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Thursday, 17 August 2017
Page: 5935

Senator McCARTHY (Northern Territory) (11:41): I rise to speak to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Amendment (Restoring Shortwave Radio) Bill 2017 and I thank the Senator Nick Xenophon and his team for raising what is an incredibly important issue.

I would like to let the Senate know that having no short-wave radio in the Northern Territory means that when people turn their radio on now in the remote regions of the Northern Territory and northern Australia, they hear nothing but static. The fishers out their boats, the rangers out on country, the farmers and cattle families out there on their stations hear nothing. They hear nothing. Where once communication was vibrant, where once communication meant something to those who were completely isolated, now it is completely gone. They are isolated. They are not feeling linked to the rest of this country. They are not feeling linked to whatever news, current affairs, weather and updates are happening in their region. They are not linked to any of that communication. It is absolutely dire, the absence of this service, for regional Australians.

The ABC board visited the Northern Territory and Central Australia recently and heard first-hand from people in the region. They didn't have to hear from politicians; they heard from the very listeners themselves. These weren't made up stories by senators in this chamber or members in the other chamber; these were very real human stories. The ABC board and its members who went to Alice Springs were able to hear firsthand the deep impact, the quite profound impact, that the silencing of short wave has had on their lives in the eight months since it was taken off air.

I have never seen an issue so long-lasting. This is not just a newspaper article, not just a radio news item but a long-lasting, very human issue that has gone on for eight months. It has gone on way too long. The ABC's managing director was at Garma on Yolngu country, welcomed wholeheartedly by the Yolngu people. It was an opportunity for her and for those who were with her to get a deeper insight into the isolation of our country—the remoteness, the length of time it takes for people to travel, the absence of full communication, the realisation that mobiles do not happen in every square corner of this country and the realisation that you can't just get on your mobile phone in the middle of Arnhem Land and try and download an app that brings you to the ABC.

Here in Canberra we can. I love the fact that I can listen to all the different radio stations and even listen to Darwin while I am down here in Canberra. We know that our southern cities and our brothers and sisters in the southern parts of this country have enormous access. The people in the north do not.

The people in the north suffer from many different geographical issues. Now, they absolutely suffer at the complete silence of any communication. We have heard from previous speakers here today about the VAST network. We know that a cattleman who is out mustering cannot put the VAST satellite on his horse. We know that the people in the fishing industry cannot put it on their boats. We know that the rangers who are travelling out in their four-wheel drives cannot have it in their cars. We know the truckies cannot put it on their trucks.

The ABC managing director faced Senate estimates this year. I asked her: with all this information that you have now received of how much need there is out there for this service, will you now reconsider your decision? Will you now reconsider your board's decision? Yes, while there have been horrific cuts to the ABC over the past few years and while there have been extensive cuts in different quarters for different reasons, this decision still came down to the ABC board. We are all placed at different times in life to make choices. We are placed in positions that we may not want to be placed in, but we try to make informed decisions as a result of being placed in those positions. This was not an informed decision by the ABC board.

I urge the ABC board, with the new members who have since come on that board—it is wonderful to see the new members who have come on, including Georgie Somerset, a woman of enormous significance in terms of her understanding of regional issues. It is wonderful to have board members there who know what we are talking about and who know this is not just a fantasy of senators and members of the House who try to speak on behalf of their constituencies.

These are very real, very human issues about the lack of communication for our regional Australians. We know of the concerns internationally. We know the concerns of Vanuatu and all the Pacific islands. I have to say that my focus as a senator for the Northern Territory is for the people of the Northern Territory and northern Australia. We have to fix it here in our country first. The ABC can fix this. There are board members there who can revisit this decision. There is a managing director now who has had an opportunity to visit places in the Northern Territory and hear the people for herself. It is not too late. It is never too late to revisit a mistake.

The loss of the ABC's short-wave service in remote Australia and the Pacific region is being sorely felt. I certainly support the need for the ABC to maintain and build its regional coverage and I believe there are options for doing this, not the least of which is ensuring adequate funding. What steps are being taken to pursue, to lobby for or to advocate for the funding that is so desperately needed in these regions, especially in relation to short wave? What consultation has taken place within your own organisation? You have the advisory council. You have the Bonner Committee of respected Indigenous staff members who know firsthand of what I speak about in relation to the concerns of Indigenous communities. Have you spoken to them? Have they been given an opportunity to express to you, the board of the ABC, the importance of short wave and reconnecting a most valued and most loved service to our country?

Over the past many months, we've been listening to a lot of the concerns by people across the country in the Senate estimates and the inquiry by the Senate and now reading the letters that are still being written to my office, asking for this service to be put back on. It is a transmission service that provides a vital service for Territorians living in remote areas. It's how they access their news, entertainment and information. The decision to stop this was absolutely premature.

The ABC local radio service often provides the only reliable source of information and entertainment to remote communities, to pastoral stations and to people who otherwise work remotely and are mobile. In times of natural disaster—and let me tell you, the cyclone season, the wet season, is six months of the year for the Northern Territory, the Far North Queensland and the Kimberley region—having access to that service can quite literally mean the difference between life and death. Territorians and others who visit and work in remote regions, as well as those who rely on short-wave services in the Pacific region, have expressed their concern and anger at the decision to cut this service.

The recent Senate inquiry into the ABC's rural and regional advocacy bill, which looks at the short-wave issue—and I do commend Senator McKenzie for her push in this space—received more than 57 submissions, the majority objecting to the cessation of short-wave services.

I'd like to share some of what people who live and work in remote areas told me about the ABC's short-wave service and what it meant for their daily lives. Dave and Mary Hewitt said:

The ABC says we'll still be able to tune in via FM radio, online streaming or the radio APP "that gives much better sound quality" - none of this is available further than about 40km from a transmitter, and it shows again how little the ABC bosses know about the bush. My wife and I often travel west of Uluru in my work with maintenance in the Purple House dialysis clinics and about half an hour from Uluru we loose FM reception. We can then tune into Short Wave on our Codan HF radio. We often camp between communities and it is always comforting to hear weather forecasts early in the morning.

Many older travellers also have these Codan or Barrett radios and often in winter at Stuart Highway rest areas we see groups of them gathered around a radio listening to an AFL football game.

We've been in the middle of the Great Sandy Desert with teams of bird watchers and on a Sunday morning we listen to Ian McNamara's 'Australia All Over' program from the Alice Springs, Tennant Creek or Katherine transmitters. Again, the weather information on the radio is very valuable. There is nothing else out there that can provide this kind of service.

We know of people in remote Aboriginal communities who do not have a local FM service or at best it is very unreliable, road maintenance crews and tour operators to whom the Short Wave reception is absolutely vital. It is very reliable and we have never known the HF transmitters to fail. If we are in a location where reception is not good from Alice Springs, we can tune into Tennant Creek.

That is just one of thousands of letters that have been written and continue to be written to members of parliament about the need to restore this most valued and loved service. The bottom line here is that if we really care about the ABC as a parliament as well and its regional and remote viewers and listeners, then it does need to be funded properly to deliver these services that we desperately need.

Debate interrupted.