Last Tuesday night I was up in the Hunter, in Thornton, at St Michael’s Church Hall.
There were more than 100 people there, packed in like sardines.
It takes a lot nowadays to get more than 100 people at a town hall meeting, particularly during the week. People are busy. They have got lots of things to do.
But last Tuesday night there were a lot of people who wanted to be at that church hall to talk about the NBN. There were a lot of angry people, a lot of frustrated people and they were there because they can’t get the sort of internet speeds they want.
Most can’t even get ADSL.
This is the third time I have visited Thornton in the last 12 months.
Last time I was there, late last year, I heard the story of a nurse, who has to climb onto her roof with a dongle, just to download her roster.
I heard lots of stories just like this last Tuesday night.
One woman, one very angry woman, who was angry because her teenage daughter needs to study at night, and she’s doing a course as well and because they can’t get the internet speeds they want she has to stay at work till all hours of the night in Newcastle, sometimes getting home at 10, 11 or 12 o’clock at night just so both of them can study.
Another man I met was a man called Paul. He runs an accountancy business 71kms down the F3 in Toukley, and he employs seven people.
But he lives in Thornton.
He said, and told the public meeting, he would like to be able to set that business up in Thornton, but he can’t do that because he can’t get the broadband that he needs to run his business there.
Another bloke, I don’t know his name but when we were standing out the front before the meeting began he walked past and said what’s this all about, he didn’t know anything about the meeting, he wasn’t coming along to the meeting.
I told him what it was all about? and he told me a very similar story. He said that he had just moved his business from Thornton to Beresfield for the same reason - because he can’t get the sort of internet services that he needs. He runs a mining services company.
The motion that we are talking about is about small business. The importance of small business, and the importance for small business of broadband services.
They’re just two great examples of businesses that need broadband and aren’t able to get those services in a town like Thornton in the Hunter.
As a result of that people move out or people move their business from Thornton to somewhere else.
To give you an idea just how bad the broadband access is in Thornton – last year Sharon Claydon, the Member for Newcastle, sent out a survey to local residents. She got 177 surveys came back and of those 177 surveys, 74 per cent said they couldn’t even get ADSL.
If you look at the Government’s ‘My Broadband’ website it paints an even bleaker picture – the website ranks broadband quality and availability from A to E.
If you put in addresses in Thornton you find that in Thornton it’s E – for both.
Now here’s the rub.
Before the election Thornton was on the NBN rollout plan. It was scheduled to be getting fibre to the home right now - to be rolled out over 2014, 15 and 16.
Immediately after the election Thornton was taken off the rollout map – and it is still not on it.
In December last year the Government released a new rollout plan for the next 18 months – and Thornton isn’t on it.
The motion that we are debating right now says, quote – “the government has a plan to prioritise getting areas of most need connected fast to reliable broadband sooner, especially in regional areas”.
That’s exactly what the Coalition promised before the last election. In April of 2013 the Coalition policy said – “suburbs, regions, towns and business districts with the poorest services and greatest need for upgrades will receive first priority.”
Then a couple of months later in November 2013 at the NBN Rebooted Conference, Minister Turnbull said: “In closing let me remind you that up to two million households and businesses across Australia cannot get basic fixed-line broadband at present. Addressing these underserviced areas first is a key objective of our NBN policy.”
There’s the promise. There is the commitment.
But as you see in Thornton this isn’t happening.
If it was happening Thornton would be getting the NBN right now. Instead what I saw, what Sharon saw on Tuesday night was more than 100 very angry, very frustrated people.
Now in two weeks’ time the Government has a chance to fix this. In two weeks the 18 month roll out plan is due to be updated.
This is the chance to fix this – to finally put Thornton on the roll out map and I urge the Minister to do this.
And not just Thornton – all the places across the country with terrible access to broadband. All the places that the government promised would get the NBN first.
When Whitlam died last year I asked my parents what was the one thing that they most remembered him for.
It wasn’t Medibank, it wasn’t the changes to universities. It was sewerage. I grew up in an area in Western Sydney where it changed people’s lives. People might think it’s surprising but if you ever had to go out in the middle of the night in winter into the backyard you’d know how important having a flushable toilet in the house is.
But when Whitlam started talking about this in the 60s he was sneered at. People thought that it wasn’t the role of the government to provide this sort of essential infrastructure. It’s not sneered at any more.
Twenty years ago when Paul Keating launched Networking Australia’s Future he said “national information infrastructure will be no less a general right than access to water... or electricity”.
Just like Whitlam twenty years before him, there were people who were sneering about what he was saying back then in 1995.
But history has proven Keating right.
Just like clean water out of the tap, or power at the flick of a switch, or a flushable toilet inside the house, people expect fast and reliable broadband at the click of a button.
And when they can’t get it – like in Thornton, where 74 per cent of people can’t get access to ADSL – they are justifiably very angry.
The government needs to think hard about this. One of the reasons people are so upset with this government is because of broken promises.
People can rattle off that famous quote from Tony the night before the election – "no cuts to education, no cuts to health, no change to pensions, no cuts to the ABC or SBS".
But it’s not just health or education or the ABC – it’s the NBN as well. I gave one example of a broken promise, the promise to prioritise the worst places first.
But that’s not the only broken promise on the NBN.
The Government promised that everyone would have access to 25mbp by 2016 and that promise has been broken.
Tony Abbott published an open letter to the Australian people on election night saying that the NBN would be built within three years and that’s not going to happen either.
We were told that the NBN was only going to cost $29.5 billion. Now that promise has been broken.
We were promised that Infrastructure Australia would be the organisation that would do the Cost Benefit Analysis. That promise has been broken.
We were told there would be no new taxes – and that promise has been broken.
I am not talking about the Petrol Tax or the now departed GP Tax. I am talking about the NBN Tax.
As of two weeks ago if you build a new home then you will have to pay $600 to NBN Co to get the NBN connected to your new home in a greenfield site. And as of the first of July that will go up to $900.
Last week the Minister for Communications made a very interesting speech at the Brisbane Club. He basically said the problem with the Budget was the sales job. He said that what they needed to do was explain the budget properly and do what he has done on the NBN.
If anyone thinks that this is right they are deluding themselves.
The problem with the budget isn’t the sales job. It’s the substance. It’s littered with broken promises. And fundamentally unfair. And it’s exactly the same with the NBN. A series of broken promises and fundamentally also unfair.
Let me give you the example of what happened the day after that speech. The day after the Brisbane Club Speech at 10pm last Thursday night the government very quietly put on NBN website a new policy called “Technology Choice”.
No press release. No press conference. Just quietly put on the website.
Under this policy if you live in a fibre to the node area you can get fibre – but it will cost you quote “anywhere from a few thousand dollars to tens of thousands of dollars.”
On top of that a $600 cost just to get a quote.
In other words if you are in a fibre to the node area you can get it but you will potentially have to pay tens of thousands of dollars for it. In other words fibre for the rich and copper for the rest.
Just like the budget – another example of how their NBN is fundamentally unfair.
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