How the NBN can help bridge our geographical cultural divide

Ballet Revolucion perform in Perth - one of Australia’s most culturally affordable cities. AAP

Australia’s dispersed population and its vast tyrannies of distance has created a major, ongoing, cultural divide.

The relative costs of consuming culture between bush and city are starkly skewed in favour of the city, and may be getting worse as culture goes digital and the disparity in access, speed and reliability of broadband makes the bush relatively worse off.

The bush-city disparity between communications services in general, and broadband specifically, was one of major factors that drove key independents to install the minority Labor government last year.

Arts Minister Simon Crean wants Australian culture to play a significant role in binding the social fabric of the nation.

This needs to play out not just in terms of publicly-funded culture reaching beyond the established middle class supporter base, who already possess significant cultural capital.

It also must be centrally about addressing our great geographical cultural divide.

The cultural divide is starkly revealed in the first detailed “cultural price index” constructed for Australia:

This year, at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation, Jason Potts, Trent MacDonald and I developed a method to show the full cost of a standardised basket of six cultural consumption items for a representative Australian household at 30 Australian locations, including all states and territories, and for a mix of large metro cities, regional centres, and country and remote towns.

It was the first study of its kind in Australia.

It turns out that Perth and Adelaide have the greatest cultural affordability. Then Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Canberra. Wollongong, Gold Coast and Darwin are relatively more expensive again.

But these are relatively closely clustered; they lie within a 5-50% range of each other.

The real divide occurs when we attempt to purchase the mainstream cultural basket in regional and remote Australia, where the index climbs to 200-500% higher.

Birdsville: horse races, but less culture. AAP

In remote Birdsville, the index is 1300% higher.

What can be done about it? It is critical that the National Broadband Network’s rollout in regional Australia embeds cultural access and participation at the heart of its strategic focus.

The National Cultural Policy’s discussion paper wants to “better connect what Australia is doing in the areas of arts and creative industries with other mainstream initiatives, such as the rollout of the National Broadband Network”.

And Minister Simon Crean has dubbed the NBN “the most important piece of cultural infrastructure Australia has ever seen”.

One of the most important dimensions of the NBN – one that differentiates it from almost all other fast broadband plans – is the symmetry it offers between download and upload capability.

Regional Australia will enjoy much faster downloads (cultural consumption will be easier and cheaper), but there will also be huge new potential for cultural participation, exchange and profiling.

A snippet of that potential includes hyperlocal journalism providing coverage lost through broadcasting aggregation, hundreds of regional museums displaying their wares across the nation and new businesses made viable by the access provided by fast broadband.

ABC will play its part. ABC Open is an initiative to employ new producers in regional Australia facilitating, publishing and curating local content and stories.

Currently, it has producers in 21 regions across the country and looks to roll out the scheme to include 45 regions of Australia this year.

When NBN Co takes its Mobile Education Trailer around the roll-out sites, and when its National Test Facility at Docklands in Melbourne invites the public in, the dynamics and benefits of cultural access and participation will need to be part and parcel.

Responses to the government’s discussion paper are due by 21 October.

This is part two of a series on why we need a national cultural policy. Read part one here:

Where the jobs are: why a national cultural policy matters

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