Trip highlights telecommunications problems

10 February 2015

Senator O’SULLIVAN (QueenslandNationals Whip in the Senate) (20:19): My contribution tonight relates to the third in a trilogy of speeches that I have made in this place concerning the fulfilment of a promise that I made when I was appointed as a senator for the state of Queensland, in that I promised to visit every community in my state, where practicable, on a listening tour to determine exactly what was on their minds with respect to their ideals for their communities right across my state.

I have now completed that task—although I must admit that, when I was battling 600 or 700 kilometres of unsealed road between Birdsville and Quilpie, I for a moment thought that perhaps I should have just promised to go to every second community in the state. Nonetheless, I have now, with the exception of one of two areas in the peninsula in the far remote north, visited every community.

The challenges for these communities are remarkably consistent, particularly when we get into the more rural and remote areas of my state. There are facts and figures that show that almost 33 per cent of the GDP of my state comes from an area that we would politically be familiar with as the divisions of Kennedy and Maranoa and a portion of Capricornia, where there are only 240,000 residents. Remembering that my state’s population is 4.4 million, 240,000 residents are responsible for 33 per cent of GDP.

I listened with great interest to the previous speaker, Senator Milne. She is in the stratosphere somewhere, on her own, as she starts to attack the contributions made by the mining and resource sector. Communities that are in the area that I have described, west of the Great Divide and in the Bowen Basin, are suffering now on so many fronts; and, if we were to follow the script provided, no-one would live west of the Great Divide. Many of these communities suffer from a lack of essential services. I think progressive governments—and I call upon my own government to pay acute attention to this—have in many respects failed these communities.

Some might remember that, in my maiden speech, I made the point that there has been a reduction in community services throughout these communities over the last four or five decades; but it is now getting into a critical phase because of, I think, our failure to keep these townships up-to-date with communications technologies. Many of them have difficulties with their fixed lines. They have either no internet service, an inadequate and intermittent internet service or one that is simply too expensive for them to access. Mums and dads in the central-west who use the internet as a platform for education and for their own social interactions pay sometimes 400 per cent more for the same volume of service that we have come to expect in the more populated areas.

On top of this—and it is been canvassed in this place many times—is the potential impact that will occur if we do not continue to underpin the Australia Post services that are so important to so many of these communities. In the community of Bedourie, the local shire has had to purchase the local post office. I am advised by them that they subsidise it for about $100,000 a year out of the rates receipt for that district. Imagine that. Imagine us going out in the more populated areas, in the cities, to tell ratepayers that they now have to pay for basic community service obligations such as the operation of their post office and their postal services. Indeed, three of the shires out there were putting $5 million into trying to come up with a solution to do with the delivery of their fixed line service.

These things are horrific. This is in communities that are paying four and five times as much for freight as one would pay in the city for the delivery of goods for retail. Of course, this is passed on to very small communities. It is very difficult for these additional and very large cost imposts to be amortised across these much smaller communities. Consequently, the cost of living is much greater for many of our Queensland communities west of the Great Divide—and I assume the situation is the same in western New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, the Territory and certainly a very large part of Western Australia. These communities are made up of not many people. They do not have the voting voice or the power that you have in some of the more concentrated federal divisions politically; they are potentially without voice as a percentage of whole. Not only do they have these massive cost-of-living imposts because of freight and the cost of goods and services; they also have to pay additionally for the failure of progressive governments to deliver to them the very basic community service obligations.

For most Australians, if you want to visit your accountant you can probably do it on the way to work. But some of these people have to travel thousands upon thousands of kilometres to visit these professional services where they are delivered. They get the most basic of medical or dental services. I say we need to start focusing on their needs not only on the basis that they are simply entitled—as, in my view, they are—and not only on the basis that governments both state and federal need to subsidise the delivery of these services. The fact is that, if you are not persuaded in terms of the community service obligations, you should be persuaded by the economic argument. Those 240,000 people deliver up over a third of the GDP of my state. Their contribution is about $212,000 a head whereas if you were to amortise the contribution of some of the major populated areas, it is down to as low as $5,000 per head.

These things have massive impacts on their ability to conduct their business and on the delivery of education and health services—not to mention the social engagement that you and I take for granted when we either send or receive an email or communicate with our family across the internet. These are people who sometimes can go almost a week without having the capacity to communicate with their young children who are away at boarding school. Mind you—and I send this out to mums and dads everywhere—children are in some cases starting boarding school as early as grade 1 because there is simply no alternative delivery of education that can be done on a reliable basis.

My message has been the same right through my three speeches, and it will remain; it is one of central mantras that I bring with me to this place. We need to all pay attention to making sure that we provide these Australians with a much better level of service—not exactly the same as what we have, because that is not possible; we understand that and they understand that—even if it is at an additional cost to our government. And, most certainly, we need to pay attention to providing our basic service obligations, particularly in communications, health and education.