Connecting Australia: every community matters.
Speech to 2022 Australian Communications Consumer Action Network conference, 14 September 2022
Senator Henderson: I’d like to start by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land and pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging. Also, at this very sad time for our nation, I would also like to acknowledge the profound loss of Her Majesty The Queen and pay my respects to our new Head of State, King Charles III.
I also acknowledge ACCAN’s Chair, Deirdre O’Donnell and of course, CEO Andrew Williams, as well as all distinguished guests including Minister Rowland, from whom you heard earlier. It is a great pleasure to join you today for your conference.
I firstly want to congratulate you on the wonderful advocacy and the work that you do for consumers on many vital issues, including affordability of broadband and other telco services, on fighting for a fairer telco market and on equitable access, including in regional and rural Australia and for the most vulnerable.
Just a few brief remarks about my background. I come to this job as Shadow Minister for Communications with a lot of passion and many years of experience working in the media sector as a journalist, presenter, television executive, media lawyer, and also a consumer advocate. I’ve worked for all three commercial networks, for the ABC, for National Indigenous TV, for News Corporation in New York, I ran my own media agency small business and I also spent three years reporting for the acclaimed program, as it was then, The Investigators, on the ABC, fighting for the consumer rights of Australians on a whole range of issues.
It does seem like I have been fighting all of my adult life in whatever profession I’ve taken on – I was elected the Member for Corangamite in 2013, which does cover the Great Ocean Road and beautiful Geelong and the Bellarine Peninsula, and served for two terms, and after a fairly brutal redistribution, re-entered the Senate as a senator for Victoria. So now my fight continues, holding the government to account and of course advocating for good policy.
Fixing Labor’s failures
I want to firstly say I’m extremely proud of the Coalition’s achievements, when in government, and the work we did to help drive the transformation of the digital economy, to connect all Australians across our vast land. When we were elected in 2013, there was no funding for mobile phone base stations under the previous government and only 51,000 homes had been connected to the NBN. We turned all of that on its head of course, funding more than 1200 new or upgraded mobile base stations, rolling out the NBN to 12 million premises so that now over 99% of Australians can order an NBN service.
Delivering ultra-fast broadband
In recent years, we drove very substantial investments, of course in partnership with the NBN, in high speed broadband, including the $4.5 billion network investment plan that will give up to 75% of fixed line premises across regional and metropolitan Australia access to ultra fast broadband – fibre on demand, speeds of up to one gigabit per second – by 2023. There’s 284 business fibre zones which delivered major cuts in wholesale pricing for businesses outside major cities. And our most recent announcement with the NBN, a $480 million investment in faster fixed wireless and satellite connectivity in regional Australia which was the work of the Coalition and not the current government as Minister Rowland appeared to be suggesting in her speech. Just giving credit where credit is due.
Not only does this reflect a massive investment in upgraded broadband technology, the Coalition’s fibre on demand model – which has now been accepted by the government – it demonstrates that the government’s previous policy of fibre to every premise has been abandoned. That would have driven up the cost of broadband very dramatically, delivering fixed line to every premise including those who didn’t want it, and of course also gravely disadvantaged regional communities. We think we got the balance right.
Investing in regional connectivity
Of course, Australians have benefited and continue to benefit from many other very significant investments delivered by the Coalition. I’ll briefly touch on them, the Mobile Blackspot Program, of course, large-scale investments in regional connectivity such as the Regional Connectivity Program, the PUMP program, the Strengthening Telecommunications against Natural Disasters Program and the Regional Tech Hub.
Holding the global digital platforms to account
We’ve also done an enormous amount of work to rein in the power, and sometimes the abuse of power, of the big tech platforms with the world’s first eSafety Commissioner, the Basic Online Safety Expectations and the new Online Safety Act which extends the eSafety Commissioner’s powers to combat serious cyber abuse against adults.
The News Media Bargaining code is another example of the way that we have stood up for the Australian media sector, reining in the big global giants which were previously ripping off Australian news media content, the likes of Google and Facebook, so now that code has now completely turned that on its head. Of course, I also want to acknowledge the important work of our regulators such as ACMA and the ACCC which were very active under our leadership (and of course the ACMA in particular received new powers) – combating scams and holding the telcos to account when they sought to actively mislead or deceive, including by engaging in false selling practises to the vulnerable and in indigenous communities which of course was disgraceful conduct. Fines of $50 million are a potent reminder to Telstra and Optus and others that Australians will not tolerate this type of behaviour.
Labor must act on online privacy and trolling
But there is a lot more work to be done which is why I have called on the government to deliver improved online privacy laws, enacting our Online Privacy Bill to protect the best interests of children and to ensure that the likes of TikTok can’t harvest data, track the location of users or engage in any other insidious practices. We also introduced the Social Media (Anti-Trolling) Bill and we are disappointed that the government has not shown any interest in unmasking the trolls which have caused considerable harm to so many Australians, so we would certainly like to see some big progress in that regard. I’m also concerned that scams which have spread to platforms like WhatsApp are not being dealt with because the government has not given ACMA the regulatory powers to do so. That also needs to change.
Every community matters
I am a regional senator and previously represented a regional electorate in Victoria, so I have a great passion for the regions. I strongly believe that every community matters and as our regions continue to grow, as the pandemic has shown us, communications infrastructure is critical infrastructure. As I say, every single community across our great land matters and I do have a dream that one day every inch of our land across our continent will be covered by connectivity.
And while this seemed like a dream a number of years ago, we have seen some rapid progress with technology. As you might know, Apple has just announced that its new iPhone will allow emergency calls from anywhere on the planet via satellite and I have no doubt that one day, sooner rather than later I hope, we will have that capability to make any call and to transmit any data on every square inch of this great planet of ours.
