SUBJECTS: The Liberals’ second-rate multi-technology mix NBN; Labor’s NBN Service Guarantee; the Liberals’ attacks on the ABC; Labor’s commitment to restore $83.7 million cut from the ABC.
CAMERON MARSHALL: Well, there could possibly be an election just around the corner. That is the feeling I'm getting in my bones, but we're talking about communications this morning and in particular what is your NBN communication like? Do you have issues? Would you like to see improvements? These are just some of the issues that Michelle Rowland, who is Labor's Shadow Minister for Communications, is currently on the Mid North Coast conducting a listening tour. And Michelle Rowland joins us this morning. Good morning Michelle.
MICHELLE ROWLAND, SHADOW MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: Good morning, great to be with you.
MARSHALL: Thank you so much. Okay, we'll you're here in our local region supporting our local candidate for Cowper. Take us through what you expect to hear from the audience around the region.
ROWLAND: It's been a really interesting day or so, starting in Coffs Harbour, going to Bellingen and also to Kempsey last night and meeting with some of the Port Macquarie local government representatives this morning. We talk a lot about a digital divide but I can honestly say I haven't seen a greater example of a digital divide in action than in the Mid North Coast region. I mean, in Coffs Harbour you have residents and businesses who are enjoying a Fibre to the Premises model, which was Labor's original NBN. When you go to Bellingen, it's a mixture of Fibre to the Curb, but also within some areas you've got Fixed Wireless being provided. In Kempsey last night, predominately Fibre to the Node and predominately Fibre to the Node here in Port Macquarie, but in some emerging areas where new housing is being developed there is fibre. So it really is a mishmash of infrastructure and this does not bode well for wanting to have sustainable, but also the highest quality, delivery of connectivity on which so many residents, students, small businesses rely on.
MARSHALL: Well we have a Labor Candidate for Cowper, Andrew Woodward, with us. You're supporting him. Andrew Woodward good morning and thanks for coming in this morning.
WOODWARD: Great to be here Cameron.
MARSHALL: Now you know who you're going to be up against in terms of the Nationals Candidate now.
MARSHALL: Do you think the NBN will be an election issue in Cowper?
WOODWARD: I think it is going to be definitely an issue for the reason that it is one of the hottest issues in the area and everyone's got a different experience. And people, when you talk to them about the NBN, what they basically want is something that's going to work and it's going to last our community for a very, very long time. And people know they've got something that's sort of okay now but they're after something that will be future-proof going forward. And that's something that, you know, we're talking a lot about at the moment and the current government just seems stuck in saying " what you've got now is as good as it gets," and quite frankly it's not as good as it gets.
MARSHALL: So, what can you see as improvements that could be made?
ROWLAND: Well, the number one issue that people are raising is speeds and reliability. So that issue of having the quality of service that people pay for is paramount. Now some of that can be addressed with an immediate policy response and we've recently announced that Labor, if we're elected, will introduce what we're calling an NBN Service Guarantee. So if you have missed appointments, if your connection isn't done on time, if you have technicians who fail to turn up, they will essentially be subject to fines, very similar to what we currently have for voice services under the existing customer service guarantee. And they will be bigger penalties in the event of small businesses because, as too many small businesses have told us, being without connectivity really is a question of money being foregone. So, that's an immediate thing that can be addressed and that's a policy that we've already announced.
But the bigger issue goes to that of the technology that is being deployed. And under Labor's original plan, as you'd be aware, 93 per cent of Australia was due to have a Fibre to the Premises model, with the remaining 7 per cent done with Fixed Wireless and Satellite. We've had examples of people, unfortunately, who have been stuck now under the Coalition's model of Fibre to the Node, which relies of copper. Depending on the quality of copper, when it rains the degradation of the copper really does impact on their ability to ever get a service that is reliable and has those speeds that people are paying for. So that is really the core of it. We are well advanced in our policy development here but I can tell you that in the last two years where we've being going right around Australia, listening to people's concerns, it has taken the government a very long time to realise that this should all be about consumers. They should focus on the consumer experience and not simply saying statistics and blowing their own trumpet about how many people can access the NBN, because quite frankly if you're accessing a service that isn't working properly or if you're a small business and you're losing money because of your connectivity, then it's sometimes as good as nothing at all.
MARSHALL: Well, you'd be very familiar with what happened in Bellingen.
MARSHALL: We had consumers on one side of the road with no or poor connection and the other side they're actually quite comfortable. So would you see that as a priority to try and correct that situation?
WOODWARD: Yeah look the community at Bellingen, I think, has been one of the most vocal in Australia and Bellingen is definitely a case study when it comes to the digital divide in this country. And I mean, it's not as if where they're looking to do fixed wireless in Bellingen is like on the fringe or out of town, it's basically an enclave in the middle of town and Michelle actually, we went there yesterday and met with some of the locals about it. And Michelle, maybe you could us some of your impression of what you saw when you were there.
ROWLAND: It is very difficult to understand how literally a little enclave within an area that's now getting Fibre to the Curb has actually been designated for Fixed Wireless. The ultimate tragedy is that under Labor's original model this whole area would've had Fibre to the Premises by now. So it is very difficult to understand how that decision was made and we had some NBN representatives along yesterday at one of these community meetings and it's quite clear that the Fixed Wireless tower is not operating in the way that it should because people are having such a poor experience on it. So for what that's worth, NBN have taken it upon themselves to investigate this further, but a solution needs to be found. It's completely understandable why these local residents, some of whom are trying to conduct businesses from home, are so frustrated with the situation.
