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Thursday, 16 March 2000
Page: 14969

Mr SECKER (11:57 AM) —I rise to speak to the motion to take note of the report of the House of Represtatives Standing Committee on Primary Industries and Regional Services with a great amount of pleasure. Let me say firstly that we should not be confused about the timing of this report. I do note, without criticism, the member for Bendigo's comments about the Victorian election. It should be recognised that this report was started well before the Victorian election; in fact, nearly 12 months before that election. All members of this committee should be congratulated for their foresight in recognising the problem of infrastructure in rural and regional areas.

I certainly commend the contribution by one of the previous speakers, the member for Eden-Monaro—not only for his speech here today but for his expertise over the entire course of the inquiry, especially in those areas which he noted today, such as planning, where it is so important to get the right result. I also say the same for the member for Braddon, who ensured that we never forgot the educational needs of country areas. I note that today he raised the matter again. He certainly made a very important contribution on that topic. I also note that he talked about the Bass Strait highway proposal, which I have no problem agreeing with. In fact, we have the same problem with Kangaroo Island and Investigator Strait. We believe that it should be classed as the road to Kangaroo Island and incur the same facilities and costs as anyone else incurs on a national highway.

I would like to commend the chair of the committee, the member for McEwen, who often gave us wise counsel and worked very hard over the entire period of this inquiry. Overall, it certainly was a pleasure to work together for the betterment of country areas. We worked together as a committee and did not concern ourselves with party politics but with what was right for country areas. We all represent country seats, so it was a pleasure to be part of such a committee. As the member for Braddon said, it is a pity that more people in Australia could not see the way in which we cooperated in this committee.

With respect to services being lost in the bush, we often hear that we do not get the services in the bush that city people get, and that is certainly the case. We have lost some services over the years. The committee received a lot of evidence to suggest that many of those services were reduced by state governments—I might add, of all persuasions—and not the federal government. However, it seems that if we are to ensure that the needs of country people are met, the federal government will have to do it, because unfortunately the states either do not have the financial backing or do not have the will to do so.

We did see some good news over the period of this inquiry, for example, when we visited the Renmark filtration plant in South Australia. This was a water scheme that was processed through a BOOT scheme and, in actual fact, it now gives better water to the rural areas that it services than the city water of Adelaide. That is something I often boast about. This was actually done by a state government, so they should be congratulated for that. Anecdotal evidence will even suggest—and it is often said with humour—that now that water filtration plant is up and running under the BOOT scheme, which is recommended in quite a few areas of this report, they can now actually wear white shirts. You can wash them in the water; and now you can actually see the bottom of the cisterns after you flush them, whereas previously you could not see it. So you have some very practical reasons for having those sorts of things.

I will refer to some of the recommendations and comments throughout the report. One refers to the universal service obligations, which were brought in by the Howard coalition government. Box 5.1 of the report states:

Following deregulation of the telecommunications industry, a Universal Service Obligation (USO) was designated requiring the telecommunications industry to ensure that `standard telephone services are reasonably accessible to all people in Australia on an equitable basis, wherever they reside or carry on business'.

I thought that was a very important point to make. Recommendation 19 also states:

The committee recommends that the Commonwealth government require telephone carriers to meet levels of service established under the Customer Service Guarantee for all customers, regardless of location.

It is very important that rural areas have at least the same or similar access to the normal landline telephones and to mobile telephones as well. Another recommendation dealing with telecommunications was recommendation 20, which states:

The committee recommends that the Commonwealth government require telephone carriers to develop pricing, technical standards and levels of support for telecommunications services that are independent of distance.

Again, this backs up the thrust of this whole report that telephone services should be on an equitable basis, whether you live in Sydney or the Australian equivalent of Timbuktu. Recommendation 21 states:

The committee recommends that the Commonwealth government fund alternative communications solutions for rural and regional Australia through the Regional Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund program. Digital broadband microwave link technology is an example of an alternative technology that could be considered.

Mobile telephony is a very important issue in rural areas, and I do not suppose we will ever get exactly the same service that you do in cities, although who knows what is possible in the future with satellites and satellite phones. If the prices can come down on that, not only on the hardware but also on the user charges, I think we could get the same access, but there will probably be some need for subsidisation. On page 87, point 5.53 states:

Mobile telephony outside of large regional centres is presently unreliable, inadequate, patchy or non-existent.

