These words are taken from the Comprehensive Growth Strategy report presented by the Australian government at the recent G20 meeting in Brisbane. I wonder how seriously the government really takes them.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott was widely criticized by his countrymen for a pedestrian, locally focused welcoming speech he gave as the host of the most powerful leaders in the world. Did he really emphasize a small, stalled health initiative of his that would tax individuals at $7 per year? Where was the sweeping vision?
The strategy presented by Mr. Abbott's government in Brisbane is full of similar pedestrian, if much more macroeconomic, talk. It aims to hit all the correct buttons when it comes to liberalizing trade, ending red tape, encouraging businesspeople large and small, and being responsible with taxpayer and investor money.
But there was no sweeping vision, and not a single mention of information technology.
More of the Same
I've heard Australians their cities are all the same; fly a few hours and you end up in essentially the same place you started. No substantial differences as one might find among, say New York, New Orleans, and Seattle.
I've also heard complaints from the Australian technology community that the country has never taken tech seriously enough, that it cannot seem to wrest itself from its reliance on natural resources. With enormous natural resources and a small population (at 25 million, barely 60% that of California), it's easy enough to see why this is true.
The “tall poppy” syndrome – cut down the tall poppy (aka hammer the nail that sticks out), Asian style, rather than encourage the individual, Western style – is also often cited as a barrier to true progress in this beautiful, pleasant nation.
Within that context lies the glaring, noisy, boisterous vision of Australia's National Broadband Network (NBN). I wrote in 2011 about the insanity of the original NBN vision, which aimed to bring gigabit fiber connectivity to 93% of the population at a cost of about $2,000 per person. (Imagine such a program in the US, with a price tag $600 billion.)
The current government headed by Mr. Abbott has scaled things back, aiming for fiber connectivity to 22% of the population and depending on a combination of existing copper and new wireless for the rest. It remains to be seen what the NBN will ultimately deliver.
Australia Ranks Well, So...
Australia, by dint of its wealth, relative income parity, low corruption, and highly developed physical infrastructure, scores well in our Tau Institute's overall rankings – which integrate several technological and socio-economic factors. The NBN initiative, which may be completed by the end of this decade, aims to make the nation very competitive in terms of bandwidth. (The US, by counter-example, has no such initiative or seeming commitment to bringing its bandwidth to a high world standard.)
But at the present time, Australia runs very cold in our Goldilocks Ranking of ICT dynamism, which focuses on technology factors alone. By this measure, it scores one of the least dynamic rankings in the world.
Should the NBN not ultimately move things in a significant way, Australia will lag in technology and economic growth, in our view. It could some day find itself as no longer a G20 country or one that's taken seriously.
...Where Do We Go From Here?
Today, the country has mostly first-world problems and seems to live without the omnipresent angst characterizing similar large, resource-rich nations such as the United States, Canada, and Russia. It's a great place to hold an event, to visit, and seemingly, to live. To an outsider, there is, in fact, enough variation in the climates and cultures of its major cities to offer several unique, good choices.
So how can the bland tone of documents such as that presented in Brisbane become more dynamic? Maybe it can't. Australia's day of reckoning may lie centuries over the horizon.
Is that good enough for its technology community? If Australia has the potential to be more than simply a good summit host – we think it does – does it aspire to be so?