MARSHALL: Well, Andrew Woodward is the Labor Candidate for Cowper and I'm joined by Michelle Rowland, she's Labor’s Shadow Minister for Communications. Andrew Woodward, as we mentioned Cowper in 55 years in the National Party stronghold.
MARSHALL: A large swing, but as we saw what happened in Wentworth, I guess not insurmountable. We're not too sure who else is going to come out of the woodwork in terms of other candidates. There is talk that we might see high profile independent Robert Oakeshott emerge from the pack but he's yet to decide on that issue.
MARSHALL: But, you know, if we look towards the middle of next year, it's quite a long campaign.
WOODWARD: It is.
MARSHALL: What do you think are going to be the, sort of, key policy issues or the key areas in which this election will be fought?
WOODWARD: Yeah. I think there are three key issues in Cowper. The first is employment, the second is environment and the third is equality. We have employment problems in the area. In the southern end of the electorate, Port Macquarie is doing relatively well on the employment states, whereas at the northern end of the electorate in Coffs Harbour we've got general unemployment double that of Sydney and we've got approaching one in four - one in four - young people are looking for work. So unemployment is a definite big issue right throughout the area, and it's not just youth unemployment. We have a lot of people moving here later in life around the 50 mark or whatever. They're looking for good quality jobs as well, so we've got some ideas that we'll be talking about in the coming months about that.
Second, when it comes to the environment there is a lot of concerns about forests and forestry here. There's a lot of concern about climate change and there's a lot of concern about global environmental issues such as mining and stuff like that. So that's something that people talk to me a lot about as well.
And then the third issue that's on a lot of people’s minds is just equality, and NBN is an exact example of that equality issue. We've got inequality within Cowper when it comes to internet connectivity with the rest of the world. I mean that begs belief.
We also know a lot about rural doctors, that in Bellingen and Coffs Harbour and Port Macquarie you can generally get to see a doctor within a day or two, whereas if you're in Bowraville or Nambucca or Macksville or somewhere else you might wait three or four weeks to see a doctor to get a prescription. So there is a lot of inequality issues as well. School funding, hospital funding and stuff like that so I think there are some really big issues to address here and I'm really excited and honoured about having the opportunity to give it a good go for Labor and whether I'm up against one or whether I'm up against ten, the story doesn't change. We're going to be fighting hard for it.
MARSHALL: Well look, yes I'm sure the election will be here before we know it but in the meantime, Michelle Rowland, I also wanted to ask you in your role as Shadow Minister for Communications, I'm pretty sure the media would probably come under your portfolio and the ABC is part of that. Of course, the ABC has been in the news a fair bit lately, with issues at the top with changes and so on and so forth. Do you see it important that the ABC continues in its role as being a non-commercial broadcaster or do you, with what's been happening at the top, see budget changes, or just where does the ABC sit as part of your election campaign?
ROWLAND: The ABC is an article of faith for the Labor Party. Public broadcasting is fundamental to who we are as, not only a Labor Party, but also our society and our democracy. And at a time where we have such a prevalence of fake news when we have such distrust in our institutions, the ABC is one of those few public institutions that Australians still trust and their brand is very much trusted by the majority of Australians. Its news is consistently rated as the most trustworthy in Australia and that needs to be supported. And that's one of the key reasons why when Scott Morrison cut $84 million from the ABC in the last Federal Budget, Labor has committed to restore that funding. We've also committed to a sustainable funding path for the ABC. As your listeners may know, the ABC is actually funded on a triennial basis, so it involves negotiations in out-years about how that will be conducted.
But it's very clear, as you say, that the ABC has gone through some internal turmoil recently, with the departure of its Managing Director and Chairman and I would not want, and I'm sure that every person, all of your listeners who love the ABC would not want, there to be a sense that the ABC cannot be trusted because of what's happened there. I think it's vitally important that the ABC has a Managing Director and a Chair who are champions of the organisation. Labor very strongly recognises that there are serious issues affecting staff morale in a number of facets and that all needs to be addressed.
It's one thing also to have funding cut, despite an explicit promise in 2013 by Tony Abbott that there would be no cuts to the ABC, but also the constant attacks we have had, whether they be by attempted legislation, there's currently a Competitive Neutrality Review, an Efficiency Review. This government seems intent on destroying the ABC, but I think what they fail to realise, and this comes out very clearly in the debates in Canberra, they fail to realise how important the ABC is, especially to regional communities. They perform every function from providing reliable news services, fulfilling its Charter Obligations, but also things like emergency services, and it doesn't receive a separate budget funding line item for that. It does it because it's the public broadcaster and I think that this government has seriously underestimated, as have Nationals MPs, you know they're very ready when they come back to their electorate to talk about how much they love the ABC, I can tell you it's very hard to see them arguing against these kind of cuts and attacks when they're in Canberra, and that's where that support is needed.
MARSHALL: Well we'll see what happens between now and the middle of the next year in terms of that policy, but in the meantime Michelle Rowland, Shadow Minister for Communications for Labor, and also our Labor Candidate for Cowper, Andrew Woodward, we thank you for coming in this morning.
WOODWARD: Thank you.