Time is up on the Digital Economy

James Riley
Editorial Director

Time has probably run out for the Turnbull Government to make good on its 2013 election promise to provide an update to the National Digital Economy Strategy.

There had been vague references to a strategy document that would be published by the end of last year. But it has not appeared, and this is odd. It also leaves glaring holes in this government’s overall plan to ‘transform’ the economy.

The last comprehensive digital economy strategy paper was published by the Labor Government in 2013.

Malcolm Turnbull: Running out of time of digital policy

It is hardly fair to say Malcolm Turnbull has been recalcitrant in pressing for digital change. Since becoming Prime Minister last September has argued – and continues to argue – that economic transformation is at the heart of every government is doing.

The creation of the Digital Transformation Office, the delivery of a digital marketplace for ICT procurement, the design of digital services for citizens, and dashboards to measure their effectiveness: These were all promised prior to the last election and are all either delivered or in process.

You can add to that list things like better use of government procurement as an engine for strategic local innovation, and Mr Turnbull’s seeming personal drive to open data policies. Ditto for cloud adoption and mandated online delivery of high volume government transactions. All done, or in the process of being done.

But the broad sweep of the digital economy is bigger and more complex than this. Specifically, in eHealth and in education – particularly in the rural and regional context – these are big challenges.

To use Mr Turnbull’s own hyper-optimism (and this continues to be a breath of fresh air even six months after taking the office), the bigger the challenge, the bigger the opportunity. The health sector alone holds the promise of enormous returns through improved digital service delivery, through better health outcomes, reduced costs and happier taxpayers.

The very large elephant in the room is – of course – the National Broadband Network. How does a government spend so much time talking innovation without talking more specifically about the use of the network.

And that is the point of a digital economy strategy. It is also precisely what the Turnbull Government is NOT talking about.

It is impossible to talk about a national digital economy strategy without talking about the NBN. And it is equally impossible to talk about the NBN without also having a conversation about the digital economy.

And yet here we are talking about nothing. Carriage for this policy rests with Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, Chris Pyne. His office won’t take calls on this issue, responding only with email.

It’s been getting weird recently, because even if government has gone silent on this policy, other stakeholders have found their voices. The Infrastructure Australia plan released earlier this year recommends specifically that government better formulate plans to maximise its huge investment in the NBN network. David Havyatt has covered this here.

But even the NBN Co chief executive Bill Morrow is calling for discussion. In an opinion piece published this week in the Sydney Morning Herald, Mr Morrow urges a conversation about what we are going to do with the network.

“Now is the time to turn our minds to what the NBN network can do for Australia. It can see homes expanding from Wi-Fi-enabled TVs to fridges, lights, heating and cooling all connected and commanded over the internet. It means new applications in tele-health and in education across regional Australia,” Mr Morrow wrote.

“It’s no longer about how it’s built. It’s about how we can use it to make Australia a world leader.”

We know that Christopher Pyne is working on something. InnovationAus.com understands the Minister will attend the OECD’s 2016 Ministerial Meeting on the Digital Economy to be held in Cancun in July (although this will presumably depend on the timing of the election.)

You would have to guess that the Minister would want Australia to have a plan (in his back pocket) when he turned up to a meeting like that.

But he is not talking about it. His department tabled status report to a recent Senate Estimates hearing of initiatives that are underway as part of the former government digital strategy – but there was no hint of how these policies will be taken forward.

He has not indicated how government will respond to the Infrastructure Australia recommendation, or whether his office or department has had direct discussions with Mr Morrow. His office emailed this response to queries:

“Over the next few months the government will publish a status report of Australia’s digital economy policies. It will bring together the various policies and initiatives the government has pursued over the last few years covering infrastructure, innovation/entrepreneurship, Government service delivery, Data policy, Skills/STEM etc. A status report of all the former NDES actions and initiatives was tabled in recent senate estimates.”

“Broadband infrastructure is an important component of any digital economy policy. We regularly talk with telecommunications providers and the Government is in regular contact with NBN as you would expect.”

Unsurprisingly, the Opposition is happy to talk about both its plans for digital economy policy, and the NBN.

If the last election cycle finished with the NBN roll-out as a negative for Labor, circumstances have certainly changed for this election. After the leaks about lower fibre to the home roll-out costs and the on-going problems with copper that have emerged in the past week, the NBN is most definitely a live and very contestable issue.

Labor Communications spokesman Jason Clare is happy to fill the void on digital economy policy, saying – a little too predictably – that the digital economy strategy is a victim of the Government’s “chaos and dysfunction.”

“[They] promised that they would release an update to the National Digital Economy Strategy during their first term,” Mr Clare said. “All we have had from the Liberals for the last two and a half years is backstabbing and politics. They have also made a mess of the NBN.”

“On Innovation, like in so many other areas, the real policy heavy lifting has been done by the Labor Opposition.”

Labor and the Government are in furious agreement on a great many things in relation to innovation policy. Certainly you won’t get an argument from Labor on the work of the DTO, or on startup policy.

But in this area – the NBN and how it will be used to improve health and education – Labor has some clear air. It is contestable, to use one of this governments favourite words.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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