Interview with Greg Jennett, ABC Afternoon Briefing

GREG JENNETT, HOST: The Government is opening up a new round of funding applications to fill in some of these so-called black spots. Now, you might remember the last round attracted some criticism for being a little top heavy in Labor-held seats. So, to explain the rules for this new round and a few other topics within her portfolio, Communications Minister Michelle Rowland joined us here in the studio.

Michelle Rowland, welcome back to the program. You've got a couple of new grants applications open for regional connectivity and for mobile black spots. Compared to the last one, where you made no bones of the fact that it was about honouring commitments made in the election, what will be the political makeup of these two rounds and the way they're assessed?

MICHELLE ROWLAND, MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: Well, I think, firstly, the important thing to note is the Albanese Government believes that irrespective of where you live in Australia, access to the highest quality communication services – including broadband and mobile services – is absolutely paramount. And that's particularly emphasised when you live in rural, regional and remote Australia, where the need is also so great and so many areas are underserved.

What we have done today is announce that applications are open for two sets of grants as part of this stream of funding that will cover not only mobile black spots, but also regional connectivity improvements., These can be sort of place-based improvements that communities might need. They are subject to a strict set of guidelines that have been consulted on since December last year.

We've taken the time to particularly consult the carriers and other stakeholders about how these guidelines can be improved. And, for example, one of the really good improvements that's come out of that is the potential for the Federal contribution to actually be increased. Because we know as you get into some of these more marginal areas, particularly First Nations remote communities, the business case for the carriers becomes quite dampened. We want to ensure that we have that equality of opportunity for communications. So, look forward to applications and expressions of interest being received for those.

JENNETT: Does that mean it’s entirely merit based in its assessment, though? Because it won't have escaped your attention that your opposite number David Coleman has run the last set through the political ledger and decided that they were somehow out of whack. Is this one qualitatively different to the way the last one was handled?

ROWLAND: Well, let's be clear. Those previous sites were our election commitments. We honour our election commitments and we funded those election commitments in the Budget. These are subject to Departmental guidelines that have been issued. They are transparent and the department will process those applications in accordance with those guidelines.

JENNETT: Is political proportionality here that roughly reflects the makeup of a parliament part of the assessment process?

ROWLAND: It will all be subject to the guidelines, and they are, as I said, publicly available. The Department will do those assessments. And those assessments will take into account various issues, including the number of people, the number of organisations, the number of councils, the number of carriers who favour a particular location, who are able to come together and partner for these improvements.

Let's be very clear that's what this is all about in the end, it's about getting those improvements made. And the more cooperation and the more feedback we get at this pre application stage, the better. So, to encourage all your viewers who might be tuning in, they can go to the Department of Communications’ notice board and see the ability to make a contribution there.

JENNETT: I know it'll vary, obviously, from site to site, but roughly how many black spots or communities would this amount of money typically address?

ROWLAND: Well, if you do the maths, we've had about six rounds so far and a couple sort of in between, but there's been around 1000 or so sites under those rounds. This time around, we have $50 million for mobile blackspots and $100 million for those regional connectivity programs. We are offering them as one. So, if you think, for example, that you've got a proposal that fits into one or the other, but you're not quite sure, part of the feedback that we had on the guidelines was to bring them into this single set for applications. I think that depending on whether it is kit on existing towers or brand new infrastructure.

JENNETT: A bit on your plate at the moment, Michelle Rowland, including, I think, you're in the countdown now as we move through March towards your review of television anti siphoning rules, or the list, as it's known. When will you finalise that?

ROWLAND: Well, we made a clear commitment before the election that we would undertake a review of the anti-syphoning list and the current list does expire in early April. We have been working through a process of consultation with interested stakeholders and they include sporting bodies, the broadcasters, consumers, and we will bring that together. The Government will make a decision on these things and I expect to say more very shortly on that.

JENNETT: Because you wouldn't want to leave it. There'd be great disruption to the industry, wouldn't there, if you left it too late into March, I think. Is it the 1st of April that the current regime expires?

ROWLAND: We want to ensure that there's enough certainty for the sector. We have been doing detailed consultation and again, this was a very clear election commitment to undertake this review. We've also got a very intense reform agenda for this sector, ranging from everything from prominence to anti-siphoning and content rules as well. We are working through all of these in a very holistic way and I will have more to say on that very soon.

JENNETT: It sounds like that's imminent when we hear phrases like very soon. Australia Post also covered on this program and extensively announced by you and others, you're now into review and consultation there. That consultation phase ends at the late stage of April. When, though, as a Government, do you make decisions on what could be big changes to its operations and network?

ROWLAND: We'll be looking very closely at the feedback that we get from the consultation and to date, we've had hundreds of responses from the community. We are also consulting very deeply with the small business sector, also with licenced post offices, with the workforce and with Australia Post itself. We'll be undertaking all those and using the feedback that we get from that consultation to inform us on where we go forward. I think the key thing here is that there is broad agreement across the sector that doing nothing is not an option. We know that there's been substantial decline in letters, that there are great opportunities in the parcels business and e-commerce, but Australia Post is under intense financial pressure. That is well known. They are going to post a loss.

JENNETT: Which brings an urgency to all of this. Does that mean you address it in the context of the May Budget?

ROWLAND: The way I would express it is this: we know that there is urgency here, but we also want to work through this in a methodical manner. Australia Post is more than 200 years old. It's an important institution, especially in regional areas, where it also serves multiple functions, including as the general store, the newsagent and the bank. We are going to work through this methodically, take into account the feedback that we get and make decisions based on the evidence.

JENNETT: All right. Final one, Michelle, I think this might be the first occasion we've spoken since you received a letter that kind of asked you to intervene between Fortescue Future Industries. This is Andrew Twiggy Forrest's company in some sort of media dispute with the West Australian of Kerry Stokes that was reported at the time. Your office said you'd give due consideration to this request from Twiggy Forrest. Have you reached or did you reach any conclusions on that?

ROWLAND: I did give it due consideration. I have responded. Greg, you will appreciate, I am reluctant to disclose the details of that letter without the recipient's knowledge, but I can confirm that I have provided a fulsome response.

JENNETT: But your options for intervention are actually quite limited when it comes to the free press, I imagine?

ROWLAND: Well, these are facts. The facts are that there is a process for a complaints-based mechanism and again reiterate that I have given it due consideration and response.

JENNETT: All right, we'll keep working on that and see if we can make sense of it. Michelle Rowland great to catch up.

ROWLAND: Pleasure

JENNETT: Thanks for joining us.