Remote communities: Improving access to essential services
This report sets out an ambitious reform agenda to transform infrastructure service delivery in remote communities across water, energy and telecommunications.
Millions of Australians benefit from world-class infrastructure services, with governments and industry working closely to conquer challenges unique to Australia, including the tyranny of distance, rapid population growth and extreme weather. Despite these successes, hundreds of thousands of Australians lack access to reliable and safe essential services – including drinking water, electricity and telecommunications services. By some reports, almost a million Australians live without reliable access to clean drinking water and sanitation, while an estimated 30 per cent of remote and very remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples still have no household access to telephone services or internet.a12
Australia already has access to the tools, technology, resources and expertise to improve remote community outcomes. Many solutions have been put in place with great success across all Australian jurisdictions and in other parts of the world. But these often have limited scopes and are not being routinely or consistently applied in all remote communities. There are many contributing factors to this – challenges with cost and access among them – but we can do more.
Providing safe and reliable essential services to remote communities is critical to addressing the health and social disadvantages of Indigenous peoples, who are disproportionately affected by poor service delivery. This includes 17.6 per cent of Indigenous Australians residing in remote communities, compared to just 1.5 per cent of other Australians3. In some of Australia’s most remote and disadvantaged communities, service standards fall well below those that Australia has signed up to through the United Nations’ (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), while service standards and outcomes for infrastructure users vary greatly across state and territory borders. Many existing service standards across different forms of remote infrastructure are unclear, inconsistent, poorly applied, or simply do not exist.
The first step must be to address gaps in the service standards governments set for remote infrastructure across the country. These can and should be aligned to the SDGs, which Australia has committed to deliver. By tightening existing gaps, improving clarity and addressing inconsistency, these standards can act as a minimum expectation for service delivery across the country, for all Australians. These can be agreed by all governments through National Cabinet, with outcomes reported on publicly and transparently.
But it is not enough to simply set new national targets and baselines. The agreements through which governments, utilities and service providers come together for many essential services – Community Service Obligations (CSOs) – need to work harder and better for all Australians.
CSOs have been a fixture of service delivery in Australia throughout much of the past century, but have not evolved significantly. The issues with today’s CSOs are remarkably similar to those raised by the Industry Commission (now Productivity Commission (PC)) nearly 30 years ago.4
While CSOs have delivered immense benefits for millions of Australians over the years, many have failed to keep pace with changes in technology and customer expectations, while their rigidity around costs and performance metrics has often not allowed governments and service providers to work collaboratively towards better outcomes for users. Without meaningful reform, we will still be talking about these same issues in another 30 years.
aInfrastructure Partnerships Australia acknowledges there is no single or neutral term that encompasses the diversity of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples, along with their cultures, languages and histories. To be inclusive of all, the terms First Nations peoples, Indigenous Australians or Indigenous peoples are also used throughout this paper.
In order to help address the ongoing challenges with some CSOs, Infrastructure Partnerships Australia is proposing a new financing mechanism for providing and subsidising remote infrastructure – Community Infrastructure Partnerships (CIPs). These new arrangements could see governments and service providers take a more collaborative approach to meeting local needs, mitigating risks and adapting to changing circumstances, or adopt technologies that can improve services and reduce costs as they become available. By fostering a spirit of innovation and open-mindedness in solving long-standing service delivery challenges, and incentivising performance improvements rather than merely compliance, CIPs could make public funding work more effectively to improve outcomes in regional and remote Australia.
There is no doubt that real change will come at a cost. But few investments could be more worthwhile than in infrastructure to ensure all Australians’ living standards at least meet the SDGs. And by structuring service delivery through CIPs, governments can ensure taxpayer dollars deliver lasting benefits for remote communities, while presenting opportunities for the private and notfor- profit sectors to bring their own expertise and defray some of the cost to taxpayers. Short-term costs can be offset by long-term savings through more resilient standalone systems and networks, while the improved services can underpin real improvements in the living standards, economic, social and cultural potential of Australians living in remote areas.
