Hello Humans: How NBN hijacked my story on Australian poverty

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A few weeks ago I wrote a piece for The Saturday Paper addressing the economic challenges of addressing unemployment in rural, regional and remote Australia.

Because one of my sources had the audacity to claim that having to pay for four separate internet connections because not one of them is reliable enough to use in isolation, is probably not the best setup for attracting businesses out of the metros, The National Broadband Network Company’s Karina Keisler – and now CommsDay’s Graeme Lynch in its newsletter a few weeks ago – used it as an opportunity to dig the knife in claiming that “criticisms of the NBN technology path itself are overblown”

Everything is fine. Nothing to see here.

My entire story was hijacked by another round of NBN slating and defending which very much misses the point. Consider this my right of reply.

Australia’s official unemployment rate is 5.8% and there are a further 8.5% who are part time employed and would like more work, according to the ABS, but nearly 1.1 million people are excluded from official unemployment statistics because they either haven’t applied for a job in the last four weeks or are unable to start work within a week.

Those living in rural, regional, and remote Australia – hell, even those living in the outer metropolitan suburbs – have been abandoned by their government, and the private sector, a situation very much reflected in the tumultuous roll-out of the NBN in which the first letter of its acronym is becoming increasingly optional: national.

This in a country where 18 of the 20 electorates with the lowest household incomes sit outside the capital cities, (they also happen to be marginal seats).

It seems my piece tagged a policy lever which the Deputy Prime Minister, Barnaby Joyce, can use to control the NBN, resulting in much frothing at the mouth. At least that’s what I was told by a source close to the government.

Rural and regional towns rely heavily on infrastructure to participate in the local economy, as well as compete internationally. Whether this comes from the NBN or some other private enterprise, I honestly couldn’t care less, so long as all Australians have equality of access to the economy for a reasonable price.

Economist Dr Steven Hail says “in a rural setting, long periods of rising unemployment drain hope for the future”, and that a continuing drift of both skills and jobs to urban centres intensifies the problem and multiplies the psychological impact on those left behind.

“Even many of those who move do so reluctantly, facing both financial and a wide range of less explicit emotional costs,” he said.

Jodie Brignell was working as an occupational therapist until her family moved to Nowra. Her husband is a project engineer so the family has little choice over when or where they move to.

The Brignells lived in Merimbula for seven months, then Broken Hill (18 months), Yungaburra (west of Cairns) for 15, followed by Mackay (18 months), before landing in Nowra.

“I was pregnant when we arrived and applied for a job locally but wouldn’t have been able to finish the contract,” she said. “I’m not currently working outside the home.”

“Employment could easily have been a problem everywhere,” she said. “There was a vacant position for me each time, but had I been in a different profession, or had there not been a position, I would have been competing with teenagers for jobs at the supermarket.”

Economist Professor Ross Gerritsen says across the continent, “you’ve got these highly efficient rural industries plonked in a landscape that is littered by the past”.

Arguably streamlining the economy has made Australia internationally competitive, but this has come at the cost of rural and regional unemployment.

“Travel round the eastern goldfields of Western Australia you’ll see these little towns with magnificent buildings that wouldn’t be out of place on Sydney’s George Street, and you’ve got a motel and a petrol station and one house,” he said.

“Everyone has heard of Kalgoorlie but the same can be said of Sandstone, Cue, Menzies Leonora, Laverton, these towns all once had 5,000-10,000 people in them. Ever drive across the Nullarbor? You’ve got these tiny little towns, dependent on the tourism from caravan parks and motels as people make their way across the country.”

Prior to the 1980s Australia had an elaborate structure of regulation and government agencies that preserved rural economies but all of that was “blown away” in the ‘80s, leaving behind a very different beast in which those with the audacity to live outside of the CBD must fend entirely for themselves, even with no resources, and no services.

Despite the impacts of streamlining, the Professor says there are “currents and countercurrents and eddies creating different kinds of economies all over the place.”

Within the international economy, and even the national economy, are layers and layers of micro-economies which the Professor says are worthy of further attention.

My local IT retailer, for example, has made a local monopoly out of supplying accessories for Apple devices or else MacBook and iPhone users would be facing a 40 minute drive to Campbelltown for their nearest Apple Store. And even then he only charges the RRP.

The Professor said rural and regional areas are divided into two classes of producers: high-end farmers producing meat, dairy or produce for the international market; then there are those who produce at ‘sub-economic levels’ – what you see in regions like NSW’s Southern Highlands where city slickers like me move to and grow, sell & trade produce with the local community, or retire to hobby farms made up of sub-divided older farms.

The Professor emphasised “the overriding growth of the importance of amenity”.

“There are things that local communities can do,” he said. People have choices”.