I do not think any member of this chamber would suggest otherwise. It was the dominant feature of many submissions and information provided to the committee during regional visits. It certainly is a big issue out there. Provision of mobile telephony in regions is an economic issue. Major regional industries are not supported either in situ or during transportation of produce and that therefore reduces the competitiveness of regional business. Tourism, a growth area in many regions, is also impacted. Often you can go on a simple houseboat trip on the Murray River, for example, and your phones just simply will not work.

Mr Sidebottom —You can find that on the national highway.

Mr SECKER —That is true. I note that quite often, even in my own electorate, although I must admit that has been improving and I am very confident that, when the CDMA rollout occurs, we will have a far better service than we had with digital. Recommendation 22 is:

... the Commonwealth government monitor the competitive provision of mobile telephony to regional Australia and, if market stimulation of carrier roaming is not evident by August 2000—

which is only a few months away—

it should require roaming arrangements between all carriers.

It is very important that we try and get those carriers to work together so that regional areas do get service. It also recommends, in recommendation 24:

... the Commonwealth government adopt policies and mechanisms that require carriers to prioritise delivery of telecommunication services, so that areas already unserved are not further disadvantaged.

Again, that is trying to ensure that we have better services in rural areas. Recommendation 28 is:

... the Universal Service Obligations be extended to include internet access for all regional Australians, and that the delivery of the Universal Service Obligation be undertaken so as to ensure promotion of competition in the provision of telecommunications infrastructure in regional Australia.

We must ensure that we have Internet access for as many Australians as possible. It is not only important for business; it is important for education and it is important for a normal way of life. I can see the time in the not very distant future when faxes will be almost obsolete and we will be using email, so the Internet is very important so that we can bring the world to the people, rather than having them have to travel so far to achieve the same sort of advice.

Recommendation 33 is very important on a practical basis. It deals with the need for audits to actually work out what we really need. We can all get up here as politicians and have our ears bent by different people in different walks of life, so we do tend to respond to whoever happens to have spoken to us. But the committee recommends:

... the Commonwealth government work with state, territory and local governments, communities and carriers, to determine the extent of existing telecommunication infrastructure in regions through audits, so that this infrastructure is considered in the development of regional telecommunication solutions.

It is important that we have this audit so that we really do know where we are going. Recommendation 55 is in a different area—transport. That is very important to regional and rural areas. We rely on transport far more than any other part of Australia. The committee recommends:

... three cents per litre of the excise collected from fuel sales be preserved for expenditure on transport infrastructure. Of this three cents, two cents per litre should be devoted to the construction and maintenance of regional roads.

It should be noted that this is providing extra money, over and above what is already provided to governments in Australia—for example, at the moment $380 million is provided to local government. Here is a way that we can perhaps double that amount so that the regional and rural areas and the local councils have the much needed money to spend on their roads. I know from personal experience in 11 years in local government that it is a continuous issue out there because councils, many of them small in population but larger in road networks, simply do not have the money to maintain and improve the roads to a satisfactory level.

The simple fact is that, as a government, we collect something like $12 billion a year in excise, yet only about $7 billion is actually returned to roads and transport. I believe there is a fair bit of leeway to enable us to ensure that more money is spent on roads in country areas, which are so important to us. If we cannot travel—for business, for pleasure, to get our kids to school or for whatever reason—we are certainly not as well looked after as city people. Paragraph 7.131 highlights a lack of planning, saying:

The Australasian Railway Association cited Mt Gambier as an example of transport infrastructure provision that had occurred without integrated planning.

As a result, we have got huge imposts on our roads from road transport, as I know from my experience as the member for Barker. I am pleased to say that the government did provide $100,000 for a road study for the south-east of South Australia. That road study, which has just been completed, shows a real need for future planning for roads in that area. It is very much an expanding area, with lots of heavy transport because of the timber industry, the grape industry—the vineyards—the wine tourism industry and the fish industry. At the moment, the roads certainly are not coping with the loads they have and the loads that are planned to come with the burgeoning blue gum industry in the south-east and the western areas of Victoria. It is very important that we have planning so that we have the proper road needs for our area. I note also a reference to the Alice Springs-Darwin railway line—again an initiative of our government.

Unfortunately, time is getting away from me, but I must mention electricity. This is a very important area that we need to address. Paragraph 8.11, quoting from a submission, says:

The availability of adequate power particularly 3-phase supply remains a major impediment to development ...

I certainly see that and I am sure that other members of the committee saw it. (Time expired)