What are the key issues when it comes to tech for the upcoming election?
SL: They are the issues we’ve been pursuing for the past term of the ALP Government. In no order of priority or importance I would suggest telco sector reform, the rollout of the National Broadband Network and Internet filtering. We’re seeing now the NBN issue on the front pages and it’s important that people are aware that an Abbott Government would scrap it.
Past that I’m interested in the community broadcasting sector, the rumour that the Government is proposing to track all user’s web traffic and other issues.
Do you agree with AIIA CEO, Ian Birks, that the IT industry supports the ALP over the Coalition because of its policies?
SL: It doesn’t surprise me to hear that when you’ve got one side proposing one of the more important micro-economic reforms. Splitting Telstra is one of the most important reforms and it’s been 15 years in the making. When that’s added to the rollout of the NBN, it’s unsurprising to hear the telco sector is pretty alarmed by Coalition proposals to simply wreck the entire process and go back – we haven’t seen any counter proposal yet.
We’re now seeing the NBN issue on the front pages and it’s important that people are aware that an Abbott Government would scrap it.
Has the Government successfully move the election agenda away from ISP filtering?
SL: I don’t believe so, it’s never had a huge amount of currency in the mainstream press but I don’t think that’s made it any less powerful an issue. Nobody really bought the Government’s announcement. Nobody really said, ‘congratulations, we’ve won’ – everybody recognised it was an electorally expedient delay tactic. But the review is an extremely good idea and the initiative the ISPs have taken to voluntarily filter a much smaller category of material is really quite helpful.
But the fact is Minister Conroy wanted to take it off the table. Not because it was on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald, but because tens of thousands of former Labor supporters had repudiated their support for the party. I don’t think they’ve won back any friends or votes. There are many people out there for whom the filter is their primary reasons for being involved in Federal politics.
Senator Stephen Fielding has also held the balance of power in the Senate and influenced plenty of legislation. Are you going to be happy or sad if he leaves parliament or loses the balance of power?
SL: Senator Fielding has as much right to be in the Australian Parliament as anybody else does, but the fact is that he’s shared balance of power and been quite extraordinarily obstructive in some bizarre ways that people have found very unpredictable. He’s provided the Government and the Greens grief. I would be reasonably content to see him bumped sideways out of the balance of power on August 21.
When it comes to Government IT procurement, do you think the ALP has done a good job so far?
SL: The issue we’ve followed most closely is open sourcing. We did some investigation to see if the Government had done some investigations into the benefits and costs of moving to an open source platform for IT procurement. That was inconclusive because they found it a bit difficult to tell us how much it cost and came up with the usual counter-claims that it’s too expensive to move to open source software.
We’ll be pushing for more open source software because I think there are some serious benefits to doing that. Supporting an open source culture for software development is healthy for a couple of different reasons.
Won’t that slash the number of jobs at software vendors who currently sell to Government?
SL: Not necessarily. One of the first things we need to do is establish just what the consequences will be and it was really difficult to establish that from the conversations I had with the bureaucracy.
According to polling data and following the Greens’ preference deal with the Government, your party will do well at the election and win the balance of power. What are the first things you’ll move for if you get control?
SL: It’s a little bit premature to be counting the numbers because nothing is for certain. The one constant is that right at the end of the campaign both parties will attack us ferociously.
In the event we are given that position in the Senate we will be moving to conclude negotiations with the Government on the NBN. We’ll also be very willing to negotiate constructively on alternatives to mandatory ISP-level censorship. Those are the two issues we’ll be moving on as quickly as we can.
I think one of the more shameful consequences of the Opposition’s delay tactics is that we’ve had cable laid, trenches dug and investments made in the NBN with no enabling legislation, framework or accountability and unusually enough I don’t blame the Australian Government. One of the first things we’ll be doing is to move that legislation to ensure the NBN can’t be privatised without at the very least a public interest test and a vote in Parliament.
What do you think of the Coalition’s strategies so far?
SL: There’s no strategy, there’s just day to day blocking tactics. For example, we’ve been ready to debate the market restructure bill around Telstra since last November. I think the Coalition’s plan became unstuck when Telstra signed the Financial Heads of Agreement. At that point the Coalition lost its last constituency and the last possible reason for holding out disappeared. Their strategy has been really quite reckless.
Has the Coalition’s Communications portfolio work gotten better or worse under Tony Smith?
SL: I disagreed with a great deal of what (former Communications Shadow Minister) Senator Nick Minchin said, but he was a very strong proponent for alternative policy and it helped that he was in the Senate. This meant we had the three spokespeople on these issues in the same chamber able to deal directly with each other. I don’t really understand what it is they’re doing now.
How would you like the Government to proceed on Telstra’s split?
SL: We’ve never really seen how the $11 billion figure was arrived at with the Telstra agreement and the valuations of Telstra ranged from $7 billion to as high as $40 billion. I think it’s of public interest to find out exactly how that figure was arrived at and what it accommodates. There’s also still some ambiguity on how the universal service obligation arrangements were arrived at. We’ve heard a cost-benefit analysis is only three days away and if that’s the case they should just go ahead and do that.
There are still some ambiguities around the amount of fibre that is aerial compared to under the ground. We’ve never seen a comprehensive economic studies on the case. There are a lot of unanswered questions and I see our role as providing the oversight. Because the Coalition moves to just block everything, we’re the only ones providing accountability.
We want to see the project go forward and we don’t want to wreck it, but there needs to be some transparency around the largest expenditure of taxpayer funds on a piece infrastructure in modern economic history.
Is it a negative that the Greens moving far away from its core environmental issues to cover issues like Communications?
SL: We’ve had balance of power for many years in the Western Australian Parliament and we’ve been more than a single issue party for a long time. What’s happening is that mainstream political culture is ‘greening’.
It’s not that we’ve changed, but that we’ve grown and we’re better resourced now than we’ve ever been before. Our underlying philosophy definitely hasn’t changed – political culture has shifted towards us. The more Senators we have, the more time we’re able to devote to each portfolio.
I’m carrying nine portfolios and I love them all. But it’d be great to just concentrate and focus a little bit. When you’re in balance of power in parliaments across the country, you have no ability to be a single issue anything. You have to be interested in whatever is going through the chamber.