Over the past eight months Labor has voiced growing concerns about NBNCo’s decision to exclude Australians with non-monitored alarms from the Government’s opaque $100 million medical alarm subsidy scheme.
Whilst Labor has welcomed the establishment of the subsidy scheme, the ongoing exclusion of non-monitored alarm users will have a disproportionate impact on low income Australians and pensioners who simply cannot afford to spend an extra $480 per year on a monitored alarm service.
What is equally concerning is that Minister Fifield has sought to outsource his responsibilities to NBNCo in order to distance the Government from a decision it seemingly wanted no part of:
Sen O'Neill: Is it a policy decision that is now in your remit in a way that it was not previously, because it was seconded out to NBN Co?
Sen Fifield: It was not seconded out; it was an operational NBN Co decision.
[Source: Senate Estimates, 15 June 2017, p.11.]
An ‘operational decision’ to exclude users from a subsidy scheme? Is this the sort of policy leadership Australians expect on such an important issue?
Under questioning in Senate Estimates on 25 May 2017 the Minister conceded he had asked “the Department and NBN Co to examine what options there may be.” However, when subsequently asked by Senator O’Neill on 15 June 2017 to say who would be responsible for deciding on next steps the Minister was again not prepared to accept responsibility:
Sen O'Neill: So you will make the decision about whether people get access to the subsidy or not? You will not leave that with NBN Co? It is going to be your decision?
Sen Fifield: It is something that I will have a very close interest and involvement in.
And under continued questioning:
Sen O'Neill: But who is making the social policy decision here: a tech company or you as minister?
Sen Fifield: I have asked for advice. I will receive advice, and then we will take it from there.
Sen O'Neill: Who is we? You and Mr Morrow, or you or Mr Morrow?
Sen Fifield: I am not sure that anything terribly much turns on this.
[Source: Senate Estimates, 15 June 2017]
It is simply not appropriate for a network engineering company to be making social policy decisions about which Australians get access to a medical alarm subsidy and which don’t — this is the job of Government. This indifference by the Turnbull Government sets a dangerous precedent and highlights the diminishing state of governance and accountability in the Communications portfolio.
The Turnbull Government needs to heed Labor’s call to step up and take ownership of medical alarm policy to ensure vulnerable consumers have a safe and well-managed migration to the NBN.