full opinion/analysis by Renai LeMay
5 September 2013
Image: Australian Greens
When it comes to technology policy in Australia’s 2013 Federal Election, there is one party with a better approach on almost every front. From supporting an all-fibre National Broadband Network to protecting Australians’ digital privacy rights, the Greens generally have their major competitors beat when it comes to technology policy, and their parliamentary experience gives them an edge on minor party rivals.
As the various political parties have gradually intensified the activities ahead of the Federal Election this Saturday, your humble writer has been accused at various points over the past year or so of being a sell-out shill for virtually every side. Simultaneously.
The outraged howls of protest which greeted my analysis of the Coalition’s National Broadband Network policy in April this year were some of the loudest which I’ve ever experienced in a decade as a journalist. The mere fact that I dared to describe the Coalition’s more minimalist, fibre to the node-based NBN policy as a “sensible alternative” to Labor’s fibre to the premises policy was enough for many in the technology sector to write me off forever as an ignorant peasant stuck in the Stone Age, devoid of all rational thought and reason.
The fact that quite a few other first-world countries have already very successfully deployed the FTTN technology the Coalition has focused on appeared to have been lost on most commenters on the issue, as was the fact that I stated clearly in the article that I still vastly preferred Labor’s policy, as it was superior on every front. As I wrote at the time:
“Fundamentally, it’s a worse policy than Labor’s. Its critics are right; it betrays a tragic loss of long-term vision for Australia’s telecommunications infrastructure. Fibre to the node is a dead-end technology which will, in several decades, be already fading into memory. By investing in fibre to the node, the Coalition isn’t skating to where the puck is going to be, nor even where it is now. It is looking backwards, not forwards, and by doing so it is throwing away the opportunity for Australia’s economy to transition from digging things up out of the ground to a more sustainable knowledge-based export economy — you know, the kind of economy which countries such as Germany and Japan already have.
On almost any measure, Labor’s policy is a better one than the Coalition’s. It has technical, economic, financial and industry structure advantages, to say nothing of the end benefit to Australian residents and businesses. It’s a winner and I prefer it vastly over the Coalition’s much more modest vision.”
The anger which greeted my comments in April still continues to be heard in some quarters. I’ve since established a tentative peace with him, but last week half a dozen of my more vocal critics, led by online commentator Kieran Cummings (‘Sortius‘), banded together on Twitter to post a detailed litany of my perceived faults, imagining financial links with the Coalition and lucrative future job offers that have supposedly influenced my coverage. “He’s been promised a job in Mal’s ministry,” squawked Cummings in a sustained attack on my credibility. “The whole Delimiter 2.0 is a cover for LNP funding, I reckon.”
Over the past year, the attacks have come consistently from the other side of the fence as well. Seasoned readers of Delimiter will recall the vitriol which Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has levelled at media outlets such as Delimiter, merely for refusing to back down from our stance that Labor’s FTTP-based NBN policy was superior to anything the Coalition had offered.
In August 2012, Turnbull accused “specialist technology journalists” of “fanning a pro-NBN zealotry among tech-savvy citizens who wanted the ultimate broadband regardless of more feasible alternatives.” In November last year the Liberal MP went on an extended rant to a meeting of startups and venture capitalists in Sydney on the matter, accusing Australia’s media of having a “cheerleader” approach to the NBN, parochially backing Labor’s version of the project without examining the status of similar projects internationally.
Given the stern criticism which sites like Delimiter have ladled onto the Coalition’s often outlandish and incorrect statements with respect to NBN policy over the past several years and our broad support for Labor’s FTTP-based policy, it’s not hard to guess which media outlets Turnbull was talking about. It must have continually irked the Shadow Communications Minister that sites like Delimiter have not followed mindlessly along with the fervent, but often baseless and even just plain inaccurate NBN criticism which mainstream media outlets such as The Australian and The Australian Financial have levelled at the project.
Heck, over the past several years Delimiter has even tangoed now and then with the smaller parties. Greens Communications spokesperson Scott Ludlam will remember how we took the Senator to task when he publicly claimed that he suspected law enforcement authorities of bugging his mobile phone, despite admitting that he didn’t have a shred of evidence of such behaviour. And the Pirate Party also felt the caustic sting of your writer’s tongue when it failed, for the second time in two years, to successfully register for an election, as well as when a ferocious internal feud with its affiliated organisations in Europe came to light. Even minor parties put a foot wrong occasionally.
