The Queensland alternative: Schwarten’s new shadow


Queensland Technology and Public Works Minister Robert Schwarten is not an easy target for a Liberal-National Party MP to take on. A veteran of the state Labor Party’s decade-long grip on power in the state and one of its most senior members by any measure, Schwarten is a big fish and has long had a firm grip on his portfolio.

Among state technology ministers, which tend to come and go like flies, Schwarten is also a rarity; a politician who’s held the low-profile portfolio for several terms and has long-standing contacts in the local technology sector.

However, the long-lived Schwarten might just be about to face one of his toughest opponents yet.

Several weeks ago the state’s Liberal-National Party went through a reshuffle of its top ranks that resulted in Shadow ICT Minister Jann Stuckey being ousted from the portfolio, and a young gun, member for Indooroopilly Scott Emerson, parachuted into her role. There are several notable things about Emerson that might give Schwarten pause with respect to his new parliamentary opponent.

Firstly, you could aptly describe the younger Emerson (he’s 46, compared to Schwarten’s 56) as a master of the media.

For most of his career (aptly described on Wikipedia, we assume by his own staff), Emerson was a journalist, initially for the ABC as part of its radio division, but then in the mid-1990s as a political reporter in Queensland for The Australian newspaper; a post which eventually led to the lofty role of chief of staff for the newspaper during the Sydney Olympics. After 2004 Emerson left the paper, winning a Churchill Fellowship to study political campaigning; he ultimately ended up helping to run a Brisband-based public relations firm after that, before being elected to the Queensland Parliament in March 2009.

And in the scant weeks since he was appointed — as he said in a brief interview this week, “five minutes” ago — Emerson has put that experience to good use.

The Queensland Labor Government — and Schwarten’s own career — has not been short of technology-related issues over the years; the recent Queensland Health payroll debacle being the most recent example.

During the 2009 state election, the local ICT industry took the unusual step of blockading an election debate with yellow t-shirts in order to get its point across that both sides of politics needed to pay attention to the sector.

Emerson has already taken advantage of Labor’s problems to start levelling accusations of poor management at Schwarten — blasting him in one media release as “refusing to take responsibility for a monumental blunder that occurred on his watch” and claiming other issues at Education Queensland were “a major saga” along the same lines.

The politician also has responsibility for the science portfolio, and Emerson has also started antagonising the Government in that sector; labelling Labor’s approach as “spin and slogans”.

In an interview this week, Emerson said his appointment as Shadow ICT and Science Minister was a “commitment” from the Liberal-National Party to the portfolio in terms of where it was going as a party.

The politician says as his first steps opposing Schwarten, he will be talking to people across the industry in the private and public sectors — to gauge an impression of where things were going well; and where not so well. One issue — a favourite one of Queensland-based technology companies like Technology One — will be the extent to which the State Government uses local products.

“In terms of ICT particularly, [the Queensland Government] is probably the biggest consumer of ICT products in the state; but not the biggest consumer of Queensland’s ICT products,” says Emerson. “The LNP is a party which is determined to support the local ICT industry; and business and job creation.”

Other issues will include getting the basics right, an area in which Labor has suffered some problems in the past. “The bottom line for ICT for a state government is reliability,” says Emerson. “ICT does provide opportunities to provide services to Queenslanders more efficiently and effectively — but it also has to be more reliable.”

Another issue in Queensland is the National Broadband Network. Like most Labor state government’s Anna Bligh’s administration is behind the initiative; but it’s also facing dissent from rural councils and the Liberal-National party dominated Brisbane Council, which has pledged to roll out its own fibre around the city in competition with the NBN.

Emerson says obviously the issue will affect all state governments, and while he’s reluctant to comment on the issue in depth, he says like the Federal Coalition, what concerns him about the project is the cost.

“From what I’ve seen, Labor is backing Labor on this one,” he says, when asked what the situation is in Queensland in terms of the opt-in/opt-out dichotomy causing debate around the nation in terms of the NBN. “But I think there are serious questions that need to be asked about the NBN,” he adds — noting his opinion that the Bligh Government is “not interested” in asking them.

Ultimately, whether Emerson can give Schwarten and the Bligh Government in general a run for their money on technology issues will depend on several factors; access to information from the industry, how well he understands the technology sector, and of course taking advantage of the sorts of opportunities that blunders like the Queensland Health payroll debacle offer.

When asked if he has a background in the sector, the politician doesn’t reply directly. But he notes his career has always been about information in general. “By profession I was a journalist,” he says. “I have been very involved in information for all of my life.”

Access to sources paid off for Emerson already this week; allowing him to gain information about Education Queensland’s OneSchool project that fuelled an ability to attack the Government on the issue. No doubt the sector will be watching closely to see how much further its newest advocate can go.

Image credit: Office of Scott Emerson