Social infrastructure is comprised of the facilities, spaces, services, and networks that support the quality of life and wellbeing of communities. As noted in Infrastructure Australia's 2019 An Assessment of Australia’s Future Infrastructure Needs: The Australian Infrastructure Audit 2019 (Infrastructure Audit):
[Social infrastructure] helps us to be happy, safe and healthy, to learn, and to enjoy life. The network of social infrastructure contributes to social identity, inclusion and cohesion and is used by all Australians at some point in their lives, often on a daily basis. Access to high-quality, affordable social services has a direct impact on the social and economic wellbeing of all Australians.
This chapter examines the evidence received in relation to social infrastructure such as healthcare services, water, food security, and housing, as it relates to the wellbeing and 'liveability' of northern communities. Issues regarding employment and education are discussed in chapter 7.
Access to safe, adequate and affordable housing is a crucial foundation for enabling a person's physical and mental health and wellbeing. Without access to appropriate housing, other aspects of wellbeing such as health, education and employment suffer.
Housing in Australia is largely delivered by the private market; however, there are a range of housing types delivered by governments and not-for-profit partners. The types of housing available in Australia are detailed below.
Crisis accommodation – specialty housing provided for people who are homeless or who require emergency accommodation. It includes crisis shelters and hostels, and women and youth refuges. Crisis accommodation is short-term and generally provided by charities and not-for-profit organisations, though some funding for homelessness services is provided by state and federal governments.
Social housing – an umbrella term for Australia's system of publicly subsidised housing provided to eligible households, usually those on low to very low incomes. Social housing includes both public housing owned, leased and managed by state and territory housing authoritie,; and community housing managed by not-for-profit organisations which can be privately or publicly owned. Community housing providers (CHPs) can access Commonwealth Rent Assistance for additional revenue. Social housing also includes programs which provide housing specifically to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tenants. These programs are largely managed by state and territory governments, with the majority of remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander housing located in Northern Australia.
Affordable rental housing – housing provided at a subsidised rate (usually 80 per cent of market price) to households on very low to moderate incomes. Eligibility criteria vary across jurisdictions but these programs are intended to support households unable to secure adequate and affordable rental housing in the private rental market. Affordable rental housing is generally owned, managed and maintained by CHPs.
Private housing market (rental and ownership) – refers to housing wholly paid for by individuals at market price. Dwellings are delivered by the private development sector and private ownership includes outright ownership and with a mortgage through a lending institution. Government assistance can be provided to support those living in private market housing, for example through first home buyers' grants or rental assistance.
Australian Infrastructure Audits
During the course of the inquiry, the committee received evidence regarding the lack of (appropriate) housing in Northern Australia. Before exploring this evidence, it is useful to outline the findings of 2019 Infrastructure Audit in relation to housing needs.
The Infrastructure Audit first noted the interdependent housing continuum which exists across the types of housing outlined above. The Infrastructure Audit explained that each section of the housing continuum, which stretches from people experiencing homelessness and requiring crisis accommodation to people owning houses outright, has interdependencies with the rest of the continuum. A lack of housing options for different income brackets can push people to the lower end of the continuum, resulting in more people requiring housing assistance.
The Infrastructure Audit noted that across Australia the social housing system is under significant pressure. Nationally, the social housing system suffers from a lack of funding, an ageing housing stock with high maintenance needs, increased demand due to housing affordability issues, insufficient funding to increase the supply of dwellings in the system, and tenants with increasingly diverse needs.
The Infrastructure Audit found that housing is at the centre of addressing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander inclusion and disadvantage across Australia. The Infrastructure Audit found that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples today face systemic barriers to accessing stable, affordable housing that is appropriate for individual and community needs.
The Infrastructure Audit noted that these housing challenges are often distinct to those facing other Australians, such as overrepresentation in Australia's homeless population, the need for culturally appropriate housing, overcrowding of housing and the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples living in remote or very remote areas, where it is difficult and expensive to deliver new housing supply.
The Infrastructure Audit noted that inadequate housing can lead to poor physical and mental health for communities. Overcrowding and insufficient access to functional hygiene facilities in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander housing can result in high rates of infectious diseases, and has been linked to the spread of common illnesses such as influenza.
Overcrowding can also exacerbate domestic and family violence, which often takes place in a context of poor housing conditions, overcrowded dwellings and insufficient supply of housing including crisis accommodation for victims of violence or abuse. Inadequate housing can also negatively impact the educational outcomes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people, due to a lack of housing stability and insufficient space to study or sleep.
Of particular note for this inquiry, the 2019 Infrastructure Priority List estimated that the combined economic and social cost of overcrowding for remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations is expected to exceed $100 million per annum over the next 15 years based on 2019 overcrowding rates. After accounting for population growth, an additional 5,500 homes are expected to be required by 2028 to reduce levels of overcrowding in remote areas. The Infrastructure Audit noted that half of the additional need is in the Northern Territory alone, a jurisdiction with the lowest capacity to meet this pressure because of its limited revenue raising capabilities and high proportion of the population receiving government support.
The following sections outline the evidence received in relation to a lack of social housing available in northern communities. A lack of social housing has a particularly detrimental effect on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, including overcrowding, domestic violence, preventable disease, unemployment and reduced access to education.
Ms Hollie Faithfull, Acting Chief Executive Officer, Torres Strait Island Regional Council (TSIRC), gave evidence regarding the shortage of social housing across the Torres Strait. Ms Faithfull told the committee that the TSIRC is a housing service provider with over 900 properties across 15 communities. Ms Faithfull observed however that 'some of them are not up to standard so they cannot be used for social housing', and as a result there were 332 applicants at the time of the hearing listed on the register of need. Ms Faithfull stated:
That has resulted in overcrowding. We have 78 households in category 1. Category 1, under council's definition, is when there is homelessness, child safety issues, disability or medical reasons. Also, 166 applicants are in category 2, which means they are living in an overcrowded house. We have a significant number of applicants that we cannot supply social housing to.
Similarly, Mr Nathan McIvor, Chief Executive Officer, Djarindjin Aboriginal Corporation, explained that many people have been waiting for social housing for many years, so long in fact, that some move to other communities before being able to obtain housing. Ms McIvor stated:
We've had people on the housing list for 5 to ten years. Their circumstances have changed. They've moved from Djarindjin, they've gone somewhere else, they've found a house somewhere else, and then they get taken off the list. So what we're trying to do is do what the state is telling us to do and get as many people on the list, but we don't feel that that is an appropriate way to deal with the housing situation. When you've only got 54 houses and you've got close to 400 living in a community, that should be evidence enough that there needs to be more infrastructure placed in the community.
Ms Debra Goostrey, Executive Support, Kimberley Regional Group, described to the committee, that in some northern communities there is not just a need for new housing, but also a renewal of existing social housing. Ms Goostrey stated:
When we're talking housing, it's not just about new ones and new lots but about urban renewal. We also need urban renewal in some of our social housing in Broome, where we've got massive clusters of social housing in the same streets. That becomes problematic as well. So we have problems in actually creating lots, in some instances, and then we need to be aware of the urban areas.
