DEPARTMENT OF COMMUNICATIONS
From Federation in 1901, under section 51(v) of the Constitution, the Commonwealth of Australia was responsible for the administration of communications matters, and in particular a nationally integrated system of postal and telegraphic services. Section 69 specifically required the new federal government to absorb all state departments responsible for ‘posts, telegraphs, and telephone’.
A single group of public servants has essentially been responsible for media and communications issues since Federation, with almost unbroken succession despite changes of government. There have been at least nine successive departments since 1901—with the names usually more complex in recent years. The precise responsibilities of related government departments and their public servants have changed with the allocation of ministerial portfolios and incoming administrations. Sometimes the secretary of the department changes when a new government is elected, but usually there is little change in departmental leadership. While public servants, particularly the secretary of the department, have considerable influence on policy, that power stems from their role in assisting and advising their government minister.
The current Department of Communications is a descendant of the original Postmaster-General’s (PMG) Department, created in 1901, which accounted for 90 per cent of the federal bureaucracy, with 16,000 staff. Radio started its early growth soon afterwards, with the first complete set of broadcasting regulations issued in 1923, for which the department’s Wireless Branch became responsible. With the formation of the Australian Broadcasting Control Board in 1949, the PMG still retained statutory authority for broadcasting. Under the Television Act 1953, the department was authorised to make television stations available for transmission of programs.
The PMG coexisted with the Department of the Media (1972–75) under the Whitlam Labor government. The duties of both departments were assumed by the Postal and Telecommunications Department, which also gained responsibility for technical and planning matters in 1975.
The Department of Communications (1980– 87) under the Fraser Coalition and Hawke Labor governments oversaw inquiries into telecommunication services and subscription television, and considered the findings of the Dix inquiry into the ABC. The Department of Transport and Communications (1987–93) under the Hawke and Keating Labor governments oversaw the introduction of the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 and the Radiocommunications Act 1992. The Department of Communications and the Arts (1994–97) under the Keating Labor and Howard Coalition governments assumed arts and heritage policy priorities, and oversaw ‘Networking the Nation’, a regional telecommunications fund, as well as the arrangements for the sale of the first third of Telstra.
The Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts (1998–2007) under the Howard government demonstrated the shifting awareness of the role that technology was playing in the ‘information economy’. This emphasis was articulated even more sharply in 2007, with the Rudd Labor government’s creation of the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy (DBCDE) under Senator Stephen Conroy.
The new department’s priorities were the switch to digital television, more accessible broadband (through the National Broadband Network), promoting the digital economy (through broadband infrastructure) and safer internet use (through addressing e-security and cyber-safety risks). By 2012–13, the DBCDE was responsible for three programs: broadband and communications infrastructure; digital economy and postal services; and broadcasting and digital television. In June 2013 it employed 643 staff.
The DBCDE was replaced by the Department of Communications, under Malcolm Turnbull, with the election of the Abbott Coalition government in September 2013.