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Wednesday, 16 March 2005
Page: 134

Mr BRUCE SCOTT (7:00 PM) —The measures contained in the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Regular Reviews and Other Measures) Bill 2005 are, firstly, to reflect the need for Telstra to maintain a local presence in regional, rural and remote parts of Australia and, secondly, to see that there are regular independent reviews into the adequacy of telecommunications in regional, rural and remote parts of Australia. Before I talk a little bit about those measures, I remind the Labor Party member for Oxley, who has just spoken and who has left this chamber, that I just happened to be in this parliament for six years when the Labor government were on this side of the House and had control of the treasury bench, so I know what they did to communications services in rural and regional Australia—in fact, services for the whole of Australia—and I know what we have been able to do since coming into government in 1996. If you contrast the two, there is no comparison, and it is no wonder that the member for Oxley disappeared, slunk out of the House, with his tail between his legs because he did not want to be reminded of the appalling legacy that we inherited in 1996 from the Labor government.

I remind the House tonight that it was the Labor Party that actually abolished by legislation, by law of this parliament, a perfectly good adequate mobile telephone communications service—the analog service, which was extremely effective out in the rural and remote parts of Australia where the service was operating. It was extremely useful in hilly country, as you, Mr Deputy Speaker Causley, would be aware from your own electorate, but what did the Labor Party do with that analog service, a perfectly good and powerful service? They abolished it by an act of this parliament. But, worse than that: having abolished that service by legislation so it could no longer operate, they did not provide for an alternative service. They did not require any of the service providers in Australia to replace the analog service where it was operating with an effective mobile technology. So the Labor Party come to this debate with no feathers. Let me assure you that they have no feathers and no credibility when it comes to communications, because their track record says it all.

On coming to government in 1996, the coalition understood that more had to be done in guarantees to rural and regional Australia and that we had to repair the long years of inaction by the Labor Party in communications. Since coming to government we have conducted two reviews, and it is important that we talk about those reviews tonight, because those reviews, the Besley and Estens reviews, have led to substantial improvements in communications across rural and regional Australia—in fact, right across Australia. Since coming to power the government has implemented the recommendations of those two reviews—each had different recommendations because the Estens recommendations built on the original recommendations of the Besley inquiry—and my electorate has now acquired some 103 new mobile phone towers. In a couple of weeks time I have got another three to officially launch. These are new mobile telecommunications towers in very small rural communities.

Labor Party members may come in here and say that the National Party has done nothing and does not have a plan, but the problem with that for Labor members is that they have never been out there; they do not know what it is like out in rural, regional and remote Australia. I invite them to come out into the back of Maranoa at any time and have a look at what we have achieved since coming to government. Another element of the Besley recommendations that have brought substantial improvements to remote communities is the contract that we let following the review of the extended zone services. That contract was won by Telstra. (Quorum formed) I thank my colleagues for coming into the House to increase the numbers on this vital bill. I notice that no-one from the other side of the House has come in, because they do not like to hear the truth of their failings in communications whilst they were in government for 13 years.

As I was saying, following the recommendations of the Besley inquiry the government let a contract to ensure that those 40,000 subscribers in remote parts of Australia, who had been neglected by the Labor Party for 13 years in government, no longer had to pay for timed local calls. They did not have the same access as 99.9 per cent of Australians to untimed local calls. In towns like Birdsville, Bedourie, Wyandra and many communities in the remote parts of Australia, there was actually a timed local call cost. For 13 years the Labor Party neglected those people, but the Nationals were insistent that all Australians should have access to untimed local calls. We have been able to deliver that as a result of the recommendations of the Besley inquiry. Not only were we able to deliver untimed local calls, because Telstra won that contract and put more infrastructure in place to enable the increase in traffic resulting from that measure, but we were also able to provide two-way satellite internet access to those subscribers as part of that contract.

Two and a half weeks ago, the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts was with me in my electorate. We were at Longreach and we saw at first-hand the benefits of that two-way satellite internet access being used by young children in the School of Distance Education. They were 80 kilometres out of Longreach on their parents’ property. We went to their little schoolroom—a separate building outside the house. What we saw were these young children who, 80 kilometres away from their school, were using that two-way satellite to communicate with their teacher at the Longreach School of Distance Education in an internet lesson. The other students in the class were up to 200 kilometres away.

