opinion/analysis by Renai LeMay
17 January 2014
Images: Office of Malcolm Turnbull,
Paul Fletcher, Jason Clare, Ed Husic
The fundamental aim of overseas study tours undertaken by Members of Parliament is to help educate and give our political leaders a broader context within which to make better policy decisions, as well as opening substantive policy discussions with high-level figures. But the latest examples this month in Silicon Valley and other trips over the past several years starkly display the fact that in practice, that they merely serve as propaganda and to reinforce existing beliefs arrayed along dogmatic political lines.
If you have been following the social media accounts of the Australian politicians focused on technology policy over the past week or so, you would have noticed a rather curious thing: Very few of them are currently in Australia. In fact, with Federal Parliament in recess, most are currently touring the global mecca for technologists: California’s Silicon Valley.
Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has been namedropping like there’s no tomorrow, broadcasting a constant stream of selfies with US tech industry luminaries. On Tuesday this week it was Twitter and Square co-founder Jack Dorsey. On Wednesday it was Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg. And just a few hours ago Turnbull posted a photo of himself shaking hands with John Chambers, the long-time chief executive of Cisco Systems.
In between these power-meetings, the Liberal MP has sprinkled a mixture of other events. Turnbull attended the ‘Innovation and the Digital Economy’ dinner held by G’Day USA, a group aiming to link Australian interests with our American friends. And NBN Co’s new satellite construction effort got a look in as well. ZDNet tells us that another pit-stop on Turnbull’s whirlwind tour will be funding group Angel List.
Although he’s been substantially more taciturn about his visit to the US, accompanying Turnbull is his Parliamentary Secretary, Paul Fletcher.
Labor’s also been on the move this holidays. Shadow Communications Minister Jason Clare and Shadow Parliamentary Secretary to the Shadow Treasurer Ed Husic (whose interest in the tech sector is very well-established) have set up their own tour.
Clare tweeted today that he’s at Stanford University with business-focused social network LinkedIn for an Australian American Leadership Dialogue. Other groups graced by the pair’s presence are the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Microsoft’s CyberCrime Centre in Seattle, Yahoo!, eBay and the Google Fiber rollout which is making waves in Kansas City. Google’s headquarters itself also got a look-in, with Clare having the chance to test out the search giant’s Glass headset for himself.
Not all of the Parliamentary tech MP pack is overseas, of course. Shadow Minister Assisting for Communications Michelle Rowland has been hard at work holding down the Immigration portfolio in an acting capacity while Richard Marles appears to be on vacation, and it’s not quite clear where former Communications Minister Stephen Conroy is. Greens Senator and Communications Spokesperson Scott Ludlam, despite the likelihood of an imminent Senate election in Western Australia, took some time off for a holiday in Japan with Greens digital communications coordinator David Paris.
But there’s enough to establish a trend: In principle, many of Australia’s top tech-focused MPs are right now seeking to use our tax dollars or their own money for the edifying purpose of educating themselves in their portfolio; providing background and global context that will allow them to make better decisions in the year ahead.
In theory, this is a lovely vision. In theory, our politicians should achieve two laudable aims during their overseas study tours: Educating themselves and representing Australian interests to the world. In theory, I’m all for this kind of activity (particularly when MPs pay for their trips themselves, as Minister Turnbull reportedly is). In theory, this is precisely how Parliamentary recess periods and travel entitlement should be best used. In theory, we should be proud that our democracy is functioning well enough that our MPs are using the resources available to them to do the best job they possibly can in their respective portfolios.
This is why it’s such a pity that I’m so disappointed by what is happening in practice.
If we examine the details of the technology study tours taken by each major side of politics during this break, in addition to other similar tours reported over the past several years, what we see is that in practice, these trips are merely serving to reinforce existing prejudices on both sides about how technology policy should work in Australia. In practice, both major sides of politics are wasting the opportunity which has been handed to them on a golden platter to truly educate themselves about technology and the technology sector, as well as engaging with global stakeholders. In practice, each side is attempting to use their study tours as propaganda vehicles for entrenched views and is ignoring the wider opportunity here.
In practice, in the worst case our politicians are embarrassing themselves by not engaging on substantive issues of technology policy during their trips, or even worse: Starkly displaying to the rest of the world how poor Australia’s technology policies are.
I’ll examine each side in detail to illustrate what I’m talking about.
The most visible event arising so far from Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s study tour of the US has been his ill-fated visit to Facebook’s headquarters in Meno Park. This should have been an opportunity for the Liberal MP to discuss extremely serious and ongoing issues with the top brass at the social networking site: Issues such as policing abuse on Australian Facebook pages, how Facebook is working with Australian law enforcement, or even cross-jurisdictional taxation issues associated with the revenue being pumped out of Australia by online tech multinationals.
