An opportunity for the Prime Minister’s National COVID-19 Coordination Commission to prove its mettle

One day a rooster, the next day a feather duster!

By LAURIE PATTON | 26 March 2020

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s newly announced National COVID-19 Coordination Commission provides an opportunity for Australia to start planning for a post Coronavirus era.

The creation of the Commission can be viewed in one of two ways. Either he’s put together a group of highly accomplished individuals who are “doing their bit for the country”, to quote Mr Morrison, and they’ll deliver great ideas and practical plans. Or, it’s a classic example of ‘pass the parcel’ and henceforth the government will be able to say they just did what they were advised to do.

I’m an optimist, so I’ll go for the former. But as I’ve written previously, we wouldn’t need all those myriad committees and inquiries if politicians and their bureaucrats just did their jobs.

The government hasn’t exactly been swamped with accolades for its performance in recent times, so perhaps Morrison’s decision to effectively outsource his Coronavirus response planning indicates a lack of confidence in the public service. Of course, we don’t know what advice his minsters have received but ignored.

Anyway, I have put forward an idea that I’ll use as a test of the bona fides of this new operating paradigm, because it would require the Government to concede a previous failing — albeit one it can blame on the adviceaccepted by erstwhile colleagues now out of parliament.

The test for the new Coordination Commission is this: with so many people now working or studying online at home and the move to telehealth consultations due to the Coronavirus, we are seeing a further entrenchment of the ‘digital divide’. Essentially, there are the lucky Australians — those who have a 21st century NBN connection, and then there are the unlucky Australians — those stuck with an inferior service.

My primary concern is about the impact on the productivity of people working from home with inadequate broadband, which will flow through to businesses and the economy.

I’m also concerned about the mental health of those unlucky souls battling with an inferior broadband connection. It’s frustrating enough when your movie buffers, but what if it happens when you’re trying to send in an assignment or a report to the boss who has been hounding you for the past hour?

The solution the Coordination Commission could adopt is for the government to fund NBN Co to employ suitably qualified people currently being retrenched, retrain them, and deploy them to start upgrading copper wire connections to fibre so that everyone has access to fast and reliable broadband. This exercise will need to be undertaken sooner or later — so why not do so now, and create employment opportunities for some of the 100,000+ newly unemployed?

I have written to communications minister Paul Fletcher asking him to consider my proposal and to the prime minister asking that it be raised at the next National Cabinet meeting. I’ve also written to the premiers and chief ministers seeking their support. I realise some people will say there are greater priorities at this point. My response is we need to start planning now for what will be required in stage two, and this could be a test of success for the Coordination Commission.

The signs are this crisis will persist for six months or more. Even if the government simply made an in-principle commitment and NBN Co started the planning now, this would give industry and people generally greater confidence in the future than exists now.

According to the Government the current roll out will be completed by the end of June. If my proposal is accepted we will be well-placed to begin the inevitable repair job on our dud NBN.

(Laurie Patton is Vice President of TelSoc and the former CEO / Executive Director of Internet Australia. He was a Commonwealth public servant before becoming a ministerial advisor in the Wran government, and has advised federal and state government ministers, mostly Labor, for more than three decades. He reported on federal politics and later held senior executive roles at the Seven Network. This article first appeared in The Mandarin.)