Mr WILKIE (Denison) (10:29): I move:
That this bill be now read a second time.
There have been some constants in my four years in this role. Interestingly, one of the constants has been the problems that communities right around Australia are having with proposals for the establishment of or the change to phone towers. I have been constantly surprised at how often this has come up and the range of areas affected and the range of community groups who are disaffected by these proposals.
Within my own electorate of Denison there was a very controversial proposal to establish a very a elaborate mobile phone tower structure in Sandy Bay, which caused the community all sorts of grief. There was another phone tower erected into Taroona, which again caused the Taroona community a great amount of grief. One proposal, which took up a lot of my time and which has now been built I regret to say, was the erection of a phone tower on the old Cadbury grounds at Claremont in the north of my electorate. This was a particularly troublesome development, one that exercised the community a great deal. When I did a poll of the local community in that part of Claremont, an overwhelming majority of the community did not want that development in that location, and yet it went ahead and it is now being constructed. And even as I speak, there is another controversial proposal for a phone tower at the end of Merton Street in Glenorchy, again in the northern part of my electorate. It is quite a remarkable proposal: this phone tower will be in someone’s backyard and, because of the slope of the land, the transmitting rays will literally be just outside the window of a bedroom of an adjoining house.
So there are four examples in just four years in my own electorate. It would be fair enough to assume that those sorts of problems in those sorts numbers and more are occurring in electorates right around Australia. And certainly since I have become outspoken about the issue of phone towers and the anxiety that the developments are causing many communities, I have been approached, my office has been approached, repeatedly by communities right around the country saying that there are developments in their own areas and that and no-one seems to be listening. The telcos seem to have all of the rights, councils have a few rights and the communities seem to have no rights.
Hence, in 2011 I moved a private member’s bill that would give communities greater rights. But that bill went nowhere because the then Labor government did not seem to be interested in bringing it on for a debate and for a decision. Even now, with a change of government—a Liberal-National government—there seems to be little appetite for change with the new government either. I do not know what politicians think their role is if it is not to represent their community. But yet it seems in Australia that powerful companies—whether they be the banks or the supermarkets or the telecommunications companies—seem to be all powerful and they seem to be able to dangle governments on fairly short strings, almost like puppets. These big companies seem to be able to do virtually whatever they want.
I will not be deterred because the problem remains. In fact, the problem in some ways is getting worse with the rollout of many NBN towers. The problem remains that there are developments going on all the time around this country that are, for very good reasons, concerning local communities that the developments are inappropriate or in inappropriate places. Yes, we do need phone towers, but the telcos really should be considering other places to put those phone towers. They should not be in the middle of heritage areas; they should not be out the front of a primary school or an early childhood education centre.
The problem is the telcos want the cheapest location and often that is in the middle of a heritage area or out the front of a school. They want it near a road, near power; they are not prepared to pay that little bit extra to perhaps move the tower to a less than perfect or perhaps a slightly more expensive location. So the problem remains and I am moving another private member’s bill, one that would give communities greater power. This is not an attempt in any way to stop the rollout of phone towers or the enhancement of existing phone towers around the country. Of course we need these things—on my desk at the moment I have an iPad, I have a smartphone; they need towers—but the issue is where do we put them and do we listen to the communities when communities have legitimate concerns about exactly where those towers are going?
That brings us to this bill, and I would just quickly explain what the bill seeks to do. For a start, it expands the number of people who would require to be notified when a telecommunications tower is proposed to be built or substantially modified. Currently 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. Specifically, the bill stipulates notification of those within 500 metres of any new tower. Some people have the misplaced idea that currently there is a requirement that everyone within 100 metres of a new tower be notified, but in fact not even that is enshrined in law and is often ignored.
This bill would extend the amount of time for owners or occupiers of affected land to respond. Currently in law people are given just 10 business days to respond after being notified, and this is obviously a very difficult task for some individuals or for local landholders and even a hard task councils, which often have to consult subcommittees or hold public meetings. This bill would give people who are consulted a much fairer 30 business days to respond after being notified of a development application.
The bill would restrict the type of developments that can be declared under legislative instruments, and in particular it would restrict the low impact determination that allows new developments to avoid scrutiny under the current law.
I do acknowledge that some projects must be classified as low impact and therefore regulated federally to assist development. But there have been numerous cases where low-impact facilities have had a high impact on local communities and there has not been a need for a development application.
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 additional metre.
The bill also would remove the ability of telecommunications carriers to extend the size and capacity of towers under the guise of routine maintenance, which goes on regularly at the moment. In fact, the bill would remove the ability of carriers to extend potentially highly visible antennae without scrutiny, which they can currently do.
In regard to developments in sensitive areas, the bill requires that ACMA—communications management authority—will have to be satisfied that all alternative less sensitive sites have been looked at and have been found to be unfeasible. In any case, the authority would not be allowed to grant a permit for a new phone tower within 100 metres of a community sensitive site such as a school or local landmark.
In closing, I am not trying to shut down telcos. I am just wanting to give the community more rights. At the moment, the telcos do not need a development application for a low-impact development. Even for a high-impact development where they do need to put in a development application, councils tend to approve them because councils know that ultimately the telco has all the power and the right of appeal to ACMA and any council decision can be overturned. So no wonder some councils just roll over. They feel bullied. They feel there is no point fighting the good fight on behalf of the local community even when the council thinks there is a fight to be fought.
This bill simply seeks to level the playing field and to give the community rights. I commend it to the house.