commentary Politicians are notoriously clueless when it comes to
technology. Indeed, a Parliament House staffer has previously told
ZDNet.com.au that it's impossible to overstate their level of
ignorance. But isn't it time they caught up with the rest of
On 19 October, for example, during Senate Estimates [PDF],
Queensland Liberal Senator Ian MacDonald kept wanting to understand
the speed and pricing of the National Broadband Network in terms of
"the use of a PC for normal email traffic" — clearly unaware that
email is far from bandwidth-intensive.
In the same debate about the
cost of the NBN, Shadow Communications Minister Nick Minchin, another
Liberal, asked: "Again, remind me, with optical fibre, you have to
attach a unit to the side of people's houses, do you not?"
There was even ignorance on both sides of politics about the
ownership of Australia's second-largest telco, as this bizarre
Senator Conroy: Does anyone know whether [Optus parent
company] SingTel is listed on the Australian Stock Exchange?
Senator Minchin: What?
Senator Conroy: Does anyone know whether
SingTel is listed on the Australian Stock Exchange?
Senator Minchin: That is nonsensical, too. On that, I do not own shares so pardon
my ignorance as to whether every company is listed on the stock
Senator Conroy: I do not own shares either.
Conroy is actually one of the more IT-savvy people in
parliament, yet it doesn't seem to have occurred to him — or the
other senators, or their staff — to use the laptops in front of
them to find the answer. Which is "Yes", by the way.
Politicians are in general relatively new computer users. It's
only four years since Jackie Kelly, the former Liberal MP for
Lindsay, was the first person to use a laptop on the floor of
Parliament House, Canberra.
"In fact, the then speaker kicked me out for it," she said in
her valedictory speech. "I am glad
we [now] see things differently and have equipped this House for
laptop use in the chamber."
Britain's former Prime Minister Tony Blair didn't even own a
mobile phone until the day he left office in June 2007.
"When I lived at Downing Street I never had one," Blair is
reported as saying. "I sent an SMS
to a friend, but given my lack of technological knowledge I didn't
realise the telephone hadn't identified me as the sender. I got an
SMS back saying: 'But sorry, who are you?'"
In the US, Barack Obama's thoroughly modern insistence on using
a BlackBerry triggered security concerns — the first time a President had
actually wanted his own email device.
Part of the problem seems to be that more traditional
politicians actively ridicule those who choose to use information
On 1 June, Liberal MP Barry Haase told parliament,
"I am not one of those technophiles who carries a laptop
everywhere." This is despite his electorate of Kalgoorlie covering some 2,295,354 square kilometres of Western Australia,
requiring extensive travel.
Even South Australian Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham, just
over half Haase's age, once chided Conroy,
"I wonder if the minister could please be asked to table the laptop
from which he was reading his ministerial statement."
As Conroy said in another Senate debate, "In an
answer in the portfolio area of the Digital Economy, to be actually
objecting to using a computer screen rather than a file and a piece
of paper is a little bit embarrassing."
I'm not suggesting that politicians need to be programmers or
systems administrators. As broadband minister, Senator Conroy no
more needs to be able to debug Python or configure Exchange email
routing than the defence minister needs to fly a jet fighter or
even fire an assault rifle.
But politicians do need to know enough to make effective
decisions about the issues they're discussing — and IT has been a
core part of our society for decades now. Given that politics
is about communication, sifting through vast amounts of
documentation, and collaboratively creating policies, shouldn't
politicians also commit to the same kinds of productivity
improvement in their own jobs that they demand of everyone
Previously I've written that "I don't understand computers" is
no longer an acceptable excuse for businessmen
and suggested a checklist of the things managers should know.
Here's my first cut of a similar IT knowledge checklist for
- The structure of the telco industry,
especially the difference between wholesale and retail providers in
terms of who's responsible for support, fault rectification and
billing. For Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull to ask of the NBN,
"How many subscribers will it have", misses the difference between
a wholesale and a retail network — despite him previously being
one of the founders of ISP OzEmail. Yet I have yet to find a government
member who realises they could have used that ignorance to score a
- Units for measuring data and transmission speeds, such as
gigabytes or megabits per second, without confusing bits and bytes,
and how they equate to everyday tasks like streaming live video or
making a Skype call. That's like knowing the difference between a
million dollars and a billion, and how much real estate each could
buy. Kevin Rudd's recent talk of "bandspeed" may have been just a slip of the tongue, but you don't make slips if you're familiar
with the subject.
- The strengths, weaknesses, achievable speeds and cost
implications of different connectivity methods such as ADSL, WiMax,
FTTH, HFC, 3G and 4G — without having to know how they work, of
course. That's like knowing the implications of diesel railways
versus electric, or building a bridge versus a tunnel.
- The one-sentence meaning of common jargon, such as CRM, ERP,
FTTH, phishing ... how far down should we drill?
- The broad development process of big IT projects, when it's
impossible to say today what it'll cost to provide some specific
component in four years' time.
- The meaning of open source and Creative Commons, and their
- That the internet is not the web, and that it has uses beyond
email, Facebook, downloading movies and watching porn.
Now all that said, I don't think we should call politicians
"dumb" for not knowing this. It is complicated, and it does take an
effort to learn. I'm just saying they should put in that