TIM WATTS MP
SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS
SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR CYBER SECURITY
MEMBER FOR GELLIBRAND
COMMSDAY SUMMIT 2020
TUESDAY, 7 APRIL 2020
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I acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land on which I record this video, the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung and Bunurong peoples of the Kulin Nation — and also acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land on which we would have met, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation — and pay my respect to their Elders, past, present and emerging.
This is my first CommsDay Summit as a speaker, though it’s far from my first as an attendee. That was back in Sydney in 2005 — which seems even longer ago today than it might have a few weeks back.
Congratulations to Grahame Lynch and Commsday for agilely adapting to these historically strange times — proceeding with this Summit sends a much-needed signal of confidence and optimism.
The world won’t be the same after the pandemic.
That includes Australia.
This moment is epochal.
When the history is written, there’ll be another BC — Before Covid.
We are already seeing changes in the relationship between the citizen and the state unheard of outside times of war.
Restrictions on freedom of movement, government directed production and military supported supply chains, government wage guarantees and government spending at a scale that we haven’t seen since societies around the world were mobilised for war.
We are in a time of anxiety and uncertainty, but also possibility.
We are being forced to reconsider long-held assumptions and confront the importance of things that we have long taken for granted.
One concept that those of us who have lived through this period will never look at in the same way is “national resilience” — how well we plan for and respond to external shocks, and how well we can rebound from them.
Over the past four months, the nation’s resilience has been tested by two very serious crises.
We have seen bushfires spread across the continent with an intensity and duration not experienced in living memory.
And then just as the bushfire threat subsided, a new threat emerged in the form of a global pandemic.
What’s been obvious to all Australians during this time is how critical communications infrastructure is in times of crisis.
Labor acknowledges the efforts of industry over this difficult period.
We commend their leadership, management and staff for their sustained efforts which continue to this day.
Over this period, Labor has consulted broadly with carriers about the bushfires and challenges experienced, and what this meant for the resilience of our telecommunications system.
These conversations did not reveal a systemic shortcoming in process or coordination.
If anything, what they did affirm is how seriously this sector takes its responsibility during times of crisis.
At the peak of the bushfires, it seems up to 180 mobile sites were impacted across Telstra, Vodafone and Optus.
Approximately half of these sites were not operational because power had been lost and technicians could not access the mobile tower, while the remaining half were kept up and running through backup diesel generators, which often required periodic refueling.
I expect more accurate data will become available, but it’s clear the primary vulnerability of communications networks over the bushfire period was a loss of mains power supply, compounded by the subsequent challenge of then needing to access sites to refuel backup generators.
Labor supports steps by industry and Government to examine what can be done here.
We do see merit in examining whether capabilities of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) and RFS, where safe and appropriate, can be better utilised through State Emergency Control Centres to help access mobile sites for generator refueling.
Labor would also like to see Vodafone integrated into these State Emergency Control Centres. Vodafone operates one of Australia’s three major mobile network, and strengthening co-ordination across carriers is essential.
The accumulation of even modest improvements makes the overall task of industry less difficult than it already is – and they deserve our support.
There is a common adage that communications is an essential and critical service.
We need to be careful not to overstate this, but there remain parts of the government machinery where this has not found full or consistent expression.
To give an example, in 2018 the industry made a request to be included in the Federal Government Liquid Fuel Emergency Essential Users Determination, which sets out the industries which get priority access to fuel.
This surely should have been straightforward, and yet, it was not granted.
From what I understand, Angus Taylor has been asked to reconsider this decision in light of the recent bushfires.
Looking forward, there are ways to emerge from this with a better framework than we have right now.
A starting point is having nationally consistent recognition by Federal and State governments that telecommunications, whether during bushfires or pandemics, is an essential service.
A formal declaration would flow through all levels of government and remove any ambiguity as to what institutional expectations are.
This should not be seen as a criticism of the Government, but rather a suggestion on how we can improve the strategic framework that contributes to our national resilience.
We had barely finished the Parliamentary condolences for the victims of the Black Summer bushfires, before we were confronted with a new challenge to our nation’s resilience.
The Covid-19 pandemic has stress tested nearly every part of our society and our economy – and our telecommunications sector is no different.
As the spread of this virus accelerated, governments around the world have ramped up social distancing measures.
The CityMapper Mobility Index — which measures the percentage of a city moving compared to usual — showed that activity levels in Melbourne on March 2 were sitting at around 110%, where 100% is the baseline.
