Australia’s longest serving Minister for Communications and IT, Senator Richard Alston, has stepped down after seven years in the job and been replaced by former Attorney-General, Darryl Williams.
During his reign, Alston’s policies were well received or roundly criticised, depending on who you asked. He was a part of the dotcom boom and bust, as well as significant technological developments in Australia such as the partial privatisation of Telstra and the introduction of a $129.5 million technology research centre the National Information and Communications Technology Australia (NICTA).
At the time of the centre launch, Alston told ARN it was the “centrepiece of the Commonwealth government’s $3 billion innovation statement Backing Australia’s Ability”.
Last week, in assessing Alston’s Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts (DCITA) reign, the centre’s director, Neville Stevens, said Alston had a great interest in the development of the IT industry and public investment into the formation of a research institute had cemented that belief.
“NICTA provides a real opportunity for ICT research and development. Without the contribution of the Federal Government it would not have been launched,” he said.
However, although Alston’s achievements also include the launch of the Framework for the Future and anti-spam legislation, telecommunications analyst, Paul Budde said, the Howard government’s IT&T supremo would be remembered as the minister with one agenda — the privatisation of Telstra.
Budde described Alston as “one of the most knowledgeable telecoms ministers anywhere in the world” and said telecommunications prices had significantly reduced under his ministerial control.
But he also claimed Australia had continued to drop on the list of international broadband penetration under Alston’s leadership.
“There is evidence that the demand for broadband is huge and that, in five to 10 years’ time, the current infrastructure will be totally unable to cope with demand,” he said.
Budde said broadband uptake was growing but not as fast as in other countries such as the US, Japan, Canada and most of Europe.
He said uptake in Japan had reached about 300,000 broadband connections per month.
Alston’s resignation predictably turned into a political field day for Federal Shadow Minister for IT, Kate Lundy, who described Alston’s time in office as “holding back Australia’s ICT potential”.
“Senator Alston’s removal from the front bench comes after years of being asleep at the wheel and disinterest in his portfolio, particularly Information Technology (IT),” she said.
Lundy said Alston had failed on three issues: the ICT trade deficit, Australia’s low ranking among OECD countries for broadband penetration, and “Internet ignorance” for his censorship moves.
Incoming minister, Darryl Williams, will inherit an ICT trade deficit of about $17 billion.
Williams, in his role as Attorney-General, introduced Australia’s first privacy legislation. Lundy was quick offf the mark in ridiculing him describing the incoming minister as “a plodder, hardly known for his dynamism”.
The Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA) said it always had a good relationship with Alston and his department.
General manager of strategy and policy services at AIIA, James McAdam, said Alston’s department had always been constructive when tackling issues communications and IT.
McAdam also said the AIIA had a solid relationship with Williams and the Attorney-General’s department in the past.
With many associations taking a diplomatic approach when describing Richard Alston’s reign as minister, the Australian Computer Society (ACS) was no different.
National president of the ACS, Richard Hogg, said Alston had always been very accessible and, although the society has not always agreed with his decisions, it had been able to debate the issues coherently and unemotionally.
“Senator Alston has given the ACS a great deal of support over the years, especially in his role as a patron of the society,” he said.
Optus and Telstra remained quiet on the issue. Both offered Alston best wishes for the future.
There is a body of opinion in the industry that incoming minister, Darryl Williams, who is relatively unknown in IT, would more than likely have a single focus in the wake of Alston’s departure — the full privatisation of Telstra.
This remains a bill that the government has yet to convince the Senate to pass.