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Wednesday, 03 November 2010 20:18

Election spotlights Victoria's ICT policy


With Victoria's election campaign in full swing, the ICT policies of both the State Government and Opposition are in the spotlight. While technology can't expect the starring role it achieved in the Federal election, courtesy of the National Broadband Network, ICT won't be just a bit player in the State campaign.

The Victorian Government ICT Action Plan, which was released last month, sent a strong signal to technology companies and industry in general that the State is serious about the sector.  While the opposition has yet to announce its ICT policies, shadow minister for ICT Gordon Rich-Phillips told iTWire that a series of announcements relating to ICT would be made over the next three and a half weeks of the campaign.

The Government's Action Plan claims that in 2010 the Victorian ICT sector employed 87,000 people and generated annual revenues of around $27 billion. It also claimed Victorian ICT exports amounted to over $1.5 billion a year.

Across all industry sectors, there are 131,500 ICT employees in the state - representing 4.7 per cent of Victoria's overall employment - and 27 per cent of ICT employees across the nation. Highlighting the ongoing importance of technology to all areas of the economy, Victoria's Action plan references Federal Government research that suggests ICT will be the main technological driver of productivity growth for another decade.

Victoria also lays claim to the largest proportion of ICT students, boasting 35 per cent of the nation's ICT undergraduate population and 40 per cent of the post graduate population.

In his introduction to the Action Plan the current treasurer and minister for ICT John Lenders makes the somewhat moot claim that 'Victoria is Australia's technology hub.' While Sydney with its slew of regional HQs might argue the toss, there is no doubt that Victoria is the most articulate State in terms of how it wants to engage with the ICT sector, and why.

Ian Birks is the chief executive officer of the Australian Information Industry Association and told iTWire that; 'Compared to other states they are light years ahead. Victoria has been the leadership state in terms of their holistic approach. They are ahead in terms of the understanding of and support for the ICT industry.'

While ICT is unlikely to be the same sort of sleeper issue in the Victorian election that it proved to be in the Federal election, courtesy of the National Broadband Network, it will have a role to play in terms of contribution to the 'economic development, research and development and growth of industry,' according to Mr Birks.

'The current government will push their credentials quite hard,' he predicted.

'Victoria quite a while ago identified this as a priority and developed a plan to respond to that. This gives a sense of consistent success.

'A lot of people are looking at Victoria seriously,' as a possible location for their ICT initiatives said Mr Birks.  An additional rosy glow is cast by Labor's promise this week to cut payroll tax from 4.9 per cent to 4.85 per cent, which is bettered only by rates in Queensland.

In terms of the ICT sector in particular the Government's Action plan spouts some predictable motherhood about supporting the ICT industry, helping it access international markets, encouraging the use of innovative ICT by example, and developing Victoria's reputation for R&D ICT. Many of these worthy goals are however backed by key initiatives such as providing up to $41 million over the next four years to implement an online media and digital publishing strategy, and sending  a super trade mission to India in 2011-12 for example

Where the plan goes further though is that it also sets out a series of key performance indicators by which its success can be measured.

However according to shadow minister Gordon Rich-Phillips; 'My take is that there is not a lot new in it. It is reporting on the 2005 plan.'

He said that the targets set out in the plan; 'Basically haven't lifted the bar and are no higher than in the '05 plan.'

He acknowledged however that the report did feature new insight regarding the NBN. According to its Action Plan the current Government harbours ambitions to have the deepest NBN fibre rollout of any state with more than a million Victorian households and businesses taking an NBN based service by 2015.

According to a report prepared in November 2008 for Victoria by Concept Economics the state anticipates 'an average productivity benefit per new broadband connection of $5,000 per year and a $7.55 billion incremental increase in GDP benefits if regional areas are provisioned with high speed broadband.'

In its Action Plan the Government signalled its intention to lobby for fast and extensive roll out of the NBN throughout Victoria.

It notes that; 'The challenge for the Victorian Government will be to ensure that all parts of the State are connected to the high quality network infrastructure as quickly as possible and to generate the benefits associated with its use.

'The Australian Government's commitment for the NBN fibre network to reach 93 per cent of the population is expected to be determined on a commercial basis. The Victorian government believes that Victoria can achieve significantly better broadband coverage by identifying commercial factors that make greater deployment economically feasible.'

While the rollout of the NBN is a key issue for Victoria, its progress isn't the only KPI by which its progress is to be measured.

For example the Action Plan sets out an ambition for five new international research partnerships or projects to be established in the state by 2015. By that time the Government also harbours ambitions for the value of revenue generated from exports or overseas operations to reach 15 per cent of total Victorian ICT revenues by 2015.

It also wants more than 800 new ICT industry jobs created in the State per year.

Perhaps surprisingly there is no mention of CenITex in the Action Plan in spite of the large number of ICT professionals who work in the organisation.

Formed in July 2008 initially from a merger of the Government's ICT Shared Services Centre and the Information and Technology Services Group, CenITex is charged with providing an increasing range of IT services to Victorian Government departments.

According to its recently released annual report CenITex is now supporting 35,000 desktops across Government. It has also grown over the last 12 months from 336 people (most of whom were contractors) to 527 people, only one in three of whom are contractors with the remainder being employees. Revenues have also grown during the year to $99.9 million.

Mr Rich-Phillips was not overly surprised at the omission of CenITex given that it reports to Government through the finance minister rather than the ICT minister. 'I believe that is a flaw,' he said.

While 'Not in a position to talk about our policy position' Mr Rich-Phillips added; 'It is fairly obvious it probably warrants examination.'

While the Victorian campaign kicked off officially this week before the election at the end of the month, NSW won't be far behind.

Yet in NSW ICT has a much lower profile. As Ian Birks acknowledged this week; 'There is nothing of any kind of parallel (to Victoria's ICT plan) in NSW.'

While he acknowledged the recent release of the NSW growth plan, he said this was a 'higher order' document which did not feature the same degree of focus on ICT as did Victoria's Action Plan.

'NSW has been relatively complacent. It has recently woken up to the NBN - but it's a bit too late,' he said.

Similarly Queensland and South Australia were attempting to cast themselves as potential venues for innovation.

'The NBN caused a reawakening. They might not all understand it - but they do understand it means jobs and a boost to the economy,' said Mr Birks.

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