I am one of the few people in Australia to take the Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce up on his suggestion to move bush in pursuit of affordable real estate. Both my husband and I have remote working setups that allow us to work from home 2-3 days a week, a setup which is too often put to the test when our barely decent internet connection drops out. Though we are meant to receive up to 25MBps down, we are lucky to get 9MBps down on a good day (as I write this I’m only getting 8.56MBps). On days where the internet drops out completely, my husband faces a two hour drive to his Kogara office, and I make a trip to the local Maccas. If its internet is out, generally it’s a sign the whole town has an outage in which case shut up and eat your cheeseburger and be grateful.

If rural regions want to retain their population, they have to think about how we can make our rural places more interesting and create more opportunities for leisure and those sorts of pursuits,” said Professor Gerritsen.

Having a reliable internet connection that doesn’t throw one’s employability status or earning potential into chaos, is crucial to metropolitan migration. As is transport. And local investment.

Academic and entrepreneur, Erin Watson-Lynn lived in South Western Australia for 20 years which included Albany and Mandurah before moving to Melbourne’s “Big Smoke” for the chance to study a PhD in economic sociology and launch a digital literacy start-up, DICE Kids, which imbues primary and high-school aged children with business skills for the new economy.

“We grew up sailing boats down the rivers and estuary in Albany and Mandurah,” Watson-Lynn said. “We learned how to drive on gravel roads.We didn’t think 400km was very far.”

The wealth in Mandurah is very unequal. The waterfront is lined with million-dollar homes while a number of Indigenous and other low-income families struggle to put food on the table.

The city  was hit hard by the Global Financial Crisis and the end of the mining boom.

Mandurah now has the second highest rate of unemployment in the country – at 10.5% – second only to the Queensland outback. It’s youth unemployment rate is 11.9% .

A lot of Australia’s regional areas are simply not sustainable for higher education. Notre Dame University recently closed down its Broome campus.

“When you leave school you have to go to the city for a tertiary education, but there is nothing encouraging young people to come back to regional areas” she says. “There are no job opportunities.”

The academic and entrepreneur says the country needs “a proper NBN” and a proper plan to develop and then export, rural, regional and remote skills

“That technology connects them to the economy, it’s as much the national if not global economy they are being cut off from, due to the poor state of technology and infrastructure in those areas,” she says.

Mandurah was “hit hard” by the Global Financial Crisis. “A lot of businesses struggled to stay afloat, and many went under” says Watson-Lynn.

Towns like Mandurah are far more volatile to changes in the economy than city centres, a point which often gets overlooked.

Something as simple as building a new road – or even changing the direction of traffic flows – is enough to put someone out of business.

“A highway was built to connect the south west region with Perth. This meant that instead of driving through Mandurah, you were diverted around the city. A lot of businesses went broke because it was a gateway city and people would stop off at on their way down south to the holiday region.”

“Something like one piece of infrastructure could completely change the economy in the region. Mandurah is more volatile and susceptible to changes in the economy because it’s not diverse.”

Watson-Lynn said high speed rail would make a huge positive difference, though the economics may be challenging, it is important to focus on long-term investment which will pay for itself once Australians have more ease of access moving around the country.

“If you connected Bunbury with Perth that opens up that whole region to the economy and creates jobs,” she said. “There is a rail line between Mandurah and Perth which, when it opened a few years ago, it completely changed things for people because they could drive to the station and be in Perth in 45 minutes.

“That was a big change for Mandurah, it made city jobs more accessible. Imagine if you could do that for Geraldton, Bunbury and anything in between.”

Of course then there is the issue of Indigenous unemployment which no amount of optic fibre will address.

Median household incomes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are almost half of non indigenous households, according to the Rural Health Alliance.

Less than half (46%) of Indigenous Peoples aged 15-years and over were employed between 2014-15, according to the ABS.

The programs that have proven to be most effective are those connecting dispossessed Indigenous Australians with their country through land and sea ranger programs like Working On Country and the Indigenous Protected Areas Program.

Indigenous lawyer and activist Michael Mansell has suggested the creation of a seventh state would give remote Australians more political clout and equitable resourcing.

“Governments want to empty out Aboriginal lands and do not provide support to Indigenous Australians on an equitable needs basis,” Professor Jon Altman of Deakin University said.

“There is a major labour surplus in remote Indigenous Australia, so rather than sending out people under the misguided belief that labour creates industry and employment, why not assess what is possible and plan accordingly.”

Rural, regional and remote Australians are hurting, and the stories of these towns and cities are not being told. There is clearly more to this conversation than high-speed downloads and multi-technology mixes. Increasingly we must look for new economic solutions to non-metropolitan employment, because at some point Sydney and Melbourne will be full up. Better to start those conversations now than when industry realises it is essential to move bush only to find there are no resources there to attract, support or retain them.

Claire Connelly is working on her first book, How The World Really Works, a guide to recognising rhetorical red flags and immunising yourself against bullshit. You should definitely buy it when it comes out. A podcast of the same name will also be launching in the coming months. Stay tuned!

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