Labor must deliver for the regions
In the meantime, one of my key priorities is to see the government pick up on our many forward-leaning investments in the regions, Round 2 of the Peri-Urban Mobile Program which would have driven $78.5 million into peri-urban areas of regional cities. That was our commitment and I would very much like to see the government pick that up. Places like Geelong, Wollongong, Gosford, Newcastle, Sunshine Coast, the Gold Coast, Townsville, Cairns, Darwin and Canberra – they all matter as well – they are growing rapidly and they need that connectivity in those peri-urban areas.
We also are very keen to see the confirmation of 93 projects in remote and regional Australia under Round 2 of the Regional Connectivity Program. The Minister has indicated that program will be delivered, but so far we’ve seen no confirmation of those projects and that is of concern.
5G Innovation Initiative
Also, I would like to see the reinstatement of $20 million under the 5G Innovation Program, another one of the Coalition’s programs which provided great support to small businesses, including in Western Sydney, particularly in innovation and in driving productivity and in growing jobs.
So as I say, we are very proud of the work that we did right across the sector and there are some really critical investments that we would like to see delivered by this government.
So I’d like to finish by saying I really welcome, once again, the important work of ACCAN, particularly in all of the advocacy to drive a fairer telco and communications market. I strongly applaud your advocacy for initiatives such as the Independent Broadband Plan Comparison Tool. Consumers must be able to access the best information quickly, efficiently and transparently with no catches.
I very much look forward to working with ACCAN and ACCAN’s members and stakeholders across the sector to ensure that the further protections that consumers so rightly deserve are delivered.
As I say, I am up for the fight. On that note, I again thank you so much for having me today and wish you all the very best with the rest of your conference.
Q and A
Andrew Williams: Thank you very much, Senator Henderson. There’s a fair bit to unpack in all of that, so we very much look forward to working with you as you settle into the portfolio and appreciate the fact that you’re able to come and talk to us today and certainly acknowledging the extraordinary circumstances that have released you from Canberra for a temporary period of time at least. I may if possible, can I ask one, maybe two questions?
Senator Henderson: Sure, Andrew.
Andrew Williams: First of all, I think way back in your presentation you mentioned in your wide career you’ve had some small business experience, is that correct?
Senator Henderson: Yes, absolutely. I ran my own small business. It was a media agency, so representing various people working in the media sector. When I first set up my business, I started in Melbourne, I moved to Sydney, I set up an office in Balmain, I have never experienced more frustration than trying to get my broadband to work in those early days, in the early 2000s. The absolute agony of dealing with Telstra. I am so pleased to see that Telstra has brought its call centres back onshore and now Telstra has simplified so many of its plans. The number of plans that it previously was rolling out was just ridiculous and of course they weren’t providing consumers with the very best plan. So if they improved the pricing of a plan, that wasn’t being passed on to its current customers, and so I’m also very pleased to see that has changed. I have lived and breathed the frustration of running a small business and dealing with connectivity, and obviously I’m very impressed to see some of those improvements.
Andrew Williams: That’s fantastic. Thank you and we’ve actually got the CEO of the Council of Small Business Organisations Australia coming on for panel a little bit later so I think she’ll be very pleased to hear that she’s got another advocate in Canberra. And just finally, it’s more of a personal question, as much as anything else, we occasionally get quite a bit of media interest around mobile phone coverage maps and particularly around your area where particularly there are some of the new developments; for example, in and around the Bellarine Peninsula, just outside Geelong, that the coverage on the ground is not necessarily reflective of what’s on the map. So just curious to your experience down there, whether you’ve experienced that at all or whether you’ve heard it from your constituents?
Senator Henderson: Andrew Absolutely and as I mentioned, as the former Member for Corangamite, which covered the Bellarine and part of Geelong and the Great Ocean Road, large regional areas, it’s a bit smaller now due to the redistribution (which of course has changed the electoral landscape a bit), I’ve been continually frustrated by the representation from the large telco companies when they talk about “Oh, we cover 99% of all users” and of course they talk about the population, rather than the geography of the country which is very, very different thing.
And so I am pleased to say that there is a continuing focus on all the work and investment that we delivered on fixing mobile blackspots in the regions. But that’s one of the reasons that I advocated so strongly for the Peri-Urban Mobile Program to be extended to regional cities like Geelong. So in comparison to, if I can be a little bit partisan, say a very small amount of money committed by the now government for one town on the Bellarine, which was St Leonards, just $600,000, we announced $78.5 million under the PUMP Program to regional cities because we recognise that they are growing so quickly and as I said, every community matters.
I really would like to see the government take up the extension of the PUMP Program. It has matched our $28.2 million commitment to Round 1, which is peri-urban areas in metro cities, but not in the regional cities, and it’s a big missing gap in the government’s policy, along with $155 million that they didn’t match the Coalition on in terms of its investments. So I really, really want to see that focus because as I say, every community matters, and as we saw from the pandemic, Andrew, we’ve got to be able to work, to study, to connect from our homes, from our places of business, no matter where we are in Australia, and that’s why this is such an important and continuing investment for all governments.
As I say, we turned things on its head. We started our time in government in 2013 when there was no interest from the previous government in investing in mobile blackspots. We transformed that landscape but we’ve got to see that investment continuing.
Andrew Williams: Thank you so much and we’ve run out of time but look forward to catching up. As I said, as you settle into the portfolio hopefully we get a chance to meet in Canberra at some stage and also for those of us in Sydney, maybe it’d be a Sydney-Geelong grand final in a week or two this time.
Senator Henderson: Well all I can say is Go Cats!
Andrew Williams: Thank you so much the Honourable Sarah Henderson, the Shadow Minister for Communications and Liberal Senator for Victoria. Thank you very much, Senator.
Senator Henderson: Thank you so much Andrew.