In recent weeks, communications emperor Stephen Conroy marched far and wide, from Armidale schools to Sydney trade fairs, modelling a suit of fibre painstakingly woven over several years but he has simply been exposed as naked and foolish.
One fact perfectly sums up the problem: The $46.6 million funding for the entire strategy was a third of the amount that was cut from the government’s only real digital economy project ($132.5 million cut from the digital education revolution program).
Conroy’s strategy for Australia to become one of the world’s leading digital economies by 2020 - the National Digital Economy Strategy (NDES)- should be read as the justification of its $38 billion election showpiece: the National Broadband Network (NBN).
Instead of a grand vision the eight-point plan simply re-states a desire to connect all Australians with high-speed broadband, and pads this out with a collection of easy targets cobbled together from watered down versions of existing projects.
How else can you describe a “goal” of e-health records for “high priority customers” (wasn’t it originally supposed to cover every Australian?), or 12 per cent of employees having a teleworking arrangement with their employer?
Hardly achievements that will makeover Australia as the envy of the world.
He was even so bold as to implicate the education sector, where the wounds are still fresh from when the government slashed $132.5million over four years for its much touted digital education revolution.
Conroy already made a less than spectacular start to these goals at a glamorous NBN launch in Armidale, where the Prime Minister was on hand to announce that seven customers had signed up for a free trial.
If he was lacking inspiration, he could’ve peeked at measures announced by the American government in February.
President Barack Obama promoted the new measures for the country’s Innovation Strategy in the face of the growing economic threat from countries like India and China.
The measures include:
- Building a $US7 billion national high-speed wireless network
- Reforms to speed up patent approval
- Encouraging students, especially girls, to adopt careers in science, technology engineering and maths via public-private partnerships
- Clean energy initiatives including creating three energy innovations hubs; boost funding for research and development through tax on manufacturing; and one million advanced tech vehicles on the road by 2015
- The Startup America initiative including two $1 billion initiatives for impact investing and early-stage seed financing; streamline regulation; and increase connections between entrepreneurs and high-quality business mentors.
The US approach demonstrates the value of a top-down, whole-of-government approach to promoting innovation, and working closely alongside business and grassroots communities.
The recent federal budget projected a technology future where Australia’s largely ageing population are glued to analogue TV sets and the $38 billion high-speed broadband network delivers welfare services.
It is not inspiring technology policy to cut the budget of the digital education revolution and then spend a fraction of this amount on broadband for seniors.
It is now clear that one man is not capable of transforming Australia into a technology utopia. To deliver Australia’s broadband and digital future a whole-of-government approach is required, working closely with businesses and the community groups at the grassroots level.
Otherwise emperor Conroy will continue to parade around in a $38 billion invisible suit, while taxpayers - and the world - awkwardly look on.