The current Treasurer Joe Hockey’s name has been rumoured as a possible new Communications Minister. He might be a good appointment.
The Communications portfolio is broad, encompassing radio and wired telecommunications services, radio and television broadcasting, internet and postal services. It also has responsibility for big data and spatial data policy.
Critically, the Department of Communications in its current form sees “enhancing digital productivity” and “expanding digital infrastructure” as strategic priorities. These two priorities are inextricably linked; neither makes sense without the other.
It is in this context that the other rumour that responsibility for the National Broadband Network (NBN) could be separated from the rest of the Communications portfolio, is particularly troubling. While Rod Tucker, who advised Labor on the original NBN scheme, sees this as a potentially smart move, in my view it is selling the NBN policy framework short.
Playing catch up
The last thing the NBN needs right now is a micro-managing minister. Rather, it needs the policy support – preferably bipartisan policy support – that recognises that telecommunications infrastructure is nothing more than a means to an end.
The NBN is all about the infrastructure for the digital economy. Isolating the two concepts would be like separating responsibility for roads from transport. The previous Labor government named its department “Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy” for good reason.
The digital economy is so much more than the delivery of content to homes. Government, educational, work-at-home, social interaction and entrepreneurial opportunities abound.
Countries such as Estonia claim substantial savings through the ubiquitous delivery of government services, including voting, e-signatures and pervasive national internet connectivity, with particularly high participation in the over-65 demographic.
Australia, in contrast, has a very basic and not terribly reliable e-Government portal. However, the Australian situation is confounded by a long history of paper-based administration and an inherent distrust in our government’s handling of our personal data.
The previous Labor government tried very hard to get this message across but the cost and time blowouts associated with getting the NBN company started, the unexpected costs of remediation of asbestos pits and the politics of the NBN project as a means of structurally separating Telstra, made it an easy political target.
Towards a digital economy
Malcolm Turnbull, in his role as Communications Minister, should be applauded for navigating his party away from former Prime Minister Abbott’s directive to “demolish” the NBN to a position of grudging support. There is merit in a multi-technology mix model in the short term but, as I have argued previously, this is only a stepping stone to what must evolve to become a predominantly optical fibre network.
There are three broad directions in which the NBN could be taken:
Treat the entire Communications portfolio with contempt. There is little danger of this, unless Prime Minister Turnbull wishes to maintain control. In this case, he would want a compliant lackey in the role. This is clearly an unwise strategy.
Treat the NBN primarily as the deployment of technical infrastructure on quasi-commercial terms. Paul Fletcher, the current Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Communications, is an obvious choice, with his background and experience with Optus. This strategy would lack the strategic context for the NBN, potentially strangling the NBN’s potential.
Treat the NBN primarily as enabling infrastructure which will transform Australia’s engagement with the digital economy. Joe Hockey’s experience as Treasurer provides him with a unique and powerful economic perspective to carry out such a vision. While this is clearly the most holistic option – and the one which I would personally argue is in the national interest – it would still allow for an assistant minister or similar to provide a focus on the NBN within the overall communications ministry.
For all that Australians have embraced the internet and what it has to offer, we are way behind our regional neighbours and trading partners. Internet connectivity and speeds are just one measure of our engagement, and these are poor enough. We are embarrassingly far behind in our engagement as a digital economy. The so-called Digital 5 – Estonia, Israel, New Zealand, South Korea and the United Kingdom – are leading the way.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could catch up with New Zealand?