Victoria's new technology minister has confirmed the state's fledgling Coalition Government does not support the introduction of Labor's preferred 'opt-out' model for the National Broadband Network, in a move that will force residents to actively choose to receive fibre infrastructure when the rollout hits their neighbourhood.
In early December, the state's new Premier, Ted Baillieu had given a strong indication he was against the opt-out model, saying it should be "optional" for premises to receive fibre. However, it has remained unclear if Bailieu's off-the-cuff comments represented Coalition policy, until now.
"The position of the government is that it does not support the introduction of 'opt-out' policy," said the state's new technology minister, Gordon Rich-Phillips, in an email interview this week, in which the politician also outlined the scope of his responsibilities concerning the state's technology sector.
Rich-Phillips didn't elaborate further on the Coalition's reasoning for the policy decision. However, he noted the State Government was in ongoing discussions with its Federal counterpart in relation to the NBN. For starters, the Minister noted, Victoria's Department of Business and Innovation has been in "regular contact" with both NBN Co and Stephen Conroy's Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy over many issues concerning the NBN rollout in Victoria.
"Discussions with the Federal Government are ongoing," said Rich-Phillips. "Current matters being discussed are around establishing the nerve centre and NBN Co's network operations centre in Melbourne."
The new Minister also noted he was looking forward to the next meeting of the Online and Communications Ministerial Council in the new year, where such issues would be discussed between Commonwealth and State technology and communications ministers.
The decision by the Victorian Government to block the NBN opt-out model will place the state at loggerheads with Federal Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, for one, who has expressed a strong preference for the opt-out model.
In addition, it displays division within the Coalition itself about the issue. In Tasmania, the Labor State Government has legislated to support an opt-out model at the urging of the Opposition, with the state attempting to make the most of the technology rollout. Most of the other state governments are yet to take a formal policy decision on the matter; and NSW, for one, is currently in a state of flux as it prepares for an expected change of government to the Coalition early in 2011.
Victoria's choice will also likely force NBN Co into conducting a higher degree of education campaigns in the state, as it attempts to convince residents to opt-in to the fibre rollout. It has already started conducting such efforts in early stage rollout areas throughout mainland Australia.
In the interview, Rich-Phillips also outlined the boundaries of his role as technology minister. In some states, such as Queensland, the state ICT minister has overarching responsibility both for technology industry development as well as internal public sector use of technology.
However, Rich-Phillips made clear that he did not have any legislative responsibilities relating to internal government use of technology. In addition, he said, the minister overseeing the state's IT shared services agency CenITex was Finance Minister Robert Clark.
Especially compared with rival states such as NSW, the previous Labor Government was extremely active in developing the technology sector in Victoria, cementing partnerships with multinational giants like IBM and giving a boost to local companies as well through trade missions overseas and other initiatives.
Rich-Phillips pointed out it was the previous Coalition Government in the 1990s that had established the state's flagship ICT agency Multimedia Victoria and appointed its first Multimedia Minister. "We are proud of this and will continue the emphasis on the ICT sector and the innovative use of ICT across the Victorian Government and our economy," he said.
"Successive governments have supported the ICT sector and we will continue that push."
However, in one area at least, the new Coalition Government doesn't appear to be as keen on technology use as its Labor predecessor.
The previous Premier, John Brumby, had jumped wholesale on the Apple tablet bandwagon when it rolled into town in mid-2010, announcing a series of iPad trial rollouts to schools and hospitals and pledging during the election campaign that every doctor in a public hospital would receive one of the Apple devices if Labor was returned to power.
The Coalition, too, promised to investigate mobile technology during the election. But its pledges didn't quite extend as far as Labor's. Asked about the Coalition's approach, Rich-Phillips was non-committal.
"I am informed that the public sector does use iPads when it is deemed to be the most appropriate and effective technology to use," he said.