I commend the Member for Gellibrand for his motion. We in regional Australia are highly alert to these concerns – because we understand the gaps: in service, delivery and equity.
I came to this place to talk positively about what we hope to start in regional Australia. I said the federal government had a big role to play in that – supporting better connectivity, rail, internet, mobile phone coverage and access to health and education.
It’s connectivity that advances opportunity in a country like ours.
In this context, I was encouraged to read in The Australian Digital Inclusion Index 2019 report – ‘Measuring Australia’s digital divide’ – that my home state of Victoria this year achieved an Index score of 63.3 (points). This is 1.4 above the national average of 61.9 and ranks Victoria second in the federation.
Victoria has better access, digital ability and access affordability scores than all other states and territories except the ACT.
But I was startled to see that Northern Victoria communities – which include those in my electorate of Indi – score lowest on the measure of every component of the Index for the state.
For access, we rank last. For affordability, we rank last. For digital ability, we rank last.
Overall, my communities and our neighbours – on 53.9 points – are 11 behind Melbourne, almost 10 behind the state, and eight behind the nation.
In February, this year, the House of Representatives’ Select Committee into Regional Australia delivered its report called ‘Regions at the Ready’. One of the 13 recommendations was:
‘(That)…the Federal Government increase its investment in building enabling infrastructure to improve connectivity, key services and amenity through co-ordinated regional plans’.
As I recounted in my election campaign speech in April, this year:
So many people tell me of their frustration with NBN and the remaining mobile phone black spots – businesses whose EFTPOS machines are out for days, kids who need to be driven into town to get on the internet so they can do their homework, isolated people in danger of bushfire, people trying to log into the My Aged Care website.
Business Wodonga chief executive Neil Aird last week told my office that digital access for 340 members who employ 7000 people – almost 17 per cent of Wodonga’s population – remains ‘below par’ in Indi’s largest community.
On one level, an accounting firm battles slow digital access speeds and bottlenecks, limiting service. On another, poor mobile coverage affects stallholders’ ability to transact sales on digital card readers at Albury Wodonga Farmers’ Market, Beechworth Farmers’ Market and Oxley Bush Market.
At the same time, in Indi, we’re alive to the prospects of a vibrant digital economy and the significance of digital inclusion and confidence.
In Wangaratta, a $300,000 State grant through the Ovens Murray Regional Partnership has funded a digital hub. People of all ages, backgrounds and digital abilities are engaging in workshops, making new connections, discovering tools and developing skills to access the digital economy.
The hub’s working with robotics and coding enthusiasts, start-ups and animators. It’s also looking at ways to extend literacy that can improve health.
Studies show that those who are older, disabled or on low incomes have the most to gain by using digital technology – yet they are over-represented among the three million Australians not yet on-line.
One example is remote patient monitoring. There is compelling evidence from Australia and overseas that remote patient monitoring significantly improves patient health outcomes for management of chronic disease. It also realises a five-to-six-fold return on investment through reduction in hospital presentations and early management of symptoms. But it takes digital confidence to use this technology and affordable digital connection plans.
How can we deliver that access and the confidence that builds better health outcomes?
If we, in this Parliament, are governing for all Australians – the quiet and noisy, urban and rural – we need to deliver equity: of service, access and opportunity.
A cohesive, inclusive and comprehensive plan for regional Australia can shape this prospect and enable all of us to share in the benefits.
So I call on the Minister for Regional Development to get on with the recommendations of the ‘Regions at the Ready’ report. It’s almost one year old (but it’s yet to walk). I am eager to work with you and your government to close our digital divide – most especially in my electorate of Indi.