TELECOMMUNICATIONS LEGISLATION AMENDMENT (PROTECTING SERVICES FOR RURAL AND REGIONAL AUSTRALIA INTO THE FUTURE) BILL 2007
Senator BOSWELL (Queensland—Leader of The Nationals in the Senate) (8.21 p.m.)—I listened to Senator Nash tonight and I thought her contribution to the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Protecting Services for Rural and Regional Australia into the Future) Bill 2007 was worth while.
She does put a lot of effort into telecommunications in Australia. This bill seeks to lock up the $2 billion that the National Party won in exchange for the sale of Telstra. In the party room, or forums, we said that if Telstra is sold then we want to ensure that rural and regional Australia never gets left behind, as it was at the end of the Labor Party administration. I can remember that when Labor came to office rural and regional Australia did not even get untimed local calls. There was no such thing as broadband or the internet—just one lonely telephone, and you were even charged if you rang your next-door neighbour. In fact, you were charged for a long-distance call if you rang the cottage from the main house. Even a call to your employer was called a long-distance call.
The previous speaker, Senator Wortley, said the government has been indifferent and has not moved. There is $4 billion worth of indifference: there are mobile telephones right across Australia, there are mobile telephones in the smallest village and there are mobile telephones up into the Torres Strait and out to the islands. Towers have been put up and subsidised by the government to ensure that everyone gets a mobile phone. You can now ring from Birdsville to Bedourie, from Birdsville to Boulia and it is classed as a local call. These are things which the coalition has done. This bill seeks to lock in that $2 billion under legislation, and it can never be removed unless Labor has a majority in the Senate. That $2 billion is there to keep rural and regional Australia up to speed when new technology comes through. I am sad to say that Labor will raid that $2 billion. It has said it wants that $2 billion to put forward its plan for the use of fibre-to-the-node technology.
Senator Nash said that fibre to the node will be implemented within 1.5 kilometres. I have a note here to the effect it will go four kilometres. But, whether it is 1.5 kilometres or four kilometres, it does not make a great deal of difference when your telephone is five kilometres from the front gate, let alone five kilometres from the nearest town. There is no fibre to the node in rural and regional Australia, and 25 per cent of the people will be left out. There will be no plan under Labor to support them. It is bad enough to exclude 25 per cent of regional Australia, but they then want to rob the fund and say: ‘We’re going to use that $2 billion to push forward our fibre to the node. We’ll take that away from you and, if you fall behind in telecommunications, that is just too bad.’ Unfortunately, that is what the Labor Party have said they will do. They will take the $2 billion that the coalition has put in a trust fund which will produce $400 million every three years. Labor are going to use that money and then they will turn their backs on rural and regional Australia. I find that pretty hard to accept.
Only a couple of weeks ago we in the coalition put forward a program of, I think, $958 million to try to give people the latest technology, through a company called OPEL, which is a combination of Elders—a real Australian company—and another company. We actually reached 99 per cent of the people. We were not able to reach the other one per cent of the people, who are on radio digital concentrators and kilometres away from any town. But we have not ignored or forgotten them. We have not said, ‘Sorry, you’re just within the one per cent and that’s tough luck; you live out in the bush and you have to accept that.’ We have $400 million to fix that problem. We have appointed a very prominent eye doctor in Brisbane, Dr Glasson, who has taken on the duty of running around rural Queensland with the Mayor of Barcoo, ‘Barcoo Bruce Scott’. They will go out to those remote areas and ascertain what people are looking for.
We have provided $400 million to pick up that one per cent of the people, in contrast to Labor, which will raid our fund of $2 billion that will lock in the advanced telecommunications technology. Rural Australia will be left high and dry. Senator Conroy, you ought to be honest and say: ‘Fibre to the node just will not work in rural and regional Australia. If you are four kilometres from the node, you will be completely left out.’
This bill is needed. We need to lock it in. We want to ensure that that $2 billion can never be removed and that it picks up interest. There may be a time when $400 million is not sufficient to keep the telecommunications technology up to speed. That does not mean we will just say, ‘Well, here’s the $400 million and we’re just going to use that,’ as Senator Conroy has suggested. Senator Conroy will know that in the 12 years we have been in government we have spent $4 billion on telecommunications. What a disgrace it was when we came in: all people had was one lousy telephone and, even then, they could not use it to ring their neighbour up or even the house on their property. We have gone so far in telecommunications. No-one can deny that the National Party and the Liberal Party have stood up for the bush. We have had so many programs, including $50 million for regional mobile phones, regional highway satellite phones, internet assisted programs, national communication funds, Indigenous communication scoping funds, Torres Strait community funds, the telecommunications action plan, local government funds and building rural networks—time after time we have come up and met the needs of rural Australians.
All we have in return is the Labor Party saying: ‘Let’s go to fibre-to-the-node technology. We’ll put it in the cities and the bush can’—I do not know what happens to the bush, they will just carry on the way they are and gradually fall behind the rest of Australia. I say to Senator Conroy: the market is prepared to put in this broadband in Australia. You do not have to go and spend $15 billion of taxpayers’ money to put in what the market will put in. Where the market fails is where there are not enough people to make the market work, and that is in rural and regional Australia. That is where the government has to act. But you in the Labor Party just cannot help yourselves. You have $15 billion earmarked for a communications project to put in broadband that many companies in Australia are quite prepared to fund. However, those companies are not prepared to go out and fund telecommunications projects in the bush where there are not enough people to make the market work, so that is where we have come in with $400 million. We are looking after the people that have supported the National and Liberal parties. But Labor has walked away from them, Senator Conroy: you have not explained to us how you are going to get broadband out there. We have even supported mobile phones that are satellite phones when people get so far away from the CDMA that they cannot connect with it. Unfortunately, we need to pass this legislation through; otherwise the $2 billion would go up in smoke. Rural and regional Australia would then be left seeing telecommunications as they were before we came into government.