The Department of Communications was one of the original seven Australian Government departments established at Federation in 1901. Originally called the Postmaster-General's Department, it has undergone numerous changes over time, though its core purpose of supporting the communications sector in
Australia has remained the same.
The department operates in a rapidly changing landscape where digital technologies and communications services are increasingly pervasive and driving transformation in many industries. Historically, the sector has been characterised by a small number of large, influential companies operating within
technology-defined sectors (for example, telephony, broadcast television, postal services and print media). That paradigm is shifting dramatically. The rise of digital technology is now changing how people interact with each other, the way people engage as citizens, and the way business operates. For
policy makers, 'digital' is redefining the landscape within which government operates, as well as the expectations of the people it serves.
Another key factor driving activity in the Communications portfolio is the current government's commitment to reducing the regulatory burden for business and the community. The Government's aim is to deliver real reform in the Communications portfolio through better regulation, which lowers the cost
burden on business, while maintaining necessary consumer and other safeguards. Careful consideration by the department of a vast range of complex policy issues across the portfolio, in consultation with stakeholders,
is required for this to be achieved.
The department's purpose is to 'promote an innovative and competitive communications sector, so all Australians can realise the full potential of digital technologies and communications services'. The department sees its role as being 'the Government's pre-eminent advisor on communications, in particular,
digital technologies and communications services'.
The Corporate Plan 2014–17 articulates the department's desired culture and values and identifies three strategic priorities:
- enhance digital productivity—advising government on the opportunities arising from the innovative adoption and use of digital technologies, and supporting government, business and the community to maximise these opportunities
- expand digital infrastructure—advising government on the necessary market settings to deliver competitive and efficient digital infrastructure to drive growth in the broader economy
- promote efficient communications markets—advising government on the necessary market settings to promote competition, while ensuring access to basic services, making available socially valuable content, and safeguarding consumers from inappropriate content and unfair dealing.
In support of these priorities, the department has identified the need to strengthen its core capabilities in research, strategic policy and leadership. It has also identified the need to foster greater internal collaboration and to make more effective and innovative use of leading-edge Information
and Communications Technology (ICT).
At present, the department serves the Minister for Communications, the Hon. Malcolm Turnbull MP and the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Communications, the Hon. Paul Fletcher MP.
The department's annual revenue from government from 2012–13 to 2017–18 is illustrated in Figure 2 below.
Figure 2. Departmental budget overview (revenue from government): 2012–13 to 2017–18†
* The functions of the Telecommunications Universal Service Management Agency (TUSMA) will be absorbed into the department from 1 July 2015. As a result, figures from 2015–16 include amounts previously attributed to the TUSMA.
† Figures are based on revenue from government and do not include capital funding or loans.
The department's headcount has declined significantly since 2012 due to the completion of a number of programmes, the effects of the ongoing efficiency dividend, and as part of the reduction in the size of the APS (Figure 3).
Figure 3. Total departmental staff (headcount)—June 2012 to December 2014
The average staffing level for the department from 2015–16 to 2017–18 is predicted to remain steady at 417.
The department's staff are predominantly located in Canberra, with a small office (18 staff) in Sydney. The functions of the Telecommunications Universal Service Management Agency (TUSMA) will transfer into the department from 1 July 2015 and its staff will continue to be located in Melbourne.
The department is the primary Australian Government department responsible for policy in the communications sector. At the time of the review it had these six portfolio agencies2:
- NBN Co Limited (NBN Co)
- Australia Post
- Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC)
- Special Broadcasting Service Corporation (SBS)
- Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA)
The department supports the Minister as joint shareholder (with the Minister for Finance) of NBN Co and Australia Post and with the oversight of the two national broadcasters, the ABC and SBS.
The two statutory authorities residing within the portfolio are the ACMA, which regulates broadcasting, radio communications, telecommunications and online content, and the TUSMA, established in 2012, which manages contracts and grants with service providers to ensure all Australians have reasonable
access to telecommunications services. The majority of portfolio agencies have larger budgets and more staff than the department and diverse operating remits. Figure 4 illustrates the size of the portfolio agencies as compared with the department.
Figure 4. Communications portfolio—staff headcount by agency as at 30 June 2014*
*Total staff headcount figures for each agency are as at 30 June 2014 and sourced from annual reports and the corporate plan in relation to NBN Co.
To achieve its objectives, the department interacts with a diverse range of stakeholders, including:
- APS agencies, such as the departments of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Industry, Finance, Attorney-General's, the Treasury and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission
- industry peak bodies and consumer groups
- communications and media companies ranging from telecommunications providers and broadcasters through to emerging digital and online enterprises.
Given the range of industries and government services impacted by digital trends, policy responsibility for communications sector issues remains diffuse. As a result, the department's activity intersects with other agencies including the:
- Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Department of Finance in relation to the Government's adoption of digital technologies
- Attorney-General's Department in relation to national security, cyber security, copyright and content regulation
- Department of Industry in relation to ICT industry issues
- Department of Finance, as the Minister for Finance is a joint shareholder of NBN Co and Australia Post, along with the Minister for Communications
- Australian Competition and Consumer Commission in relation to the economic regulation of the communications sector, including telecommunications and the National Broadband Network (NBN).
2 On 23 January 2015, the Prime Minister and Minister for Communications announced that a Digital Transformation Office (DTO) would be established in the Communications portfolio. The DTO will be headed by a Chief Executive Officer and report to the Minister for Communications.