Interview with Greg Jennett, ABC News Australia, Afternoon Briefing

GREG JENNETT: It's been a while since we've had a chance to catch up with Territories and Regional Development Minister, Kristy McBain. She's back with us today though from the Bega Valley. And this gives us an opportunity, Kristy, to look at the regional implications, I suppose, of the Optus outage shambles. Piecing together what you can, and welcome back to the program by the way, what is the picture that emerges in regional Australia? Is it fair to say that in some cases, the disruptions were more acute than perhaps they could have been in the cities where other alternative networks are available?

KRISTY MCBAIN: Good afternoon, Greg. Great to be with you on Afternoon Briefing again. What happened yesterday was obviously problematic for millions of Australians across the country, problematic for small businesses, for parents trying to get in contact with kids, and especially for those people who have got medical issues and were unable to call triple zero from landlines, as has been reported. There is going to be some serious questions to answer and my colleague, Minister Roland, moved quickly to initiate this post-incident review, because we want telcos to learn from what happened yesterday. We can all understand technical difficulties, but there should absolutely be a better plan in place. We all want to know what happened and why there was such a long time between communications from Optus themselves about what was going on.

JENNETT: Yeah. As you know, local councils scattered around the country are pretty active in advocating for more communications towers in black spots or even in towns that are within their local government area. Have you had any feedback from them on the extent of disruption experienced?

MCBAIN: We've had feedback from community members right across the country. Small businesses already doing it tough and then unable to use some of their payment options for a whole day is obviously very problematic. We already know that regional telecommunications can be difficult. It's why we've invested $1.1 billion into our regional connectivity plan, more than $646 million into dealing with mobile phone blackspots across the regions. We want to make sure that regional Australia has good connectivity. It's no longer a nice to have, it's an absolute necessity in this day and age. As I said, that review needs to be done because community members who pay for a service shouldn't be left trying to find out information, turning on the TV to try to understand why they can no longer get service. It wasn't good enough and more needs to be done so that if these difficulties happen again, there is a clear path forward for those telcos.

JENNETT: Yeah, that's one lesson, obviously. And I think the point that Michelle Rowland your colleague has made does centrally go to the issue of communications from the company and from the top in many ways. But is there more to be learned here? What about the poor old consumers, Kristy McBain? Are they entitled to compensation? And we would include in that, of course, businesses?

MCBAIN: That'll be a matter for Optus, and I know they've said that they're looking at that at this stage. What I would say to Optus is up to 11 million people were without communications for a day. For some people, that's as significant as not having payment options in their business or as significant as not being able to contact emergency services for other people. It's the lifeline that they have to family and friends, and that's incredibly important. We've gone through a period during COVID where we acknowledged the requirement to connect with other people is so incredibly important, and telephones are a major part of that. Optus is going to have to look really carefully at this situation, because there'll be a lot of people that will be expressing their frustration by changing providers at this point if Optus doesn't get their response right.

JENNETT: Yeah, well, they already have. I think there's some anecdotal evidence coming through of Virgin being inundated with new customers only yesterday. Now, of course, the Australian Government, Kristy McBain, doesn't hold any shares or financial interests in this company, Optus. But is there a sense of frustration? Do you, as a Minister of the Crown think that it is not led effectively by Kelly Bayer Rosmarin?

MCBAIN: That'll be a matter for Optus itself and their shareholders. Most importantly, what we want to see as a Government is options in the telecommunication industry, especially across regional Australia. We want to have more providers available to us, which is why there's been such a large investment in connectivity across regional and rural Australia. What we saw happen yesterday was hugely disappointing for all of those people who have signed up to that telco provider. Now is the time to get their processes right and it will be a matter for them how they deal with this. There will be a lot of community members across the country watching what Optus does.

JENNETT: Now, I'm sure that is a true statement and of course, two separate processes of review underway that we know of so far. Now, we did flag at the outset, Kristy, it’s been a while since we've had a chance to chat, so we might cover off a couple of areas in your portfolio. One goes to the National Capital and the ACT. A review underway announced by your Government colleagues into the Australian Institute of Sport a few weeks ago. It used to be a state-of-the-art facility here in the Nation's Capital. The review will look at whether it could potentially be moved to the state of Queensland. Are you arguing for it to be retained in Canberra, the AIS?

MCBAIN: There's no doubt that sport plays a role in every community across this country and we want to see pathways to elite competition, whether that's national or international competition, for our kids and our community members. What it shows is that there has been a significant underinvestment in the AIS precinct in Canberra by the former government over the last decade. We came in and immediately gave $14.5 million to reopen the indoor centre there in Canberra, which had been sitting basically useless for three or four years. We want to make sure that those pathways exist for kids right across regional Australia. We want to make sure that we've got centres of excellence available for sport, especially in the lead up to the 2032 Brisbane Olympics and Paralympics. The review is currently being undertaken and I look forward to what the review says, but there is no doubt in my mind that we need places that kids can strive to for that national and international elite pathway.

JENNETT: You're talking in the plural there. It sounds like not necessarily this centralised model, if in fact we can still talk about that, because the AIS has kind of degenerated a little physically and in the programs it runs. But should it all be in one location?

MCBAIN: That'll be a matter for the review to have a look at. We know now that we've already got different centres of excellence popping up in different parts of the country for specific reasons. Obviously, with the winter Sports program, we have centres of excellence in the Snowy Mountains, which provide an opportunity to train within the capacity, and the area that they're going to compete in as well. It's really important that the review looks at where the best places for any infrastructure is, but absolutely, we want to see an investment in those pathways.

JENNETT: All right, we'll keep across where that takes us. And you may have caught at the start of our program today, Kristy, Penny Wong commenting on fallout that will ensue legally from the High Court decision about immigration detention. It's no longer possible to do what is, in effect, indefinite detention. ALP policy also states that this former detention should be a last resort. Christmas Island, which falls within your jurisdiction as Territories Minister. Its detention centre at Northwest Point is empty these days. Is it the Government's intention to maintain it for surge and refilling if necessary?

MCBAIN: The Christmas Island detention centre was reopened by the former government around August 2020, following on from some capacity issues to fit within the COVID-19 restrictions that we had at the time. We've been able to move people from Christmas Island back to mainland detention centres because borders have now reopened and we've been able to send non-visa holders back to their country of origin. The Christmas Island centre remains in hot contingency and can be opened up if necessary, when it's needed. At this point in time, there is capacity on mainland detention centres to deal with any issues that we have.

JENNETT: Okay, so it will remain operational or potentially operational indefinitely as far as you're concerned?

MCBAIN: At this point in time it's in hot contingency and we'll talk about the future of that facility if necessary, but it does remain there if we do need it.

JENNETT: All right, plenty of other questions we'll put to Ministers arising from the High Court decision. Kristy McBain. Great to catch up again. Thanks for joining us.

MCBAIN: Great to be with you.