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Thursday, 14 February 2019
Page: 469

Mr STEPHEN JONES (Whitlam) (12:30): Labor's response to the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment Bill 2018 has had the benefit of consultations with the Australian Local Government Association, representatives of the telecommunications industry and the capacity to consider the inquiry and report that was done by our members in the other place. On the basis of that information and those consultations we are able to inform the House that Labor will be supporting both schedules 1 and 2 to the bill, which concern amendments to the telecommunications regulatory legislation.

Schedule 2 of the bill proposes to amend the 1997 act to extend immunities from state and local government planning laws to mobile carriers in specified circumstances where they are deploying temporary towers without needing all the local government approvals in certain circumstances—those certain circumstances being natural disaster emergencies, amongst others. We strongly support the ability of temporary mobile infrastructure to be deployed expeditiously during a natural disaster or an emergency. That just makes sense. It's a clear case in which the benefits of the measures will outweigh any incumbent risk.

I will talk a little bit about telecommunications and communications signals during an emergency situation. We're almost at the anniversary of the terrible Tathra bushfires. I had some discussions this morning with council representatives who were reflecting on the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria 10 years ago. There is example after example where people are relying on their mobile telecommunications during a natural disaster. I could point also to all the Pinery bushfires on the outskirts of Adelaide. I see the member for Grey in the chamber. He would be very familiar, as his electorate borders that region as well.

This is critical infrastructure at any time and critical during a natural disaster. Close to 70 per cent of triple zero calls, emergency service calls, during a natural disaster—in fact, nearly 70 per cent of emergency calls, full stop—are made from a mobile phone. So it's all the more important that we have extensive coverage, particularly in those areas that are prone to natural disasters, floods or bushfires. The ideal situation would be to have extensive mobile phone coverage right throughout the country. It's a damn big place. We know that we're not going to be able to have a mobile signal absolutely everywhere, but along our main highway routes, along areas that are prone to natural disasters and in areas where there is a strong and large influx of tourists—perhaps visitors during a tourism season and perhaps visitors during a music festival, for example—there is a strong case, a need indeed, for us to be looking at either permanent structures or facilitating amendments such as this.

Ideally, we would have permanent coverage. That is why when Labor were in government we spent $250 million on a regional backbone blackspots program. This is the program which, I have to say, enabled the current government to leverage off it to ensure that they could provide subsidised mobile phone towers in many regional areas. Of course, they've mismanaged the program. They've wasted resources putting towers and base stations in areas that didn't improve the coverage. In fact in round 1 of the program, nearly one in five of those stations, according to the Australian National Audit Office, didn't extend coverage. They failed to facilitate competition and wasted a lot of money in round 1 of that program. Round 2 of that program was riddled with politicisation. Some lessons were learned in round 3. Hopefully they don't repeat those same mistakes in round 4 of the program. But, without the backhaul in place, the $250 million invested by a Labor government, a lot of these mobile phone base stations simply could not operate. They'd just be poles in a paddock. Labor has a good track record in this area, and we will continue to invest in ensuring that we can extend coverage for mobile services throughout areas prone to natural disasters. Where it's simply not feasible or possible, legislation such as this, which provides and facilitates the erection of temporary facilities, is absolutely critical.

I also need to make note of and give a shout-out to the telecommunications carriers in North Queensland at the moment. Townsville and surrounds has been devastated by flood, and I'm pleased to see that emergency service operators, our telecommunications carriers and our Defence Force personnel are working hand in hand, very closely together, to ensure that we get a temporary and then a permanent service up again. The recent floods up there have knocked out mobile phone towers in a number of locations. I know that our carriers are busy deploying cells on wheels as an interim measure to help get affected residents connected. Locals do appreciate the efforts of the carriers to assist them in these emergency situations. It would be remiss of me not to use an opportunity with a bill such as this to pay credit to the work that is being done up there and to all the services. Both Optus and Telstra have assistance packages to help customers in the region, including giving customers access to free and interim services during the recovery period, and we all understand how much and how important it is to connect and reach out to friends and families during these emergency situations.

The schedule proposes to streamline processes which relate to deployment of temporary mobile towers and to provide more flexibility in certain types of deployment situations. I've described one. There may be others. Labor is, in principle, very strongly supporting these steps to streamline the processes for deployment of temporary infrastructure, provided it is safe to the community and for the environment and that the benefits do outweigh the risks. We believe in these circumstances they do.

I see that the member for Mayo is in the chamber. I'll be surprised if she doesn't make mention of the need for battery backup of our mobile phone towers in emergency situations as well. I've had a number of conversations with the member for Mayo on this issue. We are keenly aware that communities being served by new mobile phone base stations in bushfire-prone areas want to have the peace of mind that there is a sufficient level of battery backup to ensure that, in the most critical phase of an emergency, their mobile towers are able to continue to operate. We do need to understand that, for the most part, when bushfires come through the area, it's quick—devastatingly quick, deadly quick—but it may also be a long period of time before a crew can come through the area and repair any damage that is done to the power and facilities. So having sufficient levels of battery backup in these bushfire-prone areas just makes good sense. If the member for Mayo is returned—and I'm confident that she will be—and if Labor is lucky enough to win the support of the Australian people at the next election, we'd like to engage in a sensible conversation with the carriers, with the emergency service providers and with interested members of this place to ensure that we have the sufficient level of standards in place to provide sufficient battery backup powering arrangements for these towers in these areas. I thank the member for Mayo for her ongoing interest in this area. I know it means a lot to her in her electorate.

Labor believes that any proposal to provide mobile carriers with the ability to bypass local approvals must be developed in consultation with the relevant community council and local government stakeholders. That's why Labor instigated an inquiry in the other place to specifically look more closely at the consequences of the measures in schedule 2, and I personally reached out to the president of the Australian Local Government Association on this issue. I had productive discussions with David O'Loughlin, a mayor and the president of the association. The association outlined some concerns, and these concerns were reflected in the primary recommendations of the Senate inquiry into schedule 2 of the bill. So, Labor acknowledges that the government has in good faith taken the committee's concerns into account, and on this basis we're able to accept these recommendations to this schedule of the bill.

I just want to finish by raising one point, and I thank the member for Greenway, the shadow minister, for drawing attention to this point in her contribution. This bill has had an attachment to it, an amendment that was moved by Labor in the Senate—a long overdue amendment. I thank the government members for agreeing to it finally. There was much delay in this, and it has a big impact for viewers of regional television in regional Australia. I'm talking, of course, about the amendment that proposes to permit Northern Rivers Television Pty Ltd as a specified company eligible to receive a transitional support payment under part 3 of schedule 6 of the broadcasting legislation.

This will probably be all very puzzling for most members of this place. Let me put it simply: under the broadcasting reform legislation moved by the minister, which was passed through last year, certain transition and other refund payments were available to broadcasters because of the change in ownership between Norther Rivers Television Pty Ltd, subsequently purchased by WIN TV, headquartered in my electorate and the electorate of the member for Cunningham. The new owners became ineligible for those payments. That was never intended. The amendments moved by Labor in the Senate will ensure that the new owners, WIN TV, will get the payments that were always intended to go to them.

We thank the minister for finally getting onto this important work. It wouldn't have happened had it not been for the work of the member for Greenway in ensuring that those amendments were moved in the Senate. With those comments, with those contributions, we commend the bill to the House.