Is this the crisis we need to have to face the reality that, over the last 30 years or so, we might have taken a wrong turn in our society and our economy? Under neoliberal policies, the trend has been to leave as much as possible to the market to solve our problems and reduce government involvement in as many as possible areas. Cuts to heathcare, education, social service, research and developments had become the norm over these decades. Science was downplayed and populism is flourishing.
Over the years, we covered many of the social, economic and environmental issues and from my particular position, I have done this in the context of technology. With my background in businesses studies rather than technology, I always looked to the social and economic benefits that the technologies that I became involved in had to offer.
This goes back to the 1970s. I was a junior product manager at the Xerox company, involved in bringing new products onto the market. They included the fax machine, the word processor and the colour copier. Later that decade I started my own business and became involved in videotex, the predecessor of the internet.
As all of this was so new, I started a newsletter to inform my customers about these new developments and this grew into the research company that I recently sold to Ubiquick in France.
Let’s skip a few years. In 2005, I presented at a conference in Adelaide for the social services sector. Here I spoke about the social and economic benefits of this new technology for services such as healthcare, education, teleworking, smart energy and smart cities. At this conference, I met the then Shadow Minister for Communications, Stephen Conroy and we started a discussion on what I just told the conference.
Over the next five years, I provided my strategic advice on this issue — free of charge to both sides of government. Both the then Communications Minister, Helen Coonan, as well as the shadow minister were broadly onboard.
There was significant bipartisan support at that time and whoever would win the 2007 Election, I felt assured that we were moving in the right direction. Labor won, a year later we had the Global Financial Crisis and the NBN was born as a stimulus package, exactly for the reason that we had discussed before — developing a national asset that would deliver social and economic benefits.
For that, the industry and the Government together establish a range of initiatives. Specialised groups for e-health, tele-education, teleworking, smart cities and smart grids (energy) were established. Well over 400 people from business, government and the community were involved in the various activities.
Unfortunately, wrecker Tony Abbott arrived on the screen and his blunt message was “kill the NBN”. Without bipartisan support and the arrival of the Coalition Government in 2013, he became the death knell of the original NBN, which would have delivered the robust, high capacity infrastructure that we now all understand is needed in our complex society under threat from climate change, bush fires, floods and now the pandemic.
We can’t quickly change the infrastructure situation and we will have to work through the issues that the current NBN is throwing at us as best as possible. However, if it ever has become clear why we need a proper NBN, now is the time to accept that. Sadly, Communication Minister Paul Fletcher seems to refuse to accept this reality and keeps bagging the original FttH project.
Imagine what this crisis would have led to without our communications and information infrastructure. Together with healthcare (e-health) and finance, this is the most critical infrastructure of our society. We are totally relying on healthcare, teleworking and e-education to keep our society going at the moment.
It is therefore important to ensure that the digital infrastructure requirements will be addressed within the newly set up National COVID-19 Coordination Commission (NCCC). They are chartered to provide coordinate advice to the Australian Government on actions to anticipate and mitigate the economic and social effects of the global coronavirus pandemic.
There will be many issues and many priorities, but it is essential that infrastructure such the NBN, smart energy and smart cities are part of the solutions going forward. This won’t be the last crisis that we as humanity will face and the lessons learnt will, of course, include that we do need to be better prepared.