James Riley
July 1, 2013

New Ministry: Albo is not enough

 

Anthony Albanese is one of this parliament’s best performers, always on the front-foot and always scrapping. The new Prime Minister’s decision to give him Communications portfolio is not a bad one.

Albanese has been answering questions in the House on the National Broadband Network since 2007. He is at least across the broad detail of a very complicated project. The NBN remnains an electoral positive for Labor, and they will need a seasoned campaigner like Albo to hold the line against the very effective Malcolm Turnbull.

But Albo is not enough.

Up to a point, it makes sense to chuck a project like the NBN under the infrastructure minister. It’s definitely old school, in a Hawke/Keating-era-Transport-and-Communications kind of way. But there are big chunks of Stephen Conroy’s old portfolio to which Albo is not suited or not interested, or both.

As a project, the NBN long ago moved from its design/development/advocacy phase and into a construction/roll-out phase. As a shareholder minister for the NBN project, Albo’s going to be great.

But he does not have the enthusiasm or deep knowledge for the interesting stuff – the industry development of the Digital Economy end of the DBCDE portfolio. And he can’t just wing-it.

Labor approach to the ICT sector remains a confusing mish-mash or cross-portfolio responsibilities and competing interests. In the context of industry development, the tech sector is difficult.

A project like the NBN is just one – albeit very large – component of a critical, horizontal industry that spans the whole economy.

What is of more interest in the context of the election are industry policies targeting the digital industries. These are the policies that will help drive the digital economy. These encompass policy related to everything from primary and secondary curriculum, to 457 Visas, skills, tax treatment of employee share schemes, to more mundane government services like IP Australia and Commercialisation Australia.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s new Ministry was disappointing. If the appointment of Anthony Albanese to run Broadband and Communications policy, then the appointment of Kim Carr to reprise his role as Minister for Industry, Innovation, Science and Higher Education is terrible.

The last time Kim Carr had had this role (when he was appointed by Rudd after the 2007 election), the ICT industry disappeared from sight. He had little interest in anything that did not involve the construction of a car (excluding its electronic and software components, of which he also had no interest.)

Carr is a poor advocate for the technology sector. Forget about him having anything of value to say on the tech sector (and certainly don’t expect him to be lobbying Cabinet colleagues for changes to the tax treatment of employee share options or anything that requires nuance.)

Both Kim Carr and Albo are lucky they have Kate Lundy to lean on. Senator Lundy is the most fabled of long-term advocates for the tech sector. Her passion for the sector pre-dates the turn of the millenia.

Under Julia Gillard, Senator Lundy enjoyed the best job in politics. She was Minister for Sport (in an Olympics year last year) and Minister for Multiculturalism (another of her personal passions.)

She was also Minister Assisting on Innovation, which allowed her to keep in touch with her genuine interest in the ICT sector. She retains this responsibility, to which Rudd has added Minister Assisting on the Digital Economy. This was a good decision.

Senator Lundy was stripped of Sport, which Rudd handed to the South Australian senator Don Farrell.

Rudd’s appointment of Labor rising star as Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister, and Parliamentary Secretary for Broadband. This is a good appointment. Mr Husic is known for his intellect and his rigour.

Sharon Bird gets into the outer Ministry as Minister for Regional Communications. This is a good idea and a good appointment.

All of these changes might be considered moot, given the electoral challenges facing Labor.

Kevin Rudd missed an opportunity to reshape the Ministry to give better voice to tech sector issues. The ICT sector continues to be overseen by disparate voices, with a poorly-articulated agenda.

The outgoing Communications Minister Stephen Conroy was a polarising figure. It is a great shame that he has left the post, not least because just when he could finally turn more of his attention to the good stuff – the digital economy component of the portfolio – he is gone.

Many will disagree, but Stephen Conroy was the most effective communications minister this country has had. He left big shoes to fill.

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