Date of publication: 28 September 2018
Modern communication across the Western Australian Wheatbelt is totally reliant on two key forms of infrastructure; road transport and mobile phones. To compete in today’s highly competitive globalised world of agriculture, our world class farmers and agri service businesses need world class infrastructure. Unfortunately, what we have is far from it. Both state and commonwealth governments have failed to keep pace with the speed of change in broadacre agriculture which is increasingly reliant on heavy haul trucks that require wide safe roads and data hungry digital platforms that demand high capacity mobile networks.
In simple words, we need a seamless network of modern roads and towers from Kalbarri to Esperance to service our 4000 farms. Instead what we have is a patchwork of 41,000 km of roads many designed for 8 tonne trucks which are today carrying 80 tonne road trains, and a mobile tower network which is a patchwork of 3G towers that is looking increasingly antiquated in a world racing to 5G technologies.
Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to work through the mass of departmental and ministerial press releases, web sites and budget papers to gain a coherent idea of what level of funding has been injected by the Barnett and McGowan Governments over the last decade into Wheatbelt roads and towers, and what is planned for the future.
The one state agency responsible for supporting regional development in the Wheatbelt is the Wheatbelt Regional Development Commission (WDRC). The WDRC has not prioritised the road transport and mobile phone infrastructure which is acutely needed now. Small community grants and draft economic blueprints appear to be a priority for WDRC. What should become more of a prioirty is undertaking an annual review of the state’s current infrastructure to identify the gaps and priorities with local input so that it is clear to all stakeholders what is needed to be done to ensure our communications network is world class.
What we know is that for mobile connectivity, after a burst of investment by the previous state government which saw around 200 towers built across the Wheatbelt in 8 years costing approximately $200m in co-investment with the commonwealth and private carriers, funding flow has now slowed to a crawl with just $22m announced in 2017 as part of the State governments Agricultural Telecommunications Infrastructure Improvement Program.
As for roads, the McGowan Government in its last budget declared of a $2billlion regional road investment but a careful read of the detail shows just $17 million allocated to upgrades to Great Eastern Highway, no doubt there are other projects funded but there is no clear identified funded and prioritised plan. In comparison the Government is spending $4 billion on the MetroNet rail extension over the next 4 years, and every part of that project is clearly detailed in a dedicated web site. No such thing exists for Wheatbelt roads and towers.
With 41,000 km of roads that need to be maintained and upgraded to address major problems identified in the December 2015 Wheatbelt Highway Safety Review, WAFarmers would like to see the State Government allocate a minimum of $100m out of the $400m Main Roads budget annually to the Wheatbelt.
As for mobile towers the 2017 State telecommunications infrastructure audit highlights that the Wheatbelt needs an ongoing program of at least $20m annually from the State Government to kick start the co-investment needed to fund the towers and the optic fibre to cover black spots and commence the upgrade of the existing network to 5G.
WAFarmers believe the Government needs a simple annual formula of funding investment that gives farmers and agribusinesses confidence that they are getting a fair share of the infrastructure investment dollars. If the Government can afford to spend $4billion on Metro Net, it can at the very least ensure that $500m of that amount is allocated over the forward estimates to 2023 towards the roads and towers that connect the Wheatbelt with the city and the world.
We would like to see a dedicated Wheatbelt Roads and Towers web site detailing the gaps, the priorities, the costs and the promises on one single web site. It would be a positive start if the Minister for Regional Development could instruct her department to build such a website now to provide easier access to the relevant information in one place.
By Tony York