opinion Prime Minister or not, there is simply no way that Malcolm Turnbull is going to reverse five years of bitter campaigning and return the National Broadband Network to its previous near-universal Fibre to the Premises model. So let’s give up hope on that misguided delusion right now and save ourselves a great deal of painful mental anguish.
Ever since Malcolm Turnbull forcibly took the Prime Ministership from Tony Abbott on Monday night this week, there’s been an enticing scent of what I can only call delicious hope floating around Australia’s technology sector.
Abbott, it must be admitted, was the embodiment of everything that Australian technologists fear from our political leaders. On both a policy and a personal level, the Member for Warringah could only be described as a an out-and-out luddite of the most frustrating kind.
Not only was the former seminarian obsessed with dying industries such as coal mining and car manufacturing — both of which are destined to become a mere footnote in Australia’s long-term industrial history — but he appeared fundamentally incapable of understanding any of the deep benefits to accrue from encouraging technological development in the land he governed.
Under Abbott’s watch, funding to Australia’s ICT research, video game development and tech startups was cut down right to the bone. In Opposition, the Liberal Leader farcically declared that the NBN was basically nothing more than some kind of “video entertainment system” and flatly ordered Turnbull to “demolish” it, while in Government Abbott backed draconian Internet filtering and data retention policies that would make Australia’s existing Internet — slow and plagued with problems as it already is — the laughing stock of the developed world.
And of course, Abbott’s luddism infamously extended into his personal life as well. Few can forget the then-Opposition Leader’s laughable declaration to Kerry O’Brien on the 7:30 Report that he was “no Bill Gates”, and he even held out as one of the last parliamentarians to use an outdated BlackBerry smartphone, in an age where Apple and Samsung have become the norm in Parliament House.
It’s true that more in-touch Liberals such as Wyatt Roy eventually did succeed in dragging Abbott to events held by Australia’s fast-growing tech startup sector in the past few months, and the PM was also scheduled to visit Silicon Valley in short order. But his incomplete conversion came too late and Australia’s tech sector had already made up its mind: Abbott is not our friend.
To add one last insult to a thousand injuries, Abbott even grudgingly resigned his short-lived commission by fax to Government House in Canberra. Wow. Who even knew that was still possible?
Little wonder then, that Australia’s tech luminaries instantly claimed Abbott’s shiny new replacement as one of our own. Compared to Abbott, at least on paper, Turnbull looks like a godsend.
The Member for Wentworth’s open interest in the tech sector, his background helping to get one of Australia’s first major Internet service providers off the ground, his cozy fireside video chats with Silicon Valley luminaries, and the largely open door of his office as Communications Minister which let so many startup entrepreneurs and CTOs in — all of this is being taken as evidence right now that Turnbull will be Australia’s first digitally literate Prime Minister.
The final cream on top of this delectable-looking magic pudding, of course, is the fact that Turnbull appears to be personally obsessed with consumer technology.
There are now a thousand photographs of the Duke of Double Bay checking his iPhone, iPad and Apple Watch in the House of Representatives chamber — and even shots where he appears to be accessing all three simultaneously. The phenomenon already has its own parody Instagram account.
One suspects that when Turnbull is eventually deposed in turn — and judging by Australia’s recent history, that may not be that far away, although my gut tells me the Turnbulls will likely be able to settle into the Lodge for the long haul — he will do so via point to point FaceTime, in 4K resolution.
The list of people who have already claimed Turnbull as the golden child (or is it the spry ‘Silver Fox’?) who sprang instantly from the tech sector’s fertile loins is endless.
The chief executives of dozens of local startups have already gushed over the new PM’s tech credentials. Industry groups such as StartupAUS, the Communications Alliance, the Australian Information Industry Association, the Australian Computer Society and Internet Australia have all weighed in.
And the list of things these organisations are already breathlessly expecting from Turnbull is just as endless.
If you believe what you read, within a very short time after taking office the new PM will deliver a plan to transform Australia’s economy into an innovation powerhouse, restore funding to key tech policy areas, reform government IT service delivery and perhaps even roll back the extremely unpopular data retention policy, as well as returning the NBN to the near-universal fibre model which many people have long suspected the Member for Wentworth personally prefers. All of Malcolm’s real views will be revealed and the heavenly gates will open. The great father, in his wisdom, will provide.
And this just in the first year. In year two, the Earl of Wentworth will probably discover how to turn water into wine. Wine that can be fed into renewable energy generators. That will power a datacentre in every home, fuelling the new tech startup-based economy. That can then list on the Nasdaq.
You get the picture.
Now, there is no doubt that Turnbull will absolutely do some of this. He will be a better PM for Australia’s tech community than Abbott ever was (of course, this would not be hard — a half-eaten onion could probably do that).
I am sure that we will see our new PM shift the emphasis of the Government’s economic strategy towards harnessing innovation, rather than abjectly blocking it. Over the next few years, there is no doubt the tech sector’s views will find a much stronger welcome in Canberra. And tech-savvy MPs such as Roy and others on the Liberal side of the fence will flourish in this environment, creating an even larger halo effect. We are now in a new world.
This is great. Turnbull is not Abbott, and Australia’s tech sector will indeed benefit from that.
But let’s just get one thing straight right now: Things will not be as good as many people are expecting.
The first thing to realise about Malcolm Turnbull’s ascension to the Prime Ministership is that it instantly demotes the importance of Australia’s technology sector in the Member for Wentworth’s mind.
