Mr WILKIE (Denison) (10:42): The Telecommunications Amendment (Enhancing Community Consultation) Bill 2011 would change the Telecommunications Act 1997 to allow for greater input from local communities about telecommunications developments—in particular, about mobile phone base stations proposed to be developed in their areas. This bill would make several important changes to the Telecommunications Act.
For a start, it would expand the number of people who would require notification when a telecommunications tower was proposed to be built or substantially modified. At the moment, only the owner or occupier of the land on which the new tower will be built must be notified, meaning that owners and occupiers of land immediately adjacent to a major development may not even know about the development until construction commences. There is a belief in the community that it is currently a requirement that everyone within 100 metres of the new tower be notified; but this is not enshrined in law and is often ignored. This bill would provide certainty about that and stipulate notification of those within a more sensible distance of 500 metres from a new tower.
The bill would also extend the amount of time for owners or occupiers of affected land to respond. The act currently gives them just 10 business days to respond after being notified—a hard task for local landholders and an even harder task for councils, which often have to consult subcommittees or public meetings. The bill would give them a much fairer 30 business days to respond after being notified. Moreover, the bill would restrict the types of developments which can be declared under legislative instruments—in particular the low-impact determination which allows new developments to avoid scrutiny under state or local planning laws.
I understand the necessity for some projects to be classified as low impact and therefore regulated federally; but there have been numerous cases where it has been clear that low-impact telecommunications facilities will actually have a very high impact on local communities and that they therefore deserve further scrutiny. To that end, this bill declares that no new telecommunications tower may be categorised as low impact and that, for an extension to a tower to be declared low impact, it must not extend the height of the tower by more than one metre.
The bill would also remove the ability of telecommunications carriers to extend the size and capacity of towers under the guise of routine maintenance. Currently the size of antennae extending from the top of the tower is not included in official measurements of the dimensions of towers and this allows carriers to extend antennae often by metres without any scrutiny whatsoever. In other words, this bill would remove the ability of carriers to extend potentially highly visible and disturbing antennae without scrutiny and includes any antennae extended from the top of a tower into the official measurements of that tower.
There is also a belief in the community that high-impact telecommunications tower developments will always be subject to state and local government approval, but in fact the current legislation allows the Australian Communications and Media Authority to issue facility installation permits to allow carriers to install high-impact facilities which have not been granted planning approval by state or local planning authorities. This bill would ensure that such permits are only issued in genuinely extraordinary circumstances. Moreover, under the current legislation, to grant a facility installation permit ACMA must decide, among other things, that the proposed facility is an important part of a nationally significant telecommunications network, but this bill would disallow ACMA from considering specifically the commercial interests of carriers when making this decision. Additionally, current legislation does not require ACMA to consider community sensitive sites properly when deciding whether or not to grant a facility installation permit to a proposed facility near a community sensitive site. Currently ACMA must only be satisfied that other less sensitive sites have been considered. Quite simply, this bill would raise that standard making it fairer to communities. Now ACMA would have to be satisfied that all alternative, less sensitive sites are unfeasible, and in any case the authority could not grant a permit within 100 metres of a community sensitive site, such as a school or local landmark.
This bill would also make it fairer for communities wishing to appeal a facility installation permit being granted. Under the current act, only carriers may lodge an appeal with the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, but this bill would expand that right to local communities, thereby ensuring that communities and carriers are on a level playing field when disputes arise. The bill would also address the criteria whereby ACMA must notify the public about new developments. Under the current framework, ACMA must take its advice from industry representative bodies when deciding who to inform about new developments, but this bill would repeal that requirement and instead mandate that ACMA must consider the potential impact of the proposed development on the local community which will live with it every day.
If these changes seem basic, it is because they are. I understand that there must be a fundamental balance in this debate between the public interest in having fast and reliable mobile communications on the one hand and the public interest in not having inappropriate and hastily planned developments springing up all around our communities on the other. For too long this balance has been skewed in favour of telecommunications companies, who under the current legislation have carte blanche to place new telecommunications facilities essentially wherever they please. Communities are finding themselves in a position where they have no place to turn. The simple fact that the current act restricts the ability to lodge an appeal with the Administrative Appeals Tribunal to carriers who have had permits disallowed suggests something is wrong with the level of community consultation in our telecommunications laws.
A case in point is Optus’s proposal to build a tower on top of my local Woolworths in Sandy Bay. Originally it was declared by the carrier to be a low-impact facility, even though it would literally tower over a heritage neighbourhood and be an eyesore from nearby historic Battery Point. Yes, community pressure seems to have forced Optus to recategorise the development as high impact, and now the Hobart City Council is considering the proposal, but the community should have been spared the heartache in the first place and there still is no certainty that ACMA will not just ride in at the eleventh hour and issue a permit regardless of the council’s determination. Congratulations and thankyou to Anthea Hopkins for leading the community revolt against this inappropriate development. This example is just one of the many reasons I am very pleased to present this bill to the House.
For too long communities have been unable to have a say in where in new towers spring up in their area. The playing field has been skewed towards the commercial self-interest of the telecommunications companies. I have had people from all around the country call my office complaining about the sense of hopelessness they feel when they are informed—if, indeed, they are informed at all—that a significant development will happen right next to their house and that there is next to nothing they can do about it. Some communities have fought these developments and some of them have been successful, but many more have failed, though not through want of time and effort. The consistent message I get from those who have succeeded is: it should not be this difficult. I agree with those communities: it should not require public protest; it should not require lobbying politicians and courting media to get some kind of say about a development happening in your own backyard. I propose that this bill, the Telecommunications Amendment (Enhancing Community Consultation) Bill 2011, strikes the correct balance between developing our mobile telecommunications into the future and giving our communities real input into how we should do it. I commend the bill to the House.