Secretary’s review

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Body text for: Secretary’s review

2016–17 has been a year of reform, progress and change for the Department of Communications and the Arts

Portrait photo of Mike Mrdak AO, Secretary
Mike Mrdak AO, Secretary

This report is my first as Secretary since taking over from Dr Heather Smith PSM on 18 September 2017. I would like to acknowledge Heather’s contribution to and leadership of this portfolio from her commencement as Secretary in January 2016. Through her leadership, the Department was well placed to deliver on its outcomes in 2016–17, as detailed in this report. She led significant reforms in communications infrastructure and broadcasting policy and has built a strong Department culture.

The ever-changing nature of technology and digital disruption present us with a myriad of opportunities, along with challenges, as the policy and regulatory issues we used to think of as standalone are increasingly interlinked. In this context, the Department will continue to be focused on maintaining clear alignment between the work of this portfolio and the broader Australian Government agenda to support innovation, productivity and growth.

The communications sector is now a layered digital system where services, applications and content are combined and connected in various ways to offer new capabilities and products to consumers, rather than vertical silos of industry or devices. At the same time, the arts sector is embracing digital technology disruption to create new works, businesses and ways of operating.

This year has seen an important body of work progressed to support our Ministers in establishing strong foundations for a range of significant reforms to be delivered over the coming years. These reforms will modernise our relationship with the communications and creative sectors, relating to content, copyright, broadcasting, spectrum and support for cultural and artistic endeavours.

A key achievement was the Government’s announcement of a comprehensive package of media, broadcasting and content reforms in May 2017. The package aims to improve the sustainability of Australia’s free-to-air broadcasting sector, protect children from exposure to gambling advertising and support the creation of high-quality Australian content. Other elements of the package include adjustments to the anti-siphoning regime and funding to support under-represented sports on pay TV.

The Department also focused on progressing the Government’s spectrum reform agenda to implement the recommendations of the 2015 Spectrum Review. In May 2017, a consultation package was released on reforms to modernise and simplify Australia’s spectrum management framework. We are now positioned to make significant progress in implementing reform arrangements in 2017–18.

The passage of the Copyright Amendment (Disability Access and Other Measures) Bill 2017 through Parliament in March 2017 was another significant milestone for the Department. These reforms streamline and simplify the copyright framework for the disability, education, library and archive sectors and provide the wider Australian community with fair and reasonable access to copyright material, while respecting the interests of copyright holders. The Bill is an important next step in working with stakeholders to modernise copyright law and follows the ratification of the Marrakesh Treaty in 2015–16. The recently released Government response to the Productivity Commission’s report on intellectual property arrangements supports a number of the report’s recommendations and acknowledges the importance of further consultation with stakeholders on future copyright reforms.

The National Broadband Network (NBNDefinition:National Broadband Network) provides access to high-speed broadband for Australian homes and businesses. In 2016–17, we continued our role in supporting the provision of NBN infrastructure to Australians, monitoring the work of NBN Co Ltd (NBN Co), maintaining policy and regulatory settings and providing advice to the Minister for Communications as one of the two shareholder ministers and the Minister for Regional Communications. This Department worked closely with the Department of Finance to put in place arrangements for a Commonwealth loan to NBN Co valued at up to $19.5 billion, which will commence in October 2017.

A highlight of the NBN rollout in 2016–17 was the successful launch of the Sky Muster II satellite in October 2016. Nearly 75,000 premises had active broadband services over the Sky Muster satellites at the end of June 2017. Also at this time, the NBN was available to over 5.7 million premises, marking the half-way point of the rollout.

Another major piece of work completed this year was the telecommunications reform package, with legislation introduced into Parliament in late June 2017. The reform package is designed to improve the underlying competitive framework in which high-speed broadband infrastructure providers operate. It will establish a statutory infrastructure provider regime to ensure people in Australia can access a high-speed broadband service, no matter where they live or work, and will enable services in regional areas to be sustainably funded into the future through the introduction of the Regional Broadband Scheme.

Inadequate mobile phone coverage remains a significant issue for Australians living, working and travelling in regional areas of the country. In 2016–17, the Department continued implementation of the Mobile Black Spot Program, progressing the build phase for round 1 which started in December 2015 and starting the build phase for round 2 in early 2017. At the end of June 2017, an estimated 31,624 premises and 2,256 kilometres of major roads were benefiting from improved mobile coverage. As a result of this program, regional locations and small communities across the country will have access to improved mobile phone and data coverage and greater competition, supporting education, business growth and keeping in contact with family and friends.

