Press conference, Singleton, NSW, natural disaster support

DANIEL REPACHOLI, MEMBER FOR HUNTER: Good afternoon, all. We’re here today at Singleton SES for a great announcement. Over the last five, six, seven years we’ve had disaster after disaster after disaster. We’ve had floods, we’ve had droughts, we’ve had floods again, we’ve had bushfires, we’ve had more floods. These are things that are big issues in the Hunter and big issues in our region and that we really want to make sure we get on top of.

That’s why we’ve asked Michelle Rowland to come here today to talk about STAND, and I’d just like to introduce Michelle Rowland, Minister for Communications.

MICHELLE ROWLAND, MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: Thanks very much, Dan. And thanks for your ongoing very strong advocacy for your community both in terms of disaster resilience but also in terms of communications availability as well.

The announcement that we have here today is really important for our great frontline first responders, including Martin Grey, who’s here from the SES. We know that in a natural disaster, access to reliable communications can mean the difference between life and death. That is why this program that I’m speaking to today – the STAND program, which is Strengthening Telecommunications Against Natural Disasters – is really fundamental to this area. And we know how unfortunately we are having more frequent and more severe natural disasters, including what’s going on right at the moment.

What this is about is providing satellite uplink capability to certain specific areas of both first responders and also areas where communities gather in times of evacuations and emergencies. And there are around a half a dozen of these projects here in the Hunter electorate, including here at the Singleton SES, also at Bulga and also community-based ones at Muswellbrook evacuation centre and also at Putty.

So they are some of the instances where in the event that the land-based communications services go down for any reason – say, for example, bushfire or flood – there is an uplink capability available to the NBN satellite. And that means that this provides an extra level of redundancy that can kick in. And we know that this works. It has been working for some time in various capacities in the recent natural disasters we’ve had around the state and around Australia. And the projects that are coming online – a couple of the over one thousand that have been funded right around Australia through the STAND initiative.

And it’s so important to recognise the great work of our first responders. Having this capability here at Singleton SES, for example, means that the SES team can keep in touch with one another, can deploy where necessary irrespective of whether or not their ground-based services have been taken out for any reason. Some of those reasons include the actual act of the natural disaster but also where power is cut out. That can be a particularly challenging circumstance.

But it is wonderful to be able to announce these projects here that have come online. As I said, it’s over one thousand all throughout Australia. They have been very well-received everywhere that they have been put in, and they have specifically arisen from various inquiries into the 2019-2020 bushfires, which did examine the importance of having reliable communications services during a natural disaster, not only for our first responders but also in terms of particularly vulnerable and often isolated communities.

So it’s great to see. And, Martin, thank you so much for what you’ve been doing. You might just want to say something about the facility you’ve got here and how this has worked in the past and some of the other facilities in the area.

MARTIN GREY: I’m Martin Grey, I’m the community liaison officer of Singleton SES. As you can see here, we have our [indistinct] and I’d like to thank the minister for helping us have the STAND satellite internet. During a natural disaster we use the internet quite heavily to coordinate our resources, send out teams and find out information from local communities about what’s going on. The satellite internet will be a very helpful tool we can use because we all know that in natural disasters power and internet communications can go out. I know for a fact that the satellite set up in Hunter Valley have already been used to help us in the most recent event. Thank you.

JOURNALIST: Minister, if I could start by asking you: arrangements in more recent years have allowed emergency services to, I suppose, dominate the mobile and the data networks in times of major emergency. Is this taking it to the next level to allow that network to be for everyone who just does everything on their phones now during an emergency?

ROWLAND: I think what this is doing is recognising that fundamentally this is about connectivity. And whilst there are issues and for some time there have been discussions around having particular spectrum for emergency services, this has the capability to deliver results immediately. And I think that this is something that, you know, has arisen out of a Royal Commission. It is evidence-based. And the locations which have been chosen have been done on a consultative basis in conjunction with the relevant agencies but also state departments as well. So I would actually see them as complementary. But it certainly does provide that very immediate redundancy in cases where it’s so urgently needed.

JOURNALIST: And are you looking to expand this further in the Upper Hunter as time goes on?

ROWLAND: I think we’ll examine the results here. This investment is actually nearing completion and we expect that the over one thousand sites around Australia will be completed actually by the end of next month. It’s with some trepidation that I say I think we will get to see them being used if the current weather is any indication. But I think it’s well worth assessing how they have operated and other areas in which they could make a very real difference. Because, of course, the first priority of all governments, including the Albanese Government, is to keep citizens safe.

JOURNALIST: There are quite a lot of small towns around the Upper Hunter who, yeah, still don’t have any mobile connection. Do you think that they might be able to, you know, get involved in this scheme, you know, in the next year or so?

ROWLAND: Well, certainly we’ve got over half a dozen locations here, and this is for emergency situations, like where the land mobile services go out. But I think what you’re asking also goes to a more fundamental question about connectivity for regional areas. We’ve got our budget coming out next week, and I can assure Dan and all of the community here in the Hunter that we are very focused on regional Australia.

This government was elected on a platform of governing for everyone, and a very high priority is about regional Australia. We made an announcement earlier today about a number of suburbs that are coming online to get upgraded from the copper NBN network to fibre network, which will be very well-received I believe. And I think the most important principle here is that no matter where you live or work, you have the same access to reliable communications, but particularly where you’re vulnerable because of your location in a natural disaster, it’s the first priority of government to do everything we can to alleviate that.

I think it’s also worth managing expectations. This is not a panacea for everything; it certainly doesn’t resolve every situation where there is natural disaster and the power goes out or connectivity goes down. But it does make a difference. . And I think that’s why it’s so important.

