3.3 Online access centres

Mr FINCH - What is the criteria for setting them up?

Ms WRIEDT - The first one was established in 1998. That was as a result of an agreement with the Commonwealth Government. Networking the Nation funding was received from the first sale of Telstra. Communities had to apply to establish centres. They had to demonstrate that they had sufficient capacity to establish and manage a centre. We do not have the specifics. We have gone so far past that now. It was so many years ago. They were not allowed to be in a major urban centre. It had to be a low socioeconomic area. That was an agreement that the Rundle Government negotiated with the Commonwealth. One of the difficulties under that model was that a lot of the more disadvantaged communities did not put up their hands to establish a centre because they had to be demonstrate a capacity to establish and manage a facility. They did not feel that they had that capacity. That is why we are now working to establish additional ones, in this case in Glenorchy and Clarence Plains because they are heavily populated areas with higher levels of disadvantaged people who don't have very high ownership of home computers. Clarendon Vale is particularly disadvantaged in terms of public transport and so on.

Mr FINCH - You have partly answered my next question. I have had approaches from people in low socioeconomic areas. I have all of them in my electorate in the north of the State. They say that in a way they are discriminated against because they do not have the capacity of people within the community and the area to run and control the centres and they do not have the same opportunities that other areas have. Is that a fair comment or statement?

Ms WRIEDT - Not any more because a few years ago we changed to a different form of management for the centres. They can opt to be under the Department of Education and Management but still have an advisory committee made up of local community members. That system was put in place about three years ago to accommodate some of the problems. Some communities established centres in that first lot of 64 with a lot of enthusiasm and great management. Some of those people then either left the areas or did not have time to devote to the committees. Some of them started to waver a little in terms of running the centres. That is why we offered this alternative form. They can be controlled by the administration of the Education Department but still have that local input that remains an important part of reacting to the needs of the local community and so on. We have a very good line in terms of being able to cater for both lots of groups.

Mr DEAN - I refer to page 75 and the second dot point - the provision of $90 000 per year to assist online access centres. Most importantly, it mentions assisting the most disadvantaged in our community. What program do we have in place to identify the most - and I am interested in that word - disadvantaged and how do we ensure that they are the people who are accessing these centres?

Ms WRIEDT - If I can just take you through the history of it. In the first year of operation for each of the centres there was an agreement with the Commonwealth Government to provide free access to the Internet. In the second year of the agreement for that funding support, the Australian Government said there had to be sustainability built in, including the adoption of fees. So it changed from being free in the first year to having fees charged to registered users to come and use our services. Most of the centres charged a fee of about $2 to $3 an hour for usage. Whilst that is still relatively low and does not seem like a lot, from the feedback we have been getting from some of the online access centres, particularly those in disadvantaged communities, that $2 to $3 is acting as an barrier, particularly for those people who are unemployed who want to use the computer for an hour to type up a resume and search for jobs and stuff like that. That $2 to $3 can buy a carton of milk. We know that 70 per cent of our registered users come from an income bracket of around $30 000 a year or less. That is quite significant.

We are going to work with the Tasmanian Communities Online Advisory Board. They have local government representatives and online access centre representatives and an independent chair. We will ask them to make some recommendations as to how we can best target that $90 000. It is aimed to abolish the fees of $2 to $3 an hour for the most disadvantaged of those registered users. Whether it is through production of a health card or what, we are not sure, but the income lost will be returned to the online access centres. That $90 000 will be divided up and given to the online access centres in exchange for them gathering income from those users.

Mr DEAN - I think you have answered the question for me. With respect, I was trying to determine the most disadvantaged. You said that could be determined by the introduction of a health card.

Ms WRIEDT - I was using that as an example. I am asking the Online Access Centre Advisory Board to make a recommendation on that.

[1.15 p.m.]
Mr DEAN - It just seems to be a very difficult area for you to manage. I would be interested to see how it works. A lot of people are disadvantaged but how do you select the most disadvantaged?

Ms GASKELL - We would be looking at some criteria there. It is about supplementing the money back to the access centre. In essence, there are likely to be more people coming into the centre who meet that criteria. In the end, it is about the revenue streams that generate the income that is used for additional things. It is about tweaking the incomes that come in subsequent to that regime coming in. In the end, a lot of the emphasis changed away from using IT to much broader reasons of access to government education and training and things like that. Centres across the board are really determined to best service the local communities in that regard.

Mr DEAN - I do not disagree with that. I think it is great for it to be free to these people to access.

Ms WRIEDT - I will look forward to the board giving us some advice.

CHAIR - People continue to make comment about the system of online access centres, which certainly has ensured their stability for the long term, and the paperwork process to access money. The suggestion was made that it could somehow be tagged to the responsibility of an annual report. So no annual report with benchmarks met, et cetera, means no money rather than a continuing process of accessing money by doing submissions. Would you like to make a comment on that.

Ms WRIEDT - Basically under the new funding requirement we require that the centres provide any activity that falls outside of the agreed framework. There is an agreed framework. We say, 'Okay, this is an online access centre and this is what you do.' Anything that falls outside that, particularly entrepreneurial ventures, we want a very straightforward business plan to be presented so that we can have some assurance it will work. Given that the State Government now thoroughly funds online access centres and we have a large investment across that entire network, in terms of accountability it is a way of ensuring that we are not entering into ventures that would put their viability at risk. Sometimes people get very entrepreneurial and very excited about things and will make decisions as committees to put large sums of money into projects that could threaten the long-term viability of the whole centres.

It is quite a straightforward thing that they are being asked. It is not that onerous. I have a sample here. Each of those is a business case as presented. They are really only being asked to write a third of a page in order to justify what they want to do inside their framework. Within the context of the money we are providing them, I do not think that is too much to ask. It is giving us, as the provider of large sums of public money, the accountability requirements that we need before it is too late. If you were to do it at the end of the year when they have already entered into an arrangement and there were any problems, it would be too late and we would be required to bail out those centres to save them going under. I guess we are trying to prevent that.

Monday 30 May 2005