darren.chester.mp@aph.gov.au 1300 131 785
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November 22, 2011

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (16:13): I rise to raise my concerns on behalf of several small communities in my electorate which do not have access to reliable mobile phone coverage. In doing so, I call on the government to reintroduce a mobile phone black spot program to assist telecommunication providers to expand their reach into some of our smaller regional centres throughout Australia. The government currently has no plans to improve mobile phone coverage, which is in contrast to the policy of the Liberal-National Party coalition of providing $30 million to target mobile phone black spots. That was a policy that the coalition took to the 2010 election, and I urge the government to adopt our position in the interests of regional growth and community safety.

It is the issue of safety, in particular, that I want to focus on today. I want to refer to an email I received this month from a constituent of mine, Mr Alex Gray, who lives in Combienbar. I do not expect other members to know where that is. It is quite a remote part of the East Gippsland area. It is an area which is difficult to service and which has no mobile phone coverage whatsoever. Recently the landline service also failed, and my constituent had to travel about 50 kilometres to Cann River, at his own expense, for the privilege of reporting the service breakdown to Telstra. I would like to quote from Alex’s email to me:

The safety implications of not having a reliable communication service are obvious. Only a couple of months back an overseer on a nearby property had a near fatal accident on a four wheeler and had to be airlifted to hospital. If this had have happened in the past few days, when there was no phone service available, he may not have survived. There is also the major concern in our area of bushfires. The need for a reliable communication service is obvious.

Unfortunately, in this case it took several days to repair the landline service. As we approach the summer bushfire season events like this highlight what an unsatisfactory risk is posed to my community if we do not improve our mobile phone services. I urge the community of Gippsland to prepare early for this year’s bushfire season. Nothing takes the place of extensive preparation and development of your own bushfire survival plan to protect your family and property.

I also hasten to add that members of a community should not rely on the emergency alert system that the government has rolled out across Australia at a cost of about $26 million. I am not condemning that system in any way whatsoever; I am simply making the point that you should not depend on it completely. Also, do not expect to receive timely advice in an emergency situation, because some of the most bushfire prone areas in my electorate are those that have the worst mobile phone coverage and the emergency alert text system that has been rolled out will not reach many people in the Gippsland area.

As the system is developed further—and there are plans that messages will be able to be sent based on the location of the mobile phone—it will be critical that mobile phone black spots are eliminated in many of these regional areas I have talked about. From some of the national parks around the Latrobe Valley, to the Grampians in the high country and to some of the more remote coastal areas in Gippsland, the areas with the worst mobile phone coverage are the most likely to be affected by bushfires this summer. It would be illogical to keep spending money on expanding and improving the emergency alert system without also investing in infrastructure to fix the mobile phone black spots in regional areas like Gippsland.

On a completely unrelated point it has come to my attention that one of our attendants, Amy Constable, will be leaving us in a couple of days. Amy was just in the chamber a few moments ago. She is going to study in Leeds for six months. We wish her well. She has been a great asset to the parliament.

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