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Thursday, 23 June 2005
Page: 10


Mr ENTSCH (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Industry, Tourism and Resources) (9:39 AM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

The Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Protection of Submarine Cables and Other Measures) Bill 2005 creates a regulatory scheme to enable the Australian Communications Authority (ACA) to establish protection zones over submarine telecommunications cables that link Australia to global networks and that are vital to the national economy.

Nine submarine telecommunications cables carry almost all of Australia’s overseas voice and data traffic, and are worth more than $A5 billion a year to the economy. Three of these cables—two landing in Sydney and one in Perth—are currently of particular significance to the Australian economy because of their very high capacity.

These cables are vulnerable to damage by operations such as the anchoring of ships, certain types of fishing, dumping of materials at sea, dredging and other activities that take place on the seabed where these cables are laid.

Submarine cables have been damaged several times in recent years. In July 2001, a trading ship dragged anchor off Sydney, damaging two cables. Sand dredging has cut the cable that lands at Perth several times. Cables off the New South Wales coast have been broken twice in recent years by fishing boats using trawl equipment on the seabed.

Repairing broken or damaged cables is an expensive and time-consuming exercise. Cable damage or breakage impedes information flow, which affects the capacity of Australians—particularly businesses—to conduct international transactions.

The volume of overseas communications—voice and data, business and personal—is increasing and will continue to do so into the future. Thus any disruption of Australia’s communications links with the world can cause delays, disruptions and unnecessary costs, not only to the owners of the cables, but to the many people who rely on them.

This initiative puts into effect changes that were identified as necessary by the 1999 National Bandwidth Inquiry into the ability of Australian telecommunications networks to meet the future demands of the Australian information economy. This inquiry recommended a stronger planning and protection regime for submarine cables, more explicit authority to install cables, and increased penalties for damaging cables.

The protection scheme has been developed in consultation with a wide range of stakeholders, including Commonwealth, state and territory governments, the fishing and petroleum exploration industries, as well as the telecommunications industry.

Under this bill, the ACA will be authorised to declare protection zones over submarine telecommunications cables of national significance. Within these protection zones, activities particularly dangerous to submarine cables will be prohibited such as fishing where the gear operates near the seabed, anchoring, dredging and mining. Other less dangerous activities will be restricted within protection zones according to conditions applied by the ACA. These include midsea fishing, laying electricity cables or gas pipelines, and installing wharves, jetties, boat ramps and navigational aids.

Before declaring a protection zone, the ACA will be required to consult with the environment secretary, and with other users of the sea and seabed through an advisory committee, which will include representation from key sectors that will be affected by the declaration. The ACA will be required to develop and publish a protection zone proposal, invite public comment, and take into account any comments received.

The ACA will also be authorised to vary and revoke protection zones, and to issue permits to install submarine cables within protection zones and Commonwealth controlled waters.

Protection zones will run through state-controlled coastal waters, Commonwealth-controlled territorial waters and the exclusive economic zone, typically from the shore to 200 nautical miles out or to the edge of the continental shelf. A protection zone will typically be about two nautical miles wide.

Certain state and territory laws will not apply within protection zones. These exemptions will be similar to the immunities that now apply to carriers under the Telecommunications Act 1997 when they are installing underground cables on land.

The Australian Federal Police will be responsible for enforcement of prohibitions and restrictions in protection zones. The ACA will enforce the conditions of permits to install submarine cables.

Heavy criminal penalties will apply within a protection zone for breaking or damaging a submarine cable, and for engaging in prohibited or restricted activity. The level of penalties reflects the importance the government places on protecting these vital elements of the national telecommunications infrastructure. Any person who suffers a loss because of a broken cable will be able to seek damages from the person who broke the cable. Penalties will also apply for installing a cable without a permit or contrary to a permit condition.

With the establishment of this protection regime, it is possible that actions by carriers may result in a possible claim for the acquisition of property. If this were to occur, it is appropriate that any compensation claimed be paid by the carrier who benefits from the protection provided by this regime, and not the Commonwealth. The bill therefore provides for this to occur, both under schedule 3A and also under the existing schedule 3 to the Telecommunications Act 1997. The existing schedule 3 provides carriers with certain powers and immunities relating to land based activities.

The protection regime for telecommunications submarine cables established by this bill provides a comprehensive and transparent process for the protection of cables of national significance. It will significantly reduce the risk of damage to the cables through the high penalty provisions. It will provide benefits to the fishing industry and other users of the sea and seabed by clarifying the responsibilities of both carriers and users, and by encouraging co-location of telecommunications facilities.

I present the explanatory memorandum to this bill.

Debate (on motion by Mr Edwards) adjourned.