The Federal Election is right around the corner and the polls on who will win have never been tighter. But while some say there is little to separate the policies of Labor and the Coalition, they both have wildly different views on technology.
Skilled IT worker shortages, whole-of-government procurement, the National Broadband Network (NBN) and ISP filtering are just four of them. But according to Monash University senior political lecturer, Dr Nick Economou, the NBN is the best-known area of difference with the potential to change Australia’s economic and social future.
“This is seen by the Government as an important nation-building project for future economic growth,” he said. “People say there are no differences between Labor and the Coalition but this is a point where there is quite a big one.
“This is the sort of project that appeals to your modern Labor person because it’s nation-building, it’s technical and it’s all about the ‘new economy’.”
While Communications Minister, Senator Stephen Conroy, used an Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA) speech to outline his party’s plan for the IT community’s future, the Coalition’s spokesperson, Tony Smith, remained largely silent until the launch of its broadband policy this week. Slower, more conservative and cheaper it underscored massive differences in thinking between the two camps.
In an earlier interview with the ABC’s 7:30 Report, Smith has promised there would be a big difference between the Government’s NBN and the Coalition’s “more responsible and deliverable” plan. He wasn't kidding.
But despite the election campaign racing towards its August 21 dealine, some IT questions still remain unanswered by the Coalition.
Part of the problem is the Coalition’s goal of slashing public spending before pouring the funds into other sectors and portfolios – with a promise to return Australia to a budget surplus by 2012/2013.
The biggest thorn in the Coalition’s side is that the NBN has been a generally successful venture. Under NBN Co CEO, Mike Quigley, the company is rolling out on time and sometimes under budget. People and businesses in Tasmania have been connected and the IT industry is hungry for more.
"I can't think of the last time we had such a very clear difference between the opportunities for our nation, my kids and my grandchildren in the future," AIIA chairman, John Grant, said. "$43 billion is a very good number... is it a number we can't afford? No.
"Governments should take a stake where there is a market failure and the fact is there's one in the communications environment of Australia," Grant added. "Does the Opposition's policy as we know it today... address the market failure and does it remove the structural issues we've got in Australia?
"I don't have to say no because it clearly doesn't."
But plenty of other major IT issues are being largely ignored in this campaign. With Australia suffering from a shortfall of IT workers, Telstra’s group managing director, Deena Shiff, warned both parties that many more IT workers are needed to help the sector grow and that slashing skilled migrant levels would be a bad idea.
“Human capital is the critical success factor in any successful technology society,” Shiff said. “This will decide if we are a society of content consumers or content creators… there’s a shortage of ICT workers in Australia of more than 10,000 and that’s after accounting for skilled migration of 13,000 workers.
“All of my customers would be incredibly worried if [the parties thought about cutting skilled migration levels]. Clearly the whole sector depends on skilled migration, both in ICT and engineering.”
According to Australian Computer Society (ACS) CEO, Bruce Lakin, the Government doesn’t give IT enough focused attention and the shortage of skilled workers is just one symptom.
“In terms of overall commitment to ICT, I’d give [the Government] a failing grade,” he said. “In the latter days of the Howard Government we had Senator Coonan as the relevant minister and I think most people would say that in terms of focus and coordination that was a more consistent and more attentive model.”
Lakin wants a dedicated ICT minister with a wide brief to look after a huge variety of topics such as e-health and ICT procurement.
“If there was a Minister of ICT that was concerned about the skills levels required to drive our agenda then we’d probably get a more considered and appropriate outcome,” he said. “They should have responsibility for industry development, consolidated e-citizen services and what the Government wants to do across broadband.”
Fortunately for Lakin, this is one point where Conroy agrees. He claimed a winning Labor Government would fight to bring tech issues closer across all the portfolios and said it was the fault of bureaucrats, not the party.
“I share your frustration,” he said. “I know the industry has been calling for there to be a consolidation and I think that’s a very, very positive thing.
“My next great challenge is to convince the bureaucrats to work in a much closer way to deliver the Government’s messages, policies and services.”