As Communications Minister, Turnbull was expected to spend a great of time dealing with the problems of Australia’s technology sector. And he had the time to do so. Communications is a relatively junior portfolio within the Federal Government, representing Turnbull’s political role as a necessary but unwanted part of Abbott’s Cabinet. Turnbull had a relatively small department to oversee — a department with relatively few critical functions. He also had the space to harness the hype factor of the tech sector to help keep his profile high to further his ambitions.
But as Prime Minister, Turnbull and his staff now have a thousand greater priorities, chief among them overseeing Australia’s foreign affairs relationships, defence forces, national security, intelligence and economic portfolios. The ministers and many of the senior bureaucrats from all of these areas will be in and out of his office on a daily basis, conducting a thousand briefings on a thousand urgent matters. In fact, they already are.
Meanwhile, the industry megaliths of every sector — giants like BHP from mining, Woolworths and Coles from retail, the major banks and so on — will be beating a path to his door to make their demands. Visiting dignitaries from foreign countries will also be presenting their credentials.
Initially, Turnbull — like that other famous micromanager, Kevin Rudd — will seek to get across as much of this incessant detail as possible. Then he will start delegating as much as possible. But eventually, most Prime Ministers — and, in fact, most Ministers and even normal MPs in critical positions — get overrun. Eventually, the new PM will just be trying to keep things above water.
While this is happening, the tech issues that Turnbull currently professes to care so much about will fall almost completely off the radar as the Member for Wentworth tries to make decisions about which terrorists really need arresting this week and whether the Foreign Minister of Ireland is important enough to make time for on Wednesday morning before 10.
The reality is that there are very few tech issues or tech companies in Australia whose needs will be urgent enough to ensure an appointment with Turnbull or his team. And those that are important — such as the ongoing topic of the NBN — will be outsourced to a trusted lieutenant (probably Senator Simon Birmingham, I would guess) — who will keep Communications under wraps for the new PM so that he doesn’t get face any unpleasant ‘surprises’ from his former portfolio.
Then, too, there are certain things that Malcolm Bligh Turnbull will just not do, no matter if he is Prime Minister or the Emperor of Japan. There are already things on the industry’s wish-list which our new PM will just reject out of hand.
At this point, there is no doubt that Turnbull regards issues such as Data Retention, Internet piracy and the National Broadband Network as being completely settled and barely worthy of a new Prime Minister’s notice.
Many in the technology sector expect him to revist these topics. I have received many emails and messages over the past week from technologists who believe Turnbull now has the power to prosecute his true views, overturning the Data Retention or Internet Piracy bills, for example.
This simply will not happen. Not only will Turnbull want to avoid bringing up such divisive issues so early in his Prime Ministership, but his immediate need is to bring his party together, rather than re-introduce previously settled issues that have the potential to drive it apart.
Chief among the things Turnbull will not do, of course, is return the NBN to Labor’s FTTP model.
If Turnbull did this — or, in fact, if he makes any moves to tinker with the NBN at all — it would be an open admission that the tragic path he has forced on the tortured project was not the right one, and was actually done completely for political expediency.
This is true, but it is something that Turnbull can never publicly admit or take any action on. Turnbull has been, at times, publicly enraged by what he has continually alleged was Labor’s foolhardy waste of money by pursuing an all-fibre path for the NBN. Any move back to that model would prove that rage false. Such an act would open him up to claims of hypocrisy and give the lie to five years of forceful statements the Member for Wentworth has been making on the issue, unleashing a Labor attack squadron on his weak spot just when he needs it least.
In the House of Representatives yesterday afternoon, Labor tried just this stunt, with MPs lining up to agree with my article earlier in the week that Turnbull had been ‘Australia’s worst ever Communications Minister’ and one even reading out a portion of the article into Hansard. But the effort fell short, because Turnbull has every intention of staying his course on the NBN and not leaving any gap open for Labor to exploit.
If all this sounds a little depressing, that’s becasue it is the real-world nature of politics. This game is a team sport, and even a leader like Turnbull has to play by its rules and make sure his guys are on his side — or else he will be relegated to a waste product as a half-dozen of his immediate succesors already have been.
All of these factors mean that little will change in the short to medium term for Australian technologists under a Turnbull Prime Ministership.
None of this is to say that opportunities don’t exist, however.
Many of these will revolve around next year’s Federal Budget, which parts of the Federal Government are already feverishly working on preparing. The amounts of money or tax breaks needed by Australia’s technology sector for a few key areas to grow — the video game development industry, say, or the VC community — are so small as to constitute low-hanging fruit which it may be possible to get through a fresh Turnbull Cabinet quickly. And there are also a couple of similarly innocuous pieces of legislation which could also have a huge impact. The already passed Employee Share Schemes bill is a good example of the sort of small-scale thing I mean.
But don’t expect anything grand from the Earl of Wentworth any time soon.
Political change, when it comes in Canberra, can strike like lightning, creating shock and awe in a flash. When it does, it always seems to open a huge number of new doors simultaneously. But it’s wise to remember that policy change comes much slower — usually only after years and years of relentless lobbying and, in many cases, big cash donations in the election cycle.
Better than Abbott on technology? Certainly. But Malcolm Turnbull is not the tech sector’s Messiah. He’s just a very savvy boy.
Image credit: Office of Malcolm Turnbull