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Thursday, 24 June 2010 01:56

Kevin07 to Julia10? What it means for tech


The generational change that saw Kevin Rudd swept to power in 2007 brought with it great expectations from a local technology sector which had struggled for a decade to convince John Howard that the industry deserved a bigger priority profile in national affairs.

Faster broadband became an election issue, albeit on the smaller scale of Labor's original smaller $4.7 billion fibre network plans. Rudd was doing photo-ops with notebook computers in schools and talking freely of a revolution in the classroom.

He spoke fluently about the internet in terms of its strategic national importance - to education and health, to business, to exports, to wealth creation - in a way that John Howard never did.

And Rudd seemed to underline his internet-savvy message by running a smart Kevin07-based online campaign that was a central component of his election strategy, rather than simply an adjunct to a more traditional 1.0 style.

Through his former career as a politico/bureaucrat as Wayne Goss' chief of staff, Rudd was both familiar and enthused about the role of new technologies - especially online - for delivering better citizen services at lower cost. (To be fair to John Howard, he was across this stuff in a big way, but didn't particularly need or want to know detail, instead charging departmental secretary Peter Shergold to create world class public sector reforms that still shape Government's strategic use of IT today.)

Once Kevin Rudd was elected, Australia suddenly had a Prime Minister who was both personally engaged with technology issues, and who addressed those issues directly. For the local industry, that alone was invigorating.

But great expectations carry with them their own set of problems, and certainly Kevin Rudd knows this better than he would like in the post-Copenhagen world. Despite Rudd Labor having made great progress in most tech-related areas, there remain frustrations.

Let's list them. The ambitious and laudable schools computer program has been delivered slower than anticipated, and (incredibly), initially to schools lacking networking infrastructure or skills, and no budget to acquire then - to say nothing of internet speeds at schools.

The NBN has made astonishing progress for a year-old company. But the meat and potatoes of that initiative rests in the underlying structural reforms to the telco sector, and Telstra-NBN deal aside, those reforms have been stuck in the Senate since last September.

And then there's the cost. Building an NBN is indeed a nation building exercise as Mr Rudd and his Minister are fond of saying. But it also seems crazy-brave heroic to get this far without a sweeping industry development plan already in effect to make sure the infrastructure is leveraged as best it can be. That is, so that a whole generation of young, smart IT entrepreneurs get rich selling uber-cool and best of breed innovations across the world.

There's the Government 2.0 stuff. There have been huge strides made in all sorts of areas, opening data sets and freeing up government information chief among them. But it is still being sold as some kind of utopian policy-development collaboration with Joe Public, and it's not.

We know this because we live in a world where an Environment Minister can find out about the cancellation of an Emissions Trading Scheme by reading it in the paper (there's a policy development for you), and where crowd-surfing (formerly known as Caucus-surfing) has been reduced to a Gang of Four.

These are disappointments rather than failures, largely because of the weight of expectations.

And, of course, the for technology sector the biggest head-scratcher is the internet filter plan. Personally, I don't have a problem with a government trying to apply the same basic standards of what is considered grossly indecent across different mediums, and frankly don't get terribly excited about the filter.

But this is a Government that has committed to building a *stunning* piece of communications infrastructure that will provide an underpinning for our economic future, and will bind us together as Australians and to the rest of the world. And now we're going to broadcast to the world that we're going to filter it? OMG. ReallY?

Labor could not have cold-spooned tech workers more effectively if they'd used a garden hose. They went from infatuated with the new tech outlook that Rudd delivered to being seriously dismayed.

So what happens now? Some time after 9am when the Labor Caucus meets we will learn whether Australia has a new Prime Minister.

And some time after that - should Julia Gillard win the ballot - we will start to try and understand what impact this momentous change will have on the local technology sector.

Broadly, 2007 was genuine generational change, and so the direction and substance of Labor ICT's engagement will be fairly constant regardless of the Caucus outcome. (It is actually hard to see a return the Luddite-as-PM model, although Tony Abbott wants to make a fist of it)

I would argue that the local tech sector will fair better under Julia Gillard, if only because she has deeper roots and greater personal interest in issues of industry development.

Gillard has put the more hard-Left leanings of her past into soft-focus in recent years. But those core beliefs drive the industry development credentials that should make her appealing to the indigenous ICT industry - creating Australian jobs, driving Australian skills and expertise, and doing what it takes to enable Australian companies to compete successfully in global markets.

There is nothing simple about industry development in the ICT space. Trying to create policy that fosters an environment where successful small Aussie companies turn into successful large Aussie companies (before they go bust for want of reference sites and cash-flow or are acquired by a multinational) is like hunting a great white whale.

But this is precisely an area - in the tech sector - that the Rudd government has made little headway and appears less than proactive. But on the back of the NBN, industry development policy that targets the sector is critical.

As Minister for Education, and as a former Shadow Health Minister, Julia Gillard is already well placed and well read on two sectors where the NBN can have an enormous impact.

For what it's worth, and with the outcome of Caucus vote undecided, here are a few observations and predictions.

Should Julia win the vote, the NBN proceeds unchanged. And while there would likely be a modest shake-up of frontbench (modest, it being an election year and all), Stephen Conroy will remain in his current position up to and well beyond the election.

The portfolio is too complex and at a particularly critical stage of development to risk a change. Say what you want about his style, but despite some clear setbacks and difficulties, he has done a remarkable job.

Kim Carr will either be shifted from the Innovation, Industry, Science and Research portfolio or he will have industry development responsibility carved out of it. Nothing going on there. For mine, Kim Carr has always tended the oily-rag end of the industry development spectrum to the detriment of knowledge industries.

Kate Lundy will get elevated into a parliamentary secretary of junior minister's role looking at the tech sector. While she would suit any of the tech-related issues in Lindsay Tanner's, Stephen Conroy's or Kim Carr's portfolios, any wish-list would seek to involve her in working with and developing the local ICT industry, and with a specific oversight of NBN-related industry development.

Finally, if Julia Gillard becomes Prime Minister, the internet filtering plan in its current form will be history.

That alone should put a smile of the face of many tens of thousands of cranky and disaffected IT workers across Australia.

We find out tomorrow morning.


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