Riddle me this. What is the actual point of the federal budget process and all the lock-up shenanigans that go with it when the biggest bucket of money related to the technology sector by far, that National Broadband Network thing, isn’t even on the books?
What is the point when the way that NBN money is being spent — and is it $26 billion or $36 billion or $43 billion or that $50 billion scare-number that Malcolm Turnbull pulled out of some random orifice and keeps repeating unchallenged? — it is all SEKRIT thanks to those magic words “commercial confidentiality”.
I ask because, well, last year we had this declaration of open government and a commitment to transparency. Lindsay Tanner’s last gasp, announced in a media release literally on his last day in the job before deciding he’d had enough.
What is the point of this annual ritual — built on the assumption that we can publish a set of numbers in May that will, in this complex and rapidly changing world, still be meaningful six months down the track — when the government has to respond to changing circumstances? Such as urgently building a fibre-to-the-premises network? Or responding to a global financial crisis? Or starting a land war in Asia? Or handing to every taxpayer $900 because, um, oh, shut up stop asking questions and buy a new TV.
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Look, if you want to participate in this silly ritual, John Hilvert has done a proper, serious-toned list of ICT sector winners and losers over at iTnews. He makes the point that the sector sees more new spending than cuts, which I suppose is good given that technology always makes things better.
For me the highlights worthy of mention are: more than half a billion to merge Centrelink, Medicare and Child Support into a unified presence online and on the phone; a bunch of spending, $50 million or so, on regulating and promoting the NBN, where the devil will be in the detail we don’t have yet; and $63.4 million to upgrade core business systems at IP Australia.
There’s also $20 million in suck-up-to-Tasmania funding to continue the Tasmanian Information and Communications Technologies Centre for another five years.
And there’s $4.2 million to set up the MyRegion website to “provide information about regional Australia, including transport infrastructure, health and aged care, education, social services, communications and the environment”. That sounds an awful lot for something a few researchers and half a dozen software engineers could build in a couple months, but hey this is government.
Meanwhile, the Digital Education Revolution is gutted, with $132.5 million over four years redirected to “other priorities”. The Vocational Education Broadband Network to link TAFEs is gone too, saving $78.4 million, because the NBN will do that.
And in a further sign that Labor’s half-arsed internet “filtering” policy will die a quiet, lingering death, the $9.6 million allocated for the Voluntary Internet Filtering Grants is gone. That was meant to encourage ISPs to provide optional extra content filtering for their customers, but there was little interest — because there’s so many free and cheap options already available to every internet user.
Just be aware that all of this could be changed in an instant, budget process or not, if a minister gets on a plane with the Ranga-in-Chief with a few numbers scribbled on the back of an envelope.
Perhaps the one thing the budget ritual is good for is seeing what the government think our priorities should be.
It’s a priority, for example, for pensioners to get digital TV. $308.8 million in continued support for the Household Assistance Scheme, which is “professional help” to install a set-top box. That’s $350 per grannie. Loud-mouthed entrepreneur Ruslan Kogan reckons he could do it for 50 bucks, including the box. He’s probably right. But, you know. Government.
Meanwhile, a mere $10.4 million has been allocated over four years to continue the Broadband for Seniors kiosks. Old folks passively absorbing MasterChef and endless Eddie Maguire is 30 times more important than old folks participating in our digital world.
Oh. And one in five Australians suffer from a mental health problem in any given year. The budget allocates $14.4 million over five years to consolidate mental health websites and provide “e-therapy” services. That’s 63 cents each per year. Our mental health is a priority, eh?