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Monday, 14 September 2009
Page: 9433

Mr KATTER (5:16 PM) —In rising to speak on the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (National Broadband Network Measures No. 1) Bill 2009, I back up my colleague the member for New England. I was reading my original speech on this bill, and I quoted with very great regret the senator from Queensland Barnaby Joyce, who said that he would oppose the bill. I deeply regret that my National colleagues seem to now represent the city interests. If Barnaby Joyce sells us out and votes against this, it will probably be the last gasp for the National Party, one that was set on 16 August 2005.

There are only three members now who represent the National Party in this House. The LNP is a formal affiliate of the Liberal Party of Australia, so it is actually the Liberal Party now. I deeply regret it—I do not criticise the honourable senator from Queensland for voting for it but in a sense I also very much criticise him for voting for it! But when you live in a party you have got to toe the party line and not do simply what it pleases you to do. At some stage you have to eventually make a decision as to whether you sell your soul or whether you sell your party. It is very regrettable that one has to say that in this place, but that is the situation as far as any member representing rural Australia goes.

The proposal to roll out broadband, giving access to virtually all Australians, is a wonderful proposal. It is like the bitumen roads which took people from the outback. It used to take us three days to go on our annual holidays to Brisbane from Cloncurry, a journey that can be done in a single day now because of the building of bitumen roads. We did not think it was possible that bitumen roads could be built out to our areas. When that very great man John McEwan instituted his beef roads scheme, as it was originally called, and later on the developmental roads scheme, one did not think it was possible to create this great network infrastructure of communication for Australia called sealed roads. But that is exactly what he did. I did not think that in my lifetime I would ever see the road sealed from Cloncurry to Brisbane—that seemed inconceivable. I thought that if we fought really hard we could get it sealed from Cloncurry to Townsville but we would never get it sealed the back way straight to Brisbane. But we did thanks to that very great man.

The people of Australia have been the beneficiaries of that. Great minds have opened up in the Mount Isa-Cloncurry area. The cattle industry has increased its numbers dramatically throughout those areas as a result. We took a survey when I was a minister in the Queensland government—and I think this is very relevant to the bill before the House—on what was the most important thing that had happened or that could happen for people in rural Australia. We were hoping that the survey would say the most important thing was water development and irrigation, but that was not what came back. What came back was bitumen roads that enabled our cattle to move from an area that was dry, because people have a concept of drought that all of New South Wales would be in drought or all of Queensland would be in drought. That rarely happens. There are areas where we have had excessive rainfall and there will be areas where we have drought. That is a condition that we have to live with. But we were not able to move our cattle previously, except at very great expense, on the dirt roads, until the coming of the beef road scheme, which put some 2,000 kilometres of sealed road into North Queensland.

I remember the most famous man in American political history and the most popular man in American political history, Huey Long. When there were just 11 bridges in Louisiana, he built 300 bridges. When there were 300 kilometres of sealed road, he built 2,500 kilometres of sealed road. The people loved Huey. It was in the time of the Great Depression, when people loved having a job. They greatly revered a man who had given them a job and an opportunity to buy a decent feed while most of the rest of the country was on the ropes.

Broadband is a very similar concept. There are problems that we can address, and I thank a member of my staff, Anthony Lagana, publicly in this place. One: the main problem is distance from exchange. Two: if no exchange exists, then we have to use wireless mobile coverage, and the cost is almost triple, with a reduction in speed and download volumes. Three: where there is no exchange and no wireless we have to use satellite. Again, the price is triple, with very low speeds and very low download volumes.

Four: people who cannot use landline broadband are disadvantaged by the cost of using wireless and satellite. Five: wireless is only as good as the reception from the phone towers, and that can be very iffy in areas that I represent, where we have the great mountain ranges of North Queensland—Mount Bartle Frere towers 5½ thousand feet above sea level and, unlike the Snowy Mountains, where you have high country, this is not high country; these are just spectacular mountains that rise off a coastal plain and go straight up into the clouds. In that situation we have enormous difficulties getting reception. Six: satellite is good until there is cloud cover. Those of us who live in country areas know that problem only too well. Speeds of downloads are limited. Seven: when there is a problem with satellite it can take one or two months to get a repair person out, because of the remoteness.

