Decentralised NBN Key to Unlocking the Potential of Our Regions

Photo taken on Black Mountain, Canberra by Michael de Percy - CC: BY-NC-SA

“Rolling in” the NBN from the bush to the city is good news for regional areas. Indeed, the trickle-down-effect has never really worked for “the bush” so the reversal of the NBN’s delivery approach is a promising sign of policy change.

With Australia’s coastal cities reaching crises in housing affordability, traffic congestion, over-population and a rapidly diminishing quality of life, the NBN “roll-in” provides a timely opportunity to reinvigorate our neglected regional areas. But is the “roll-in” just centralisation going backwards or an opportunity for decentralisation and therefore our regions to – dare I say it – move forward?

In comparison to other geographically large, wealthy, federal nations, Australia is one of the most highly centralised in terms of both governance and population concentration. For decades now, Australian policy makers have been focusing on the ways things are, rather than how they could be, and the regions have been paying the price with diminishing services leading to a vicious cycle of economic stagnation and ever-decreasing populations.

To make matters worse, whenever service delivery fails, the trend in policy responses has been to centralise responsibility with the federal government, whether it is healthcare, education, workplace relations or indeed telecommunications. Clearly, centralisation has not worked for our regions.

And centralisation has its cost. Centralisation tends to lead to systemic policy failures due to the overwhelmingly bureaucratic decision-making processes needed to ensure the monolith operates in a rational manner. This typically means that programs designed to deliver services wheel-spin in administrative expenditure for years before ever getting any rubber on the road. The Coalition’s Metropolitan Broadband Connect program was a good example where millions in administrative costs led to minimal outcomes in terms of improving services to citizens two years later. Put simply, centralisation does not make good economic sense.

Administrative expenses aside, there is also a human capital cost to centralisation which political parties are able to avoid right up until it is too obvious to ignore – often when major opportunities have already been lost. The trouble with human capital, particularly skills development, is that it is only noticeable when it is absent. For example, as more and more policy functions are centralised, Australian citizens have less and less access to policy processes. As citizens have less access to the policy process, they have less interest in participating.

A simple example of poor policy participation was the Regional Telecommunications Independent Review Committee consultation I attended in Sydney a few years ago. It’s a no-brainer to guess how many regional citizens were able to attend a consultation on regional issues held in Sydney. Focus groups don’t overcome the problem either, and the recent election outcome is clear evidence that focus groups simply don’t work for successful policy formulation.

Further, with centralisation, policy actors become increasingly organised and specialised, leaving less room for the ordinary citizen to be involved. This is already a problem for local political representation, where the federal government’s constitutional responsibility for telecommunications means that only federal representatives have any real impact on policy.

NBN Co, when it was first established, started looking for a “headquarters”. But whenever there is a choice to be made between “Sydney or the Bush”, the original intent of the old Aussie saying holds true – nobody really wants to be in the bush unless they’re reminiscing over a Paterson or Lawson classic.

In the end, citizens lose faith in their political representatives and become disenfranchised. Any hope of harnessing the nation’s human capital is then lost and bureaucrats are left to struggle away, delivering one project at a time to “customers” who probably would have chosen a different “supplier” if they had a choice. In essence, central systems are too slow and can only deliver one solution to a myriad of problems. Governments are generally bad at this as the Coalition rightly suggested, but their model – “NBN 3.0” - was stuck in centralisation-mode, too.

It seems that the only way the bush was ever going to get a broadband Guernsey was via the independents. There is simply no way a “roll-in” of the NBN would have happened if the Gillard Government could govern in its own right. But must it be centrally delivered?

The NBN “roll-in” provides an opportunity for economic stimulus and to develop human capital in the regions. A decentralised “roll-in”, harnessing the skills, knowledge and political clout of all sectors of the community (including local government) to address the modern communications needs of our regions will enable multiple “roll-ins” and ultimately faster deployment of the NBN. Granted, decentralisation can lead to sporadic failure in some instances, but it will certainly alleviate the current eight year wait for Australians to officially join the information revolution.

A quick look at Canada and the United States shows that regional development and decentralisation tend to go hand-in-hand. Neither country has a single national solution for broadband, yet both outperform Australia in both regional prosperity and connectivity.

Right now is the time for a new approach to regional development and service delivery, and only the federal government has the jurisdiction to make it happen. If we know anything so far, it is that the centralised model just doesn’t work.

Decentralisation is the key to unlocking the potential of our regions while making life in both “Sydney and the Bush” just that little more bearable.