By this week, it was 15 percent.
In New York City, it was seven percent. In Barcelona, just three percent.
So naturally, more Australians are working from home, more children are studying from home, and more people are staying at home in the evenings.
While much of the nation is suddenly working from home, and essential government services like healthcare and income support shifted to online delivery in a time of social distancing, our communications infrastructure has creaked under the load.
When the economic impact of the crisis hit, the millions of people on hold to Centrelink created such congestion that many others were unable to make calls and suffered drop-outs.
With a whole nation staying home to save lives, the Communications Minister has been compelled to ask Netflix to reduce the quality of its streamed content as the NBN has creaked under greater demand.
This call for voluntary rationing of bandwidth was echoed by Telstra CEO, Andy Penn.
This wave of data had economic, as well as technical, consequences.
It was reported in mid-March that peak NBN demand — which typically occurs around 9pm in the evenings — was just shy of 12 terabytes per second, with carriers purchasing around 12.5 terabits per second of CVC capacity.
If peak demand were to exceed the amount of CVC capacity purchased by retailers, it would present retail broadband providers with a decision to either incur greater wholesale costs or to tolerate greater levels of network congestion.
This is why Labor called on NBN to consider temporary CVC relief to retail providers in the event speeds became congested.
Labor welcomed the subsequent announcement that NBNCo would provide retail providers a temporary CVC boost, and the Shadow Minister acknowledged the initiative taken by industry, the Minister and NBNCo to examine these issues early on.
It’s not often you will hear a Labor Opposition acknowledge the work of both the Government and NBNCo in the same sentence, but in times of crisis, all sides of politics share a common interest.
In this spirit, we think there’s more that should be done.
Most schoolwork from next term will be transferred online, which will disadvantage our country’s most vulnerable kids.
The ABS suggests that three percent of Australian households with children under 15 have no home internet.
That translates to 55,000 homes without this vital connection.
We should be united in saying that no child should be left behind in this crisis.
That’s why Labor has called for a targeted and responsible initiative to support these families with free NBN access for at least 12 months.
One model Labor has suggested is for the Commonwealth, with the agreement of industry, to partner with a single retail provider for the specific purpose of this initiative, with NBNCo providing a reverse wholesale rebate for 12-24 months to support a $0 retail price.
We think this would simplify delivery by providing eligible households and the education system with a single point of contact to reduce coordination risks and get families connected more quickly.
The proposal is also well positioned to support a transition path if schools provided interim connection options to children, like mobile broadband dongles.
We’ve already seen an initiative like this in New Zealand, and there’s no reason we can’t follow suit.
The Australian telecommunications sector has a lot to be proud of in the way that it has responded to the Black Summer and the Covid-19 pandemic.
* * *
These crises also invite us to consider our national resilience to other potential external shocks.
In my own portfolio, I wonder how resilient Australia would be to an incident that saw the widespread proliferation of malware reminiscent of the notPetya wiper.
If, instead of a handful of companies being victims of an attack of this kind, how resilient would we be to hundreds, or even thousands of organisations falling victim.
Covid-19 shows us that this is no theoretical risk – in an age of inter-connected systems and just in time logistics networks, incidents of this kind can cause cascading failures.
While there is a persistent domestic cyber security skills shortage measured in the thousands, would we have the national resilience to get Australian organisations back on their feet if an attack like this happened at scale?
If we weren’t able to import skilled workers from overseas to help, because other nations were experiencing the same problem, what would we do then?
Are our existing cyber security institutions equipped to mitigate this risk? To get the word out quickly to prevent the spread of such an attack?
Past experiences with the speed and effectiveness of government warnings in response to incidents like Wannacry are not encouraging.
The consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic should cause us to look again at our exposure to risks of this kind, and to consider how resilient we would be in the face of them.
* * *
The sheer scale of the Covid-19 crisis demands that all of us take stock and think about national resilience more broadly than simply our own sector.
Allan Gyngell, the former diplomat and head of Australia’s central intelligence assessment agency, has argued that what separates the nations that have responded effectively to COVID-19 from those who haven’t, isn’t their democratic or authoritarian make-up — it’s their basic capability – whether they have ‘effective public institutions’.
We can see the strength of public institutions underpinning the response to this crisis in nations like Singapore and South Korea, and the weaknesses of public institutions undermining the response in nations like the United States, Iran, Italy and Russia.