Witnesses described housing as critically important and noted the impact that it has on educational and health outcomes for communities. Councillor Harold Tracey, Shire President, Shire of Broome, illustrated to the committee that 'housing has a foundation role in releasing people from intergenerational disadvantage'. Similarly, Mr Mick McCarthy, Executive Committee Member, Unions NT, stated:
…housing is massively important. If you don't get housing right we're never ever going to solve the health and education problems, because, as was said previously, you can't have good learning from school-age students if there are 20 or 30 of them in a house—or no house at all. They're not going to perform well at school the following day…So housing is actually more important than education. We're not going to get education right without good housing.
This was echoed by Ms Yananymul Mununggurr, Director, Laynhapuy Homelands Aboriginal Corporation, who stated that 'when it comes to education, kids need to have space in housing so they can have their own privacy and a space to work in and play in—a good environment'. The Local Government Association of Queensland (LGAQ) stated:
[a] lack of housing continues to be a grave issue, as it is one of the root causes of problems experienced by these communities in the areas of health, education and community and domestic violence. For example, it is difficult for a child to attend school attentively if he or she is kept awake at night due to living in a noisy household of 20 people and is consequently overtired for school.
Councillor Tracey, Shire of Broome, described the housing stock in the region as 'battling to even compete with Third World conditions'. Councillor Tracey highlighted that such housing conditions contribute to social issues and crime in the area. Councillor Tracey stated:
We all know the problems that we have with social issues and crime issues. I've taken a number of state ministers to our precincts that have been neglected not just for the last four years, but for decades. We've got housing stock there that was built in the early 1980s that just keeps getting worse. I've taken ministers past these places and said, 'If you were a 6- or 7-year-old or a 14-year-old young person living in these conditions and you had a choice of going home to those conditions or hanging out with your mates and doing stupid things, I know what the answer would be.'…I can't stress enough the importance of these sort of issues being on the agenda, because it is a catalyst. While we do have a beautiful town, we have some deep-seated social issues that are never addressed when we talk about it. Housing is a real key one for us.
A number of witnesses called on additional funding from state, territory and federal governments to build additional, appropriate housing, and to renew existing housing infrastructure. For example, Ms Mununggurr, Laynhapuy Aboriginal Corporation, stated that the 'Northern Territory needs additional housing to stop overcrowding' and called for government funding to assist Aboriginal corporations which are currently utilising mining royalty funds to construct housing in homeland communities. Ms Mununggurr stated:
I think the government needs to reconsider its position and maybe, in the future, help in the area of housing. I'm talking about co-contribution; the government could co-contribute towards housing.
Similarly, Ms Kerry Legge, Chief Executive Officer, Laynhapuy Homelands Aboriginal Corporation called on governments to assist in encouraging 'private sector investment' in housing as 'there is a benefit to having everyone in society having good, basic living conditions'.
Ms Melinda Eades, Executive Officer, Torres Cape Indigenous Council Alliance (TCICA) stated that there has been a 'lack of attention by the Commonwealth in providing adequate funding to address the very significant housing shortfalls in Indigenous communities'. Ms Eades told the committee:
We believe that we won't see significant economic opportunity for Indigenous communities until the housing issues are addressed. You can't send kids to school if you can't give them a good night's sleep because they're disrupted in a household with 20-odd people. Health outcomes are severely impacted in Indigenous communities because you can't keep people healthy when you've got that many people living in a house. So that's probably the No. 1 priority for the TCICA and, indeed, for most Indigenous local governments across Australia. We would want to see that addressed in any future work in Northern Australia.
Ms Eades, stated that there has been a 'lack of investment' by the Australian Government in remote First Nations housing. Ms Eades told the committee:
After the 10-year NPARIH (National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing) ended, there was no further agreement by the Commonwealth to work with the jurisdictions to continue to fund Indigenous housing. The Commonwealth did commit a further $105 million in Queensland, which certainly doesn't address the shortfall but it's absolutely welcome money. We're working hard, through Indigenous Australians minister Ken Wyatt, to try and get an ongoing focus on and ongoing commitments to addressing Indigenous housing issues. The government's own report identified that there was still significant attention needed to address the shortfalls.
The LGAQ detailed the benefits which were seen as a result of the NPARIH. It described the NPARIH as an 'excellent program' which delivered more than 1200 new houses and refurbished nearly 1500 houses in Queensland. The LGAQ called for the Australian Government to invest in housing in a program equivalent to the NPARIH.
Councillor Harold Tracey, Shire of Broome, argued that communities and government agencies urgently require financial assistance from the Australian Government. Councillor Tracey stated:
Our communities and our government agency urgently require financial assistance from the Australian government to improve the dire social and Aboriginal housing conditions across Broome and the Kimberley. The contraction of the Commonwealth-State Housing Agreement, the National Housing and Homelessness Agreement and the national partnership on remote housing has left WA, the Kimberley and Broome neglected since 2018. The Northern Australian agenda is relatively silent on housing issues. As a foundation for economic and social growth, this needs to be corrected through existing state-federal programs such as the National Housing and Homelessness Agreement and the North-West Aboriginal Housing Fund.
Similarly, Mr Chris Mitchell, Chair, Kimberley Regional Group, called on the Australian Government to holistically assess the services and infrastructure which communities in Northern Australia, such as the Kimberley, require. In discussing the services and infrastructure communities require, Mr Mitchell noted that the lack of fit-for-purpose housing has 'reinforced intergenerational disadvantage'.
Some witnesses were critical of the ways in which government funding to improve housing has been spent. For example, Mr Mitchell, Kimberley Regional Group, stated that in Fitzroy Crossing:
…there was substantial funding for housing in some of the communities to uplift the communities. From what I gather, all that was achieved was some new government staff housing in the community. The actual community didn't really benefit from all this additional housing.
Councillor Tracey, Shire of Broome, also told the committee that a number of state governments had made promises of expenditure on housing in the Kimberley which did not eventuate. Councillor Tracey stated:
There have been a number of state governments over the last couple of terms and promises of $120 million or $200 million to be spent on housing in the Kimberley simply didn't happen…If you look at housing, Broome got about 19 or 20 houses in the last four years, and, across the Kimberley, Kununurra was the only town in the Kimberley that got a fairly decent slice of housing funded. So what we were promised to be delivered simply didn't happen. Government spending contraction has made a huge impact on our construction spend over the years.
Councillor Peter Long, Mayor, City of Karratha, told the committee that in Karratha there were approximately 100 state government owned houses which 'weren't liveable' but that the government has 'now consented to fix those up'.
Other witnesses also highlighted the impact that inadequate housing can have on health outcomes. Mr Matthew Burrows, Chief Executive Officer, Boab Health Services told the committee that 'access to housing is one of the key social determinants of health'. Mr Burrows explained:
You're not going to have a healthy person if they're not able to access basic shelter, and not just in a physical sense but in a mental sense as well. If you've got 25 people living in a house that's substandard to start with, then you're not going to have optimal health outcomes. We know this. This is evidence based. We need to get better at working with people living in remote areas, to make sure that we do have adequate housing.