None of this is unusual. One of my long-standing rules as a journalist is that, no matter how good a relationship you usually have with them, every single organisation or individual that you write about will at some point turn on you. Everyone has their weakness and makes an occasional bad decision. For those in power, it’s the job of journalists to point that out — to speak truth to power — and that often puts journalists in the firing line. This trend is particularly apparent in the political sector, because politicians and political parties are, by nature of their role, forced to be more outspoken than others.
The situation is particularly fraught for publications such as Delimiter, which attempt to avoid playing favourites and taking a consistently partisan line for one side or another. Over the past three and a half years of Delimiter’s life, I have consistently agitated for what I would describe as ‘good policy’ from politicians, no matter where it comes from.
Thus, even though Delimiter has supported Labor’s NBN project as good policy, as a site we have broadly opposed Labor’s wide-reaching data retention and surveillance plans, because they represent bad policy. With respect to the Coalition, we have supported its good ideas (such as its opposition for Labor’s controversial Internet filter project) and opposed its bad ones (such as halting Labor’s FTTP NBN rollout mid-way and replacing it with FTTN).
All of this brings us to the current day.
In two days’ time, all Australian citizens must register their vote. We must all march into our local voting centres, take one small and one rather alarmingly large piece of paper into private election booths, and place our marks down to indicate support for one or more political parties or candidates. This is a process of future creation. Our votes have weight and value. They will determine much of the next three years of Australia’s history.
So who will I be voting for, and who do I recommend you vote for?
The first thing to understand is that as an individual voter, I do not personally cast my vote based on technology issues. Those familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs will know that the ability to access technology such as super-fast broadband is probably rather high on that hierarchy; probably somewhere around the ‘safety of resources’ or even further up in the self-actualisation layer, rather than down at the bottom. To put it bluntly, Australians need food, clothing and accommodation more than they need super-fast broadband; thus, I tend to prioritise my vote where I feel it will help supply those essentials to everyone, rather than in areas where I personally stand to benefit from better bandwidth.
For me personally, what this means is that the biggest issue in the 2013 Federal Election, as with every election I’ve voted in (I’ve been voting since 1999) is the issue of refugees. Right now, there are thousands of people in dire circumstances trying to make their way to Australia. In the process, many, including many children, die. I don’t agree that a viable option is simply to “stop the boats” and block their passage, or even to keep them behind razor wire in awful detention camps; instead, I have always personally believed a much more humanitarian approach is needed and that we need to let more refugees into Australia.
Both major political parties — Labor and the Coalition — don’t agree with this approach, and consequently, I’ve never given either my vote. In any election. Instead, I have historically voted for minor parties such as the Democrats and the Greens, which have much more humanitarian refugee policies. I’ve stated this publicly many times, and I do so again today: Based solely on refugee issues, I will be voting for the Greens on Saturday, as I have done many times.
This doesn’t solve your problem, however; setting aside refugee issues and getting back to the topic on hand, which party has the best technology policy?
The answer to this question is not an easy one. Based on the areas of Government that most directly deal with the technology sector, there are three major planks of technology policy that Australians are looking for leadership from our politicians on. Firstly, and foremostly, there is the National Broadband Network. How each party will advance this major project is a key mainstream political issue. Secondly, there is the fast-growing issue of surveillance and digital privacy. Australians want to know that the Government will not be constantly spying on them through their telephone and their computer, and the data handed off to the United States’ National Security Agency.
Overwhelmingly, these are two issues which Australians have discussed over the past several years when it comes to Government technology policy. They are important issues which have wide-ranging implications about how our nation will develop in future, and should be considered seriously by all sides of politics.
Lastly, and most pertinently for those who work in the technology sector directly, there is the issue of industry development. Australia’s IT sector, from startups to major technology vendors, wants to see the Government support Australia’s transition from a resources- and agriculture-based economy to a more sustainable and productive knowledge-based economy. This also includes such issues as taxing major multinationals such as Apple and Google fairly, and dealing with geo-blocking IP addresses and IT price hikes.
If you examine each of the two major sides of politics, what you’ll quickly find is that each has some strengths and weaknesses in their policies.
