New mobile towers: Victoria has disproportionate share

The Andrews government has been accused of "childish and pathetic" tactics after complaining it is being ripped off under a federal plan to eliminate mobile phone black spots. 

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Thursday announced a second round of funding under the flagship Mobile Black Spots Program, with $60 million set aside to build and upgrade 266 mobile towers nationwide.

But in an escalating stoush, almost half of the upgrades requested by Victoria have been rejected by the Turnbull government as a "waste of money" providing little or no benefit.

But the latest carve-up - targeting 1400 black spots - has left Victoria fuming and accusing Mr Turnbull of short-changing Australia's most bushfire prone state.

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Out of 266 new and upgraded mobile towers, 32 are in Victoria, about 12 per cent of the total, and less than half the state's 25 per cent population share.

An assessment by Emergency Management Commissioner Craig Lapsley handed to the Commonwealth requested upgrades for 63 areas still suffering from poor coverage.

The submission was backed by a May 2016 state budget decision to set aside $11 million as part of a joint pitch with Telstra and Opus to upgrade the areas of concern. 

But the submission appears to have fallen flat, almost eight years after Victoria's Black Saturday disaster claimed 173 lives.

Out of 266 new and upgraded mobile towers, 32 are in Victoria, about 12 per cent of the total. Photo: Frances Mocnik

Out of 266 new and upgraded mobile towers, 32 are in Victoria, about 12 per cent of the total. Photo: Frances Mocnik

While Victoria will get funding to upgrade or build 32 towers, Queensland will be given funding for 76, Western Australia 78 and NSW 39.

Victoria remains riddled with black spots, creating risks on high fire-danger days when mobile phones are relied upon to issue warnings and keep track of local residents.

Innovation Minister Philip Dalidakis accused a "Sydney-centric" Mr Turnbull of playing political games and ignoring Victorian communities identified as priority areas.

"The Federal government refuses to advise us how these decisions were made and what data was used," Mr Dalidakis said. "They are simply asking us to trust them, and since Prime Minister Turnbull was elected in July 'trust' is not a word he should be using with Victorians."

But in yet another row, Regional Communications Minister Fiona Nash hit back, saying the "whinging" was "childish and pathetic".

"Rather than thank the Coalition for 32 towers it would never have received under Federal Labor, Victorian Labor chooses to spin new mobile phone coverage into a negative," Ms Nash said. "The political tactic of screaming 'Not enough!' instead of saying 'Thank you', is childish and pathetic."

Ms Nash said the other 31 tower upgrades proposed by Labor were rejected because they were deemed a waste of taxpayers' money, providing  little or zero benefit in terms of coverage.

As it is, Victoria's relationship with the Commonwealth has been stretched to breaking point.

The Andrews government has long complained it is being denied a fair share of infrastructure funding. The state was particularly livid following a decision by the Turnbull government to deny it the full payment under the asset recycling scheme following the $9.7 billion Port of Melbourne lease.

The latest stoush also follows a row over the first round of black spot funding, in which Federal Communications Minister Mitch Fifield refused to change the guidelines to allow Victoria to use federal cash to upgrade phone coverage on V/Line, which can be patchy even in areas with a good signal because of the interference created by the moving train.

An analysis by Fairfax Media shows the seat of Indi - held by influential Independent Cathy McGowan - has been a big winner under the second round of funding, receiving eight out of the 32 planned upgrades.

The federal Labor seat of McEwen, which was badly affected by the Black Saturday disaster, will get three new or upgraded towers, with the remaining 21 in Liberal or National seats.

In a joint statement, Mr Turnbull, Ms Nash and Mr Fifield said the combined impact of the two-funding rounds so far under the program had provided coverage in 4400 of 10,000 black spots identified nationally.  

This article first appeared in The Age

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