I’m tempted to cry rather than laugh these days when our political class is accused of imposing “market fundamentalism” on an unsuspecting public. In policy area after policy area, the Howard Government has squibbed reform. Communications policy under the present government has been nothing short of diabolical.
Communication is vital to a healthy democracy, yet media and telecommunications policies rarely get a look-in during an election campaign. The result is a policy area dominated by grubby deal-making, with the public interest finishing a poor third to corporate and partisan interests.
Reading Neil Chenoweth’s Packer’s Lunch, I was reminded that thanks to unseemly ties between senior ministers and media moguls, communications policy was one of Labor’s blind spots during its last term of office. Crikey readers romanticising the cross-media laws when they were watered down last year seemed to forget that it was under those laws that News Corp was able to gain an unseemly proportion of metropolitan newspaper circulation.
The introduction of pay television was delayed and then botched under Labor, a continuation of an Australian tradition of snail’s pace introduction of new technology that favours incumbent licence-holders. Labor and the Coalition both passed on the most important (non)-decisions of the 1990s – the structural separation of Telstra into monopolistic and competitive businesses.
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The current minister and her shadow, Coonan and Conroy, haggle over what programming should be allowed to be shown on the miniscule number of digital television licences on offer to new players. Why is it the business of government to proscribe content in a competitive market? Why isn’t the entire digital and radio and television spectrum other than that reserved for public broadcasters up for grabs to the highest bidders? Market-based policies are apparently only applied to businesses too small to lobby senior politicians.
There are signs now that rapidly changing technology is making current policies untenable. Kevin Rudd’s emphasis on broadband during Sunday’s debate was promising. The claims and counter-claims on broadband are difficult to assess. If Telstra is unhappy with the Howard Government’s position, the rest of us should be pleased.
Yet, Labor’s willingness to dip into the Future Fund in order to promise faster and more widespread broadband access is also promising. Labor should not be frightened of pursuing a different fiscal policy from the Coalition. Investing in infrastructure in order to expand economic capacity rather than squirreling money away is something the public will respond to.