Oh here we go. The National Digital Economy Strategy (NDES) will position Australia as a “leading digital economy” by 2020, says communications minister Senator Stephen Conroy. His shadow Malcolm Turnbull calls it “Conroy’s Digital Economy Con”. Con. Conroy. Geddit? Twenty-first century politics, that is right there.
So, Mr Turnbull, I’ve repeated your framing. Mission accomplished. Can we all go home now?
The NDES launched by Conroy yesterday is two documents in one. First, it sets some goals. In 2020, Australia will be one of the top five OECD countries in eight specific metrics. Then there’s a bunch of supporting material that explains the benefits of broadband and shows how various government and industry initiatives would supposedly support these goals in what is really a promotional piece for the National Broadband Network.
The goals themselves are measurable, sensible — even rather modest, in my opinion.
The first goal, for example, is about the proportion of households that connect to broadband at home. Back in the early to mid-1990s, on the vaguely-similar-if-you-squint measures of average internet bandwidth and computing power per head, Australia was third in the world after the US and Finland. Then noted internet entrepreneur John Winston Howard took the reins and we dropped out of the top 10 entirely; out of the top 15 even. Returning to the top five some two decades later isn’t just sensible, it’s a matter of national self-respect.
Goal six, to pick another, is to double our level of teleworking to 12% of employees. That’d be easy to achieve if just a few big employers dropped their need to herd everyone into fluorescent-lit cubicles. Experience shows teleworkers are happier and more productive — though the main challenges aren’t technical, but about training, occupational heath and safety and the social aspects of the workplace.
Other goals relate to activities already under way, such as e-health records, getting more government interaction happening online, and increasing bandwidth to schools, TAFEs and universities. A lot of it we’ve seen before. It’s almost motherhood stuff; hard to argue against. And indeed Turnbull concedes the Coalition “broadly supports the eight goals outlined”.
Australia, as The Economist pointed out last week, is one of the wealthiest nations on the planet. Aspiring to be top five in a few metrics should be far from controversial. Indeed, I don’t understand why we can’t even aspire to be Number One for a change, like we do in such vital economic and social metrics as … erm … cricket.
But, alas, the NDES is a political document, and at its heart is a political disconnect. Turnbull spotted it on day one. Now there’ll never be any discussion of the merits of the strategy’s goals because Turnbull can repeat one easy-to-understand message: taken individually, none of the goals specifically require a fibre-to-the-premises (FttP) network like the NBN. Pretty much everything listed, individually, requires less bandwidth than the NBN’s 100Mbps.
What the government still hasn’t articulated — at least in a way that cuts through the simpler-to-understand if sometimes disingenuous messages of the naysayers — is why, from all the potential approaches to fixing Australia’s lagging broadband infrastructure, a FttP network would be such a good long-term investment, and what new possibilities that opens up.
That in turn means Turnbull can repeat the words “expensive”, “risky”, “over-capitalised”, “anti-competitive” and the rest until our ears bleed.
And that, in turn, means there’s little chance of any discussion about the NBN moving beyond where it seems to be stuck. That other great internet entrepreneur, Anthony John Abbott, wins again.