So where does Australia sit on this spectrum of capability? How effective are our public institutions?
Compared to most of the world, quite well — for now.
But this crisis should also jolt us into the realisation that the effectiveness of our public institutions is sliding, and they have been sliding for a while.
Last week, the Shadow Treasurer — my colleague, Jim Chalmers — published a column asking us to reflect upon what a post-pandemic Australia might look like.
One theme that he struck upon was the terrible cost of a diminished national capability.
He wrote: “This crisis brings to light what many Australians already knew first-hand: hollowing-out the state hurts people. We’re seeing the cold hard consequences of years of cuts and closures dressed-up as ‘savings’ and the outsourcing and offshoring of services in the name of ‘efficiency’.”
During the stress test of Covid-19, we’ve seen massive queues at Centrelink, poorly managed airports, vital government websites crash, and governance failures that allowed contaminated cruise liners disembark in the heart of our largest city.
These are failures of capability that undermine our national resilience.
While the importance of effective public institutions is obvious to all during times of crisis, this isn’t when these public institutions are built.
Building state capability – effective public institutions that have the confidence of the people – takes time and effort.
It requires us to prioritise building these capabilities when times are good.
Over the years, Governments have commissioned numerous taskforces and working groups to produce detailed strategies and plans to build our national resilience.
But even the best developed plans will fail in the moment without effective public institutions to underpin their delivery.
We’ve clearly seen the consequences of a decade’s worth of cuts to the Australian public service during the current crisis. But this is an issue that is broader than the capability of the public service.
In this regard, I’m most worried about the health of two, related public institutions in Australia – our media and our democracy.
* * *
We’ve seen stranger things these past few weeks, but here’s one sign of our new reality: Fran Kelly broadcasting from her dining table.
While Fran’s studio has changed, her job hasn’t: Every morning on Radio National, she interviews health experts and challenges governments.
Every morning, she helps promote public safety by sharing dependable information.
Of course, she’s not alone at the national broadcaster in doing this.
During our summer of fire, the ABC was there for us.
Their staff worked incredibly hard, in mentally challenging conditions, to accurately cover the disaster and provide communities with vital emergency broadcasts.
The ABC also worked as an antidote against misinformation circulating about those fires.
Communities across the country depended upon the ABC for news and emergency warnings.
For guidance and information.
Now it’s doing it again.
The ABC is not only broadcasting dependable information and usefully challenging governments, but helping battle the enormous volume of mis- and disinformation about the virus.
Some misinformation is innocently made, anxiously shared by friends and families before snowballing across the country, the world.
But however innocently misinformation might form, its consequences are profound. It can badly undermine public health campaigns.
It can cost lives.
Then there’s disinformation — lies that are confected to pursue all sorts of agendas.
I’ve seen it in my electorate here in Melbourne’s west, when a local company was the victim of a malicious rumour that spread like wildfire.
Globally, there’s a terrible volume of it — and it can proliferate in hours.
The World Health Organisation calls it an “infodemic” and describe it as: “an over-abundance of information—some accurate and some not—that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.”
In this environment — where false information can cost livelihoods, unnecessarily elevate fear, and, in some cases, literally kill — the ABC should be seen as a central part of our national resilience.
And yet there’s an appalling contrast between the ABC’s public service, and a history of punitive funding cuts.
The ABC’s managing director has warned that severe budget cuts has made it very difficult for the organisation to fulfil its Charter.
And in December, the ACCC warned that the ABC was — and I quote — “not currently resourced to fully compensate in the decline in local reporting” and recommended they receive “stable and adequate funding”.
The ACCC said this before the Australian Associated Press announced it would close after 85 years.
It said this before last week’s announcement that News Corp was suspending the print editions of its community newspapers.
And it said this before the worst of the fires, a global pandemic and the subsequent collapse in advertising revenue.
The ABC’s worth is obvious to the community, and it should be obvious to the government.
The Morrison government MUST invest the resources necessary to maintain the ABC’s position as the nation’s most trusted media outlet.
But protecting our media doesn’t stop with properly funding the ABC.
Labor stands with journalists and the Right to Know campaign for greater press freedom.
This means stronger protections for public interest journalism and whistleblowers.
It means reforming freedom of information laws so that it’s harder for governments to ignore or circumvent them.
Media isn’t that healthy right now, but we need it more than ever.