Mr Jeff Cook, Manager, Laynhapuy Homelands Aboriginal Corporation, noted that some communities lack 'really basic facilities' such as flushing toilets, and water for handwashing. As a result:
We have high rates of rheumatic heart disease, maybe the highest in the world, and it's simply a disease of poverty. It doesn't exist in Melbourne, and that's not for any other reason except housing, water and so on.
Mr Cook further explained rheumatic heart disease is linked to living conditions, and that there is 'no real treatment'. Currently, treatment consists of attempting to prevent a recurrence of rheumatic fever through patients receiving an injection of penicillin every 28 days, a treatment described as 'quite painful'. Mr Cook explained:
So they have a penicillin needle every 21 to 28 days until they're 21 years old or for 10 years. That disease is not from anything other than living standards. It's not because people do anything wrong. It's just that no-one has hot water. So access to hot water is an issue. It's hot here now but, if you're Yolngu and you've lived here 40,000 years, it sort of gets cold in the dry season here. So it's sort of still cold. The water's cold. If you're a two-year-old kid, you don't want to get in the cold water.
Ms Darlene Irvine, Executive Officer, Far North Queensland Regional Organisation of Councils (FNQROC), told the committee that social housing and overcrowding lies at the 'crux' of issues related to First Nations employment and opportunity. Ms Irvine stated:
There is significant overcrowding in our Indigenous communities, and a lot of Indigenous people won't report the numbers of people staying in their houses, because they have a fear that it'll impact on the rent that they need to pay. COVID really highlighted the numbers sitting in there. You could have anything from 12 to 20 people in there. That impacts on any of the kids who are in there. It impacts their education. It stifles their education. It impacts health. It impacts people's ability to work, get a good night's rest, eat well, sleep well and do everything else. That is the core and the crux of what will help our Indigenous communities going forward.
Housing and employment
Beyond the specific needs of First Nations communities, a shortage of appropriate housing in northern communities also affects the ability for communities to recruit and maintain a workforce. Mr Ryan Hall, Director of Development Services, City of Karratha, told the committee that the cost to develop new housing is often higher than has been valued by lending institutions. Mr Hall stated that 'it's really difficult for business services and for common community members to build a house, because it might cost them $700,000 to build and it gets valued at $500,000'. Mr Hall explained:
Getting finance or money straight out to build a house is really costly. It gets really difficult for anyone using supply. That lack of supply is contributing to increased rents. It's putting stress on businesses; businesses are having to buy and build houses for their staff, and that's exposing them and creating a lot more risk.
Mr Hall also told the committee that Karratha doesn't 'have the supply to accommodate' workers moving to the town, which is 'driving up prices, and then people are having to leave town'. Mr Hall described it as a 'very self-defeating cycle' which is 'stalling our growth and productivity'. Mr Hall stated:
If we want to grow again, we do need different rules. We do need to make it easier to bring people here and even incentivise them to build houses. Our homeownership rate is probably one of the lowest in the country. We have a lot of businesses and large companies who provide company housing for staff, and the rental market is very, very high. We need to incentivise homeownership, and we think that changes to taxation would be a very good way of doing that. That staffing and that housing, there's those two interlinked issues that we're really putting forward as the key issues that we need to focus on.
Councillor Long, City of Karratha stated that in Karratha there are 1,200 vacant jobs but that there are only 40 rental properties available.
In addition, the cyclical nature of a project based economy which exists in many northern communities results in fluctuations in both the availability and value of housing. For example, Councillor Long told the committee:
The other problem for us has been the boom-bust economic cycle, with massive projects that suck up housing and employee resources, which drives up house prices and causes enormous stress on the wider community and often forces residents out of town, which is happening right now—even our own employees. But at the end of the boom, the price of houses drops, and there is enormous stress, with suicides and everything else, which results from that.
Councillor Long, explained that when a project finishes investors are left with empty properties. Owners then factor in this potential loss of income when calculating rental costs and as such this 'pushes up rental costs'. Councillor Long highlighted that the median cost of rental properties in Karratha is $700 per week, and the median house sale price is $470,000. Councillor Long stated:
Our rent is twice the cost of rentals in towns of the same size in the southern part of our state. For example, Albany is $370 per week, Bunbury is $363 per week and Geraldton is $320 per week. They're the median rentals of those cities. So our rental cost is already double the others and our purchase cost is between 20 and 70 per cent more, which is one of the issues.
The Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees' Association (SDA) similarly expressed concern that the number of fly-in-fly-out (FIFO) workers across Northern Australia has had an adverse impact on housing affordability. It noted that while the housing market can be volatile in Darwin and the north more broadly, workers on modest incomes are continually challenged by housing affordability. It noted that while median incomes across the Northern Territory are high, largely driven by the large number of high paying jobs in the resource sector, those at the lower end of the income distribution are affected by housing affordability. The SDA submitted that:
There remains room for the Commonwealth to address housing affordability in the Territory, and work with the Territory Government to invest in housing stock that accommodates those on lower incomes.
Councillor Long called on the Western Australian Government to invest in housing, particularly for those working in lower paying jobs. Councillor Long stated, 'we really need government investment in the houses for the cooks and the bottle washers, the shelf stackers and the tradies, the people in the service industries who are on $25 an hour and earning $60,000, $70,000 or $80,000 a year'.
A range of suggestions were made to encourage home ownership in northern communities. For example, in the past the Western Australian Government operated a scheme which provided housing for workers in regional areas. Councillor Long called for the establishment of a similar program to support businesses.
It was noted that investment in building new houses, and refreshing existing housing stock provides valuable employment opportunities for northern communities. For example, the LGAQ noted that the NPARIH 'generated jobs for First Nations communities, with much of the money used to maximise local employment and increase skills'. Of particular note, a significant number of First Nations apprentices and trainees were employed under the NPARIH and:
Many of these people have since become tradespeople and either employed as fulltime employees of councils or run their own businesses. This increase in qualified tradespeople has also contributed to the rise in employment of local people by indigenous councils from 59% of council workforces in 2010 to in excess of 80% by 2018. Moreover, the number of houses being constructed in indigenous communities by local people and businesses has risen from 10% in 2011 to 70% by 2017.
Australia wide, approximately 29 per cent of people live in rural communities and remote areas where adequate access to health services and specialised health care is challenging. Rural communities and remote areas often have limited access to specialists, primary care professionals such as General Practitioners (GPs) and other healthcare practitioners, as well as reduced access to acute care infrastructure.
People make choices about where they (continue or relocate to) live, and consider issues such as whether they, their children, and others in their care are able to access services that provide adequate security and opportunity. In turn, industry, employers and investors make locational decisions based on the availability of complementary and supporting infrastructure, services and resources, including human resources. As such, access to both primary and allied healthcare is critically important in considering the development of Northern Australia.
