For far too long, Australia’s political sector has gotten technology policy completely wrong. I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore. Let’s take Delimiter into the Canberra Press Gallery and literally write the book on tech policy while we’re there.
There was one particular moment during the recent Data Retention debate in the Senate which I will never forget.
The hour was late – close to 10pm on a Wednesday night – and I was tired. Dog tired. It was the third in a series of extremely long Sitting days which started at 8AM in the morning and lasted well past dinner. I can’t speak for the other staff and Senators who were still required to be in the building, but I suspect many of them were exhausted as well.
The reason we were up so late was that the Government and the Opposition were absolutely determined to pass the Data Retention legislation that week. The two major parties teamed up to artificially extend the normal hours of the Senate in an effort to ensure that, no matter what, the legislation would pass.
At the point I mention, I happened to glance up at the public and press galleries which surround the Senate.
I was disappointed to see that, despite the awful nature of the legislation being debated (it was almost universally opposed, except by law enforcement agencies), at that point not a single soul sat in physical witness to its debate. Not a single member of the public, and not a single journalist. Nobody was there to remind our political leaders of how badly they were screwing things up.
Of course, there were very many people watching virtually. Press gallery journalists have in-house TV screens to watch proceedings. And many people were keeping tabs on the debate online from their homes.
But here’s a little-known fact about Parliament House: Physical presence here matters much more than you would think.
This building is commonly considered by its occupants to be a giant ‘bubble’. It has its own rules, its own culture and its own population; a totally self-contained world. There are many things which only make sense here. When you leave the building, or when someone not part of this world enters, the bubble breaks and normality intrudes.
I’ve seen this phenomenon many times. The best lobbyists in Canberra are the ones who often visit APH. The most effective witnesses are the ones who appear physically before committees. If you don’t come to Canberra in the flesh, you won’t have much influence here. It’s unfortunate, but it’s the truth.
It’s for these reasons that I suspect that having outside observers – even just one — sitting in the Senate galleries during the late night Data Retention debates would have made a difference to the participants. It would have burst the bubble and brought the outside world in. It would have made those in favour of the legislation aware that there were people who cared enough about the issue to be here in person.
Having just one person in the galleries sure would have made a great amount of difference to me. It would have given me heart, and hope, where it seemed there was none. It would have made me feel a little bit less lonely in our fight to stop yet another piece of terrible tech policy from becoming law.
What I want to do about it
I’m telling you all this because my role with Senator Ludlam will end at the end of June (the staff member I temporarily replaced has opted to return from leave), and, after a great deal of thought, I’ve decided that I want to reboot Delimiter and become the technology community’s observer – your observer – as a Press Gallery journalist in Parliament House.
Right now, there are few journalists in the Canberra press gallery with a deep understanding of technology policy, and none dedicated to covering every nuance of the field on a day-in, day-out basis. Most technology journalism is done from Sydney. Likewise, there are few MPs who understand or are interested in technology policy at all (you probably already know their names), and few lobbyists permanently based in Canberra.
This means, in a very real sense, that there is often nobody here physically watching or influencing the powerful players at critical moments when it comes to tech policy. There are dozens of tech policy issues to cover, ranging from Data Retention to Internet piracy, from IT price hikes to the share schemes of IT startups. And who could forget the National Broadband Network? But there are few people raising those issues in Parliament House. And few people reporting on them.
Partially as a result of this, our politicians are getting these issues wrong. There are few people setting them on the right track. You have all seen this cycle repeatedly over several decades now. Internet filtering, data retention, the NBN, the disintegration of Australia’s video game development industry, billion dollar Government IT project failures and more. Our political sector continually struggles with tech policy. This is not a secret.
Having a seasoned journalist and commentator such as myself physically present and analysing the issues here, I suspect, would make our elected representatives sit up a bit straighter when they consider tech policy of all stripes. They might behave differently if they knew there was someone in the room not afraid to ‘put a bit of stick about’. If they knew that Delimiter’s large and influential readership was riding along.
Of course, things aren’t quite that simple.
Having a single extra journalist in Parliament House won’t fix the epic, decade-long disaster zone that has become Australian technology policy. The interests here are too entrenched, the lack of technical knowledge too widespread, and the system too gridlocked for that.
To truly change the way Australia’s politicians think about technology policy, the community needs to create a substantial dent in Canberra. We need a huge weight of evidence that bad tech policy leads to terrible outcomes. We need to maintain our principles in the face of pernicious political influence. And we need to unite our efforts around a common banner to make our case. In short, we need to throw our weight around.
So today I am proposing three things:
Firstly, I am proposing that the Delimiter audience fund a new book chronicling the past 20 years of horrific tech policy mistakes in this country. The working title is: The Frustrated State: How terrible tech policy is deterring digital Australia. I would write this book over the next year. Freelancer.com CEO Matt Barrie (one of the Australian technology figures that I most respect) has consented to writing its foreword.
