per cent of Australia's actual land mass. This is a reflection of Australia's highly urbanised population. Whilst our mobile carriers are always continuing to expand their coverage, there are limits to this coverage. The Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy stated in its document titled The 2011-12 regional telecommunications review:

… there are commercial limits to how far carriers are prepared to extend the mobile coverage footprint in regional areas. Much of the expansion programs are focused on boosting network capacity rather than increasing the coverage footprint.

In response to this, both federal and state governments have gone down the path of direct subsidy schemes in order to boost mobile coverage in rural and regional areas—and here are some examples. The Howard government spent around $145 million on improving terrestrial mobile phone infrastructure. Separate to this, in 2005, the Howard government established the Mobile Connect program—an $8 million program designed to extend mobile phone coverage in selected remote areas. Unfortunately, no applications were received from carriers. The regional telco committee further stated that it:

… understands this was due to the program’s lack of scale, the remoteness of most of the priority locations that had been specified, and the associated servicing costs these sites would attract.

So it all became too hard.

I want to make a few comments about the notion that the Libs and the Nats think they are the bastion of rural and regional communications and that they are the best friends of the people of Indi when it comes to regional communications, because the evidence shows that they are plainly not. You only have to look at the doyen of conservative telecommunications economics, Henry Ergas. Henry Ergas is no friend of ours, but he is a mate of Minister Turnbull's. In his book, Wrong Number: Resolving Australia's Telecommunications Impasse, he notes $3 billion frittered away by the coalition under John Howard—$3 billion. He writes:

These direct 'command and control' regulations have been paralleled by other interventions, often lacking in transparency and accountability … Thus, since 1997, over $3 billion (at 2007 prices) of taxpayers' money has been appropriated to schemes aimed at promoting the availability of use of telecommunications, mainly in non-metropolitan areas.'

It goes on. It refers to the Communications Fund. It gives line items: 'Mobile Connect' and 'Clever Networks.' What does that equate to? It equates to $3 billion wasted under John Howard while the convergence debate came and went, and here we still are today talking about basic voice accessibility in black spots.

And this is the problem. The problem is the laissez-faire attitude of the Liberal Party in charge of this. You only have to hear the parliamentary secretary stand up and say, 'Markets will resolve this.' That is their problem: 'Markets will resolve this.' At least we on this side are consistent. We say that where there is a market failure you identify the failure, you regulate and you have government intervention to the extent of that failure, unlike the Libs here running the show, giving free rein to markets. So I will not take a lecture from the member opposite. If we had $3 billion today to put into regional telco, maybe we would have a difference and we would not be here where we are today, still arguing about basic voice telephony.

I do not trust the Libs to do it. I do not trust the Libs to do it. And guess what: neither does your colleague the member for Mallee. The member for Mallee does not trust you either. Recently in the Sunraysia Daily, he savaged the communications minister and Mr Fletcher on their administration of the program:

"Frankly, it is too slow to roll out," … "We’ve been in government for 17 months now and are still fluffing around over it.

“It’s time we got it done.”

Then he went on to point out the stupidity of this government overpromising and underdelivering. There are about 300 mobile black spots in the Mallee alone. So I will not take a lecture from those people opposite about how to improve regional telecommunications, because we know only one side here is absolutely committed to it.