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Annual Report 2015/16

01 Overview

Secretary’s review

2015–16 saw the Commonwealth functions of communications, arts, copyright, classification, and the functions of the Telecommunications Universal Service Management Agency, combined into the Department of Communications and the Arts. The recently united portfolio is relevant to every business and household in Australia.

Portrait photo of Dr Heather Smith, Secretary

Dr Heather Smith, Secretary

My arrival as Secretary in January 2016 came at a point when the majority of necessary administrative components of the machinery of government change were complete, and the Department was ready to address new challenges and take advantage of opportunities created by its establishment. At the same time, the pace of change in digital technologies has continued to accelerate and we recognise the considerable change this brings to Australia’s citizens and businesses—whether it is to the way we provide and access services, connect with others or distribute creative work. The Department will continue to monitor and advise Government on the impacts and opportunities that digital transformation brings.

Our continuing objective of delivering sound policy and programs to the communications and arts sectors has therefore gained an additional dimension: finding synergies between the arts and communications sectors that could benefit Australia and Australians. In 2015–16, we focused on aligning our internal systems and governance processes. In 2016–17, our focus will be on delivering and identifying policy opportunities to address cross-cutting issues that impact both the arts and communications sectors and affect industry and consumers.

This year’s annual report contains the performance statement required under the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013, explaining the nature and impact of the Department’s work. It reflects the broad scope of work in the Department. It reinforces the fact that the work undertaken by the Department, often with the assistance of portfolio agencies, affects the quality of life of all Australians, and is fundamental to preserving our history and building a future of innovation, creativity and economic growth. 

The Department’s most visible work has centred on the delivery of 21st century enabling infrastructure across Australia. In addition to maintaining policy and regulatory settings, the Department monitors the work of NBNDefinition:National Broadband Network Co Ltd and provides advice to the Minister for Communications as one of the two shareholder ministers. During 2015–16, NBN Co increased its deployment of fixed, wireless and satellite infrastructure and now 25 per cent of Australian homes and businesses are able to order a connection on the National Broadband Network. By fostering productivity and innovation, the network is delivering economic and social benefits to all Australians. The first of two Sky Muster satellites was launched on 1 October 2015 extending access to high-speed broadband services for Australians in regional and remote areas and enhancing their participation in internet activities including distance education and e-Health services.  

we focused on aligning our internal systems and governance processes.

The Regional Telecommunications Review conducted in 2015 confirmed the importance of broadband for regional Australia, but also strongly signalled the continuing need for mobile coverage in rural and regional Australia. In 2015–16, the Department started the build phase of round 1 of the Mobile Black Spot Program, and called for further locations to be nominated in round 2. The new and upgraded mobile base stations provided by the Mobile Black Spot Program are co-funded by state, and in some cases, local governments: an example of the different levels of government working together.

The Department’s work also focuses on delivering a range of activities to support the arts sector and promoting access to arts and cultural experiences for all Australians. In 2015–16, the Department delivered Catalyst—Australian Arts and Culture Fund, which will provide $23 million over four years for more than 125 projects. Catalyst gives priority to projects by small to medium arts organisations, and to those in regional areas. Other programs run by the Department contribute to a platform for vibrant arts and cultural experiences, through our national galleries, library and museums, regional arts programs, the training of elite performers, and support for creators, screen production and funding Indigenous arts and languages.

Both the communication and arts sectors are being impacted by digital disruption. While technology is helping to connect more people to essential services like education and health, it is also challenging traditional business models and regulatory arrangements. These issues underpinned the review of the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMADefinition:Australian Communications and Media Authority), with the Department examining the objectives, functions, structure, governance and resources of the ACMA so it remains fit-for-purpose in the rapidly changing communications environment.

At the same time, consumer demand for communication services that keep us connected is increasing. In 2015–16, we consulted with industry and the public on legislative proposals for a new regulatory framework for spectrum management. Spectrum, as critical infrastructure, facilitates activities in virtually every corner of the marketplace, forming the hidden backbone of communication, commercial transactions and machine-to-machine interactions that are the drivers of global economic growth.

Similarly driven by market and technological change in the broadcasting sector, the Department worked on media reform to enable broadcasting to remain competitive and deliver local content to Australian audiences. The Department prepared amendments to provisions in the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 that prevent a person from controlling:

  • commercial television licences that collectively reach in excess of 75 per cent of the Australian population (the '75 per cent audience reach rule'); and
  • more than two of the three regulated forms of media (commercial radio, commercial TV and associated newspapers) in the one commercial radio licence area (the '2 out of 3 rule').

In addition, the Department prepared regulatory changes that will protect and enhance the amount of local television content in regional Australia as well as introducing an incentive for local content to be filmed in the local area. Although the legislation lapsed when Parliament was prorogued, it will be re-introduced early in the new sitting period.

A particularly innovative project has been the pilot of an online tool that allows computer game developers to obtain an Australian classification for their games without needing to apply to the Classification Board for a rating. So far, the tool has allowed more than 450,000 games to be classified. The tool is being evaluated, and recommendations will be provided to the Minister in the coming months.

Spectrum, as critical infrastructure, facilitates activities in virtually every corner of the marketplace, forming the hidden backbone of communication, commercial transactions and machine-to-machine interactions that are the drivers of global economic growth.

The Australian Public Service (APSDefinition:Australian Public Service) is also transforming. In line with the release of the Balancing the Future: Australian Public Service Gender Equality Strategy 2016–19 and the As One: Making it Happen, the APS Disability Employment Strategy, the Department has continued to support the work of our Gender Equality Network and established a new Diversity and Inclusion Committee. In 2016–17, we will focus on improving gender diversity on our Portfolio Boards, providing staff with unconscious bias training and ensuring cultural diversity, disability and other diversity and inclusion action plans are a major focus for our Diversity and Inclusion Committee.

The Department is committed to providing a flexible workplace for all staff. We have initially focussed on technological solutions to support more flexible working arrangements—a practical combination of laptops, mobile devices, secure Wi-Fi and use of videoconferencing. In addition to exploring technological innovation, the Department is investing in the professional policy and program toolset available to its officers. We are investigating the increased use of behavioural economics, risk-based regulation and data analytics. The Department’s Bureau of Communications Research has made useful contributions to the Department in these areas, and is preparing informational snapshots on the arts and communications sectors for publication.

Finally, I’d like to acknowledge the assistance the Department receives to help us get our work done. The Department’s work has benefitted from the positive input from its portfolio agencies and a diversity of stakeholders, ranging from consumer groups to industry representatives and peak bodies, as well as individuals from all walks of life. In their submissions to consultations, advocacy in the policy process and engagement in a diverse range of consultative meetings and public events, they have shown themselves equally committed to promoting Australia’s cultural and communications sectors, to the benefit of all Australians. I thank them for it, as I thank all staff for their hard work, commitment and support over the last 12 months.

The next year promises to be an exciting period and we look forward to supporting the Government to achieve its policy priorities and deliver positive programs that benefit all Australians.

I thank them for it, as I thank all staff for their hard work, commitment and support over the last 12 months.

Heather Smith
Secretary.