AFTER 10 years of negotiating, lobbying and researching, Barcoo and Diamantina shire mayors Julie Groves and Geoff Morton have finally been able to shake hands with Prime Minister Tony Abbott on an historic deal that will bring optic fibre to their parts of the world.
The deal, separate to the $83 million announced as part of the federal government’s new drought support package, was agreed to after Mr Abbott spent two hours viewing what locals describe as the hell on earth that is the ongoing drought being endured in Queensland’s central west.
He landed in Longreach at 2pm on Saturday and was driven 15km to Camden Park Station, firstly for a media doorstop on the banks of a dam that had been dry for two years, then to a nearby shed filled with community representatives ready to tell the Prime Minister their story.
After the two mayors reiterated the urgent need to give very remote parts of Queensland access to the modern fixed-line and mobile voice, data and video telecommunications that many other parts of Australia takes for granted, Mr Abbott suggested altering the funding basis from the federal government paying for half of the project to an arrangement where it would pay for a third of the cost.
“We’ve been bashing their door down for years – we weren’t about to let this go by,” Cr Morton said.
“We shook on the deal and we’ll make it work, even if we have to run a few chook raffles.”
Under the handshake deal the two shires will be required to increase their financial contribution from $1.5m to $2m each.
The state government has already committed $5.25m through Royalties for Regions to the concept.
The amount the federal government would put in has decreased from $8.5m to $7m under the deal, and there is also the expectation of a contribution from Telstra.
The Member for Maranoa, Bruce Scott was an eye-witness to the handshake and was nearly as jubilant as the mayors on the day.
“I’ve been like a cracked record on this,” he said.
“It’s just the sort of thing we should invest in to create economic activity. This is a legacy project.”
The project will provide 700km of optic fibre to connect Bedourie, Birdsville, Jundah, Stonehenge and Windorah communities to the national optic fibre network, replacing an ageing low-capacity radio network incapable of high bandwidth, real-time applications.
Proponents have long argued for its necessity to retain populations in western towns, to support economic growth, to improve health care, education opportunities and community safety, and to attract and keep tourists in the region.
Some 380,000 Australian and international visitors driving around outback Queensland every winter are currently not able to access the fixed wireless and satellite services that the NBN offers the far west.
Mr Scott believed Mr Abbott’s visit to the epicentre of a disaster that is getting worse every day and seeing land devoid of stock and kangaroos stripping bark from prickle bushes in an attempt to survive had a deep impact upon him.
“That, plus talking to people. It wasn’t just the voices of the members of parliament he was hearing.”
Mr Abbott also credited Senator Barry O’Sullivan for reminding the LNP party room of the severity of the drought.
“He made the point that drought is the crisis that creeps up,” he told the Longreach gathering.
“This has been a team effort,” Mr Scott said.
“It says a lot about the value of truly local councils.”
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