Which is why Labor acknowledges the government’s commitment to some of the ACCC’s Digital Platform Review recommendations — like harmonising regulations cross old and new media.
Better late than never.
But the long overdue work of modernising media regulation is still woefully incomplete.
We still have analogue-era law in 2020.
We still have the tech giants enjoying advantage in an imbalanced market.
ACCC Chair Rod Sims said this week he hopes that more media competition can emerge from the pandemic.
But long delays in reform mean that less competition is a real possibility — that there’ll be fewer mastheads and more mergers.
The Australian chair of News Corp said just this week that he has little confidence that a voluntary code-of-conduct will address a bargaining imbalance.
Media reform isn’t academic either.
It’s crucial to our national resilience.
* * *
If we are going to reimagine and re-strengthen national resilience, then we also need to think about the public’s faith in their democratic institutions.
Before this pandemic, Australians’ faith in democracy and was historically low.
Scandals, cynicism and inaction on defining issues have poisoned the public’s faith.
As we can see now, this isn’t an academic point.
It’s profoundly serious.
It means that when a leader must offer comfort and instruction in a moment of crisis, there will be fewer people listening.
There will be fewer people responding.
And if faith in political leadership is low, then confidence in misinformation grows.
Trust in our democracy is another antidote against the ravages of misinformation.
It is now more important than ever before in our lifetime that the public trust their leaders.
But instead, we recently saw the minister for government services falsely blame the crash of the myGov site on a cyber-attack.
This damages trust even more.
I’m not saying that the government won’t make mistakes during this historic time, or that some mistakes will be understandable.
But leaders, more now than ever, must be accountable and transparent. They must speak directly and honestly with Australians.
Blaming a fictitious cyber-attack undermines trust.
If trust is undermined, then it makes it much harder to run effective health campaigns, or implement large, necessary reforms.
Look at South Korea.
Right now, their response to the virus is being celebrated — national leaders are calling South Korea’s president for advice.
South Korea have dramatically flattened the curve, and they’ve done so without the draconian force of China, or the severe economic shutdowns experienced almost everywhere else.
It’s too early to claim the South Korean response as definitive.
Unfortunately the threat of resurgence remains.
But what is it about what they have done that has been so effective?
Well, they responded quickly, conducted massive testing and contact tracing – an extraordinary demonstration of the capability of their public institutions – and they’ve enjoyed broad public support and trust as a consequence.
I want to emphasise this last part.
During this crisis, the South Korean government has been widely trusted by its citizens.
South Korea’s vice minister for foreign affairs recently said: “This public trust has resulted in a very high level of civic awareness and voluntary cooperation that strengthens our collective effort.”
It’s a virtuous circle.
A capable state enjoys the confidence of the people.
This public trust further enhances the capability of the state to respond effectively to the crisis.
But neither this capability, nor this public trust, was built during the crisis.
Both are national resources that are built when times are good, and sources of national resilience in times of trouble.
Cultures vary and not everything is replicable. Still, I’ve been thinking a lot about South Korea’s sense of common purpose.
* * *
The Covid-19 crisis should be a wake up call for Australia to rebuild its national capability – to invest in the effectiveness of our public institutions.
We can learn from Australia’s response to the aftermath of the Second World War in this regard.
War is a time of profound loss, sacrifice and interruption.
It’s also often a time of common purpose – a time that focuses the eye on what truly matters.
But the historian Stuart Macintyre argues that it’s not true that Australians can only find common purpose in conflict.
In fact, in his newly relevant book Australia’s Boldest Experiment: War and Reconstruction in the 1940s, Macintyre shows how well we found common purpose after war ended.
A time when we publicly, and forensically, examined our national vulnerabilities.
A time when our public service was empowered to look at the big picture, and address failings in agriculture, housing, education and infrastructure.
A time when Australia, already sick and beaten by the First World War and the Great Depression, began to prosperously emerge.
It was a time from which arguably the greatest generation of Australia’s public servants emerged — and not surprisingly, it coincided with greater public faith in them.
As the Shadow Treasurer wrote last week, it’s not too early to start thinking about the Australia that we want to live in after the pandemic.
To think about what works, and what doesn’t.
To talk about what works, and what doesn’t.
And that means thinking about how we restore the capability of our nation – and the public’s faith in its leaders.
MEDIA CONTACT: MARTIN MCKENZIE-MURRAY 0423 850 035