But, certainly, we’ll continue to listen to our local frontline personnel, to Dan as a great local representative, for other areas where this might make a measurable improvement to people’s quality of life, especially during natural disasters.

JOURNALIST: Also, many of the people around here, you know, feel like they have to connect up with Telstra because they seem to have the best coverage in places like this. So, you know, could your government put more pressure on Telstra to, you know, put more towers and improve the reception around here?

ROWLAND: Well, certainly we have a co-investment model that has operated for some years. And I recently just asked the parliament to do an inquiry into that very issue – about co-investment and incentivising the commercial operators especially in regional areas. We know unfortunately that there are so many black spots right around Australia, and sometimes they’re not black spots in a sea of white; they’re black spots in a sea of black.

But I think people have a very understandable expectation that they will be able to have at least some mobile coverage no matter where they are. Sometimes that is not always forthcoming because of the lack of tower and other infrastructure that’s been built. But I think what’s essential here is to incentivise those private operators to do more to actually deliver for the community. And the community really sees where there’s a business case then you would think that there would be some commercial incentives to do that.

But I think that this will be – next week’s budget will have a number of incentives in there. It’s a very strong regional comms package, and I look forward to Dan being able to present that to this community and seeing what difference that will make.

But also I think this latest inquiry we’re doing about multi-carrier infrastructure and different incentives really has the capacity to be a game changer in regional areas like this.

REPACHOLI: And one thing on that as well, so one of the big things that we’ve spoken about with Michelle a lot is Laguna, Wollombi and the Putty area with how there’s been no mobile phone service there for many, many years. So – and there’s going to be – two of the private providers are going in there. They’ve laid the foundations now for the concrete, so it is on its way. The Laguna site will be up and going very shortly in the next six months or so. That will be up and going, which is great news for our area and great news for that area and the SES involvement down there and also the RFS. Because there’s such a big area along that road that has got no mobile coverage whatsoever and that will just be about to have it. So it’s great when there’s emergencies or disasters.

JOURNALIST: Dan, can we ask you a couple of other questions?


JOURNALIST: Just with the, you know, the federal budget coming up, just from what we’ve been able to see, there’s been a few election promises that you made during the federal campaign, those projects haven’t been listed under this year’s federal budget. But one of them is the Muswellbrook town centre, the $10 million that you pledged. We’re not seeing that. I mean, is that going to – is that promise going to be followed through with? Is there actual money for that town project?

REPACHOLI: So we’ve been speaking with obviously the minister’s office on all the projects that we committed to. And everything that we committed to will be put through in our first term of being in government. So we’ve been speaking heavily with Muswellbrook on these items. And we’re just waiting to see what comes out in this budget to see whether it’s coming up in the first budget or second budget in time. But everything that we committed to as a party and as we said, we will definitely deliver.

JOURNALIST: Is it definitely going to happen in this budget? It’s not going to be delayed?

REPACHOLI: I’m not sure about this budget. No-one knows yet because the budget is not out. So once the budget is delivered next week I hope that I can go around to everywhere that I committed things to and can go and give them all the good news.

JOURNALIST: So are you not feeling entirely confident then that all the promises that you made and all the election pledges are going to get the funding that was pledged?

REPACHOLI: So our funding that we pledged will be through in this first term of government. So as we said through the whole campaign, it will be done in that first term. So I don’t know where it all fits in. I’m not the Treasurer, so we’ll leave that for the Treasurer to decide and then we will hopefully have a good chat next week.

JOURNALIST: Do you know if that’s going to include certain funding for the Muswellbrook bypass? Because, yeah, the Nats pledged to deliver the last, you know, bit of funding to start the Muswellbrook bypass. Is Labor going to do that?

REPACHOLI: So, once again, we’re waiting to see what comes out in the budget. We’ve spoken to the minister’s office on these issues as well, so we’re all waiting to see what really comes out. But as we all know, the Muswellbrook bypass is something that is needed for our area, same as the Singleton bypass. We need these to happen and we need them to happen as quickly as possible.

JOURNALIST: And just one more thing: I know it’s not entirely in your electorate, but, you know, this is a very transient community and a lot of the people use the Maryville to Willow Tree road up there in, you know, Maryville and Willow Tree..


JOURNALIST: Yeah, do you – can you give us any sort of certainty around the funding for that? Because that is a much-needed project as well in the Upper Hunter?

REPACHOLI: Yep, so I can’t give any certainty on that obviously – that’s not my electorate. I’ve got 128,000 people to look after in my own electorate rather than worrying about Barnaby Joyce’s. But I know we use – I know that people from this electorate use that road and we’ll have to wait until the budget comes out in a couple of weeks as well to see what happens there. So that’s really all I can say on that one. But I can definitely promise that I have been in and spoke with Catherine King’s office on this one because I do know just how much it matters to our residents here in the Hunter as well, as well as [indistinct].

JOURNALIST: Minister, you’re here talking and announcing about communications for emergencies. The residents of Broke and Bulga have been crowdfunding to be able to pay for electronic monitoring devices to put along Wollombi Brook to give them the early heads-up because the warnings that have come out from the BOM and through them to the SES, because of the processes the SES have involved are hard to control locally - is it really good enough in this day and age to see a community actually have to find the solution themselves to give them more warning?

ROWLAND: Well, I’m not familiar with the precise terms of that. But I’m happy to get some of the details and take it on board as well. I mean, the BOM is, you know, a government agency that’s supposed to serve people, but I’m happy to get the details and research that.

JOURNALIST: Okay, thank you.