A shift in how services are contracted will need to be supported by changes to how these services are regulated. While the changes needed would vary across each jurisdiction, these should see improvements in how performance standards for utilities are set, reviewed and monitored, how social licence is established and maintained, and what constitutes best practice service delivery. In many cases, best practice means giving management of remote communities to those best placed to deliver them. This requires a shift in mindset from the traditional ‘top-down’ regulatory model, by empowering locals to drive changes in their own communities – supported by appropriate safeguards – can help to build trust and momentum for real change.
This paper does not purport to have all the answers, nor does it seek to criticise past performance. The fact we can point to published evidence of poor service delivery is a positive, and where critical reviews have been undertaken – it should be applauded, because it is only through knowledge of the issues that we can effectively move toward a better solution. Instead, the paper proposes a shift in approach to challenge the status quo and strive for improvements for some of Australia’s most disadvantaged communities. A critical next step is engagement with not only governments, utilities and service providers, but also representatives of Indigenous Australians’ communities. There’s no denying the scale of challenges across the country, but this presents an opportunity for Australia to lead the world and show how transformation in line with the SDGs is possible.
Establishing a Community Infrastructure Partnership
Commit to national minimum standards of remote service delivery through National Cabinet
Evolve CSOs into a new model ➔ CIPs
Key features of a CIP
Obligations to innovate
Consistent and Clear Reporting
Collaboration and Coordination between sectors
Commit to reviewing and updating funding and financing mechanisms for remote infrastructure
Undertake regulatory reform to support the establishment of CIPs
What is the Problem?
Remote communities consistently experience poor quality water services
Many remote water supplies are untreated, below health standards, lack security, are prone to drought, and do not meet Australian Drinking Water Guidelines.
8 per cent of remote households do not have working facilities for washing people5
115 remote communities in Australia did not meet Australian Drinking Water Guidelines (ADWG), excluding NSW8
14 per cent reported not having working facilities for washing clothes and bedding6
408 remote communities did not meet the ADWG’s definition of a ‘good’ basic level of drinking water quality, excluding NSW9
21 per cent reported not having working water facilities for preparing food7
These all fail to satisfy Australia’s commitment to Sustainability Development Goal 6: to ensure clean water and sanitation for all
Meanwhile electricity supply is often unreliable
Similarly, electricity supply in remote communities is unreliable and subject to shortages, with diesel generators forming the primary power source for many remote communities.
Many communities require diesel to be shipped hundreds of kilometres, with some northern Australian communities isolated for months at a time during the wet season
The Kaltukatjara community in the Northern Territory requires 60,000 litres of diesel to be transported more than 2,000 kilometres along highways and dirt tracks every eight weeks to maintain a power supply10
Shipping diesel to remote communities poses health and environmental risks, including noise pollution, environmental risks from spillage, increased emissions from shipping and burning diesel, and increased strain on transport infrastructure11
Remote communities have limited access to telecommunications services
In telecommunications, remote users are subject to a lack of affordability, limited access, and poor service reliability and quality.
The quality and reliability of telecommunications services in many communities serves to reinforce inequality, by deepening the digital divide
11.4 per cent of remote internet users and 27 per cent of very remote users rely exclusively on ‘out-of-home’ connections, which can present significant challenges to telehealth and education12
83 per cent of metropolitan households access the internet, compared to just 61 per cent of remote and 49 per cent of very remote households13
Underlying a lack of quality and reliability of telecommunications services is a lack of holistic understanding of the issue’s extent.
Australia has committed to 17 Closing the Gap Targets, including three dedicated to education (3, 5 and 6) and one to ensuring access to information and services (17), all of which are compromised by a lack of digital inclusion in remote communities
However, Australia currently has no comprehensive baseline for measuring the ‘gap’ of Indigenous peoples’ digital inclusion across access, affordability and digital ability measures in remote communities
A Way Forward
To fully realise the potential of emerging technologies and opportunities, Australia’s governments need to agree to an ambitious program of reform to remote service delivery.
This should comprise:
- commitment from all governments through National Cabinet to establish minimum standards of service delivery for all Australians across water, energy and telecommunications, and report on their performance against these standards
- evolution of CSOs into Infrastructure Partnerships Australia’s proposed new model – Community Infrastructure Partnerships (CIPs) – which take a usercentric, technology-first and collaborative approach to service delivery in remote areas
- commitment from governments to fund and finance the investments in remote infrastructure required to deliver real change, and
- undertake regulatory reforms to enable CIPs, build social licence for change and give local communities greater say in the services they receive.
