Appropriations Bill No 1 2016-17

Mr STEPHEN JONES (Whitlam) (19:12): My questions go to the Mobile Black Spot Program, which is an important program that enjoys bipartisan support across the House. However, the administration of the program has been quite wanting. This is a $220 million program—$220 million worth of Commonwealth government funds, taxpayer funds, are dedicated to the shared objective of ensuring that mobile phone services are available to people in rural and regional Australia on the same basis as they are for people who live in the cities. That is a very laudable objective that enjoys broad support across the House.

The program was initiated pursuant to an election commitment in June 2015. The first round, worth $110 million of taxpayer money, was allocated to provide funds to build base stations in up to 500 locations that were nominated as black spots throughout the country. By way of background: there are currently 10,000 nominated black spots throughout the country. That is right. Deputy Speaker Kelly, I know you come from a rural area. A lot of them will be in your electorate. There are 10,000 mobile phone black spots throughout the country.

It is matter of deep concern to those of us on this side of the House that the administration of the program has been found wanting. Indeed, the member for Greenway last year wrote to the Australian National Audit Office asking them to conduct an audit in relation to round 1 of the program. I have to say that the findings of the Audit Office are of deep concern to every Australian who cares about the allocation of taxpayer dollars and to every Australian who wants one of those 10,000 black spots covered by a new base station.

The Audit Office has found that one in four of the base stations that were funded by the government provided no new or additional coverage. In fact, it says on page 9 of the report:

… up to 89 base stations—

about 25 per cent of those funded in round 1—

provided minimal benefits to consumers in areas that previously did not have any coverage and, as a result, did not score a single point for coverage …

The cost of that failure was $28 million. We have discovered, from our reading of the report and material that has come through Senate estimates in the last 24 hours, that there has been monumental incompetence in the administration of this program.

Our question to the minister who is representing the minister in this chamber today and who was the parliamentary secretary responsible for the design and administration of the program is: why did mobile black spot funding go to base stations that provided only minimal benefits to consumers? Why did that happen? Why was $28 million worth of taxpayer funds wasted on base stations that provided no or minimal benefits to consumers?

I have heard the minister previously say that one of the objectives of the program was to provide increased competition. On its face, that stacks up. But, if you look at the allocation of the funds under the Mobile Black Spot Program, the overwhelming majority of the funds went to the largest incumbent: Telstra. Is it any wonder that this report, in its damning conclusion about the administration of round 1 of the program, found that substantial consolidation of existing coverage by the big telecommunication players, particularly Telstra, resulted from round 1 of the program? So they cannot say that putting $28 million worth of mobile black spot funding into towers that provided no or minimal benefit to consumers was okay because it was increasing competition. The audit commission has already dealt with that issue. The minister has questions to answer on this. Today he is the minister representing the minister from the other place, but he was the parliamentary secretary who was responsible for designing and administering the program. The parliament deserves some answers on this question.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Coulton ): Before I call the member for Corangamite, I advise that I came in and witnessed the discussion that was had. I have spoken to the minister. One thing that is not in dispute is that this chamber adjourns at 7.30. So I propose that questions can be asked until 25 minutes past seven. I will call whoever is on their feet at 25 minutes past seven and allow the minister the last five minutes. That is the best use of everyone's time.