This demonstrated to me that communications have been improved in rural Australia through actions of the government and a capital fund. These young children are now able to access their education on the internet and a clear voice signal through the telephone because they are now receiving untimed local calls and have the speed of two-way broadband internet into their classroom. That replaced an HF radio that was in use until about three years ago. Anyone can see that moving from an HF radio—which on some days would not work due to atmospheric conditions, and the children could not participate in the school program for the day—to a clear voice signal and broadband internet is a leap into the new generation of communications for people living in remote parts of Australia. It happened as a direct result of this government being elected. For the benefit of the member for Oxley, who is no longer in the chamber, it was the Nationals who brought that about. If I recall correctly, in my maiden speech I mentioned that as an issue we needed to address. Those people who live in rural and remote parts of Australia deserve equity between city and country of access to modern communications.

The other benefit that we have been able to deliver in those very remote parts of Australia is provide a subsidy for satellite mobile telephone as a result of these reviews. Many people in those very remote communities, particularly on the large pastoral cattle properties, now have access to satellite mobile telephone. I think the handset costs them something like $500 with the help of a subsidy of approximately $1,500. This was not provided by the Labor Party. People in remote areas were the forgotten people during the 13 years the Labor Party was in government.

It is now possible and an essential step forward for many of those remote pastoral cattle properties to use mobile satellite telephones. That has come as a result of the Besley inquiry and the subsidies that this government now provide. People are able to use a computer to transmit information on cattle they are tracking from a remote cattle yard on a large pastoral holding. The cattle now require electronic tags when they leave the properties so that they can be traced through the food chain. The information being transmitted via a mobile satellite phone from those very remote communities and cattle yards is being read by a computer.

It is an extraordinary sight to see that happening, but the technology is available. The technology has been subsidised by this government. I assure the chamber that the National Party played a very big hand in ensuring that those sorts of services were affordable to communities in very remote parts of Australia. They are among the benefits that have flowed from two previous reviews conducted by this government.

I would like to touch on Telstra Countrywide. Since those reviews, Telstra have in many ways identified the need to have a local presence in rural and regional Australia. Telstra Countrywide, from my point of view as a local member, is undoubtedly one of the best things Telstra have done in many years. It has given Telstra a local face in those country communities. Telstra do a magnificent job. When there are faults—and faults will inevitably occur—on the communications network, there is someone in the community who understands where that fault may have occurred.

When Labor were in government, if a fault was identified, you would often have to go through a call centre that could be anywhere in Australia. For someone in western Queensland to try and describe a fault there to someone on the other side of Australia was quite difficult. I could always understand how difficult that must have been for the poor person at the call centre on the other side of Australia, who might not understand the geography of where the fault had occurred. Telstra Countrywide are doing a magnificent job in delivering face-to-face, and across-the-counter in many instances, services to rural and remote parts of Australia. Telstra Countrywide have about 39 offices in regional areas.

I want to commend the Roma office of Telstra Countrywide for what they have achieved. Recently, they were awarded a couple of very important national awards for service delivery and customer satisfaction. Today Jeff Little from the Roma Telstra Countrywide office and Laurie Blake, who is a recent recipient of an Indigenous Employment Award, were in Parliament House. I congratulate Laurie Blake. I know him personally. He was a young boy when I first met him. He grew up with my children and went to school with them in Roma. As a young Indigenous person he is doing a magnificent job. He is a great credit to himself and to his parents.

I think great credit also has to go to Telstra Countrywide for giving people like Laurie Blake an opportunity. To see him here today, being recognised for his achievements with an Indigenous Employment Award, gave me a great deal of satisfaction. To Laurie Blake, Jeff Little and Telstra Countrywide: well done, not only for what you have achieved for Indigenous employment but also for being a point of presence in rural communities. The service that you are providing now compared with the services provided when the Labor Party were in power have improved. The service delivery that Telstra Countrywide give now to our rural and remote communities is very much appreciated.

The two measures—the need for Telstra to maintain a local presence in regional, rural and remote parts of Australia and for regular independent reviews to be conducted into the adequacy of telecommunications in regional, rural and remote parts of Australia—are essential. They are recommendations that we as a government are implementing, following the Estens inquiry.

I think the bill speaks for itself in terms of the impact that it will have. I also think an important point is that the regulation that Telstra will now have to deal with and comply with as a condition of licence is further evidence that this government is committed to ensuring that communications in rural and remote parts of Australia are continually improved. We have done a great deal about service delivery and we will continue to do so. The National Party, as part of the coalition government, understand the people of rural and regional Australia when it comes to communications. (Time expired).