Interview with Ben Fordham, 2GB

BEN FORDHAM, HOST: The Federal Government has a few questions to answer. Their program to improve mobile phone black spots is under fire. It's at the centre of pork barrelling claims. Labor is being accused of funnelling money into its own electorates and dudding non‑Labor seats.

Now, this all relates to Round 6 of the Improving Mobile Coverage Scheme. 40 out of 54 funding allocations went to Labor‑held seats, and there are even allegations that the Communications Minister Michelle Rowland hand-picked some of the locations. The Coalition tried to launch an inquiry into the program, but that was blocked this week, after the Greens sided with Labor.

We spoke yesterday to the Shadow Communications Minister, David Coleman, and as I said to him, the Coalition doesn't really have a clean record when it comes to pork barrelling. We've seen it with commuter car parks. On a State level we've even seen it with bushfire relief funding, and we've called them out on that many times. But now it is the Albanese Government facing the same questions, and Michelle Rowland, the Federal Communications Minister is on the line. Michelle Rowland, good morning to you.


FORDHAM: You've got a clear phone line this morning; are you on the mobile? 

ROWLAND: I certainly am.

FORDHAM: Okay. Where are you? You're in Canberra, no doubt? 

ROWLAND: I am, Ben.

FORDHAM: We've got all sorts of complaints, and I'll get to some of them in a moment, just about areas where they've got problems, but I just want to focus on Round 6 of this scheme. Did 74 per cent of the available funding go to Labor‑held seats? 

ROWLAND: Labor promised, Ben, before the Federal Election to address mobile coverage at 54 locations across Australia, and that was based on feedback from local communities, from councils or carriers, and I should be clear that this was at a time when Labor was in Opposition. Many of these locations were in fact in bushfire and disaster‑prone areas, places like the Blue Mountains and the South Coast of New South Wales, which had connectivity issues that hadn't been addressed under previous schemes.

So these were our election commitments, we were very clear about that. The funding for these commitments was confirmed in the October Budget, and the Albanese Government is now delivering on those commitments.

FORDHAM: So 74 per cent went to Labor locations in Round 6 of the funding? 

ROWLAND: Well, as I said, these were based on feedback from communities, but I would also note that a number of these went into seats that in fact aren't Labor seats for which those members have also been very clear that they want these commitments honoured.


ROWLAND: And we're committed to doing that.

FORDHAM: Minister, there's no harm in saying yes, when I said 74 per cent went to Labor seats, right? 

ROWLAND: Well, clearly, this was a series of election commitments that we made, and ‑‑

FORDHAM: So that's a yes.

ROWLAND: Well, we made these in Opposition. We've been very clear, including in every media release to date, that this was about funding election commitments that we made.

FORDHAM: Sure, sure. Okay.

ROWLAND: In 54 locations.

FORDHAM: I understand that, I just don't understand why we don't just say yes, because you made the commitment, you followed through with the commitment. So, yes, 74 per cent went to Labor seats.

ROWLAND: We certainly are following through with our commitments, and that includes in all of those seats, Ben.

FORDHAM: Okay. Of the 27 sites selected in New South Wales, how many are in Labor electorates? 

ROWLAND: Well, we made it very clear that in these areas we would ensure that we meet our election commitments. So there were a number in New South Wales and a number in other states as well.

FORDHAM: Sure. Can we focus on answers though, Minister, because there's no harm ‑ you've pointed out that you made commitments; you're following through. So let's have a number in the answer here. Out of the 27 sites selected in New South Wales, how many are in Labor electorates? 

ROWLAND: Well, I would know that we consulted widely in these electorates ‑‑

FORDHAM: You're not answering the question, Minister.

ROWLAND: Well, clearly we have a list of all those electorates, Ben, and where they are ‑‑

FORDHAM: Did you want me to answer the question for you? 

ROWLAND: It's up to you, Ben, but ‑‑

FORDHAM: All right. Well, I'm happy to do it. Out of the 27 sites selected in New South Wales, all 27 are in Labor electorates. That's the answer. It's 27 out of 27.

ROWLAND: Well, again, Ben, I would point out that in all of those areas we will be fulfilling our election commitments. It was at a time when we were Opposition. We did not have access to a Department, we made commitments based on feedback from the community, and exactly as you say, in all of those areas we're determined to deliver on those commitments, not just in those 27, but in all of those 54.