It’s possible that some of these issues were discussed. However, we consider it much more likely that Turnbull and his offsider Fletcher instead wasted the opportunity, focusing instead on the gender of Facebook’s COO (who has recently published a high-profile book on the issue of women’s leadership). We can guess this because Turnbull noted on Twitter that he was “inspired” by Sandberg during the visit, while Fletcher out and out stated that he had discussed “women in IT” with the Facebook COO.
Turnbull then attempted to leverage the Facebook visit into a social media event courtesy of a question and answer session with online readers via the social networking site. But, as has been well documented, the session backfired, with the feed filling up with hundreds of comments slamming the Coalition’s inferior broadband policy.
The fact that Turnbull didn’t anticipate this inevitability shows the Minister’s incompetency; the fact that he didn’t substantively address Australians’ concerns shows his arrogance. Australians are very concerned about the Coalition’s plan for Labor’s NBN project. But Turnbull continues to do little to address the very real issues being raised.
One can’t help but suspect that Facebook’s senior executive team found the whole issue hilarious. After all, there is no doubt at all that the social networking site would, as virtually every other major tech giant would, prefer Labor’s more comprehensive all-fibre broadband vision. The fact that Turnbull starkly displayed his own lack of understanding of social media and the unpopularity of his own broadband policy during a visit to the global home of social networking is nothing short of embarassing.
Other events on the Minister’s tour were, we suspect, similarly farcical.
The new Coalition Government recently blocked Chinese networking vendor Huawei from participating in NBN Co contracts over security concerns. Just last month, German newspaper Der Spiegel reported that some of rival Cisco Systems’ equipment had NSA-sourced backdoors built into it, but we’re sure that Turnbull didn’t push Cisco CEO John Chambers on this national security issue during his visit, despite the vendor’s extensive NBN and government contracts. Instead, according to Turnbull’s Twitter feed, the pair discussed “broadband, cybersecurity and the Internet of everything”. Great.
One can’t imagine that Turnbull would have found much of a welcome at the G’Day USA dinner, given that the Coalition has recently cancelled Labor’s plans to better support Australia’s IT startup community through tax reform; and one wonders precisely what welcome Turnbull received at Loral, given Turnbull’s controversial claims that NBN Co doesn’t need the satellites and wasn’t even launching them correctly.
Turnbull’s US trip also appears to have left several highly important visits off the list. Given the seriousness of the NBN issue and the developing competitive crisis in Australia’s mobile sector associated with the decline of Vodafone, one could have expected that Turnbull would have learnt a great deal about competitive regulatory policy from a session with the Federal Communications Commission.
We would have liked to see Turnbull take up the tax issue with companies like Google and Apple, which are currently siphoning billions of dollars of revenue out of Australia while paying little tax. We would have liked to have seen Turnbull meet with cloud computing giants such as Amazon, Microsoft and Google, to discuss concerns about NSA backdoors. We would have liked to have seen Turnbull meet with HFC cable operators to discuss the viability of NBN Co wholesaling and upgrading this kind of infrastructure. We would have liked to see Turnbull meet with major venture capital companies to learn how the government should be structuring tax law to entice them to set up shop permanently in Australia.
Instead, what we got was ‘policy-lite’. The Minister appears to have avoided the substantive issues during his trip to the US, instead using the trip as a series of photo opportunities. One wonders what impression Jack Dorsey — who has a habit of disrupting whole industries at a time — came away from with regards to Turnbull. It’s hard to imagine the Square and Twitter co-founder found the meeting illuminating.
Turnbull’s previous study tours have displayed the same myopia about the broader issues. Long-time readers will recall that when in Opposition, the Minister embarked on an impromptu tour of broadband facilities and networks throughout the greater Asian region in early 2011, visiting countries such as China, South Korea, Japan and Singapore. The Minister had previously visited Europe, especially the UK, to gain lessons about broadband rollouts in those countries.
Despite the ubiquity of fibre through most of the Asian countries — with South Korea, Japan and Singapore having especially focused on the Fibre to the Premises model — Turnbull at the time appeared to have primarily come away from his visit with the impression that it was HFC cable which was the most important model.
Turnbull’s visit to Europe was a little better, in that he accurately realised that Fibre to the Node was an increasingly popular broadband deployment model in those countries, but the then-Shadow Minister still didn’t appear to have taken in the message by many in Europe that even FTTN would eventually need to be being upgraded to FTTP, despite the fact that telcos such as BT in the UK had already started planning for that eventuality.
As a general theme, what we see from Turnbull’s study trips is a certain myopia: The Earl of Wentworth does not appear to have significantly modified his views based on the evidence of what he’s shown.
Labor’s study tour this month appears to be going a little better, but not much so.
