Tour of Western Queensland

17 November 2014

Senator O’SULLIVAN (Queensland—Nationals Whip in the Senate) (22:20): I rise tonight to give a short report on a recent trip that I undertook across some 1,500 kilometres of an area that represents about 20 per cent of the landmass of my state of Queensland —commencing in Boulia Shire to the north-west and transgressing across the Barcoo, Diamantina, Quilpy, Paroo and Ballon shires. These areas are home to some iconic names and descriptions well recognised by many Australians. They are at the start of the Birdsville Track or the end of the Birdsville Track, depending on which side of the Simpson Desert you started or finish. They reside above probably our greatest natural gift— the Artesian Basin. The birthplace of the Flying Doctor is a couple of hundred kilometres to the north. It has the great Cooper Basin and the great Diamantina River —which, in effect, on the south-eastern end, represents the headwaters of the great Murray-Darling Basin It is this area where about 40 or 50 per cent of the production of beef cattle in my state is grown, where our state produces some 66 per cent of the national herd and so lifts its share, and someone else’s, in terms of the contribution that makes to the national economy in agriculture, and particularly in the grass-fed-beef sector.

This area is very seriously impacted by the worst drought in, some say, over 100 years. In well over 95 per cent of the area that I travel through there was absolutely no pasture. It is not just drought affected; it is totally drought stricken. In regard to the challenges of the drought, I have spoken about that in this place on many occasions. I want to acknowledge that our government is responding, I think, in a fair and measured way to the drought packages. I particularly want to congratulate the agriculture minister on recent adjustments to the package he has taken forward. I think they will close the gap for some who might have found the earlier packages too difficult to access. I think that in time that measure will be seen as the one that saved many hundreds, if not thousands, of producers, assuming that we get a decent break in the weather some time soon.

The other thing that struck me was the state of communications in this part of our great state and nation. I am embarrassed, and I have said so publicly, about the state of communications in some of those communities. For example, in Boulia you cannot use a mobile phone, landlines are intermittent, as is access to the internet. Also, the Australia Post office there was going broke and had to be purchased by the shire. The shire now subsidises the operation of the post office to the tune of $100,000 a year. Imagine if some of us in this place or the other place went back to our electorates and told the good citizens of those electorates that they all needed to put their hands into their pockets, additionally, to subsidise such services that the rest of Australia takes for granted.

The introduction of internet services, with the NBN, in the Boulia and Diamantina shires is going to be subsidised at the cost of $13,600 per ratepayer. Whilst we move around the cafes of Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and so many other centres around the country accessing free wi-fi, if you happen to be in Bedourie or Stonehenge or Jundah, or any of the hub communities within those two major and great shires, you are about to sign off on putting in $13,600 per ratepayer for the privilege to access the most basic and fundamental internet services that are available. Each of us as a test should doorknock a street somewhere near us in eastern Australia or in the bigger capital cities and ask the punters there how they would feel about putting $13,000-plus per ratepayer towards providing the services that we take for granted.

The impact of this on the lives of these people is enormous. It has an impact on their ability to conduct business and on their ability to deliver base education services to their children. In fact, in a case reported to me at Birdsville, a mother and her four children have had to move into town because they can no longer efficiently access School of the Air. It is gone. The intermittent service they get from the bandwidth prevents the children from being able to complete lessons on so many days that they can no longer persist with the issue.

The medical centres I attended out there have some state of the art equipment, funded in this case by the state, and I am sure that is true for most of the state, only they cannot use it. This is lifesaving equipment, with people there who are qualified to operate the equipment, but the bandwidth is not there for them to be able to upload some of the data imagery to go off to a physician in Adelaide or Brisbane so that they can guide them through the treatments that are required. In some cases it is life-saving treatment. Again, these are issues that I think we should all be considering. I am not here to lay this on the previous government or on this government. I think the more we expose it the more pressure there will be from a bipartisan point of view for us to rectify this.

These people cannot even conduct their businesses. We have businesses that talk about properties there that export meat, some of the best meat in the world—grass.fed meat from the Cooper—onto the plates in New York, yet they can go three or four days before they can enact business off their property, because they cannot access a fundamental platform with respect to the use of the internet. Sometimes, even their fixed telephone lines are intermittent. Even these intermittent services disappear in periods where we have wet seasons, where some of the infrastructure is affected. They can go for weeks and weeks without technicians being able to get to some of those isolated areas to restore this base service.

This is affecting families. I am not a Facebook person myself, but these people are prevented from interacting with their larger family when they have children away at boarding schools. They are now having to come away for grade 7 and not even waiting until grade

8. It has a massive impact on some families. Where they have four children who all have to board, over a lifetime there is another $80,000 on top of the $13,600, on top of the subsidisation of the post office and the like.

So I ask everybody to take a very conscious and measured approach to this. We cannot leave these Australians behind. They have made this nation, even if some might argue their contribution in contemporary times is not what it was 30 to 60 years ago. Anyone who does not understand the story of this nation, and anyone who does understand it, will understand what contribution the people who live in these isolated areas have made to the wealth of our nation.

I appreciate the opportunity to speak tonight. I know that this is a matter that will attract the empathy and support of the opposition. I would expect it of all members of this place. I think we need to have a conversation over the coming weeks, and hopefully not much more than the coming months, until we come up with a solution that will provide these people with the fundamental dignity of being able to communicate with the rest of the world.

The PRESIDENT: I remind senators they have been invited to attend a parliamentary address by Mr Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of the Republic of India, in the House of Representatives tomorrow at 10:15 am.

Senate adjourned at 22:30