opinion The Coalition was roundly criticised last week for its complete lack of anything resembling a policy in relation to Australia’s technological development, and rightly so.
As David Braue noted for ZDNet.com.au, the party’s policy on technology appears to be that it is against anything that costs money. E-heath projects, the National Broadband Network, even netbooks for school students — all of these things — which most people possessing a modest degree of a common sense would see as being broadly positive for Australia’s development, the Coalition has thrown into its “too expensive” basket.
However, I feel obliged to point out that when it comes to having policies about technology, the Australian Labor Party — the party which is currently governing Australia — is little better.
Let’s start with Labor’s biggest technology policy — the much vaunted National Broadband Network. Yes, the NBN represents a massive effort by the Federal Government to divert both attention and funding towards solving the ongoing problems with Australia’s telecommunications sector.
In one fell swoop, so Labor’s theory goes, the NBN project will vault the nation’s telecommunications infrastructure to the same level as South Korea’s and the industry as a whole into a state of thriving and even-handed competition.
The problem is, there are significant doubts that that utopian vision will ever come to pass.
For starters, in the two and a half years since the Government started enacting the policy, almost no infrastructure has actively been laid (except for a few suburbs in Tasmania). Yes, eventually the NBN will reach the rest of Australia, but NBN Co’s own timeframe for the rollout puts it at more than half a decade until it’s even hitting significant percentages of coverage.
The project is targeting pain points in some areas (such as the competitive backhaul cable currently being laid in Qld and about to be laid in Western Australia), but that infrastructure will serve a relatively small percentage of the Australian population.
With doubts continuing to abound about the rate of return which the NBN Co will deliver to its shareholders (currently, only the Federal Government), Labor will face tremendous difficulties in enticing the private sector to invest in the NBN. Although it didn’t show up in the last Federal Budget, this will mean that every year for at least the half-decade or more, billions will have to come out of the public purse to ensure the project’s continuance.
In the meantime, questions must surely start to be asked about exactly how many “retail service providers” (as NBN Co labels Australia’s beloved ISPs) will eventually buy services from the newly created wholesale-only player.
Far from becoming more competitive, since the NBN policy was announced, Australia’s telco sector has become increasingly less so. We now have three major mobile telcos instead of four (with the merger of Vodafone and Hutchison), and another integrated wholesale/retail player in TPG after its acquisition of Pipe Networks and a number of other ISPs.
Another potentially explosive opportunity for consolidation has long existed in the complicated ownership structure involving AAPT, iiNet and Amcom. With Telecom NZ reportedly placing AAPT on the market, that situation could come to a head at any time, taking other large players out of the market.
The question hanging over the NBN’s head at this point must surely be: Australia will get fibre to the home – but at what cost?
We should now turn to other Labor policies.
I hardly feel it necessary to remind readers of the incredible embarrassment which the mandatory internet filtering project has delivered to Australia in the eyes of our Western allies. With the internet filter, Labor is pushing ahead with a policy which surveys have consistently shown Australians almost universally are against — and the more so, the more they learn about it.
Labor itself has admitted the technology is pathetically easy to circumvent, and many security experts have pointed out it may not even be successful, given that most of the nastiest internet content is not passed around via the public World Wide Web, but instead via private forums and chat rooms.
We also have the problem -– some evidence for which has already been demonstrated –- of scope creep. Where is the line between restricting access to objectionable and illegal content, and censoring unpopular political material online? Currently, as censorship of abortion and euthanasia websites has shown, that line is extremely grey.
Mr Braue’s article mentioned that Labor Senator Kate Lundy has recently attacked the Opposition for its lack of a broadband policy.
What it didn’t mention is that Lundy has also repetitively attacked the Internet filter project -– a policy of her own party. Even now, I have no doubt she is continuing to lobby her Labor colleagues to get an “opt-out” clause inserted into the Filter legislation.
The final Labor policy which I wish to address is its national Health Identifier initiative, which received some $466.7 million in funding in the Budget this month, to be spent over the next two years.
To be honest, when the Government allocates this amount of money to a technology project, you would expect it to have some plan which it would publish for what it intended to achieve with the funding, and how it is expecting to achieve it.
As analysts have noted, Australia’s health industry is currently “confused” about what exactly the Government intends to do with the money. I have followed the e-health debate in Australia for years and even I have no idea how the money will be spent. Will the Government issue a massive request for tender for e-health solutions? Develop a solution in-house? Pile the money up in a corner and dance around naked on it? Nobody currently knows.
To be honest, I don’t want to be too hard on Labor. The truth is that the current Labor Government’s technology policies are not terrible. In five years’ time we will likely look back upon them and agree that while there were problems with them, in general they pushed Australia’s technological development forward.
But to pretend they are dramatically better than those of the Opposition is simply not true.
I would chalk up a lot of its current policies, in fact, to concerted lobbying efforts from industry (NBN), the conservative religious right (the filter), and public servants (the Health Identifier).
There is little evidence that Labor (with the notable exception of certain clued-in Senators such as Lundy) really understands how Australia’s technological development needs to progress. And certainly it has not demonstrated much more insight into the area than the Coalition.
Image credit: Office of Stephen Conroy