On the first official day of the federal election campaign, Labor has placed IT at the centre of its agenda for growth, arguing that improved broadband and better government tendering processes will be essential to Australia's future competitiveness.
"It is appalling that we rate 25th in the world in terms of available Internet bandwidth," shadow minister for local government Senator Kate Lundy told the Government Technology World conference in Canberra.
"If we're to remain competitive as a country, we have to consider this an absolute priority."
Debate over how best to improve Australia's broadband performance and availability has already been a key feature of the "fake election" campaign, which effectively ended at the weekend with the announcement of the official election date.
Labor's plans to develop a national fibre-to-the-node network in conjunction with the private sector has been attacked by the Coalition as poorly planned and dangerously funded, as it intends to draw on money from the Future Fund, initially designed to pay pension liabilities for public servants.
Lundy noted that when she entered Federal Parliament in 1996, even getting a phone line for dial-up Internet in her office was almost impossible.
"Eleven years later, we're still fighting to get better bandwidth. This is a severe indictment in what has occurred in public policy in ICT over the last 11 years. We need a much bigger vision and a much broader vision to drive that investment forward."
Expanding the IT vision
Coalition policy had consistently minimised the importance of broadband for many years, Lundy said, noting that Communications Minister of the time, Senator Richard Alston, argued in 2001 that Australians were not interested in broadband services. "There was a political commitment to talking down the need for broadband investment," Lundy said.
While reaffirming Labor's commitment to a national broadband network, Lundy argued that broader IT procurement and industry development policies will also be important for the country's competitiveness.
IT needs to be central in thinking about industry growth as a whole, not merely in terms of the ICT industry itself, she said. "Strong ICT development will always be far more than the sum of its parts because it underpins everything. ICT ought to sit at the heart of our thinking on future economic growth."
As Australia's single largest IT buyer, the federal government also needs better policies to get value for money and stimulate industry growth, Lundy added.
"It is because so much of the market is driven by public procurement that it is critical to have a highly effective tendering process. The Howard government has not handled IT procurement well," she said.
Despite problems such as the failure of whole-of-government outsourcing in the mid-1990s, some departments have done well in developing online programs, Lundy said.
"Since I've been in Parliament, I've seen how creative and innovative all spheres of government have been in the delivery of online services," the Senator said.
However, this is rarely due to sensible policy, she argued: "Where terrific innovation has occurred, it's usually been done in the absence of political interference and through the innovation of individuals."
The gradual elimination of policies such as unlimited liability in government contracts and the dismantling of the clustered outsourcing approach have improved matters, Lundy said, but more work is still needed.
"They haven't followed through with ensuring compliance and the sort of cultural change in agencies to genuinely improve outcomes," she noted.
"Governments need to be smart enough buyers to ensure that they understand the technology solutions on offer. If those in our procurement sections are incapable of competently comparing competing technologies that claim to deliver the same outcomes using completely different approaches, procurement will always favour the incumbent."
"What upsets me most is we had the potential to be a world leader in ICT," Lundy said. "We are well positioned still, I hope, to restore our place."