The Copyright Amendment (Disability Access and Other Measures) Bill is an important next step in working with stakeholders to modernise copyright law.

This year also saw changes to the Government’s support for the arts sector to help pave the way for increased focus on the work of connecting the arts sector to the broader innovation agenda. In March 2017, the Government announced that the majority of funds would be transferred from the Catalyst—Australian Arts and Culture Fund to the Australia Council. The Department worked with the Australia Council to facilitate a smooth transition to the new arrangements, which will see the Department retain $2 million per year to provide an alternative avenue of funding for organisations not in receipt of Australia Council support.

Over the course of the year, the Department continued to work closely with our National Collecting Institutions (NCIs), which play an important role in preserving Australia’s cultural heritage. A key focus has been to support our NCIs upgrade their infrastructure and operations through an additional $64.9 million from the Public Service Modernisation Fund. Our NCIs are more relevant and accessible than ever before. The most recent data show that Australia’s collecting institutions attracted almost 11 million visitors in 2016–17 and achieved a satisfaction rate of 88 per cent.

This Department delivers a range of programs that encourage excellence in the arts, help to protect our cultural heritage and promote public access to, and participation in, arts and culture. In 2016–17, around 80 organisations received funding under our Indigenous Languages and Arts Program, which supports the revival, preservation and celebration of Indigenous language and arts. The importance of this program was further highlighted through the 2017 National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) week theme ‘Our Languages Matter’, which recognised the importance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait lslander languages.

It was also an important year for Indigenous repatriation, with the Department supporting two repatriation handover ceremonies in Berlin and London, involving seven institutions. At these ceremonies, Australian Indigenous ancestral remains were returned from German and United Kingdom institutions to Australian Indigenous community members and direct descendants. Returning ancestral remains to Country helps promote healing, justice and reconciliation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. These ceremonies represented the culmination of complex negotiations and community consultations led by the Department.

Internally the Department has been on the move, with staff based at Market Street in Sydney relocating to our Surry Hills office at the end of March 2017, and our Canberra-based staff relocating in late July 2017 from our Forrest-based building to the Nishi building in New Acton. These changes bring exciting opportunities to explore and adopt a set of technologies that will enable us to work better as one organisation, despite being physically located across three offices in Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne and having staff in several other locations across Australia. These technologies are in alignment with our policies to encourage different ways of working, and enable a more flexible, inclusive and collaborative workplace culture.

The Department has continued to strengthen its culture and capability by enhancing diversity and inclusion. In early 2017, the Department launched its Diversity and Inclusion Strategy. The strategy promotes inclusive leadership, a respectful culture, and flexible work through digital technologies, which will help us to attract, recruit, develop and retain a diverse workforce. Across the year, the Department launched a number of action plans that support this broader strategy, including the Gender Action Plan and the Disability Access and Inclusion Action Plan. The Department will continue to build on this in 2017–18.

The Department also worked on realigning its strategic priorities to better reflect the synergies between the arts and communications sectors. This resulted in the 2017–18 Corporate Plan reflecting three strategic priorities— ‘consumer’, ‘advancing the sector’ and ‘content and culture’—to guide our activities over the coming year and beyond.

In 2016–17, around 80 organisations received funding under our Indigenous Languages and Arts Program.

Looking forward, some of our key areas of focus in 2017–18 are:

  • delivering and implementing the Government’s reform agenda and several reviews relating to the communications and arts sectors
  • continuing our support of the NBN rollout, with an increasing focus on the consumer experience
  • aligning the work of the portfolio with the broader government agenda to encourage productivity, growth and innovation, including supporting the links between innovation, arts and creativity
  • continuing to support Australia’s vibrant creative sectors
  • working more collaboratively and innovatively with industry and consumers, and across government, in all areas of our work
  • continuing to strengthen our research and evidence base for policy through the Bureau of Communications and Arts Research
  • taking advantage of the opportunities presented by the move in Canberra to our new premises and in Sydney of staff to Surry Hills to grow our culture, capability and capacity.

I thank all staff for their contributions over the year and I am looking forward to working productively with our portfolio agencies, stakeholders and staff to achieve outcomes in the year ahead.

Mike Mrdak AO