As a political federation with a sparse population spread unevenly across a massive swath of land, Australia is often a useful comparator to Canada in many aspects of governance. And so it may be instructive to consider the implications for both countries of the recent Australian federal election.
First, both are now governed federally by right of centre ideological parties. The thumping of the previous Labour government by Tony Abbott’s Coalition (yes, that’s right, in Australia as in Great Britain and Germany, to name but two, coalition is not a poisonous term) signals an important philosophical shift. Such change will be tempered somewhat by the composition of Australia’s elected Senate, which means that unfettered power of the sort enjoyed by the Conservatives here will elude Abbott and his new Cabinet.
Second, Australians can boast of a voter turn-out rate north of 90 percent in comparison to the roughly 60 percent of Canadians who bothered to vote during our last federal election. Of course, voting in Australia is mandatory (as it is in 22 other countries), meaning a fine imposed on any no-shows. In this age of commercialization, consumerism and declining civics, such an approach may warrant some consideration here at home.
Third, with respect to more digital matters, a key topic of debate during the campaign centred on broadband infrastructure and how best to ensure reliable and affordable access for all households and communities. The previous Labour government has created a Crown corporation, the National Broadband Network, to essentially treat broadband as a public good, a necessity for 21st century life. The plan, estimated to cost nearly $40 billion over a decade, was premised on the wider social and economic benefits to be derived from what would effectively by a ‘smart country’ (a term we typically associate with cities benefitting from higher concentrations of broadband providers and services).
The new Coalition government, a long-time critic of this approach, has sought to maintain the goal of universality, nonetheless shifting the means toward a less costly hybrid model involving more limited public sector action and market incentives. Defenders of this new course invoke market discipline and choice as its hallmarks; critics contend that it is short-sighted and bound to result in the sort of persisting geographic divides we continue to see in this country.
Malcolm Turnbull, the country’s newly-minted Communications Minister, has already announced a strategic review of the NBN in order to set out his new path. Turnbull is also leader of the coalition’s junior party and has long been an outspoken critic of Labour’s broadband initiative. During the campaign, he also presided over the coalition’s releasing of its digital plans. The considerable amount of attention devoted to digital issues notably sets apart the Australian contest from those held in Canada in recent years, both federally and provincially.
Accordingly, the coalition’s Policy for E-Government and the Digital Economy was presented in a 30-page report that detailed a variety of specific and costed reforms for public sector transformation. Front and centre is a commitment to “accelerate Government 2.0 efforts to engage online, make agencies transparent and provide expanded access to useful public sector data.” Also prominent are plans to prioritize mobile service delivery and create a new “digital inbox” for every Australian citizen.
Some observers are skeptical. For example, a prominent Australian blogger, Craig Thomler, has observed that the coalition’s leaders made poor usage of social media during the campaign, and that their government-wide, cost-cutting approach may stunt the participatory elements of the coalition’s agenda going forward.
Certainly such tensions are familiar to our own Conservative government and its struggles to introduce open government. Yet the Australian recipe of a senior Cabinet voice empowered with a robust digital strategy may also provide an interesting contrast to Treasury Board President Tony Clement’s impossibly conflicting roles as shepherd of both control-laden processes internally and greater transparency and engagement externally.
Overall, however, the most heartening aspect of the Australian 2013 election is the seriousness of the discussions and debates with respect to online infrastructure and public sector reform. The bar has now been set for all federal parties looking toward 2015.