Peering into the crystal ball of the government’s technology future, Australia’s largely ageing population will be glued to analogue TV sets and use the $38 billion high-speed broadband network to access welfare services.
This picture is at odds with the government’s political spin that it is safely investing the windfall from the once-in-a-generation mining boom into long-term industries such as technology.
The 2011 budget saw spending on technology initiatives outpace cuts, but these appear to be short-term band aids to appease a key part of the government’s electoral base and a broader mandate to demonstrate good economic management.
The biggest technology winner from last nights’ budget were pensioners, veterans and welfare users, and the relevant portfolio, which benefited from a range of spending measures:
- A $308m digital TV package for pensioners
- A combined $580million spent over four years to revamp core systems cross the agency for human services (Centrelink, Medicare, and child support)
- Veterans and seniors: $10.4m over 4 years (broadband for seniors); $3.4m (a pilot system for veteran rehabilitation and compensation); $1.7m over 4 years (to improve debt recovery).
Communication Minister Stephen Conroy and his portfolio also benefited via funding for a range of NBN related exercises.
- $35.6m over five years for NBN implementation costs
- $12.8m over four years to develop NBN regulatory framework
- $4m over four years to provide legal support to regional communities via the NBN.
Additionally, proceeds from the funding pipeline from Canberra to the Victorian minister have trickled down to his southern neighbour, where the Tasmanian ICT Centre has been granted $20m over five years, to be matched by the national research agency CSIRO.
The government is obviously continuing to bet its political future on the NBN but cracks are appearing in the electoral mantra that it will provide untold economic benefits by cultivating a world-leading digital economy.
In fact the opposing message is being conveyed by its budget cuts and complete lack of spending on visionary, long-term digital projects.
The “digital education revolution” has been quashed before it even started. The project to supply computers to school students across Australia will be deprived of $132.5m over four years to fund “other priorities”.
It promised to produce a generation of digitally-evolved workers and citizens but the revolution could now die with a whimper under reported cost overruns and conflict between the states and the commonwealth.
It also cut a broadband network to connect TAFE colleges to save $78.6million over three years.
The other major backbone of the digital economy, eHealth, barely rated a mention in this budget, after the troubled project struggled to deliver tangible results despite being lavished with hundreds of millions of dollars last year.
Only time will tell if benefits emerge from a $3billion commitment to the CSIRO, and $40.2 million over four years to fund a bid for a global telescope project.
The government has clearly staked its technology future on Stephen Conroy’s NBN, which appears to be fast turning into a $38 billion white elephant whose cost and size is so large it threatens to trample the country’s technology industry.