Cabinet reshuffle adds rural communications and 'digital transformation'

The two new portfolios emphasise the Australian government's focus on communications in rural areas and digital innovation.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's Cabinet reshuffle has seen two new appointments related to communications and technology: Minister for Regional Development, Rural Health, and Regional Communications Fiona Nash; and Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister for Cities and Digital Transformation Angus Taylor.

"Senator Fiona Nash will be sworn in as the Minister for Regional Development, Regional Communications, and Rural Health," Turnbull said while announcing his new Cabinet on Saturday.

Nash was also elected as deputy leader of the Nationals party.

"The Nationals have always championed the cause of regional, rural, and remote Australia, and as deputy leader I will fight tooth and nail to ensure that people who live outside the major cities are given their fair share," she said in a statement.

"You can be assured that I will do the best job that I possibly can in this new role to make our regional communities an even better place to live, work, and invest."

The federal government has been increasingly focused on bringing communications services to those living in remote and historically underserved areas, having tabled its Regional Telecommunications Review 2015 [PDF] report in Parliament in October last year.

The report made 12 recommendations on how the government can improve regional access to telco services to leverage connectivity for business, education, health, and personal purposes, finding that safeguards must be put in place to ensure remote areas are given equal access to mobile phone and National Broadband Network (NBN) services.

"People living in regional Australia rely heavily on telecommunications in their everyday lives, and the government will give careful consideration to the committee's recommendations before providing a response," Minister for Communications Mitch Fifield said at the time.

In December, NBN upgraded its fixed-wireless service to double the broadband speeds to deliver 50Mbps down and 20Mbps to remote parts of Australia, and NBN launched the first of its two new AU$620 million Ka-band satellites at the beginning of October.

The satellite will "bridge the digital divide between Australia's cities and regions", Fifield said. In December, NBN then increased the data allowances for customers on satellite, offering up to 150GB per month plus 50GB extra for distance education students, having freed up satellite capacity by moving 40,000 premises to its fixed-wireless or fixed-line networks.

The satellite service is expected to launch commercial services in mid-April to early May.

The government has also partnered with telecommunications providers Telstra and Vodafone Australia on its mobile blackspot program to build or upgrade 499 mobile towers across the country. In December, Telstra switched on its first mobile blackspot cell towers, with Vodafone following soon after, while the government announced the second round of the program, pledging a further AU$60 million to bring better telecommunications coverage to regional areas.

Having "regional communications" tacked onto Nash's previously health-centric portfolio could also signal the government's continuing focus on bringing healthcare to rural and remote areas through technological means.

Previously, Nash outlined plans to bring more technology-based and telehealth services to remote areas.

"Rural and remote people who have a pacemaker fitted won't need to travel to have it checked any more, because new technology means it can be checked remotely," she said in September last year.

"Remote people will be able to see their optometrist via 'telehealth' consultations using the internet," she added.

In late 2014, she also pointed towards phone and online services for treatment of and counselling for those suffering from mental health issues.

Newly minted Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister for Cities and Digital Transformation Angus Taylor, meanwhile, will serve in the brand new, as-yet-undefined portfolio.

"Angus Taylor will serve as the Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister with special responsibility for Cities and Digital Transformation. These are two key whole-of-government areas, and they will be taken, continued to be driven through my leadership and my department in the future," Turnbull said by way of explanation.

A member of the Liberal party, this is his first appointment as a minister, with Taylor saying he has had "strong interest and involvement in digital innovation" for "many years".

"Government needs to be clever with its services and systems if we are to deliver better health, education, and welfare while containing growth in spending," Taylor said in a statement.

"I am also delighted to have responsibility for cities, particularly given that the new boundaries of Hume span the fastest growing parts of outer Sydney, as well as the growing regional city of Goulburn. Our capital cities and regional cities struggle with affordability, amenity, and congestion. This must be a priority for the federal government, as a major investor in transport infrastructure."

It is yet to be determined how the "digital transformation" and "cities" segments of the portfolio will intersect, and whether it will manifest itself through leveraging the Internet of Things (IoT) to move towards implementing smart city initiatives.

Singapore has been working on such solutions, with Minister for Trade and Industry S Iswaran last year outlining plans for IT to address issues with transport, population, jobs, and utilities.

"Smart-city solutions, including the adoption of ICT technologies and the embedding of intelligent systems within buildings, transportation networks, as well as utility grids, will play an increasingly important role in addressing these challenges," Iswaran said.

The City of Melbourne similarly told the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Infrastructure and Communications' inquiry into the role of smart IT in the design and planning of infrastructure in September that IT could enhance quality of life within cities while balancing economic concerns.

IoT solutions could be used for asset management, integrated parking, design, mapping, modelling, and data-based public tools, the City of Melbourne said.

"Complex urban challenges can now be addressed collaboratively via smart communities comprising hyper-connected, technologically agile, and often entrepreneurial innovators," the City said in its submitted response [PDF].

"These smart communities are the new agents of change and the generators of knowledge."

Nash and Taylor join Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science Christopher Pyne, Assistant Minister for Innovation Wyatt Roy, Minister for Communications Mitch Fifield, and Assistant Minister for Science Karen Andrews in the technology and communications-related sector of the government.

"I'm delighted with the way the government has been established, or re-established under my leadership. We've made strong policy changes, particularly on innovation and science, that's been a, that's a key feature of our focus, of our drive. It's a key element in Australia's future prosperity," Turnbull said on Saturday.

"Organisms that don't change are dead, so you've got to be prepared to change. You've got to be prepared to innovate, that's why I talk about innovation all the time, that's why I talk about enterprise.

"This is the most rapidly changing time in the world's history, and organisations, governments, media organisations, perhaps, even, should always be prepared to look at new talent and bring it up."

Turnbull announced the federal government's AU$1.1 billion National Innovation and Science Agenda in December last year to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship and promote science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) uptake in schools.

"Australia is falling behind on measures of commercialisation and collaboration, consistently ranking last or second last among OECD countries for business-research collaboration," Turnbull said at the time.

"Our appetite for risk is lower than in comparable countries, which means Australian startups and early stage businesses often fail to attract capital to grow."

Turnbull's new Cabinet members will be sworn in on Thursday morning.

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