2019 Australian Infrastructure Audit
The Infrastructure Audit noted that remote regions where fewer than 60 per cent of the population can access a hospital service within a 60-minute drive are concentrated in Northern Australia (including East and West Arnhem, Barkly, Katherine, East Pilbara, Bowen Basin-North, Outback-North and East, and the Queensland Central Highlands), and South Western Australia.
The Infrastructure Audit noted that while there are higher numbers of public hospital beds per 1,000 people in remote and very remote areas compared with cities, the key challenge is accessing these services when acute care is required.
The Infrastructure Audit also highlighted that while rural and remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities face the same challenges as other rural and remote communities in accessing appropriate health infrastructure, health outcomes are poorer. The Infrastructure Audit noted that life expectancy estimates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples reduce with increasing remoteness, while life expectancy estimates for other Australians are similar between urban and remote areas.
In remote and very remote areas, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander life expectancy is 13.9 years lower than for other Australians. This inequality has significant impacts on the social, cultural, economic and physical and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
The Infrastructure Audit noted that addressing healthcare service and access needs through infrastructure, health promotion and policy simultaneously supports health outcomes. As discussed earlier, housing is a key social determinant of health, with demonstrated links between the quality and location of housing, and health and wellbeing outcomes. In addition, high quality, well-maintained health-related hardware, such as taps, toilets, showers and sinks, are basic facilities considered important components of a healthy living environment.
The Infrastructure Audit noted that in 2012-13, 35 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people reported living in a dwelling with one or more major structural problems. As noted above, overcrowding in housing can also lead to adverse health outcomes, with families living in overcrowded circumstances more susceptible to contracting infections through lack of hygiene and close contact with others. Overcrowding has also been identified as a risk factor for exacerbating family violence and mental health issues.
Health related government initiatives
The Cooperative Research Centre for Developing Northern Australian (CRCNA) noted that one of its current research focuses is health service delivery in Northern Australia. This research is conducted in conjunction with state and territory governments and is intended to:
Improve health-seeking behaviours of Northern Australians by improving access to information, health care professionals, diagnostic tools, and treatment options.
Improve the early detection of diseases through the development of new technologies which assist with the flow of information, support timely decision-making and treatment options, improve access and connectivity to existing technologies, enhance workforce skills, and capability to use new or existing technologies.
Improve access to mental health treatment, diagnostic tools and technologies, and enhance workforce skills and capabilities in delivering treatment and diagnosis.
The CRCNA has completed a number of healthcare related projects including the Northern Australian health services delivery situational analysis; and the Developing a simple, robust telehealth system for remote communities project. The CRCNA has also committed to the Developing a Northern Australian model of care project and the Agricultural and health workforce development strategy.
The Northern Australian health services delivery situational analysis included the below key findings in relation to the current state of health service delivery:
Healthcare and social assistance employs 13% of the region's 1.3 million people; the largest employing sector in Northern Australia.
Northern Australian populations experience higher rates of potentially preventable hospitalisations and avoidable deaths.
There are multiple funding streams, service providers and training, educational and regulatory frameworks for health service delivery.
For past 5 years, circa $7.9 million or 11% of Australian Research Council and National Health and Medical Research Council funding for Northern Australia focused on health services research.
2% or $76 million is the proportion and amount of health and medical research funding from major government funding bodies received by Northern Australian institutions from 2015-2019.
It also found that the key challenges are:
Ongoing health workforce shortages and high turnover.
Siloed systems of governance, finance and planning.
The failure of health services to provide integrated and optimal care across stages of the patient journey or to involve communities in co-design.
Under-resourcing, particularly of critical prevention services.
Financing models that reward occasions of service rather than prevention or quality of outcomes.
Rising costs of health care and lost productivity due to poor health.
Vulnerability to emerging infectious diseases and natural disasters.
The CRCNA suggested a range of identified solutions including:
recruitment of rurally-based health professionals to assist with the retention of the local health workforce, particularly in medical "generalist" (and other health professional) roles.
Investment in an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health workforce requires the development strategies, including in innovative community roles and in leadership positions.
eHealth and telehealth training can ensure health professionals in rural and remote areas can work to their full scope of practice in team-based models using tele-health. This will help overcome the geographical barriers to health access and reduce patient travel costs.
Primary health strengthening of comprehensive primary health care is one of the most effective strategies for both improving health outcomes and containing health care costs.
Cross jurisdictional planning [to] [e]stablish a permanent cross- jurisdictional health service delivery and workforce network will enable shared strategic planning and implementation of new initiatives across the northern region and appropriately fund cross-jurisdictional systems.
Continuing to expand Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Service models of community governance will address some key macro policy issues impacting the health of northern communities (housing policy and alcohol management).
Determine need and mechanisms to finance appropriate health service delivery models for rural and remote health service delivery.
Through the Our North, Our Future: White Paper on Developing Northern Australia (the White Paper), the Australian Government also committed $20.3 million to the development of tropical medicine research in the north. The funding has boosted tropical research capacity, fostered commercialisation opportunities and strengthened links with international research partners through several initiatives such as the HOT NORTH project led by the Menzies School of Health Research. Charles Darwin University explained:
The grant was awarded based on competitive applications to the NHMRC [National Health and Medical Research Council] call under its Northern Australia Tropical Disease Collaborative Research Programme. The successful bid "Improving Health Outcomes in the Tropical North: A Multidisciplinary Collaboration (HOT NORTH)" was led by Menzies School of Health Research in Darwin. HOT NORTH's primary aim is to build the health research workforce across Northern Australia. In its first two years, HOT NORTH has supported 12 undergraduate and postgraduate students at universities, 17 early-career and mid-career fellows at three research institutes and seven Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders working in the health research sector. HOT NORTH also offers specific training to build research and research translation capacity and networking and mentoring opportunities to compensate for professional isolation caused by geographical distance. For example, it has established the 80-member Women in Tropical Health network.
In addition, the Australian Tropical Medicine Commercialisation Grants program has provided support for the commercialisation of Australian tropical medicine research in partnership with international companies. Investments have also helped build links between Australian and international research institutions and a Tropical Health Short Course program has provided education and training to Indonesian health professionals in areas such as malaria prevention and treatment, with courses run in 2016, 2017 and 2018.
Services for Australian Rural and Remote Allied Health (SARRAH) noted that the Australian Government has also conducted a number of major review processes that could facilitate and sustain the development of allied health services in Northern Australia, including:
The review by Professor Paul Worley, the National Rural Health Commissioner into Rural Allied Health Quality, Access and Distribution; Options for Commonwealth Policy and Reform, considering workforce education, training and distribution options; and
The Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) Review – Report from the Allied health Reference Group (2018), which recommended several options where modifications to the MBS would support rural access to services and rural allied health practice/employment.
