news Prime Minister Julia Gillard has shifted Federal parliamentarians Kim Carr and Robert McLelland out of their respective industry and attorney-general ministerial portfolios, in shifts that will have a dramatic effect upon how the nation’s technology sector will deal with the top levels of government over at least the next year.
A cabinet reshuffle announced by Gillard this afternoon will see current Health Minister Nicola Roxon take on McLelland’s responsibilities as Federal Attorney-General, while current Climate Change and Energy Efficiency Minister Greg Combet will take on the industry and innovation portfolio, replacing Carr.
Along with Communications Minister Stephen Conroy and Special Minister of State Gary Gray, who will retain their existing roles, McLelland and Carr have been key contact points for the technology sector in dealing with the Government during the Gillard and Rudd administrations.
McLelland has featured regularly in the technology press over the past several years due to the focus which his Attorney-General’s Department has had on law enforcement issues in the telecommunications sector.
The department is currently holding closed door talks between the ISP and content industries over the issue of online copyright infringement (Internet piracy). McLelland has repeatedly stated that he would prefer an industry solution to come about with respect to the issue, and has declined a number of questions about what the Federal Government’s own policy is on the issue. In addition, the Attorney-General’s Department has also been in the press over the past year regarding a controversial and secretive proposal by the department to force Internet service providers to store a wealth of information pertaining to Australians’ emails and telephone calls.
The proposal — known popularly as ‘OzLog’ — first came to light in June this year, when AGD confirmed it had been examining the European Directive on Data Retention (PDF) to consider whether it would be beneficial for Australia to adopt a similar regime. The directive requires telcos to record data such as the source, destination and timing of all emails and telephone calls – even including internet telephony. In a wider sense, McLelland has also been instrumental personally in pushing for Australia’s cybercrime laws to be harmonised with international regulations on the issue.
With respect to Carr, the Minister has worked with the technology industry over a number of issues, releasing a report last week on the issue of cloud computing. It was unclear when Carr was appointed to what extent he had responsibility for the technology industry, but Conroy has stipulated in public that his responsibilities purely extend to communications — naming Carr as the responsible minister for ICT.
However, since that time, Conroy has also been appointed to an additional role assisting the Prime Minister on the development of the digital economy, further muddying the waters in terms of ministerial responsibility for technology.
Carr has been appointed Minister for Manufacturing, while McLelland will take on a role focusing on emergencies such as the Queensland floods.
Roxon is a lawyer by background and appears to have had little experience dealing with the technology sector, aside from her ongoing efforts over the past several years to push through electronic health records legislation and projects in the health portfolio. Roxon was briefly Shadow Attorney-General under Mark Latham’s opposition.
Kim Carr’s exit from the industry and innovation portfolio will have little impact on Australia’s technology sector; as Minister in the portfolio Carr has paid virtually no attention to the sector and has at times appeared to have very little knowledge of what it is and how it functions.
However, Nicola Roxon’s ascension to the position of Attorney-General is probably bad news for those hoping that McLelland’s exit would bring about a more transparent and accountable Attorney-General’s Department.
McLelland’s department has become known over the past several years for its hard-line approach to regulating the law enforcement aspects of Australia’s telecommunications, Internet and content industries. From monitoring Australians’ online activities to building industry consensus on cracking down on Internet piracy, under McLelland the department has consistently backed law enforcement interests against consumer rights, content industry interests against consumer rights and backed public servants’ rights to keep information from the public over the public’s right to know.
Anyone who watched a number of fraught encounters between departmental officials and politicians like Greens Senator Scott Ludlam over the past year cannot have walked away with the impression that McLelland’s Department wanted the public to know all that it is up to. I would say Roxon’s appointment will exacerbate this situation.
Over the past several years I’ve found it almost impossible to get any information from Roxon’s office about the government’s electronic records scheme, and the MP has a similar reputation to McLelland inside the government — she’s seen as a hard liner, and she’s never been afraid to push back on the press or the Opposition in pushing her views.
There is also evidence that Roxon also doesn’t know that much about technology. I had the chance to question Roxon in person in June 2010 about the Government’s electronic records scheme, and it was apparent at the time that while the MP had a high-level understanding of the initiative, it was also clear that she did not have an in-depth understanding of the details surrounding the system. How would it function? How would it be built? What technology would underpin it? Roxon didn’t appear clear on those details at the time.
With all of this in mind, my prediction for Australia’s technology sector from today’s appointments is more of the same. Combet will, no doubt, ignore the ICT industry, as Carr did before him, and Roxon will continue efforts to crack down on perceived Internet nasties, as McLelland did before her.
Update: A statement on Gillard’s website reveals an additional change today: Responsibility for cybersecurity will move from the Attorney-General’s Department to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. I would analyse this as relating to the centralisation of control over the government’s cyber-security defence.