Dennis Faye is a grazier from Torrens Creek with a gifted intellect who has been without coverage for over two months. I think it is now into its third month. When Telstra’s sale was discussed in this place, we were told in our party room again and again that there would be a universal service obligation. Two or three of us—that was all—had the temerity to speak up. We said: ‘What ridiculous rubbish. Do you really think that a government is going to enforce a universal service obligation on some poor person working and living in Julia Creek or, even worse, living outside Julia Creek? That is not going to happen.’ And here is the proof positive. They are not going to pay for a repairman to go out to a single consumer who lives 70 or 80 kilometres south of Prairie or Torrens Creek. That is not the real world. That is not going to happen. Here is a specific example that it is not happening and is not going to happen. We have had something like seven centres that have been out for two and three days since Telstra was sold off.

Mr Windsor —They’re not commercially viable.

Mr KATTER —That is correct: because they are not commercially viable. When you move into a free-market regime, say your prayers if you are in the outskirts of cities. Do not think this is confined to country areas. We are talking about semisuburban areas. They are suffering greatly. One community in my area which is most certainly a stone’s throw from Cairns—it is about 20 minutes in a car—was without telephones for two weeks. In my nearly 35 years in parliament, until Telstra was sold I could only think of one example where the telephones were out for more than seven hours. It was because there were Telstra workers at every community point throughout North Queensland. They could get there quickly, assess the problem quickly and fix it up quickly. Since then we have had seven centres that have been out for two weeks—including half of Innisfail, a town of 20-odd thousand people.

I go back to this paper we have prepared. We thank Anthony for his preparation. Eight: cheap deals end up costing consumers a lot more because of the download limits. Customers should be made more aware and more informed by the provider. BigPond is probably one of the providers that creates the most problems with extra costs. When customers reach their download limit on a cheap plan of, say, $29.95 a month, the extra cost to them is very great. No matter who the provider delivering the broadband is, the exchange and lines are maintained by Telstra. Most internet problems are Telstra issues. Telstra is a privatised concern and, as I said before, they simply do not get the repairs done. So whilst these things are marvellous and, I am sure, will have great benefits for the cities, I view with extreme scepticism how valuable these services will be to us.

I am country born, from the little town of Cloncurry, which has a very limited local library. We did not have many outlets, particularly intellectual outlets. I was a prolific reader, as are many people who come from little towns such as the one I come from. The first purchase in my life when I got a little bit of money together was my rifle. My second purchase was Encyclopaedia Britannica, for which I shopped around because I could not afford to buy it new. I got it second-hand. They were very well worn copies because they were the internet of the period. It gives you some idea of the very great value.

I remember from my own home area a gentleman named Mr Dave Christerson. He started with absolutely nothing. They used to say he sold the cattle down at Cloncurry before he bought them up at Kajabbi. He did not even have a horse; he had a saddle. He would climb on the mail and go up to Kajabbi and then buy the cattle that he had already sold. I think a lot of the hedge fund managers in Sydney would understand his operations well! He became a very successful cattleman, but the first thing he bought when he had a quid—I remember it very well; he had some very pretty daughters!—was a set of Encyclopaedia Britannica. That opened the doors for us bush kids to see and to access a wider world, and broadband can provide exactly the same advantages for us if we are given it and if we are given it in such a way that it becomes a genuine service that we can afford and that we will get repaired when breakdowns occur.