The centrepiece of the trip has so far been a visit to the Google Fiber rollout in Kansas City. Although there are vast differences between Google’s approach and Labor’s FTTP NBN policy (Google offers no wholesale access, Google Fiber is available in very limited areas, pay TV options are limited and so on), there are also quite a lot of technical similarities.
Ed Husic went so far as to publish a series of speed tests and photos of the network in order to demonstrate its capabilities, as well as discussing the issues with readers on Twitter. One suspects the tech-savvy Husic was significantly impressed by the network’s 1Gbps speeds.
I love the idea of Google Fiber, and I’m sure most people feel the same way. However, at a fundamental level, what we’re seeing here is pro-NBN propaganda from Labor about its NBN policy. A real US study trip focused on broadband policy would have included not only a Google Fiber visit, but also, as mentioned earlier, a visit to the FCC, a visit to Fibre to the Node networks being rolled out by companies such as AT&T, a visit to HFC cable network operators, a visit to mobile telcos such as T-Mobile, and so on. The fact that Labor’s MPs chose to only visit the Google Fiber installation speaks volumes about their unwillingness to look outside the box when it comes to broadband policy, and their desire to use the visit for propaganda purposes.
Expect to see both Clare and Husic pontificating over the next six months about how inspirational and advanced the Google Fiber network in the US is. They’ll be doing this because selectively focusing on this installation alone allows the MPs to push the barrel of their own NBN policy.
Clare’s visit to Google’s HQ and his move to don the company’s Glass headset is reminiscent of the farcical visit by Google CFO Patrick Pichette to Australia in February 2013, where the executive wooed then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard with Glass but did not appear to substantively address the very serious tax issues associated with the search giant’s presence in Australia.
Other countries, such as the UK, Italy and France, are currently dramatically changing their tax laws to hit Google with hefty tax bills and work around the search giant’s penchant for avoiding paying local country taxes through the use of Irish subsidiaries. One doubts that issue was substantively addressed during Labor MPs’ visits to Mountain View — despite the fact that Husic is Shadow Parliamentary Secretary to the Shadow Treasurer.
Then too, one wonders what Clare and Husic really learnt from their visits to tech companies such as Microsoft, Yahoo!, eBay and others that they could not have learnt in Australia. All of these companies have very substantive Australian operations. Wouldn’t the MPs have done better by spending a day each with these companies and their executives in Australia, rather than a couple of hours pressing the flesh in the global headquarters?
At the heart of much of my criticism of the tech industry study trips of both major sides of politics this year is a central question: What’s in it for ordinary Australians?
Meeting and greeting tech industry luminaries, holding Facebook Q+A sessions from Menlo Park and test-driving Google Glass is all very nice, but where are the serious policy education sessions here? Where are the meetings with US regulators, legislators and financiers? Where is the multiplicity of views that should be expected from any educational endeavour? In short, what’s the point?
Like everyone, I don’t mind the odd junket or study tour. As a journalist, I’ve been to overseas countries such as China and Singapore with friendly vendors. I’ve been to the Gold Coast, Melbourne and Canberra half a dozen times for local conferences. And no doubt there will be more trips along the line. Journalists often travel with companies or on their own dime to conferences, to conduct interviews with high-ranking figures, or to visit manufacturing facilities. Education and travel are a wonderful thing and open our eyes to a broader context.
But I have one hard and fast rule when I travel on this kind of business trip: There has to be a point. I won’t travel purely for the sake of travelling, especially if it’s on someone else’s dime. Work is work and there has to be a substantial outcome generated from this kind of visit, whether it’s a solid article, the chance to press an issue with a high-ranking official, or the chance to gain substantial education I couldn’t get elsewhere.
What we’ve seen from the Coalition and Labor in their trips to Silicon Valley this month is something of a waste of resources. These trips should be used to push Australian issues at the highest levels, to gain broad context that will help in policy development, and most of all to competently represent Australia’s interests to our neighbours.
From what we’ve seen publicly this month, there have been elements of these factors in the trips undertaken by our MPs. I’m sure there is a lot more going on behind the scenes that we don’t know about, and I’m extremely happy to be corrected if I’m wrong about any of the meetings I mentioned in this article.
But I suspect not enough is being done or said on these trips. Too often, the events attended by our MPs are used to solidify their own entrenched political views or for propaganda setups. I think our technology-focused MPs can do better. I think everyone involved in this process is smart enough to understand that what’s going on is very, very far from ideal. The Australian public should expect value for money from these efforts. Members of Parliament are there to represent us. I think they could be doing a better, more comprehensive job of that fundamental function. That concept shouldn’t be hard to grasp, for those who have spent so much effort gaining and maintaining power to start with. The most important aspect of being an MP, after all, is what you do with your high-ranking position once you’ve obtained it.