Opinion: Advance Australia Where?

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Opinion: Advance Australia Where?
David Havyatt.

Lots of talk, but little detail on how the NBN might aid the Australian economy.

The $37 billion National Broadband Network got plenty of mentions at the launch of the 2011-12 Federal Budget, but the Government provided little insight into how it might help evolve Australia's Digital Economy. 

There was an expectation that the Budget announcement would provide a good opportunity to reveal a raft of investments around leveraging the benefits of the NBN before Communications Minister Stephen Conroy announces the Government’s Digital Economy Strategy at the end of this month.

There was precious little on offer.

The Budget papers talked of Australia being in transition from a commodity economy based on mining and agriculture to a "knowledge-based, diversified and service-oriented economy".

It noted that Australia performs poorly in terms of productivity, but the opportunity to discuss how the NBN and related initiatives could address this problem was muted.

Beyond the figures, initiatives aimed at “Building Australia’s Future Workforce” were announced with illustrations of men in hard hats, not knowledge workers.

Only a small number of budget initiatives were related to the Digital Economy.

The largest was a $580 million project over four years in ICT projects at the Department of Human Services.

The Department of Finance, meanwhile, will spend $2.3 million to “investigate and test ways to improve individuals’ ease of use and access to Australian Government services ... including allowing individuals to communicate updated details to multiple agencies simultaneously, pre-fill forms... and view all their government communications in one place.”

One hopes this study is completed before Human Services invests in new systems. 

The only other sizeable initiative is to establish a “single mental health portal” at a cost of $14.4 million over five years, part of $1.5 billion in new initiatives flagged to address Australia's mental health problems.

Other initiatives included $4 million in grants to the Attorney General's Department (again, over four years) to fund NBN-based delivery of legal services to citizens in regional Australia, and $4.2 million (over four years) to establish an “interactive MyRegion website to provide information about regional Australia.”

The lack of tangible progress on Digital Economy issues didn't deter Senator Conroy’s eagerness to promote the NBN. His media pack consisted of eight separate releases – one saying the Government had “strengthened its commitment to the NBN” and the other seven being tailored releases for each State and Territory (the ACT was combined with NSW) trumpeting that the NBN was “enhancing the lives of residents”. 

The overall financials concerning the NBN itself appear to have changed little from previous estimates.

So the best we can say is the Government is still committed to the NBN, but hasn‘t really developed any strategies for Digital Productivity. 

AIIA CEO Ian Birks felt the same sense of unfulfilled expectation about the initiatives anticipated in this budget.

"There are some good smaller commitments in this budget that focus on citizen engagement and building community confidence, however we need to deliver much more," he said after the Budget was handed down.

“We need a strategy that measures our progress, provides clear targets and sets out to understand the real implications of a digital economy in the Australian context.

"We will now be looking to the release of the National Digital Economy Strategy later this month to see whether it will provide the right impetus to develop globally leading digital economy in Australia."

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