In my previous speech, which emphasised the sale of Telstra more than broadband but took in broadband, I made reference to what would happen if Telstra were privatised and we then had a change of technology. I remember raising this with great aggression in our party room. Looking back on the years, I can only remember twice in my seven years in the party room where anyone who said anything in the party room was ever taken any notice of—only two issues in seven years with 20 or 30 meetings a year—so I did not lose anything by not being admitted to the party room. Looking back on it, it was an utter waste of time.

I think it is an important point to make to the House. I also said on the issue of Telstra that we have changes of technology. I owned a cattle station for a couple of decades up in the never-never land. We were about 230 kilometres from the nearest town; and, much as I love Croydon, it is a pretty rough definition of ‘town’, with 100 people. We lived right out in the middle of nowhere. But I saw four changes of technology there. The copper wire did not originally reach us, but it reached some of our neighbouring neighbours—neighbours to our neighbours—so we saw copper wire transmission of information, a telephone if you like. The copper wire was replaced by DRCS technology, and that was replaced in our case by satellite. We did not have access to DRCS but some of our neighbours did. Satellite was the third technology, and the fourth technology that came in was HCRC. There were four entirely separate changes of technology in the space of about 15 or 16 years.

Then, the government simply told Telstra—which was an instrumentality that they owned—that they would provide this service to all Australians, including those Australians who lived 200 kilometres from a town. That is what the government said. The government did not cost Treasury anything, so all we had to do was to wedge the minister or wedge the leader and put a lot of pressure on him, and then he would simply tell Telstra to do it and it would happen. But if Telstra is privatised, you cannot do that. You cannot tell Telstra to do it if they are an independent body. They would tell you to go jump.

The implications of this are that you would have to ask Treasury for a handout; whereas before we could say, ‘It’s our right’ and the government could direct their instrumentality to provide the service. These wonderful people who come into this place—in one speech they will tell us about justice and in the next speech they will tell us about markets. You know, they will tell us about how our free markets are going to save and rescue us all. Have a look at Woolworths and Coles and then tell me about free markets. Have a look at the transport industry in Australia and then tell me about free markets. Have a look at the mass media in Australia and its ownership and then tell me about free markets. As I have said on many occasions in this place, their problem is: their mummies and daddies did not get them to play Monopoly when they were young. If their mummies and daddies had got them to play Monopoly, they would know that when you own all of the utilities you have got six times the income!

Mr Windsor —They were playing Snakes and Ladders!

Mr KATTER —I think there were other things that were played, but I will not go into that. We are in an invidious situation in non-big-city Australia. I am not saying rural Australia, because I represent the environs of Cairns, which is a big city of 250,000 people. I represent the environs, and they are going to be treated very, very shabbily, I can tell you. Because of their problem—with high mountains that just rise off the coastal plains straight into the clouds—we cannot get the sort of service delivery that can be easy in certain other situations. And we are not Robinson Crusoe in this. There are areas outside of Melbourne that are exactly the same, and there are most certainly areas surrounding Sydney that are in exactly the same situation as we are. When we get breakdowns in broadband, they will not be fixed. When there is a change in technology, Treasury will not give us the money to upgrade our technology. Whilst we applaud the government, as with many socialist endeavours in this place they are very long on aspiration and very low on delivery and on turning those aspirations into reality. We hope that we are proved wrong in this case.

I started this speech by making reference to the senator from Queensland who took a very courageous stand in opposing the sale of Telstra. I said to him, ‘If you continue with your opposition then we will applaud you, and you will be a great hero throughout Queensland.’ That would have been something he could have used in his speeches forever—that I said he would be a great hero if he opposed this legislation. I said, ‘If you don’t, you have raised our expectations and you will break our hearts.’ He broke our hearts. I do not give this speech to condemn him; at least he put up some sort of a fight, which is more than I can say for the other representatives of rural Australia in this place. In endorsing the legislation, all we can say is: we applaud you for your aspirations but the reality for us is that those sorts of aspirations have never been realised for us. We would plead with the government to, just for once, deliver upon their promises.