Labor’s National Broadband Network policy, with its visionary focus on fibre to the premises-based infrastructure, is a clear winner. It’s a popular policy which is slowly delivering on its aims, and promises to set Australia up for the next 50-100 years in terms of the nation’s broadband needs. There is no competition here — Labor is out in front with the best policy when it comes to broadband. Likewise, Labor has done a solid job of policy when it comes to IT industry development. It is focusing on tax incentives and co-investment for IT startups, it’s announced a range of IT industry co-partnership efforts, and it’s even pledged to tackle the tax situation of companies like Apple and Google.
However, on the issue of digital privacy, Labor is a disaster. From its failed Internet filter project to data retention and surveillance, Labor in power has consistently tried to spy on Australians and restrict their digital rights as much as humanly possible over the past six years, and it has openly refused to discuss the issue during this election campaign.
For its part, the Coalition has an acceptable NBN policy which will definitely improve fundamental broadband service delivery in Australia, and a strong Communications Minister candidate in the form of the formidable Member for Wentworth, Malcolm Turnbull. However, the Coalition’s FTTN-based policy is vastly inferior to Labor’s, and Australians overwhelmingly don’t support it. As soon as the Coalition finishes implementing the policy at the end of this decade, the calls will begin for an upgrade to FTTP. So why bother doing FTTN in the first place?
The Coalition has simply not succeeded in making its case conclusively that Labor’s NBN project is a failure, and that it would be worth attempting to radically transform the project half-way through; creating chaos in a project which is, after all, Australia’s largest-ever infrastructure endeavour. Labor has been a bit hyperbolic in its criticism of the Coalition’s policy, but underneath all the hype is a kernel of truth; the Coalition has not provided enough evidence that its own policy can deliver, where Labor’s can’t.
On the issue of digital privacy, the Coalition is a little better than Labor — it eventually blocked Labor’s Internet filter project, and Turnbull and other Coalition MPs have individually spoken out against data retention and increased surveillance. However, like Labor, the Coalition has refused to release a policy in the area, and in power, it is believed the Coalition would largely follow the wishes of the law enforcement agencies in the area, much as Labor has. The Coalition’s IT industry development plans are weaker than Labor’s, as you would expect from the Liberal Party, a party which generally believes in getting out of the way and letting corporations do their job.
This leads us to the minor parties.
The most prominent of these — the Greens — has a lot to offer Australian technologists. Although it didn’t develop Labor’s FTTP-based NBN policy, but it does directly support it (PDF), and it rejects the Coalition’s FTTN-based approach.
The difference between the Greens and the two major parties is also one of populism. The two major parties both have policies that are tremendously unpopular with the electorate. Labor’s data retention and surveillance policy has been almost universally opposed, and the Coalition’s NBN policy, while viable on the face of it, has nowhere near the support that Labor’s all-fibre NBN policy does. Both major parties have not listened to the electorate on these issues. In contrast, the Greens’ technology policies run straight along the lines that the electorate wants to see – an all-fibre NBN, coupled with winding back of Government surveillance powers.
The Greens’ real weakness is in IT industry development. One can assume that it will go along with most of any Government’s IT industry development plans, but the Greens has its history in fighting big corporations’ environmental destruction plans, and it doesn’t have the expertise in developing industry that Labor and the Coalition do. Its broad policy platform (PDF) contains little in this area.
Of the other minor parties, there are two others without elected representatives that are of real interest to Australian technologists. Let’s deal with Wikileaks first.
With its focus on issues such as government transparency and accountability, winding back Government surveillance, protecting whistleblowers and even its support for independent media in Australia, the Wikileaks Party offers a number of highly attractive policies that will attract Australian technologists. In addition, it offers the prospect of one of the world’s most prominent campaigners for the use of technology to engender radical transparency — Julian Assange — as its lead Senate candidate. When it comes to digital privacy, WikiLeaks probably offers a policy platform comparable to that of the Greens.
However, the Wikileaks Party offers an inferior platform on two counts: It does not have a NBN policy, and it does not have an IT industry development policy. In addition, its long-term viability as a party is also in question, and it has already gone through significant internal controversy, with several of its Senate candidates resigning during the election campaign. It’s an unstable party right now. Is WikiLeaks a party beyond the aspirations of its founder, Julian Assange? What would happen if Assange — currently holded up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London — was elected? Would he be able to come back to Australia? Right now, nobody is sure, and that makes WikiLeaks a dangerous propostion.