FORDHAM: Okay. Is it correct that you hand‑picked every one of the sites in Round 6? 

ROWLAND: Well, Ben, let's again be clear. This was based on community feedback ‑‑

FORDHAM: Yeah yes. You've told us that stuff Minister. Now, we're moving on to whether or not you hand‑picked the sites. Yes or no? 

ROWLAND: Well, this was based on community feedback and ‑‑

FORDHAM: You've told us about the feedback, Minister.

ROWLAND: Myself as the Shadow Minister for Communications working with those candidates and MPs decided that these were areas that we chose to ‑‑

FORDHAM: All right. So, you hand-picked them, yeah? 

ROWLAND: Well, certainly, as the Shadow Minister at the time –

FORDHAM: Certainly. All right. I'll put that down as a yes, yeah? 

ROWLAND: Please do.

FORDHAM: Okay. All right. You can always just say these words, if you want.

ROWLAND: Thank you, Ben.

FORDHAM: So you hand‑picked every one of the sites for Round 6, all the ones that were awarded funding in Round 6 were hand‑picked by you? 

ROWLAND: Well, these of course would have gone through our normal processes in Opposition, we funded these in our pre‑election commitments and made it very clear that these were sites that we would deliver on.

FORDHAM: Okay. Did you exclude other locations from applying? 

ROWLAND: It wasn't a matter of applications, Ben, we were in Opposition. It wasn't a Departmental process, these were election commitments that we took to the people. We were elected, and we are honouring those commitments.

FORDHAM: Okay. So it wasn't a case of other areas not being able to apply, it was a case of a Minister deciding where the money was going to go, and as we've established, out of the 27 sites selected in New South Wales, 27 of them were Labor electorates, and you hand-picked them? 

ROWLAND: Well, I wasn't Minister at the time, Ben, I was Shadow Minister.

FORDHAM: But you are now? 

ROWLAND: I am now, and we made these commitments prior to the election, but I think the important thing here is now that I am Minister, I actually have advocated for and opened a competitive funding round for Mobile Black Spot Program and Regional Connectivity, which is open for applications right across Australia. The applications will be assessed by the Department of Communications and it will be a merits‑based assessment criteria, which is markedly different from when an Opposition goes to an election and tells people that they will have a series of commitments; if they're voted in, they'll deliver on them.

FORDHAM: We're talking to Michelle Rowland, the Federal Communications Minister. I should tell you, Minister, that when the carpark funding came out, we were whacking Josh Frydenberg and everyone else associated with that, because surprise surprise, all of the car parks were in Liberal-National electorates, mainly Liberal electorates, and so can you see that some people would look at this and say, "Well, hang on a moment, you were hand‑picking the sites; 27 out of 27 in New South Wales went to Labor." Does that not smell a little bit funny to you? 

ROWLAND: Well, to be clear again, these were election commitments, and that is in contrast to these competitive rounds that we have with a very clear set of guidelines for applications. They've been publicly consulted on, they will be followed by the Department to the letter.

FORDHAM: Sure. So there was no pork barrelling going on?  Let's get to the heart of it; no pork barrelling? 

ROWLAND: These were promises we made to ‑‑

FORDHAM: Yes, I know that, yeah. But you weren't pork barrelling, right? 

ROWLAND: Well, let's be clear, we based this ‑‑

FORDHAM: You keep on saying "let's be clear", but you're not clear with your answers, Minister. You just need to tell me whether you were pork barrelling or not.

ROWLAND: We did it based on feedback, Ben; feedback on some very important areas that had been excluded in previous rounds, didn't have a Department, didn't have access to a wide variety of information. We did everything quite old‑school back then, Ben. We did community surveys, street stalls and said “please come and tell me your views." If that's called "pork barrelling" I would highly doubt it.

FORDHAM: Well, I think you're denying the pork barrelling allegation, because you know that the Opposition is accusing you of pork barrelling, but I'm getting that you are denying that allegation? 

ROWLAND: I completely reject it, and I also point out that even in our media releases from November last year when we opened the coverage round guidelines for this particular round of election commitments, we even included in the opening line, "This is delivering on our $40 million Federal Election commitment". On 2nd of February when we again issued statements about this, in the title it's "Albanese Government opens funding applications to progress our mobile coverage election commitments."

So this is something that we are being very upfront about; we're going to deliver on these commitments, and in addition we have a very comprehensive package of communications improvements for which there's a very transparent set of guidelines that will be followed.

