Turmoil clouds the tech agenda

James Riley
Editorial Director

A major cloud is now over the federal government’s tech and digital transformation agenda with a series of resignation offers from key ministers amid ongoing leadership turmoil.

With Australia’s first tech-literate Prime Minister under intense pressure, Malcolm Turnbull’s innovation agenda is at risk.

Cybersecurity Minister Angus Taylor and assistant minister for digital transformation Michael Keenan both offered their resignation on Tuesday night after they backed Peter Dutton over Malcolm Turnbull in the Liberal Party leadership spill.

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Mr Turnbull has so far only accepted the resignations of home affairs minister Peter Dutton and senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells and has said that other Cabinet ministers have pledged loyalty to him.

Mr Taylor was one of 35 Liberal MPs and Senators that backed Mr Dutton, including a number of other frontbenchers.

Mr Keenan, who is in the Cabinet in his other role as Human Services minister, will remain in his role as minister assisting the prime minister for digital transformation, according to Mr Turnbull.

Assistant Minister for Science, Jobs and Innovation Zed Seselja has again offered his resignation after throwing his support behind Mr Dutton.

Addressing the media on Wednesday afternoon, the Prime Minister said Cabinet ministers that had supported Mr Dutton had since given him “unequivocal assurances”.

“I’ve had discussions with them. What I’m endeavouring to do is to obviously ensure that the party is stable, to maintain the stability of the government of Australia. That’s critically important,” Mr Turnbull said.

“The cabinet ministers, apart from Peter Dutton of course, who came to me to say they had voted for Dutton in the leadership ballot have given me unequivocal assurances of continuing loyalty and support.”

Mr Taylor and Mr Seselja are members of the outer ministry, not the cabinet, and it remains unclear if they will be remaining in their roles if Turnbull retains the leadership.

Mr Taylor was asked during question time whether he supported the Prime Minister and had the confidence to remain in his role.

“The answer is yes I do, yes I do. The first priority of this government and this Prime Minister is to keep all Australians safe and secure, and I strongly support that priority. Since 2013 this government has provided unprecedented funding and support for our law enforcement agencies,” Mr Taylor said.

Mr Taylor has been one of the major voices in the government on technology and the role of IT in government after previously serving as the assistant minister for digital transformation.

He took on the law enforcement and cybersecurity portfolio as part of a reshuffle in December last year.

The immediate future of government’s “anti-encryption” legislation, which was only formally unveiled last week, is uncertanty with the future of its two main backers – Mr Dutton and Mr Taylor – in question.

The leadership challenges come as another controversy has thrown a cloud over the government’s innovation portfolio, with BuzzFeed News reporting that prosecutors are currently considering whether they will lay charges over the leaks from innovation minister Michaelia Cash’s office to the media of the raids of the Australian Workers’ Union offices.

The Australian Federal Police have now handed over a full brief of evidence after investigating the “unauthorised disclosure of government information”, which carries a maximum two year jail term, BuzzFeed reported.

Senator Cash supported Mr Turnbull in the first leadership spill.

The department was on the verge of releasing the much-anticipated Digital Economy Strategy – which had been expected in the first half of this year – but the ongoing leadership confusion may also delay this.

It comes as the Opposition announced its own, slightly less dramatic, leadership reshuffle, with tech advocate Ed Husic given a big promotion.

Along with his current digital economy role, Mr Husic has been appointed as the new shadow human services minister.

“I’m confident that Ed’s eye for detail and his thorough calm will serve job-seekers and vulnerable Australians well,” Opposition leader Bill Shorten said.

Former shadow human services minister Linda Burney will become the new shadow minister for families and social services, while Terri Butler wil take on the new role as minister for the future of work, along with her current role for young Australians.

“Young Australians have got a raw deal from this government for far too long, and I think it’s important that their dedicated representative in the shadow ministry also has a say in shaping the workplaces of the future,” Mr Shorten said.

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