Need for improvement in healthcare services
The committee received a range of evidence in relation to the need for improved access to healthcare services across Northern Australia. The committee heard that there is an 'immediate need' for the building of allied health and service capacity in Northern Australia. Further there are a range of benefits which would arise from doing so, including:
improving the health and wellbeing of people in Northern Australia;
increasing the skilled employment and career opportunities, training pathways and economic circumstances of health professionals, and the communities in which they reside;
increasing the attraction and retention of a skilled workforce to northern communities; and
improving the employment, economic and service opportunities for communities in Northern Australia, and thereby reducing the relative impact of fluctuations in other industry sectors.
Dr Inneke Wever, Medical Director, Primary Health Care, Torres and Cape Hospital and Health Service (TCHHS) explained that there are three key areas requiring investment in primary health care. These are:
an increased medical workforce in primary care;
health practitioner credentialing, training and support; and
investment in permanently funded community based roles.
Dr Wever outlined the current staff shortages faced by the TCHHS North. Dr Wever stated that at present TCHHS North has an identified need for 23 full-time equivalent primary care medical practitioners, however there are currently only eight full-time equivalent primary care medical practitioners employed. In addition, there is a need for two administrative staff and three to four health practitioners for every two to three general practitioners.
Dr Wever, TCHHS, highlighted to the committee that there is an acceptance of substandard versions of healthcare delivery which is excused because it is occurring in a remote community. Dr Wever stated, 'the standards of general practice we accept in Brisbane should be the same standards we accept up here'.
Mental health and preventive health
The committee received evidence regarding the challenges of providing mental health and preventive services across Northern Australia. For example, Ms Sheriden Morris, Chair, CRCNA, highlighted that 'at the moment the stats for health in Northern Australia are pretty tragic, particularly mental health arrangements. It doesn't matter if you're in Indigenous communities or white communities; mental health is an issue across Northern Australia'.
Mr Burrows, Boab Health Services, told the committee that Boab Health Services:
…employ mental health staff for the comorbidities, for a lot of the depression that goes across chronic diseases and is itself is a chronic disease. It is anything from subacute through to the general psychological services. When I say 'mental health', we employ clinical psychologists, psychologists, mental health nurses, social workers et cetera.
However, Mr Burrows called for provision of trauma-informed counselling. Mr Burrows noted the coronial inquest into the 'untimely deaths of 13 young people' who died by suicide in the Kimberley region, and stated that current funding by the Australian Government does not allow for mental health services to provide 'trauma-informed counselling'. Mr Burrows explained:
What the Commonwealth needs to understand is that, in a region like the Kimberley, 99 per cent of people are going to be impacted by transgenerational trauma. You can't just separate one out from the other. All of our clinicians would say that, within their counselling of any of their clients, trauma is a major part of what they're dealing with. To try and put a black and white framework over it really just inhibits clinicians from getting on with the job and helping people.
Dr Wever, TCHHS, told the committee that the provision of mental health services Torres Strait Island communities is inhibited by a lack of privacy, and the ability to access psychologists and psychiatrists. Dr Wever stated:
I see mental health about 30 per cent of the time in general practice—similar to some other places as well. My comment on mental health is that the logistics of being in a remote community and not having as much access to psychologists and psychiatrists and also sometimes the privacy concerns of being on a remote island are issues.
Dr Wever, did however, note that the availability of telehealth services as a result of COVID-19 has improved access to mental health services. Dr Wever stated:
I have to say that telehealth has opened up a little bit more in the mental health space. Having someone being able to access a psychologist via telehealth from the privacy of their home has actually been a win over the last year.
A number of witnesses discussed the importance of preventive health initiatives, particularly for First Nations communities. For example, Mr Burrows, Boab Health Services, stated:
What we'd like to see is a bigger investment in preventive health, in community based work. Even we are at fault here. As much as we are the champions of primary health care…what we really need to be thinking of is the community liaison officers, people who are actually going to bridge the cultural divide between the Western medical model and everyday community living.
Similarly, Mrs Charlotte Tamwoy, Director, Primary Health Care–North, Queensland Health, told the committee that primary healthcare services deliver five core services: clinical care, disease screening, health education, health promotion and community development. Mrs Tamwoy stated however:
What could be done or required to be done by us would be more health promotion and health education…we don't have the resources to deliver the services that we're supposed to be delivering. We don't have the capacity nor the level of staffing, especially in the communities, where we also need health practitioners…With the increase in chronic diseases in our communities, we are lacking in health education and health promotion because of the lack of resources.
Mr Burrows, acknowledged that it can be hard to 'quantify' what losses (personal and economic) are prevented through preventive healthcare but noted that early engagement in primary care would not only stop:
…a lot of end-stage renal failure and a lot of days on dialysis chairs but, with early intervention and putting people on self-management plans where they're able to gain their independence and take control of their diabetes early, those people would have every opportunity to be economic contributors to this nation. It's not just about the health dollar that you save; it's about how many people could be economically productive. The savings increase exponentially when you think of the savings to the community and to the carers as well.
Mr Burrows concluded, 'it seems to be a no-brainer: if we invest early, prevent, intervene early and work with people to self-manage, it's so much better than just trying to cure at the end, especially when people are in that end-stage treatment phase'.
Mr Burrows, Boab Health Service, highlighted the work being undertaken in relation to diabetes and kidney disease and stated that:
The burden of disease from diabetes alone is immense. The more you diagnose, the more you find, and the more you treat, the more you find at this stage. We're all hoping that you will get to that curve, where you get to a point where we believe we've got the critical mass, and hopefully we can start getting on top of it…
However, Mr Burrows noted that 'all of the growth [in health funding] is going into dialysis and renal treatment, but not into truly health promotion and prevention activities'. This was echoed by Dr Wever, TCHHS, who stated that government funding prioritises acute care. Dr Wever stated:
It's partly an issue of remoteness, but it's also an issue of both our federal and our state governments still prioritising acute care. When we talk about transplants, they're absolutely necessary and should be offered to people who have made it to CKD stage 5. It's a hugely expensive exercise. If we looked at investing a similar proportion of money in preventative health care here and stopped CKD from progressing to stage 1, or stopping people getting CKD, the return on investment would be phenomenal, but we're still stuck on 'We need to fund transplants and fund dialysis' and we're ignoring the primary care, which would stop the current generation from needing to have dialysis or transplants.
The committee heard that there are a range of issues related to healthcare delivery in Northern Australia, including that it is often delivered on a FIFO basis; a lack of coordination between government agencies; and a lack of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health professionals.
Ms Eades, TCICA, explained that there is a lack of service provision in communities and that health services in regional and remote areas are often delivered on a FIFO basis. Ms Eades stated:
A lot of services are delivered on a fly-in fly-out basis, particularly health services. Whilst there are clinics in communities, they don't have the level of service provision and access to specialists and so forth that you would obviously have in a bigger community. The very low population really challenges service delivery in communities. Particularly where governments are funding private sector enterprise to deliver those services, the enterprise will do it as economically as it can, which means fly in, fly out.
Similarly, Dr Wever, TCHHS, called for investment in 'boots-on-the-ground service delivery rather than temporary projects, FIFO, and research based funding'. Dr Wever stated:
we know what works. We need enough staff on the ground in permanently funded positions who are committed to this community to provide comprehensive primary health care from preconception to palliation.
