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Editorial: It's all in the definition

Editorial: It's all in the definition

Let me get on to my favourite topic once again and use a few words to describe the Federal Government's behaviour when it comes to the IT industry. Hypocritical. Self-interested. Un-Australian. Yes, un-Australian. I mean, here's a bunch of guys whose favourite pastime consists of defining what "being Australian" is or is not and misses no opportunity to label every ideological or otherwise inconveniently vocal critic of its policies as not being up to scratch. So, in the spirit of national unity, let me turn Canberra's favourite bit of rhetoric back on it and state that, when it comes to IT, the government's own behaviour is not up to scratch, is not in the interests of the local industry, and is definitely not Australian.

For starters, at the time when IT employment figures are twice the national average, we have Alexander Downer instruct local business leaders to purchase their IT services overseas in order to remain competitive. As a minister for foreign affairs, he may use developing positive bilateral relations with India or the US as his excuse, but what about our own minister, the artistically inclined IT&T legislator, the (very) Honorable Senator Richard Alston?

Alston launched a scathing attack on the Australian Computer Society last week, accusing the industry association of a "simplistic" and "misleading stunt" when it released the latest figures showing Australia's IT trade deficit to be around $14.4 billion. It may be just my nosy, journalistic tendency to read too much into things, but somehow it seems that when Alston says that the ACS' calculations are "simplistic", he's using a fancy word as a substitute for a less-stylish expression - dumb. And since the ACS is dumb, the industry is in much better shape than the industry believes to be the case.

Discrediting the opponent when you have nothing better to offer is a proven political strategy to keep the great unwashed entertained enough or disillusioned enough to discourage them from doing what democratic societies are about - keeping the government accountable and in check. But, somehow, I don't think this one is going to work.

While Alston is unashamedly pushing his regional ADSL agenda as a services improvement for "sufficiently populated" regional areas when we all know that all he's doing is preparing to sell off Telstra, the pressing issues of the IT&T recession are left to the industry to deal with - under the threat of punishment.

Yes, the government has come up with a few outsourcing initiatives to "benefit the IT industry", but it is not quite clear how the industry should benefit from them. For instance, in the Senate Estimates hearing last week, local whitebox manufacturer Ipex was accused of breaching the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts' (DCITA) Group 8 agreement for failing to meet employment, training and export targets as set by the DCITA (see stories on pages 4 and 6). In other words, although it both created jobs and exported local knowledge and services, Ipex is facing a $45,000 fine for not meeting the government's definition of what constitutes an export.

Now it becomes easier to understand where ACS' allegedly "simplified approach" to calculating the IT industry's trade deficit comes from - the problem, of course, is in definitions - what constitutes an import and export, and to what degree. In a strange twist of fate, Senator Alston could in fact be right about ACS' figures - the deficit might be lower than the industry claims, but only if he decides to broaden the definitions of export. In any other case, you'd have to conclude that the government's own definition of export is, well, simplistic and misleading.


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