FORDHAM: Now, just on Margaret, who's one of our listeners who phoned us yesterday from Oatley, about 18km south of the Sydney CBD, she said, "Look, I can't get mobile reception in my own home" and I thought to myself, "All right, I want to test that." So I said, "Give us your mobile number" ‑ because she was calling from the landline ‑ and sure enough, when we called the mobile, it just goes straight to message bank. Her phone doesn't work in her own home. You've got people who are in bushfire‑prone areas who are worried about their safety when a fire comes along, so I'm guessing you'll look at places like Oatley in the next round? 

ROWLAND: Well, they would come under ‑ not under the regional and rural communications packages, obviously, but there is another round of what we call the Peri‑Urban Mobile Program, and that is about co‑contributions with carriers to help those under‑served or non‑served areas that are not in regional areas, they're in more metro areas.

But I think the other important point to note, Ben, as a local member in a growing area in North-West Sydney, I've been well aware of the need to improve mobile coverage when you have new suburbs being built. Many of your good listeners will be in North-West Sydney, and will know that as these new suburbs go in, the capacity constraints of existing infrastructure are really well felt, and people do say to me exactly what Margaret does, "I live basically in a metropolitan area, why can't I get coverage?" And part of this has to do with the quite length planning approvals that are needed for these towers. Also it is because of the need for the carriers to identify areas where they need to make those improvements, because they are just as important as putting in electricity or water or sewerage. Mobile coverage is really relied on by people so much these days, and it really does require that effort to keep up with that demand.

FORDHAM: All right. Well, in Oatley, the problems have been there forever. John says, "I've lived in Oatley 40 years, the coverage has always been appalling." Patrick says, "Oatley is a shocker for mobile phone reception." 

If I can ask you about something else, Minister. It was revealed, I think at the start of this year that you received $19,000 in donations from Sportsbet in the lead‑up to last year's Federal Election. $9,000 was spent on a dinner at Rockpool in March 2022, and then on May 19, just three days before the Federal Election, Sportsbet also paid $10,000 towards your campaign, and as I understand it, you kind of had the responsibility within the Opposition at the time for gambling matters. I'm guessing you're pretty close to the people at Sportsbet, but you've made a decision since that you wouldn't accept money from them, is that right?

ROWLAND: Well, that's right, and I've been very open and public about that, that whilst I have and will always comply with the disclosure requirements of the AEC, the Register of Members' Interests, and now I'm a Minister, of the Ministerial Code of Conduct, I recognise that even when no rules have been broken that there is an expectation of a level of transparency, so I've made a decision not to accept donations from gambling companies nor accept hospitality.

FORDHAM: What do you get for nine grand at Rockpool?  

ROWLAND: Well, Ben, I again stress that ‑‑

FORDHAM: Can you invite me along next time, please? 

ROWLAND: Well, Ben, maybe we should take that off line.

FORDHAM: How many people went to the dinner, if there was a bill of $9,000? 

ROWLAND: Well, Ben, I have always complied with the ‑‑

FORDHAM: Yeah, yeah. How many people went to the dinner? 

ROWLAND: I don't intend to go into the details of that, Ben. I have been very clear and transparent with the ‑‑

FORDHAM: But why aren't you clear and transparent on that, because if it was 18 people, then you might go, "Okay, that explains the $9,000 bill." So why not be transparent about how many people were at the dinner? 

ROWLAND: Well, Ben, I respect the privacy of those who choose to support my election campaigns, as I'm sure you will appreciate.

FORDHAM: I'm not asking you to name them.

ROWLAND: I understand that you will respect the privacy and the fact that I have been transparent in terms of the rules that are required to be disclosed ‑‑

FORDHAM: Shall we play higher or lower?  Was it higher than five people or lower than five people? 

ROWLAND: Ben, I respectfully answer as per my previous responses.

FORDHAM: How good was the meal? 

ROWLAND: Again, I respectfully answer as per my previous responses.

FORDHAM: You can tell us what the dinner was like. I mean I'm sure the chef at Rockpool wouldn't mind a rep? 

ROWLAND: Well, Ben, I'd rather give a review of the excellent Eucalyptus Lounge at the Blacktown Workers Club, where I'm sure many of your good listeners have dined in the past as well.

FORDHAM: All right. Okay, we appreciate you jumping on the line, very much appreciated, thank you for doing so, and I hope we can talk to you again.

ROWLAND: Any time.