Mr Jack Bawden, Mayor, Carpentaria Shire, and Chair, North West Queensland Regional Organisation of Councils, highlighted the lack of coordination between levels of government and agencies delivering healthcare in Northern Australia. Mr Bawden stated:
We've got pretty much every available health agency there is. We've got federal and state together...I have to admit that it's better than it was five years ago, but they still lack coordination. For example, we'll have a dentist or an orthodontist turn up in town from one agency this week and then another agency will bring them in the following week. They don't get them over six months or whatever; they'll all turn up together. We can't complain about the money that's being spent on health in Normanton or Carpentaria, but what we can complain about is the lack of coordination or cohesiveness, or whatever you want to call it.
Similarly, Mr Mitchell, Kimberley Regional Group, called for services to collaborate. Mr Mitchell stated:
The main access to Kalumburu community is, virtually, flying in on a charter flight. They had something like 17 charter flights in one day, from various agencies, all with one or two people on each plane. If you'd had a coordinated approach you would have had four flights, all full. Agencies don't talk to each other.
Mr Burrows, Boab Health Services, did however observe that in Western Australia 'the health department and…Edith Cowan University…are trialling an electronic mapping system where we can all input our different clinics and it can all be coordinated'. Mr Burrows stated, 'there is a move to try and come together to share resources'.
SARRAH highlighted that the need for more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health professionals and workers is especially acute across Northern Australia. It explained that the health experience and outcomes of people living in rural and remote (Northern) Australia, and especially Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been extensively and repeatedly documented. SARRAH stated:
There is massive under-representation of Aboriginal and Torres strait Islander people in the health professions – for example, requiring a 6-8 fold increase to reach population parity nationally. This constrains access to care and contributes to poorer health outcomes. In Northern Australia reaching population parity would require an increase in the order of 30-40 fold.
Similarly, Indigenous Allied Health Australia (IAHA) noted that while there are 'commendable, highly capable and committed health professionals and services working across Northern Australia', there are 'simply too few to provide anything like comparable service coverage to that enjoyed by most Australians'. IAHA submitted:
Consequently, the population of Northern Australia, the industries they work in and generate, the communities they form, and future growth prospects depend to a very great extent on a highly mobile, high churn and short-term, often inexperienced and relatively high cost health workforce. The health experience and outcomes of people living in rural and remote (northern) Australia, and especially Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been extensively and repeated documented.
IAHA also raised concern that along with professional shortages; training and clinical supervisory infrastructure and capacity is of high quality but inadequate to service needs across Northern Australia. IAHA stated that:
…there is a serious risk the growing demand for health services and professionals elsewhere could exacerbate existing workforce shortages in Northern Australia across health, aged care and the NDIS, for example.
Impact of poor healthcare availability on a skilled workforce
As noted above, access to healthcare is often a deciding factor when people choose where to live. As a result, poor healthcare availability has an impact on Northern Australia's ability to attract and maintain a skilled workforce. For example, SARRAH stated that the 'extent of unmet need and chronic workforce shortages in enabling health services inhibit the workforce and productive capacity of Northern Australia'. This was echoed by Ms Morris, CRCNA, who told the committee:
Some of the reasons we can't attract as many people to the north as we'd like are around health service delivery. There have been massive improvements over the last decade. With improved communications, improved capacity and some technical aid, we think we can improve health service delivery across the north, so that, with the opportunities of the north, you're not impeded in your health because you happen to live there.
Mr Nick Trompf, Executive Chairman, Advance Cairns, called for the 'continued investment in…health services', describing the quality of healthcare as a 'gravitational pull' that encourages people to move to larger regional centres and capital cities. Mr Trompf stated 'it would be valuable if that divide could be overcome and e-health were more widely used to allow people to stay in those regions rather than having to move for healthcare'.
The issue of water security and access to potable water for northern communities was raised over the course of the inquiry. It was noted that access to healthy potable water remains a critical issue particularly for people living in remote First Nations communities. For example, Mr Colin Saltmere, Director, Dugalunji Aboriginal Corporation; and Committee Member, Northern Australia Indigenous Reference Group, told the committee that:
…between Mount Isa and Tennant Creek there is not one community, except for one, that's got potable water—not one. It doesn't meet Australian or international health standards for drinking water. It does not. The vast problem that you've got out there—and it's more pronounced now than ever—is kidney disease. Then from kidney disease you get diabetes, and from diabetes to get all the other things.
The committee received evidence on Thursday Island about potable water on the island. Mrs Vonda Malone, Mayor, Torres Strait Council, described how much of the island's water supply comes from nearby Horn Island and into the Loggy Creek dam and pump station, which has been recently upgraded to provide better water filtration. Ms Faithfull, Chief Executive Officer, Torres Strait Island Regional Council, raised the need for further improvements and greater investment for water and sewerage infrastructure in the region:
I think the infrastructure that would need to be looked at within our local government area would be for water and sewerage. A lot of those facilities are coming to the end of their life and there are a lot of leaks. Obviously, we have a significant amount of desalination plants, which are ensuring that our community members have water that they are able to drink. With those leaks, the water that we're catching from the rain is just going out.
Generation One, Minderoo Foundation stated that water quality across remote communities is affected by poor local infrastructure and issues with local aquifers. It noted that 'some communities are forced to rely on bottled water for human consumption'. Generation One, Minderoo Foundation stated that this issue appears to have arisen as a result of funding constraints and differing approaches to regulation. It submitted:
For example, in Western Australia, remote community water supplies are delivered through a combination of service agreements with local communities and the Remote Area Essential Services Program (RAESP) and not, as in other communities throughout the State, the State's Water Corporation. Regulatory arrangements concerning water service delivery are vague and not subject to the same licensing requirements of other communities.
Generation One, Minderoo Foundation recommended that an investigation into the quality of potable water supplies in remote communities across Northern Australia should examine both the cost of delivery and any regulatory controls which exist. It suggested that 'a program of rectification provides an opportunity for further investment into infrastructure which could be structured around greater Indigenous employment'.
This section considers the social necessity of a viable system of roads and other forms of transport throughout Northern Australia. For a consideration of road and transport infrastructure itself, see chapter 3 of the report, which examines road and transport funding and improvements.
The importance of road infrastructure to northern communities for the delivery of critical services such as healthcare and education, access to food, and employment was highlighted throughout the inquiry. For example, Ms Scrymgour, Northern Land Council, told the committee that in addition to roads 'providing the foundation for any development in the Northern Territory', adequate road infrastructure is also a safety and accessibility issue.
A number of witnesses highlighted that current road infrastructure is poor and due to weather events such as flooding during the wet season, remote communities have limited access. Mr McIvor, Djarinjin Aboriginal Corporation, described the road conditions in Djaridnjin as being in a 'Third World state'. Mr McIvor explained that the 'roads have completely washed away in some parts and you need a four-wheel-drive to drive around community'. Similarly, Ms Eades, TCICA, stated:
The community access roads are still problematic. Some communities have a fully sealed road, or they're very close to being fully sealed, but, again, Lockhart River, because it also quite hilly terrain, is very expensive. It will still be some years before you can get in and out of Lockhart on a sealed road.
