Longest serving agency head: ACMA’s Chris Chapman says farewell

At Canberra’s Senate Estimates Committee this week, ACMA Chairman Chris Chapman made his last appearance before parliament and outlined the achievements during his term heading up Australia’s communications regulatory authority.

Deputy Chair Richard Bean is expected to take over the regulator in the interim until a formal appointment is made.

Chapman told the Senate committee:

This is my 28th Senate estimates appearance, and I have been fortunate to have been supported at the table on every occasion by my deputy chairs, by Richard Bean on this occasion, and general managers, with
line area expertise in the wings. We have always prepared assiduously and sought to honour the intendedaccountability mechanism of estimates. With the A team, we have been well prepared. I have been fortunate in the extreme to have had the finest of colleagues in support…
To round out some cold, hard but perhaps wearying statistics, I have over these 10 years seen six prime ministerships, served under five communications ministers, served with six department secretaries, come before six Senate estimates committee chairpersons, regulated with 15 outstanding authority members, chaired, unbelievably, 246 authority meetings, and participated in 56 authority strategy sessions. Today, as I understandit, I am the longest serving agency head in the Commonwealth’s 194 agencies.


Respect for the utility of accountability in estimates has been matched by this agency’s fiscal stewardship since its establishment. Over the decade there have been no financial dramas, no sudden discovery of unaccounted costs or any requests for bailouts by the agency. Our appropriations and revenue have amounted to just under $1 billion over this period, although its annual funding has varied substantially within that total funding envelope. In fact, base funding has actually declined by 18 per cent in nominal terms over that decade.
In regulatory responsibilities across the four worlds it has regulated—broadcasting, communications, radiocommunications and the online space—it is almost beyond comprehension. It is the national town planner in
broadcasting and radio communications. It is the spectrum supplier; it is the technical adjudicator in so much of these four worlds. It is the protector of consumer safeguards in the telecommunications space; it
is the protector of community safeguards in the broadcasting space. It is the program deliverer in the unwanted communication space. It is this country’s representative in a wide array of international meetings and collaborations, most recently leading the Australian delegation to the month-long World Radiocommunications Conference last November. Forgood measure, it is the third-largest collector of revenues in the Commonwealth.
The ACMA has had a staff count of 623 at the height of the digital dividend in itiatives, and today sits at just on 417—a 33 per cent reduction.


Notwithstanding the complexity of its multiple roles, the increasing uncertainties of its brief in light of the realities of digital enablement and digital disruption, the challenges of Australia’s massive geography and the
asymmetry of its population density, this agency has over the decade operated with a net surplus of about $650,000, raised in income nearly 11 times its total operational appropriations, moved the percentage of funds expended from front line staff from 61 to 74 per cent and secured 10 successive ANAO certificates of compliance, all unqualified.
As an agency head, on purely stewardship grounds, I would like to think ‘Mission accomplished.’ But it is on the performance delivery and output side of the agency —on the human side and the soft skills side of the
agency—that the ACMA is a grossly different outfit to the one I walked into a decade ago. It was an agency that was then converged, in theory, but was disparate in locales, cultures, modus operandi and skill sets. It is an agency that has grown in confidence, come to understand its brief, realised early in the peace that the old paradigms would not address the future world of media and communications—let alone adequately brid
ge to that future—is executing work plans based on enhanced risk -based assessments, seeking to deliver outcomes rather than reflect on mere outputs and inputs and seeking to overcome the broken concepts embedded in the four principle pieces of legislation and the 22 other pieces of legislation to which it responds. We are doing that by applying first principles thinking where legislative and regulatory discretion allows, increasingly adopting forbearance and prosecuting soft law approaches rather than apply ing black letter law. In essence, it is communicating and facilitating before regulating.
All of that and more is but a precursor to the type and style of regulation that will be required of the regulator going forward. I will give a consolidated snapshot, because I have left out a lot of detail comparing the situation of 10 years ago to today—as Molly would say, if you’re needing some fast facts, ‘do yourself a favour’ and have a read. A consolidated snapshot is this: traffic from wireless and mobile devic
es overtook traffic from wired devices in 2015; more than half of the world’s population has a mobile phone; by 2019 video will comprise 80 per cent of all IP traffic and mobile will help to push internet penetration beyond 50 per cent of the world’s population during this year.


I conclude the statistical insights about those 10 years by opining that it will not be long before we witness the massive and all-encompassing morphing of the internet of things, as it must, into the internet of everything. While the internet of everything may still be a little way off, we are nevertheless clearly witnessing significant digital disruption critically enabled by broadband, bringing profound and irreversible disruptive effects not just in communications and media, but into the real world—the world of banking, insurance and manufacturing, and even the gritty worlds of mining, cattle farming and driving taxis.
The scope and scale of this digital disruptionshould clearly give—and is giving—government, the legislature and policy makers cause to pause and think about what it actually means to be a communications regulator in the future.

Penultimately, I go on in my statement to look over what it has meant to be a communications regulator over that last decade. In that statement I take a quick tour of some of the highlights under the three major heads of functional responsibility I often use to frame our work, and those three heads are: delivering on the day job of the agency, delivering specific programs and activities on behalf of the government and tendering objective and independent advice to the government of the day in matters relating to the area of ACMA responsibility and expertise.


Finally, I recall that we have shone a spotlight on the opportunities for modern regulatory best practice. The ACMA has, for the best part of a decade, been advocating the desirability of taking a long, hard look at the
current regulatory arrangements and modernising them. We framed the question of the future of regulation in communications and media in three tent pole thought pieces: broken concepts, enduring concepts and connected citizens.
The ACMA has delivered a proud, diverse and accomplished decade of work and remained very relevant — but I would think that. I concluded my speech at CommsDay last year with some thoughts on the rhetorical question: what, based on my decades experience, can I tell you about the future? To conclude my remarks, I will repeat them here.

There is a need for a flexible regulatory framework. It needs to be appreciated that the regulator cannot or should not be seen to be doing everything. However, this regulatory framework should also be unified and

coherent with respect to the layout and interlinked nature of the media and communications industries. In my view, such a framework is the best way of recognising the necessity of appreciating and exploiting synergies and avoiding the duplication embodied in the strategic logic which established the ACMA just over 10 years ago.

Thirdly, a necessary expectation for the future is that regulation delivers its most powerful, most friction-free results when industry steps up and meaningfully owns the goals of consumer satisfaction and consumer

participation and protection. Fourthly, a recognition of the enduring merits of partnership, ranging from our cyber safety and internet safety relationships to our various outsourcing programs.

Finally, a clear-eyed recognition that none of us can ever rest on our laurels in this constantly changing world. Just when you think you have got it, somewhere someone in the globalised network world will have a disruptive idea that will shortly mean you simply do not get it anymore.


I have had the opportunity to make a small, but hopefully useful, contribution in our national interest. It has been an unqualified privilege, Chairman, and I exhort anyone who has not been on the inside of the
public service to find an opportunity to do so.

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