The other significant minor party is the Pirate Party Australia. And it is here that we see a real alternative to the Greens for Australian technologists. Unlike WikiLeaks, the Pirate Party does have an NBN policy — it’s brief, but it does directly support Labor’s FTTP-based NBN project. Unlike WikiLeaks, the Pirate Party Australia is a stable party which has been growing in Australia and attempting to contest elections for some time. It also has substantial international relationships with Pirate Parties in Europe, which have elected representatives.
This view is supported by digital rights group Electronic Frontiers Australia. Last week, the EFA published an analysis of each major parties’ stance on digital rights. The Australian Greens and the Pirate Party Australia were the only parties whose policies were reviewed that received full marks on each issue examined by the EFA.
Marcus Wigan, EFA Vice-Chair said: “The major parties continue to disappoint us in their approach to digital rights issues. The ALP’s apparently uncritical acceptance of the recently revealed civil liberties outrages on the part of US authorities is deeply troubling, while the Liberal Party’s opposition to the introduction of fair use into Australian copyright law seems to contradict what we would expect from a truly ‘liberal’ party. EFA is glad that Australian voters have a range of choices and that there are parties standing in the election that have a genuine commitment to digital rights.”
The EFA also noted that both the Australian Sex Party and the Wikileaks Party had made preferencing decisions for the half Senate election in certain states that may result in their preferences going to parties that EFA believes may not be supportive of the digital rights agenda. The EFA recommended, therefore, that voters concerned with digital rights that are considering voting ‘above the line’ for these parties should review the Senate Group Voting Tickets for their state before casting their vote. These Senate Group Voting Tickets are available from the AEC website.
There are only two real problems with the Pirate Party. Firstly, it has even less focus on IT industry development than the Greens. The Pirate Party is focused on user rights, not corporate enablement, after all. And secondly, because it has no elected representatives in Australia, it has little actual legislative experience; the kind of thing the Greens have come to excel at in their long years as a minor party in various Australian Parliaments. However, it’s pretty hard to count this against the Pirate Party; after all, this is the same problem many minor parties face.
When it comes to choosing between the Pirate Party and the Greens, it comes down to two factors: Policy and experience. The Pirate Party has a more visionary, radical digital privacy and intellectual property rights policy than the Greens, and it draws neck and neck with the Greens on other major technology policies, such as the NBN and IT industry development. However, the Greens has a heck of a lot more direct experience in Government than the Pirate Party does, and the benefit of a massively expanded party structure and resources. A vote for the Pirate Party will likely not result in any candidate being elected; whereas the Greens will continue to have elected representatives focusing on this area, even if Ludlam doesn’t hold his seat.
There are also a handful of other parties with policies which affect the technology sector. The Australian Sex Party, for instance, has a solid policy on censorship. There is the very small Future Party, which focuses on the use of technology to drive outcomes for Australia’s future (for example, mandatory programming classes in schools). And there’s even Senator Online, which has a model where Australians could vote on every decision to be made by a Senator elected on its ticket.
However, none of these parties has a comprehensive enough policy platform in the area of technology to be considered as a focus for the votes of Australian technologists.
When it comes to technology policy, right now, there are two front-runners in Australia’s political spectrum at the moment: The Greens and the Pirate Party Australia. Both support an all-fibre NBN, and comprehensive digital rights for Australians. Both are weak on IT industry development, but their leadership on the other two primary planks of technology policy leaves them ahead of their rivals.
Of the two, the Greens have substantially more parliamentary experience and a much larger party organisation than the Pirate Party. A vote for the Pirate Party will likely not lead to candidates being elected, while the Greens still have a chance at maintaining the balance of power in the Senate and forcing Labor or the Coalition to negotiate for key legislation to get passed. In addition, the Pirate Party does not have local candidates in the House of Representatives.
Because of this, by a nose, Delimiter is recommending Australians focused on technology policy vote Greens in the Senate and in the House of Representatives in Saturday’s Federal Election.
We’re conscious that readers will also ask where we recommend preferences go. In the House of Representatives, Delimiter recommends Australians preference Labor ahead of the Coalition, due to Labor’s support for an all-fibre National Broadband Network. In the Senate, Delimiter recommends voters either vote above the line for the Greens, or preference the Pirate Party, WikiLeaks and Labor after the Greens below the line. This should ensure your preferences are not wasted; and will be directed towards parties firstly supporting both a fibre NBN and comprehensive digital rights; but in the worst case, towards parties supporting either of those two important planks of policy.