opinion I couldn’t help but laugh when I read Stilgherrian’s rant on ABC Unleashed yesterday about how Australia’s “digital elites” may understand technology but somehow don’t get the apparently unbelievably complicated world of Federal politics.
In it, Stilgherrian advances the same old tired argument that it is political parties that are better suited to determining who among their number should become ministers when they win government — and that anyone else is naïve to want any say in the matter.
The issue has particularly come to the fore over the past weeks due to the ongoing speculation in Australia’s technology sector that Labor Senator Kate Lundy, who has demonstrated an enduring interest in and commitment to the IT industry, would make a better Communications Minister than incumbent Stephen Conroy.
The main problem I have with Stilgherrian’s article is not his argument that some Australians don’t understand how politics works. This is patently true.
Nor is it his contention that the Federal Government’s technology policy may not change even if Conroy was removed from office and replaced with Lundy. That truth is also self-evident.
No, my objection to Stilgherrian’s argument is that it contains an implicit statement that it is impossible for Australians to understand both technology and the shady politics which govern our somewhat democratic system of government. And therefore, that we should just give up and leave the politicians to their happy merry-go-round.
But neither of these facts are true. Some Australians do understand both spheres. It is possible to be smart, funny and good-looking, all at once. And we should never, ever, leave politicians to their own devices. They come up with the quaintest notions.
It should be evident by now that there are examples of informed people littered everywhere through Australia’s technology community, and they are using their knowledge of both spheres to drive real political outcomes.
One example would be the efforts of Internode network engineer Mark Newton. Newton has used every political avenue at his disposal — the press, parliamentary committees, senate enquiries, live debates on TV, engagement with lobbying organisations such as Electronic Frontiers Australia and more — to engage with the political process on its own level and drive outcomes.
And Newton has been extraordinarily successful in doing so. His constant opposition of foolhardy government policies on primarily technical grounds has had an extraordinary effect on those policies.
Many of these activities have had the effect of feeding information and arguments through the press even into parliamentary debates themselves through avenues such as Green Senator Scott Ludlam, who stated this year that he had learnt much from Australia’s “really lively technology press”.
If it wasn’t for these sorts of activities, I doubt if the filter legislation would have been delayed as far as it has been. At every step of the way through implementing this policy, Conroy has faced opponent after opponent who have argued against the filter on every concievable ground. And they will continue to do so.
Another example of an organisation which has consistently engaged with the political process and which has the ear of many politicians around the nation is the loud-mouthed Digital Tasmania group, which is almost singlehandedly pushing the cause of better broadband infrastructure in the state — and winning, if yesterday’s connection of the first NBN services in Tasmania and the installation of the Basslink cable across Bass Strait over the past few years is any indication.
Speaking to Digital Tasmania, I have been amazed at the level of knowledge the group has of the political process and of how to influence it.
Now it is time to return to the stimulus for this discussion — the speculation — and, from some quarters, the overt lobbying effort — regarding the widespread desire in Australia’s technology community for Communications Minister Stephen Conroy to be ousted from his portfolio and replaced with Lundy.
Let me pose one question. Why do Conroy apologizers (a mantle Stilgherrian appears to have accepted in his article) constantly overlook the fact that it is not unreasonable to expect that a Minister have a deep insight and understanding of their portfolio and make sensible policy decisions in it?
Stilgherrian’s contention is that apart from the internet filter — an issue he claims is only of interest to a “vocal minority”, everything else in Conroy’s portfolio is chugging along just fine.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The fact is that the NBN is a popular policy and that the public has been willing to overlook many of Conroy’s embarrassing mistakes in his portfolio over the years because of the NBN’s enticing lure of optic fibre to their houses being dangled in their faces.
However, if you examine Conroy’s performance on a more granular level you will find that it contains a litany of disturbing missteps.
The Opposition has — rightly and consistently — pointed out that the Government never drew up a full cost/benefit analysis before approving the NBN policy, and debate continues — three years after it was first put forward — on the question of to what extent Australia’s economy will truly benefit from universal high-speed broadband.
Conroy has consistently refused to release information about how the policy is being implemented. We know very little about the internal operations of NBN Co, and it was only after Greens Senator Scott Ludlam forced a motion in parliament that the Government consented to release a — harmless — detailed study into the NBN.
Then there is the matter of how Conroy has dealt with the sector which he is responsible for setting policy over.
This is a minister who has potentially prejudiced one of Australia’s most high-profile copyright trials, who has used parliamentary privilege to publicly attack search giant Google for its accidental collection of Wi-Fi payload data, and who has been negotiating behind closed doors with Australia’s largest telco for months on a monumental deal which will shape the whole future of Australia’s telecommunications industry — in complete secrecy.
And that’s before we even get into the mandatory internet filter.
But more than this, it has been Conroy’s off-the-cuff comments which have been most disturbing to Australia’s technology sector.
The Minister continues to misspeak — sometimes maliciously – as when he has implied that opponents of the filter are pro-child pornography — and sometimes accidentally, as when he discussed the “spams and scams coming through the portal” and revealed the depth of his lack of knowledge about computer security.
Stilgherrian is right when he says that there are issues too with Lundy – such as her marriage to David Forman, who represents virtually all of Australia’s telcos in their war against Telstra.
But there is a concrete reason behind the support from Australia’s technology community for Lundy. The senator — on a range of issues, from her attempted weakening of the internet filter, to her support for Government 2.0 initiatives and a government representative for SMEs — has supported the technology sector instead of trying to control, and sometimes oppose it.
It is not wrong, it is not misguided, it is not ignorant, it is not naive, it is not a waste of time and effort and it is not foolhardy for Australians to attempt to replace a Minister with another politician who they believe will do a better job, through any means they know how.
It is simply democracy.