BIG YARN: Which way to Knowledge Nation?

BIG YARN: Which way to Knowledge Nation?

In typical pre-election style, opposition leader Kim Beazley launched his Knowledge Nation policy with plenty of bold promises. In an equally typical ‘elect me now, ask for the balance sheet later' fashion, no costings will be available until the election is actually called.

What the Labor leader did reveal, however, is that his policy platform will be given ‘financial priority' through this decade and beyond, not just this year or next. And it's all in a bid to exploit the knowledge economy.

For the IT industry, Knowledge Nation has to be the most seductive election platform in the last few decades. For Beazley, it is a long-term plan. And it certainly has to be if he is to meet some of the ambitious targets set out in the document - such as doubling Australia's overall investment in research and development (R&D) by 2010, or creating the Internet-connected nation within the next few years.

No one is questioning the nobility of Beazley's cause, especially in light of Australia's recent slide down to the number 8 position on the global information society index. But for those with memories long enough to remember Bob Hawke and Clever Country and those sober enough to do their election sums right now, Knowledge Nation comes with a heavy question mark in tow.

Recently released figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show investment in R&D has fallen for the fourth successive year, leaving Australia languishing down the rankings of industrialised nations. Figures for the 1999-2000 financial year reveal a 3 per cent drop in R&D expenditure by business, but the Federal Government has defended the findings claiming the figures were not relevant because they predated the $2.9 billion Innovation Plan.

Regardless of the political debate, both parties recognise the importance of strengthening Australia's research capabilities, with the Government currently establishing a $129.5 million ICT Centre of Excellence set to be the nation's research flagship.

The Government's focus is on

the commercialisation of Australian research and the establishment of incubator programs while Labor's focus is on research and education with a ‘social return'.

In fact, education is at the centre of Labor's policy framework, with a promise to create 1000 new publicly and privately funded research fellowships. It also promises to ensure nine out of 10 young Australians leave their teens with an HSC or equivalent, and that ICT will be a core component of learning, alongside literacy and numeracy.

According to Beazley, federal funding for universities fell as a percentage of GDP from 0.94 in 1996 to 0.82 just two years later, and has continued to drop.

Labor is also forging ahead with its online university plans as part of a funding injection into higher education if it wins government.

Opposition education spokesman Michael Lee said the main driver for an online university is research that shows an estimated 40 per cent of new jobs will require a bachelor degree or higher by 2010 .

However, universities have been sceptical about Labor's online university proposal, which could pump an extra 250,000 students into the system over the next 10 years.

"That doesn't mean there won't be extra money for universities to do their current tasks; to improve the quality of teaching and research on campus," Lee said.

To maintain regional universities as vibrant centres of research, Labor will create a pool of 400 new, fully funded HECS-exempt research training places in rural areas. Lee claims the Howard Government has abolished one in every five research training places at regional universities.

An additional $10 million over three years will be made available to ensure universities have access to the latest communications including the Internet.

Tackling the IT skills shortage, the policy outlines a plan to introduce a database of all Australian researchers, as well as changes to current immigration policies, to attract talent; however, details of immigration changes are yet to be provided.

Beazley has also pledged to make Australia one of the first nations to provide universal access to high-bandwidth services.

The ambitious plan, which will treat the deployment of broadband as a matter of urgency, has been applauded by telco analysts, who claim Australia is desperately in need of a clear blueprint for telecommunications and broadband industries.The blueprint detailing the actual rollout of broadband, including new business models and forecasts, will form part of an annual IT summit with government and industry.

Despite the lack of detail, telco analyst Paul Budde said at least the Opposition is espousing a ‘vision' and it is emanating from the very top.

"I was pleasantly surprised to see the Opposition leader talking about broadband in his reply to the budget in May this year. True, costings need to be done, but the vision must come first," Budde said.

"John F Kennedy did not have a costing when he announced that he wanted a man on the moon," he addedTelecommunications continues to be a political football for the Federal Government, with Telstra the centrepiece of recent Coalition announcements to win rural voters.

IT and Communications Minister Senator Richard Alston is moving quickly in the pre-election climate to resolve pricing and access disputes between carriers.

The Government is planning to introduce legislation and regulatory reforms to deal with telco sector disputes in the next session of parliament in August. The legislation is based on the Productivity Commission's recommendations handed down in April. Alston said he will also push Telstra to roll out its digital upgrade of the Hybrid Fibre Coaxial (HFC) network.

Labor is also promising to encourage Telstra to move on the rollout of digital broadband services and to have more influence in the telco's decision-making process by maintaining majority government ownership.

This will include talks with both Telstra and Optus to establish their digital cable as open, digital networks as soon as possible.

Labor's focus is on access to "all" in the area of basic data services much like the establishment of the Standard Telephone Service.

Driving Internet takeup is central to Knowledge Nation and one of the most radical policy differences between the major parties is in the area of online legislation.

Alston has recently been embroiled in the passage of the interactive gaming bill and IT Opposition spokeswoman Senator Kate Lundy has flagged a host of new amendments under a change of government.

A Labor Government will amend the online gambling bill along with the online services bill.

"Many of the Internet bills introduced by this Government are unworkable because the Government has demonised the Internet and just tried to fence it in and put controls on it; this is certainly not a position that has any vision," Senator Lundy said.

Finally, Labor plans sweeping changes to the IT outsourcing program that has dogged the Federal Government for the past 18 months.

The whole-of-government approach to the controversial program has been abandoned following a series of audits and reviews. Senator Lundy wants it to be more inclusive of SMEs (small-to medium enterprises) and local IT companies that were left out in the cold because the clustered tenderingprocess was more suited to multinational service providers.

Senator Lundy said there will also be a new e-procurement model for commonwealth agencies and changes to the Model Industry Development Criteria when applying for federal tenders.

Currently the criteria apply only to projects of more than $10 million; Labor will reduce the threshold to $5 million.

Federal business enterprises such as Australia Post currently develop impact statements where procurement exceeds $30 million. This will be reduced to $25 million in Labor's first year of office and will gradually be reduced further.

To promote accountability, agencies will maintain a register of contracts by revamping the current Gazette Publishing System Web site and empowering parliamentary committees to seek private access to contract provisions, which have been withheld on the grounds of commercial confidentiality.

The move follows parliamentary debate over the failed IT outsourcing contract, with the Government refusing to provide contract details to parliament on the grounds of commercial confidentiality.

IT is certainly on the agenda in this election and there are clear policy differences. Bruce McCabe, a senior analyst with industry researcher Gartner, applaud the Opposition for elevating public debate about IT.

"The best possible outcome is if the Coalition sees public support for IT issues raised by the ALP and both parties end up trying to outbid each other in policy; that has to be good for the industry," McCabe said.

So pull out the space suits, there is a vision appearing on the horizon, which could mean we are all taking a trip to the moon.

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