Witnesses told the committee that improved road infrastructure is required so that communities are able to access fresh food. Mr Joel Bowden, General Secretary, Northern Territory Trades and Labour Council, stated that the price of fresh food in remote communities is 'astronomical' and that as a result people are unable to afford it and that this has an effect on health outcomes.
Ms Mununggurr, Laynhapuy Homelands Aboriginal Corporation, noted that during the wet season roads with good access are required to allow those living in Aboriginal homeland communities to travel to nearby towns to buy food. Ms Mununggurr stated:
In the wet season we need good access roads. That would make a difference for people. They could drive all year round and go shopping. They have to come into town for shopping because some of our homelands don't have shops. I think only three homelands have got little shops.
Mr Jeff Cook, Manager, Laynhapuy Homelands Aboriginal Corporation, explained that the Corporation provides health care to Gangan, ancestral land of the Dhalwaŋu people, a remote inland riverside community and one of the largest homelands in east Arnhemland. Mr Cook noted that in the past, he and a doctor would fly to the community to provide healthcare but because two river crossings would flood early in the wet season, community members would not have access to food. Mr Cook explained:
I was pretty well paid. The doctor was pretty well paid. It cost us 900 bucks to get there. But we were checking the blood pressure of people who had no food, which was a bit morally challenging…We run a store now in Gangan. We started a grocery store in Gangan. Now we feel good about our health service because we're running this grocery store that doesn't sell cigarettes and doesn't sell soft drink. We have a dietician and best choice products. Now we're delivering services to people who have something to eat, and it feels a lot better.
Witnesses also noted that projects to upgrade road infrastructure provides important employment opportunities for local communities. Ms Mununggurr, Laynhapuy Homelands Aboriginal Corporation, explained that:
People in our communities used to be grader drivers, used to drive big trucks and used to be road workers. It can create opportunities for those people and the younger generations if they have the proper training to drive a vehicle. If they have a licence, they would be able to do that work on the road.
Witnesses on Thursday Island emphasised that investment in wharfs and jetties were much needed, as boats are the main form of transportation on the island. This included not only the initial building of such infrastructure, but its maintenance over time. Mr Napau Pedro Stephen, Chairperson, Torres Strait Regional Authority noted that many of the wharves of Thursday Island were funded 20 years ago and had now become aged infrastructure. Mr Phillemon Mosby, Mayor, Torres Strait Island Regional Council, outlined on the impact of this on the community:
The high cost of living up here means that a lot of our people will resort to travelling by dinghy. The infrastructure has been in place for over 30 or 40 years. It doesn't even meet the minimum requirement, the DVA compliance. Council doesn't have the funds and, if it closes, it is closing off an important infrastructure for the community, and there are a number of spinoff benefits economically to the community. The barge comes to bring supplies to the islands, and, because of the state of the wharves, some communities have to go another week without a food supply. It's something that people on the mainland take for granted. For us, it's absolutely critical.
Further to this, Mrs Malone, Torres Strait Council, noted how the improvement of wharf and port facilities would enable greater tourism to the island, and also emphasised how essential these facilities were to ensuring that law-enforcement services are provided to the island.
Telecommunications and connectivity
Telecommunications infrastructure covers the networks that carry voice and data between users, impacting the liveability and productivity of communities. This includes wires, fibre, towers, sensors, satellites, radio spectrum and physical infrastructure such as data centres and cable landing stations, which come together as networks to deliver communications to users.
Telecommunications are increasingly central to the lives of Australians with business and government rapidly moving services online. The Infrastructure Audit noted that almost 90 per cent of Australians accessed the internet through mobile phones in 2018. Further, 59 per cent of Australians now use four or more devices to access the internet.
However, the Infrastructure Audit found that in regional centres and rural and remote areas, telecommunications infrastructure often delivers costly services which provide poor connectivity, speeds and data allowances. This means people often require extra equipment, such as devices and other hardware, to access services, or can only access mobile data services. This creates impacts for both businesses and individuals, which can exacerbate spatial inequalities.
Importance of connectivity
The committee heard that better telecommunications and connectivity are needed in regional, rural and remote Australia including Northern Australia. AgForce told the committee that connectivity improves the liveability and economic potential of communities. Further, 'telecommunications projects, especially in remote areas, have a significant public benefit'. AgForce explained:
For example, improving poor telecommunications allows a range of businesses to thrive including agribusiness and tourism. Provisions of service or service upgrades improve safety, liveability, attract investors, workers, families and communities to Northern Australia and make an area more attractive for business hubs and tourist events. Improved connectedness to online services also improves quality of life, health and education and allows individuals to work from remote locations.
The committee heard that there is a critical need for digital infrastructure to support rural and remote communities' business and enterprise connectivity. Meat and Livestock Australia submitted that there is a risk that without improved telecommunications infrastructure, northern producers will 'miss out on being engaged in the digital economy, putting them at a significant economic disadvantage'. Meat and Livestock Australia submitted that:
It is key that mainstream telecommunications and internet infrastructure allows adequate and affordable connectivity, that can support farming businesses to participate in the digital economy and utilise new technologies that help drive business performance.
Dr Keith Noble noted that the agriculture sector is a dynamic and innovative industry capable of adopting new technology, but that the ability to capitalise on innovation is hampered by current NBN internet service delivery. Dr Noble described this as 'a particular disservice when high-speed internet would improve planning and adaptation capacity, enable family connectedness, and facilitate increased situational awareness'.
Mr Jed Matz, Chief Executive Officer, CRCNA, told the committee that the CRCNA has identified that connectivity is a major impediment to developing Northern Australia. As a result, it has partnered with a number of universities to gain a deeper understanding of the issue, and to develop potential technological solutions which will benefit health services and the agricultural sector.
Regional Development Australia Townsville and North West Queensland noted that telecommunications infrastructure has improved over the past four years, however 'there are still gaps in service access and quality'. It noted that telecommunications were not a focus area of the White Paper, and recommended that:
…in the next stage of development in the north we encourage a focus on fixing these telecommunications access gaps. Benefits will accrue to all businesses, the health and education sectors, not-for-profits and individual families.
The Torres Cape Indigenous Council Alliance (TCICA) submitted that 'the Australian Government must prioritise Northern Australia infrastructure to overcome service standard challenges, irrespective of the diseconomies resulting from the small scale of markets'. It concluded that:
The Australian Government cannot expect the private sector to take responsibility for addressing gaps in public infrastructure like roads, ports and marine infrastructure, energy networks, water storage facilities and telecommunications networks.
