Channel Chasers

Channel Chasers

While Labor and Liberal war over their prospective ITC (information technology and communications) policies, IT operators have been left with an overwhelming sensation that they are the masters of their own fate.

Typically a sideshow event, IT has taken a plum role in the 2001 campaign, demonstrated by the January release of Howard's five-year $2.9 billion innovation program, Backing Australia's Ability, and Beazley's $3.1 billion Knowledge Nation plan unleashed in June.

But it appears the channel will not be voting for either party based on what it can do for their business.

"If you were to ask me what the Liberals stand for I would say looking after their mates [including big business]," said Peter Darton, director of Queensland-based PC retail store Nutmeg Networks. "I'm not sure what Labor stands for these days." Either way, Darton feels there is little difference between the two.

And he is right. Both proposals promise to increase the number of university placements assigned to science and technology, increase tax concessions for research and development, and throw money at broadband rollout for data services.

The more contentious debates arise in areas where Labor and Liberal policies differ. Labor wants to reduce Australia's trade deficit on IT imports, which currently stands at more than $10 million a year, by fostering an indigenous IT sector and retaining intellectual capital.

According to Kate Lundy, Shadow Minister assisting on IT, the starting point for this lies in federal government purchasing. As the largest consumer of IT in Australia, the government's contracts should be made smaller, allowing local companies to win them, she says.

For large local outsourcers like KAZ Computer Services and Data#3, this is a poignant issue. Yet further down the food chain it is the government's policy of buying PCs directly from vendors that has caused the most pain, particularly in rural areas. "The vendors are selling to education for less than what I can buy for," said Darton.

IT Minister Richard Alston rejected this by arguing that the government's role is to maximise revenue without "mothering" local industry. And that means getting the best deal.

But as Mark Stanford, proprietor of Computer DENCity in Wagga Wagga, pointed out, there is more to a PC supply deal than securing machines at low cost.

"We have two big government agriculture departments out here that are forced to buy direct from IBM and I don't think it's the best deal for them," said Stanford. "The vendors don't have regional service agents and they can't get any support."

Richard Dodd, operator of a small IT firm in Tennant Creek, NT, said the remote community is "on the crest of a wave at the moment", riding on the construction of the new railway link between Darwin and Adelaide.

"The population has grown. The disposable dollar is a lot greater so more people are spending on computer gear across the board. The contractors require additional IT support."

According to Dodd, these structural initiatives would win his vote, and in this respect his faith is behind the Coalition. "But at the end of the day, my fate is in my own hands. I've never gone out to seek assistance from the government."

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