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Wednesday, 25 June 2003
Page: 17485

Mr HAASE (2:11 PM) —My question is addressed to the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Transport and Regional Services. Would the Deputy Prime Minister advise the House of improvements to telecommunications services in rural and regional Australia?

Opposition members interjecting

The SPEAKER —Order! The member for Kalgoorlie is entitled to ask his question and to be heard in silence.

Mr HAASE —Thank you, Mr Speaker. What measures are the government putting in place to further improve services? Is the Deputy Prime Minister aware of any alternative policies?

Mr ANDERSON (Minister for Transport and Regional Services) —As the member for Kalgoorlie—who actually lives out there—would know, services have improved dramatically. Not only are we intent on continuing those improvements and closing any remaining gap but we are the only government that has ever moved to future-proof these arrangements to ensure that the gap that Labor left us in telecommunications standards does not re-emerge. If there is a black hole in communications, we have gone a very long way to filling it. Over the next little while we will fill it and, what is more, we will ensure that it does not re-emerge.

I will come to some specifics—they are worth working over again, if members are interested. They include, firstly, I would think, the world's leading consumer safeguards in terms of the universal service obligation and the customer service guarantee— which is a first; it has never been done before anywhere—to set timetables for installing and repairing phone services, and the network reliability framework to target and fix local network problems. We have vastly improved telephone services. People in remote areas now have untimed local calls. Who did that? We did that. It was a dream under the previous government. Service connection times in remote areas have been slashed from more than two years to less than six months. All Australians have dial-up access to the Internet for the price of a local call. We have set minimum speed standards for Internet connection and guaranteed access to a 64 kilobytes a second Internet service.

We also have one of the world's best mobile phone networks. We have replaced the mobile phone network that Labor killed off—never forget that. They now talk about their commitment to regional services—but they killed the analog service and they had no replacement. It was under this government that CDMA was rolled out. We have now funded more than 900 mobile phone towers to cover 98 per cent of the Australian population. Was ever such a performance contemplated by the Labor Party in government? Have they ever put up a policy proposal to match that in telecommunications? We have funded near-continuous mobile phone coverage on major national highways, and for people in the most remote areas we subsidise the cost of a satellite phone.

The measures announced this morning—another $181 million in response to the Estens inquiry—build on that record and, most importantly of all, lock in the benefits and improvements for the future to make certain that we do not get another black hole opening up. We will upgrade radio concentrated phone systems so that people in the most remote areas get yet another improvement in their service. There will be a further extension of mobile phone services and satellite phone capacity. We will be putting in place a national broadband strategy, very importantly, which includes more than $100 million of incentives so that people in rural and remote areas will be able to access broadband at prices reasonably equitable to those in urban areas. This broadband strategy is a very important step in ensuring that continuing improvements in technologies are delivered to people in regional Australia as well as to people in the cities.

In addition to that, there will be a parliamentary group headed by the member for Hinkler. It will conduct a monitoring process and report regularly to the Prime Minister and to the government. On top of that there will be—and this is very important—continuing regular independent reviews of telecommunications services. That will be set in legislation and the government will be obliged to respond to reports.

Mr Tanner —Will you get another one of your mates to do it? First Dick Estens; who will be next—Doug Anthony?

Mr ANDERSON —The opposition spokesman is not in the slightest bit interested in this.

The SPEAKER —The member for Melbourne has been shown a great deal of tolerance. If he continues to abuse the chair, I will deal with him.

Mr ANDERSON —We will be imposing a licence condition on Telstra to ensure that it maintains a presence in regional Australia. Quite frankly, that is probably not necessary for the simple reason that Telstra Country Wide is a profitable operation in its own right and it has performed very well. I doubt that Telstra would want to wind it back, but that licence insurance policy will be there to ensure that Telstra Country Wide remains.