1. Engage on proposed reform solutions
Remote service delivery reform should be based on engagement with all stakeholders, including governments, utilities and service providers. Crucially, this should extend to meaningful engagement with communities themselves, including customers, Traditional Land Owners, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders and others in the community who may be impacted.
Changes to the delivery of services, including new forms of technology, should only be implemented following meaningful engagement with local communities. In particular, changes should be respectful of local cultural traditions and values, and access to Indigenous lands and resources should be negotiated on a community-by-community basis.
Through engagement, governments and service providers should prioritise perspectives and solutions by and for Indigenous Australians, which draw on First Nations cultures, knowledges and connection to country.
2. Work with communities to maximise the benefits of change, monitor and address issues
Governments should work with members of remote communities and local Indigenous-run businesses to maximise the benefits of these changes and drive jobs, growth and employment for remote community members. Ongoing engagement should also seek to improve governments’ and service providers’ understanding and knowledge of the issues, solutions, and education specific to each community. Reliable monitoring of benefits, costs and service outcomes, including drinking water quality, electricity outages and broadband connectivity, should be undertaken and made public through transparent and ongoing reporting.
3. Establish a nationally consistent minimum service baseline
Governments, through National Cabinet, should establish a nationally consistent minimum service baseline for water, energy and telecommunications in remote communities, drawn from the SDGs. These baselines should apply to all jurisdictions, with National Cabinet committing to achieve them, and establish a clear path to improving service delivery.
This should include determining a measurable ‘gap’ of service delivery in each jurisdiction. Where evidence exists, governments should work with service providers to build on this and better understand necessary improvements, then apply these findings to other similar regions and service delivery models.
Where there is a lack of evidence, or inconsistent monitoring of service quality, governments should prioritise establishing these processes, and work with local communities to better understand issues.
4. Prioritise and implement contract-based changes to establish accountability
Service contracts under existing CSOs should transition to the new CIP model as they expire, and embed the nationally consistent minimum service baselines and incentivise innovation, efficiency and performance improvements.
Where critical issues are identified, particularly where there are risks to human health, these should be rectified immediately, including through contract variations to existing service contracts if required.
In all cases, accountability for service delivery outcomes, mitigation of key risks, as well as monitoring and oversight should be set clearly, and with appropriate incentives for out-performance and penalties for underperformance.
5. Establish best practice in contracting to deliver the best outcomes for remote communities and taxpayers
Governments should establish best practice in contracting CIPs, with a focus on enabling services that at least meet minimum service baselines, provide incentives for beating targets, encourage service delivery at scale where possible, and ensure service providers are selected through a competitive procurement process. Where appropriate, governments should consider all sources of public, private and not-for-profit finance to provide capital for the upfront costs of support infrastructure solutions that deliver service improvements and value-for-money through CIPs.
6. Implement consistent standards, and regulatory reform of governance issues
Each jurisdiction should undertake an independent review of the regulatory and governance frameworks for remote service delivery, and enact reforms where deficiencies are identified. In particular, reforms should address issues with unclear division of responsibilities between public sector agencies, opaque governance structures and reporting lines, or a lack of transparency in decision-making processes.
7. Report on performance against nationally consistent standards
National Cabinet should report annually on performance of infrastructure services in remote areas, tied closely to the nationally agreed minimum service baseline and Australia’s obligations under the SDGs. These should specify regions of concern or common issues across jurisdictions, as well as sharing lessons from best practice case studies.
National and state-based data from regular, consistent and reliable monitoring of infrastructure performance in remote areas should be added to the Federal Government’s Infrastructure Performance Dashboard, with data kept up-to-date. Performance data should also be published in other government reports, such as the Productivity Commission’s annual Report on Government Services.
Once CIPs have been established, the PC should be tasked with undertaking triennial reviews of benefits, costs and performance changes in remote service delivery, and make recommendations in relation to further reforms required to support CIPs, changes to the CIP model and evolution of best practice in relation to remote service contracting.
For more information
Director, Policy and Research
Infrastructure Partnerships Australia
Senior Policy Adviser
Infrastructure Partnerships Australia