1202 2CC, Afternoon Live with Leon Delaney

LEON DELANEY: Funding applications for improving mobile phone coverage in Eden-Monaro are now open as part of the $40 million Improving Mobile Coverage Round, which was an election promise from the Albanese Government. If you're eligible, you have until the 30th of April to apply for grant funding. Joining me now, the member for Eden-Monaro and Minister for Regional Development Local Government and Territories. Kristy McBain Good afternoon.

KRISTY MCBAIN: Good morning, ah good afternoon rather, great to be back in Parliament. How are you Leon?

DELANEY: First day of the school year and already you're running yourself around and getting tied up in knots!

MCBAIN: Well, we've already had a defect today, Lydia has left the Greens. So you know it's all been happening and exciting times in 2023 parliament now.

DELANEY: When you say that you've already had a defector today with Lydia Thorpe leaving the Greens. Are you hinting she might be coming over to join the government?

MCBAIN: I would say that that is highly unlikely. And I think Lydia's made it pretty clear. She's got a constituency that she wants to represent without Party influence. So I think that will make for a very interesting crossbench in the Senate.

DELANEY: It certainly will. Now back to mobile phones in the Eden-Monaro electorate, there's dozens of black spots, and some of them on highly travelled roads. Obviously, these need to be fixed.

MCBAIN: It's more than that. We did a community survey back in 2021. And we had more responses to that community survey about mobile phone blind spots and iPads than anything else. We had over 500 locations marked on our map with over about 1,200 responses from people. It's one of the reasons that I wanted to make sure that mobile phone connectivity was a big centrepiece of our re-election campaign, which is why I secured some money through our election process.

As some of our highways do not have mobile phone service. So that's why there's a big commitment to the Princes Highway, the Monaro Highway, and the Kings Highway. I'm already working with communities across the electorate to make sure that we are putting our best foot forward with the best information, and working with landholders as a proactive step so when we go out to the telco providers, we've already got some of their questions answered before.

DELANEY: Okay, so what are these grants? Who's eligible for them? Shouldn't the telco the providers just be building the relevant infrastructure anyway?

MCBAIN: Oh, absolutely. So the program will fund some of our telco providers, and also some of these network providers. We know we've got people out there that build the infrastructure, and then lease it to our telco providers to deploy new mobile phone infrastructure across target locations around Australia.

So we need to work with those telephony infrastructure providers. But most importantly, it's about addressing the real need in our community. And we want to make sure that the community is along for the ride with us on it.

DELANEY: Okay, now this is one of two mobile phone programs that are currently being run by the federal government to help improve mobile services in regional areas. What's the other one called? The Regional Connectivity Program? And that's also targeting similar issues, isn't it?

MCBAIN: Yeah, so this one is definitely around implementing some of our election commitments. But we know that telecommunications connectivity is no longer just a nice to have it. It's a must for us to be able to do business across our regions. And we also saw during our COVID lockdown, how important it is for those people working in learning from home as well.

So we are tackling connectivity issues on a range of funding fronts, including the biggest investment in the NBN expansion since its inception. We know more people need fibre to the premises, we know that our wireless satellite connections could be better and satellite network itself. You know, so many people were pushed onto it because the NBN wasn’t going to meet their rollout target under the form of government.

And we need to make sure that people on satellite are actually the people that need to be on satellite. So we're investing money not only in mobile phone infrastructure, but also going into that infrastructure, because we know how important it is now.

DELANEY: Yeah, sure thing. But just back to the mobile phones, obviously, they're critically important, particularly during times of emergency as we saw during the bush fires of a few years ago now. But surely, one of the simplest ways of addressing connectivity issues in regional and remote areas is to mandate domestic roaming?

MCBAIN: So the New South Wales Government is currently looking into that issue. And it will be very interesting to see what happened following that inquiry that they are currently doing. We know the experience for many people was that they never received those emergency text messages. Not until they were back in service of their usual provider, when they had already evacuated, for example, to Canberra, it's important, obviously, during times of emergency that network roaming is allowed on all carriers.

But not only during times of emergency, but all times, because Australia is a big place. And if you're out in the middle of nowhere, and you're running into some trouble, it's really a terrible time to discover you're with the wrong provider.

DELANEY: That's exactly right. There are obviously some big issues with a with a broad country like ours. That's why this inquiry New South Wales will be very interesting to see

As Minister for Local Government, you've also now called for entries for the 2023 National Awards for Local Government, aiming to recognise outstanding innovation implemented by councils that have enhanced local communities. Nobody likes their council, you going to get any nominations?

MCBAIN: We always get nominations, because councils are doing new and innovative stuff right across the country. And let's not forget, on top of the roads rates and rubbish mantra that we always see, local councils are the ones that are there during disaster response and recovery. They are the ones in many of our communities where it is the only government service that people are likely to see.

So a lot of them are doing fantastic stuff. They're dedicated to delivering for their local communities. And we want to recognise those resourceful and creative solutions that are happening in communities so they can be replicated in other communities. Because we don't need to reinvent the wheel. Sometimes we just need to borrow from our neighbours.

DELANEY: Well, local government, particularly across New South Wales at the moment is confronting a number of challenges thanks to the adverse weather of the last 12 months and the tremendous damage done to the roads network. Now, the New South Wales Government has come up with some funding to help address some of the destruction to what are effectively nationally important roads. But more will be required, a council is going to struggle to confront that. Will the federal government also help out?

MCBAIN: The federal government and has already spent about a billion dollars, assisting councils who have been impacted by natural disaster, a huge majority of those funds have been untied so that councils can go out and repair roads and bridges in particular.

But we know that there is more to do in this space. It's one of the reasons that we're actually holding an inquiry into roads, infrastructure across the country, and looking at how we can best assist councils and state governments with that task of maintenance and improvement where we've been hit by natural disasters.

So we’re looking at the new and innovative products or solutions. And you know, we can't continue to do the same thing and expect a different result. So an inquiry being held by the Federal Parliament, I think will be integral in understanding what's the best way forward. And I know that there are already many councils who are keen to make a submission to that government inquiry, because it makes a critical difference to their bottom line.

DELANEY: Okay, as Minister responsible for Local Government, do you have any concerns about the current push by the Queanbeyan-Palerang council to dramatically increase the rates and the only choice they're offering their ratepayers is whether rates go up by a large amount or by an even larger amount or by an even larger amounts?

MCBAIN: Look, it's incredibly tough for local councils across the country at the moment and in the electorate of Eden-Monaro. We've got six council areas, three of those are currently undertaking the process for a special rate variation, and one undertook that process last year.

I think it goes to show the real impact that natural disasters have on regional councils, but it also shows that more work needs to be done in understanding how they deliver on behalf of communities.

It is really difficult for communities to hear about special rate variations at a time where the price of everything is going up with inflation. And I think it must be especially different difficult for communities to enter into that process, when perhaps they need more information.

But, you know, the result of a special rate variation in any one council area is not due to that one year of works happening. It's due to a series of decisions that have been made over time and I think it's up to all of us to understand the mechanics of it, and then put your voice forward to that council.

DELANEY: Kristy, thanks very much for your time today.

MCBAIN: Lovely chatting to you Leon, thank you again.