It is accepted that one of the key growth levers for the Federal Government is stimulus, often focused on infrastructure. In the current complex and fluid economic environment, there is a delicate balancing act between stimulating the economy and putting further pressure on inflation.
The newly announced measures around childcare are an example of a stimulus measure also designed to assist with productivity – particularly for parents struggling to enter (or re-enter) the labour market due to childcare expenses – without necessarily increasing costs.
Against this backdrop, and in the context of Indigenous, rural and remote communities around Australia, investment in digital infrastructure and skills may be another opportunity for the Federal Government to drive greater productivity, mindful of government objectives.
The Australian Digital Inclusion Index 2021 showed a significant gap of 10% between metropolitan and regional levels of digital inclusion, and that is without including data from the Northern Territory. Anecdotally, this gap is much more extensive in Indigenous and remote communities.
COVID has demonstrated that remote working and learning is viable and accelerated its progress and acceptance.
Despite this, many people in Indigenous, rural and remote communities continue to find it difficult to access the same opportunities for education and employment as their urban contemporaries.
These converging drivers provide a unique and powerful catalyst for greater productivity. With the right targeted and supported investment, people living in these communities can ‘plug into’ the modern economy as both employees and entrepreneurs in ways that were not possible even a few years ago.
To reach its intended audience, efficiently and effectively, investment will be required in both:
- physical infrastructure: the tangible and intangible infrastructure necessary to achieve an equitable level of digital connectivity for communities to make ‘plugging in’ a practical reality; and
- ‘community’ infrastructure: the people, practices, and support required to encourage communities to these new access points.
The burden of building this infrastructure need not be entirely borne by Government.
There are a range of private sector organisations operating across the breadth and depth of this country, and Government should consider how to best catalyse or target private sector investment to align with these objectives.
Of course the private sector will require policy and investment certainty to justify this type of investment – but in our view this is fertile ground to explore.
Consider resource and renewables companies, large tourism and hospitality operators and the range of other players who might agree, on mutually beneficial terms, to prioritise digital connectivity as a part of doing business.
Government could augment this investment with industry-designed priorities for education and training programs – to effectively have a large-scale joint investment priority with industry around digital enablement for these communities.
Driving benefit through strong, strategic implementation
Governments across the country have experienced large programs that have not delivered their anticipated benefits.
So notwithstanding the key value drivers of such a proposition, they alone will not guarantee success. Strategic and clear intent and broad government and industry engagement and alignment will be critical, but strong, strategic implementation will be the key success determinant of any such program.
Government protocols and economic prudence dictate that strong business cases will be required to justify any Government expenditure. Equally important is how the investment is implemented. We believe the key considerations must include:
- creating policy settings that drive private sector (co)investment in infrastructure
- identifying the likely unmet public sector labour demands across the foreseeable future that could be serviced remotely, as well as within private sector organisations operating with close proximity to Indigenous, rural or remote communities
- an alignment of relevant state and territory government investments
- access to the workforce required to deliver any large scale infrastructure works program without causing significant cost increases, including identifying opportunities to train and employ local people throughout
- the key drivers for, and aspirations of, people in these communities, and how to better inform them of the range of new education, training and employment opportunities that might now be available through improved digital-connectivity
- the likely social return on investment, including reduction in social services consumed or other government payments and supports over a person’s lifetime, and
- lessons learnt through the delivery of other nationally-significant programs to improve the design and implementation of such an initiative, including but not limited to nation-building programs such as the post World War II Marshall Plan.
Admittedly, governments and citizens have seen a great many ‘good ideas’ come and go, or not deliver their intended benefits.
In the current complex economic environment, digital connectivity through the provision of commercial grade internet access and up-skilling represents a fruitful area for exploration, with the potential to drive productivity gains for parts of the country too often excluded.
The three ‘P’s to improving digital connectivity and employment prospects
Many of us take our ability to connect digitally – for employment, education and entertainment – for granted.
Governments need to try something different and work – through policy, program design and likely public-private partnerships – to improve the digital connectivity and employment prospects of all people living in Indigenous, rural and remote Australia.
The tyranny of distance should be a thing of the past, and access to reliable data and technology is one of the tools that will assist to make it so.