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Thursday, 14 May 2020
Page: 2399

Senator McGRATH (QueenslandDeputy Government Whip in the Senate) (10:53): I rise to speak on these two bills, the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer) Bill 2019 and the Telecommunications (Regional Broadband Scheme) Charge Bill 2019. I will start by giving a shout-out to a wonderful organisation called BIRRR—that is, Better Internet for Rural, Regional and Remote Australia. It is a group of very committed regional Queenslanders, in particular, although I know there are members outside Queensland. It was set up by Kristy Sparrow and Kylie Stretton, and the work that these two ladies and their members have done to advocate and push for better internet for those who live in the inner part of Australia—the rural, regional and remote part of Australia—is just fantastic. More grease and more power to their elbows to continue advocating on behalf of Queenslanders especially. As important as the rest of country is, I don't particularly care about the rest of the country; all I care about is Queensland. Please don't take it personally—for the quite a few Tasmanians in the room. We are the states' house, and I'm here to represent my state.

These bills that we have before us today—

An opposition senator interjecting

Senator McGRATH: No, no! This is just Senator McGrath standing up on behalf of regional Queenslanders and advocating for their interests, and I'm sure you'd all support me in fighting for regional Queenslanders and for all Queenslanders. It is important to set these bills in the context of the space that we live in now, in terms of the wonderful thing called the internet: how it powers us, how it is driving business and enterprise and how it is driving how we look at life in terms of our recreation and our business. Twenty to 25 years ago, when I was at university, the internet wasn't a thing. Mobile phones really weren't a thing. But now they are a thing for everybody from toddlers—my nieces, Josephine and Sofia, are four years old and 15 months old, and the four-year-old is very adept at managing an iPad, scarily so, much more than I am—to those at the other end of the spectrum, such as my parents, who are in their 70s and get cranky when they cannot access the internet and cannot access mobile phone coverage.

On the issue of mobile phone coverage, I don't like being particularly partisan in this place, but I will give a shout-out to what the Liberal-National government has done on the issue of mobile phone black spots. It is probably one of the best policies—certainly one of the top five policies—that this government has pushed for since it was elected in 2013. Previously, under the Labor government, there was no funding for mobile phone black spots, but under the coalition government hundreds and hundreds of mobile phone black spots around Australia have been remedied and fixed. I know someone whose office is on the Sunshine Coast, in the bustling town of Nambour, but who lives out on the Darling Downs, which is a good three-hour-and-20-minute drive from door to door. I know how important it is to have mobile phone coverage, and I have noticed the improvement in mobile phone coverage when I drive around Queensland. But there is still lots to do, and the government knows that. Only in the last couple of weeks the Liberal-National government announced a further round of funding for mobile phone black spots.

Too often some senators on the other benches don't appreciate the difficulty of those who live in regional parts of Australia. They probably—I don't want to be too negative—take for granted their own access, whether it's mobile phone coverage or the internet, because they live in cities, whereas we on this side of the chamber are a diverse bunch. We are dispersed around our states and live what we talk about in terms of understanding the issues. I know that when I drive from Warwick to Stanthorpe I won't have mobile phone coverage during certain parts of the trip. When I drive to Brisbane, I go through a place called Cunninghams Gap, and I know there's no mobile phone coverage there. But it has improved dramatically since the election of the Liberal-National government back in 2013, and these two bills continue the reforms in this area.

It's important to put in context what the coalition inherited in relation to the NBN when we came into power in 2013. After six years of Labor, just 51,000 users were connected to the NBN. Effectively, one in 50 premises had actually been connected. We look at the achievement of this government. We've pushed, reformed and built upon the NBN, because Labor's fibre-to-the-premises policy would have cost $30 billion more and taken six to eight years longer to complete. This is the NBN policy that former Senator Conroy, if this is to be believed—and I think it is, if you think of Labor's approach to business plans and economic management—wrote on the back of a coaster. I understand it was a beer-stained coaster. Such was the disregard for the taxpayers of Australia, who would fund Labor's policy, and such was the disregard for the end users of Labor's NBN policy, the people of Australia. They were, in typical Labor fashion, promised this gold-plated elephant, but in fact, sadly, they were just delivered the scrapings-out from the elephant stables. Under Labor's policy, broadband bills would have increased by up to $43 per month. That's $500 a year. For Queenslanders, that's a lot of money.

Imagine if Labor had stayed in power or, God forbid, if Bill Shorten had won the last election. Just imagine the dire state the Australian economy would have been in as we approached the coronavirus. One of the reasons that the national cabinet and the Prime Minister have been able to focus on saving lives and protecting livelihoods is the economic management of the Liberal and National parties. Those on the other side probably don't really give a good old hoot about economic management, because it's something that other people worry about. But to fund policies like the NBN and ensure that we have the infrastructure to take Australia forward, whether in calm waters or in stormy waters, you need to make sure that you have sensible economic policies and a sensible, sober approach to how the economy and the budget are run. You cannot keep on spending, because you need to make sure you have money in the bank and the debt is paid down for when storms come up, as they have—the most serious storm to hit Australia in a hundred years.

So that's why it's a concern when we talk about the NBN and when we look at the different parties' approach to the internet and to telecommunications. On this side, we took an evidence based approach. We looked at how it could be funded. We looked at what could be best achieved for the taxpayers of Australia, who are funding it—thank you, Mr and Mrs Taxpayer—but also the end users. Too often we forget about the end users—sorry, too often those in the other parties forget about the end users. They just see them as collateral or people who might be swayed by glitzy election policies.

I go back to what was happening when we came to power in 2013. Labor had paid $6 billion for the NBN to pass just three per cent of premises in Australia. The rollout was very poorly managed. Contractors downed tools and stopped construction in four states. Under Labor, the NBN missed every rollout target it set for itself. Under the leadership of the Liberal-National coalition, the NBN rollout is on schedule and on budget, and the government is rolling out better broadband across Australia in the fastest and most affordable way so Australians can get access to fast broadband sooner, at a price they can afford.

This has particularly hit home over the last couple of months since the coronavirus epidemic came to Australia, with the lockdown that has been imposed by the various premiers under the leadership of the national cabinet, because so many Australians, including senators of all colours in this chamber, have been working from home, dealing with boisterous members of their families and dealing with the broader issues of trying to get on with the job and access broadband internet and telecommunications. We've really come to terms with how the internet has become such a life form for many Australians that, if it were switched off, they would have difficulty operating. That is, I suppose, a reflection upon modern society. It is important to have a government like the Liberal-National government that can deliver the internet, because that's what the end consumers want, and that's what the NBN has been able to do. Research by a company called AlphaBeta shows Australia has one of the most affordable markets for broadband; we are ranked seventh for affordability out of 22 countries analysed. The NBN helped drive over $1 billion worth of additional economic activity in 2017.

More women are becoming their own bosses with the NBN. I go back to the shout-out I gave to BIRRR, to Kristy and Kylie. Kristy, whom I know personally, lives on a station near Alpha in Queensland. This is important in terms of the empowerment Australians can receive from being able to access the internet so that the disparity between those who live in the city and those who live in regional Queensland is on par in terms of access to information and access to modern society. These two bills are a small part in helping progress that.