This book would tell the inside versions of stories which have never been fully told, including:
- How the NBN has been torn apart by poisoned infighting between political parties, leaving Australia languishing in global broadband rankings
- How successive Governments’ failure to structurally separate Telstra has led to almost two decades of telecommunications regulatory instability
- How Australia’s Internet has become subject to comprehensive Government censorship, control and surveillance
- The almost complete disintegration of Australia’s video game development industry due partially to a total lack of Government support
- The failure of successive Australian Governments to address core issues in the tech startup sector, leading to our most successful companies leaving Australia
- How a complete lack of copyright reform has left Australia languishing behind the rest of the world in the new era of digital content
- How state governments are actively hamstringing disruptive new industries at the behest of powerful interest groups
- How the Government killed new investment in renewable energy infrastructure almost overnight
- How a series of catastrophic failures has left public sector IT systems locked in the stone age
If my funding goal of $25,000 for The Frustrated State is reached, I’ll reboot Delimiter, seek to join the Canberra press gallery, and start work on the book. If my stretch funding goal of $35,000 is reached, I’ll send a copy of the book to every Federal MP and Senator and relevant State MPs. I’ll try and personally hand a copy to Malcolm Turnbull and request that he review it for his popular blog.
And meanwhile, I’ll commit to attending every Parliamentary debate on technology legislation. I’ll attend all the committee hearings in Parliament House (and in other cities if I can). I will be in the room every time; listening, watching and writing.
Note: As I would be writing a book at the same time, Delimiter would not see quite the same frequency of articles as previously possible. I’m only human. And, of course, all of my knowledge from my time as a political staffer will remain strictly confidential, as you would expect. I won’t actually start work on any of this until I finish with Senator Ludlam at the end of June — there will be a clear separation.
But I have been in the belly of the political beast now. I ken its nature. I believe my articles would be more insightful as a result.
Secondly, as you know, I have made mistakes in the past. Not all of the articles I have written have been on target. Sometimes I have been naïve. In particular, I know that many of you will continue to feel angry at me about believing Turnbull’s NBN promises before the 2013 Federal Election. I screwed up there, and you all know it.
So that this wouldn’t happen again, today I am publishing an open draft of a Statement of Principles for Delimiter. If Delimiter is rebooted, this document will represent the will of the Delimiter community and guide my writing. And I will expect you all to hold me to these principles on a daily basis. The draft is now open for comment here. Go hog wild. Rip it to shreds and make it better.
I have also resigned from the Greens party. I’ve loved my time with the team here and the wider party. I believe it represents a significant bright spot in the Parliament and in our political system, and it would be foolhardy to pretend that I haven’t been influenced by my time with it. But I now need to seek a new role to serve the greater good in my own way, and I need to ensure that readers and all sides of politics are confident of my objectivity. If I return to journalism, I will ensure I take a non-partisan approach based solely on evidence.
Lastly, I am proposing that we set up a new and permanent hashtag which will allow Australian journalists, digital rights activists, broadband evangelists, IT professionals and tech geeks of all kinds to organise via social media around one common goal: To fundamentally reboot our politicians’ understanding of technology policy on a long-term basis.
No matter if we’re talking about the NBN, data retention, Internet filtering, IT price hikes, video game classification schemes, disastrous government IT projects or how much corporate tax Google should pay, we’re essentially talking about the same issue: Rebooting the technological mindset of political leaders. Resetting their flawed assumptions and installing a new operating system.
That hashtag would be #rebootau. Let’s start using it today.
Now it’s your time to make your decision. If you take the blue pill and reject my proposals, this story ends, The Frustrated State never gets published, Delimiter stays on ice and I’ll find something else to occupy my time. If you take the red pill and the book meets its crowdfunding goals, Australia’s technology community gets another strong voice within Parliament House and we see how much of a dent we can make over the next few years.
Click here to fund The Frustrated State. And click here to read Delimiter’s new Statement of Principles and comment on it.
Oh, and just one more thing …
I’m sure all of you think by now that I spend 100 percent of my time singlemindedly railing against Malcolm’s Multi-Technology Mess and trying to kill off data retention. It’s true — I do do those things a lot. But I also have had a bit of spare time over the past year in the hours after 10pm to work on personal projects.
One of those is a novel tentatively titled ‘No Brother’. It’s a sci-fi action/coming of age story set amongst Sydney’s dark glistening skyscrapers. I’ll need a while to get it nailed down, and it’s planned to be part of a trilogy. My plan is to work on that on Fridays. You can fund that too, if you want. The first three draft chapters are now online on its Kickstarter page.