Witnesses emphasised the importance of a coordinated government response to managing connectivity and coverage issues in Northern Australia. For example, Mr Bawden, Carpentaria Shire, and Chair, North West Queensland Regional Organisation of Councils, stated:
My view is that this communications thing is going to finish up as hairy as a dog's back, because everybody is doing their own thing and we're not communicating. We're not very good communicators. There needs to be a uniform or blanket…At the moment, in the Gulf, we've probably got three or four projects…There's no way in the world that we're all coordinated. We need to be coordinated.
Ms Darlene Irvine, FNQROC, noted that regional and remote councils are also 'having to fight to find innovative ways' to resolve telecommunications infrastructure issues which are readily resolved by industry and government in cities. Ms Irvine explained:
The frustrating thing is that it's our resources, it's our time and it's our money. That is just a given in urban areas, and they don't have to fight for these telecommunications. Councils such as Cairns or Brisbane don't have to develop up solutions for mobile communications; it happens. It happens because it is a business prospect for Telstra, Vodaphone and Optus. It is not a viable business option up here. We spend time, money and resources on finding innovative solutions for that, when they could be spent on normal council business, or services that we provide to the community under normal council business.
The importance of telecommunications infrastructure in supporting cohesive and resilient communities in Northern Australia, particularly in the context of disaster preparedness and recovery was also noted. For example, Mr Nico Padovan, Chief Executive Officer and Chief Operating Officer, National Drought and North Queensland Flood Response and Recovery Agency, told the committee that the Australian Government sees 'improved communications as being absolutely critical and, in part, a key enabler for access to information'. Mr Padovan explained:
In the case of the flood event, as I think you might already be aware, there was a lot of data in the region, whether it was from river gauges or rain gauges, already being collected by various parties, but the means to share it simply weren't there. The collection wasn't automated, the underpinning communications weren't there. Had that information been available, people would have been much better placed than was the case to make decisions about the preservation of livestock and property.
Mr Padovan acknowledged that while services such as Sky Muster are available, and that work is being undertaken through the Mobile Black Spot Program, 'there is clearly a significant way to go in having the level of access to information on which to base business decisions and conduct operations remotely'.
Current issues with connectivity
The committee received a range of evidence in relation to inadequate internet and mobile connectivity causing repeat disruption to business operations and community-based activity.
Generation One, Minderoo Foundation, noted that across Northern Australia:
The current roll out of mobile services is on a case by case basis is ad hoc and sporadic, based on assessment by local Officers and on anecdotal information. Identified black spot funding and roll out is not leading to an inclusive and seamless access to internet and mobile services.
Generation One, Minderoo Foundation explained that while Telstra services are widespread across towns in Northern Australia, services in remote communities are delivered by a range of other providers, and the service quality can be poor. It submitted that:
It is reported that Indigenous people can be required to carry two different phones which are switched on and off depending on where they are at the time. Given the high level of transience between communities this both increases cost and reduces the reliability of service to Indigenous people. An example is the remote community of Billiluna, where residents are serviced by Optus, whereas nearby Balgo isserviced by Telstra.
Generation One, Minderoo Foundation concluded that, 'the digital divide restricts access to job opportunities, education and training, government services, and the wider digital economy'.
This was echoed by Ms Scrymgour, Northern Land Council, who told the committee that:
…in the Northern Territory there are substantial areas across the Territory that still have poor or no mobile phone or internet coverage. We lose the opportunity for learning and creative ways of education via using technology as a means to transmit to remote areas when we can't fix it and make sure that we can at least get mobile coverage or internet coverage out to some of these remote communities.
The Groote Eylandt and Bickerton Island Enterprises (GEBIE) also told the committee that Groote Eylandt has 'very poor telecommunications' including that the signal continuously drops out, disconnecting phone calls repeatedly. In addition, the bandwidth provided by National Broadband Network (NBN) satellites being 'similar to dial up' speeds. GEBIE was critical of what it described as a monopoly held by Telstra. It submitted:
Being a monopoly provider of telecommunications, the Telecommunications Universal Service Guarantee (USG) should be covering all areas in the North of Australia, especially those with just Telstra as the carrier. It should cover all types of telephony including data and internet, especially in remote areas where they are the only telco provider. These market challenges highlight the need for a continued focus on investment in infrastructure to enable economic development, particularly in remote Northern Australia.
Councillor Jane McNamara, Mayor, Flinders Shire Council, also described the internet speeds provided by the NBN as 'inferior' when compared to the services previously provided. Councillor McNamara told the committee that poor internet service is impeding businesses, particularly during peak periods. Councillor McNamara stated that the Flinders Shire Council has invested in wi-fi hotspots to assist with connectivity both for businesses, and visiting tourists.
The committee also heard that poor internet connectivity has an impact on school students, and the provision of telehealth services. Councillor McNamara further noted that current telecommunications infrastructure will be 'woefully inadequate' particularly if the Flinders Shire Council experiences expected population growth over the next five years.
Mrs Susan Kinobe, Execute Director Corporate Services (Northern) TAFE Queensland, also noted that poor telecommunications infrastructure is having an impact on students undertaking study with TAFE Queensland. Mrs Kinobe explained:
Our Bowen campus is one really good example—the NBN doesn't reach our campus. It's about a kilometre away. So we actually don't have some viable telecommunication technology that's going to get to an area like Bowen that can then feed into the rest of our other pools so someone in Mornington Island could participate in that. Without some of those technological advancements, we're a little bit challenged.
Submitters highlighted that many areas in Northern Australia do not have mobile communication coverage, so-called 'black spots'. This has an impact on the safety, and economic development of northern communities. For example, the FNQROC noted the impact of mobile phone black spots and submitted that their 'own mobile communication audit of major roads and tourist routs identified that nearly 70% is in a blackspot, this compares to 1% in urban areas'. FNQROC stated that:
The Federal government has a key role in this area and it would be encouraging to see a strategic mobile communication implementation plan for Northern Australia to support economic development, workplace health and safety and community wellbeing (connectedness).
Representatives of Mackay Sugar Limited noted that gaps in mobile phone coverage area 'a bit of a problem'. Mr Mark Day, Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer, Mackay Sugar Limited, told the committee that mobile phone black spots limit the company's ability to communicate directly with sugar cane growers. Mr Day explained:
If we wanted to be at the front edge of first-class telecoms we should be able to communicate directly with growers in all parts of the region. We have hills and valleys up in certain corners and there are blind spots, so that limits our ability to communicate. We run our own radio network for the trains that we run, for cane transport, and so on top of mountains we've got towers and things. It would help us if we had a better network, out to some of those other farms, for faster communication.
Likewise, the Australian Logistics Council submitted that the lack of adequate telecommunications infrastructure across regional areas and along key freight routes is impeding the implementation of the National Freight and Supply Chain Strategy. This strategy outlined the need for improved freight data collection, sharing and analysis practices to enable industry and government freight sector participants to make better informed operational, planning and investment decisions. The Australian Logistics Council submitted that it:
…supports Commonwealth initiatives such as the mobile blackspot program, however believes that more attention should be focused on rectifying telecommunications blackspots across Northern Australia, in particular along key freight routes.