Govt ICT spend in Labor sights

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James Riley

Federal Labor would continue to press for an independent review of multi-billion dollar increases in Commonwealth spending on information technology, and have held open the prospect of a Senate inquiry into the issue.

Shadow Minister for the Digital Economy Ed Husic said the opposition had legitimate concerns about the ballooning federal technology budget, which until three years ago had averaged $5.5 billion to $6.5 billion annually, but which has now climbed to more than $9 billion a year.

Against a back-drop of public technology failures in the past year – ranging from the Census to the ATO to the – Mr Husic said an arm’s length review of technology spending is a reasonable and prudent response to such a steep rise in technology spending.

It is a decade since the Commonwealth engaged an outsider to look at the effectiveness and efficiency of its technology budget, when senior UK bureaucrat Sir Peter Gershon was brought in by the- Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner to look Australia’s performance.

Mr Husic said the he would ordinarily support additional funding for the Digital Transformation Agency given the important work it does – the DTA was given a $70 million increase in the Budget last week – but the blow-out in tech spending needed to be addressed to restore public confidence.

“From our point of view, the issue is that that the government still hasn’t outlined what lessons have been learned, and how concretely it has applied those lessons to drive a better and more efficient use of the dollar when it comes to digital transformation,” Mr Husic said.

“So if you’ve doubled the digital spend from $5 billion to $10 billion, and you’ve had all those [technology problems] that have played out in the public space, and then you announce that you’ve tipped in another $70 million to the DTA – without explanation – then I think it’s only fair to ask why the extra dollars?”

“We specifically said we would prefer an arm’s length review, an independent review [of Commonwealth technology spending],” he said.

“We could easily have gone down the track of a Senate inquiry. We didn’t. But we think the government has done the wrong thing in just [ignoring] this.”

“We will be putting a focus on this through the estimates process, and we will be making a decision down the track in terms of what we do in terms of getting answers to legitimate questions about what the government spends on ICT.”

Meanwhile, Mr Husic says Treasurer Scott Morrison and the government is doing the tech sector a disservice by not talking more openly about innovation policy.

“Last year the sector managed to get a response from the government within the budget speech about the importance of the work being done by the industry,” he said.

“It is just a complete contrast in the past 12 months, where the government has completely side-stepped the sector.

“That type of public comment from government is important. It’s a public backing of what [the sector] is doing and it validates not just investment in the sector … but also the people out there who are thinking right now about beginning their own startup company.

“If we are not talking about these things, then how are we going to be doing the things we need to in order to become a smarter nation,” Mr Husic said.

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