New PM Turnbull asked to push NBN, tech innovation

IT industry bodies are lauding the appointment of Malcolm Turnbull as the new prime minister, with hopes that tech funding and innovation will be made more central to Australian politics.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

With former Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull set to become the new prime minister, industry bodies are asking him to put the National Broadband Network (NBN), along with funding for technological innovation, at the centre of government policy.

Turnbull on Monday resigned as communications minister and approached then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott to ask for a leadership ballot. He was subsequently elected as the new Liberal Party leader in a party vote of 54 to 44 on Monday night, and will be sworn in on Tuesday afternoon as Australia's 29th prime minister.

As Turnbull has historically given prominence to tech issues -- for instance, establishing the Digital Transformation Office (DTO) in January this year and undertaking frequent reviews into the NBN -- industry groups are hopeful that the government will provide greater funding and support to the IT industry.

Internet Australia has asked Turnbull to denounce Abbott's "failure to understand the importance of the internet", with CEO Laurie Patton saying the NBN must be fast tracked, as high-speed internet will ensure Australia keeps up with the global digital economy.

"Of all the politicians in our federal parliament, Mr Turnbull knows better than most the value of an effective broadband service to our economic future. This is his opportunity to put Australia back in the game by fast-tracking broadband construction," Patton said in a statement on Tuesday morning.

"The internet is the engine that will drive innovation and create much needed 21st century jobs. Over the past two years, Australia has fallen behind other OECD countries in the rankings for internet-enabled offices and homes. We cannot allow this to continue.

"Right now, the priority must be to roll out the NBN as quickly as possible. We can continue to debate the appropriate technology, but we cannot wait any longer to get Australians connected."

The Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA) has also welcomed the appointment of Turnbull, particularly his statements on Monday night that he would work towards creating an agile, innovative, creative, and disruptive country.

"Whether in Parliament or his career as an entrepreneur, Mr Turnbull has been a strong advocate for the digital economy. As prime minister, we look forward to an accelerated rollout of the NBN and increased attention to how it will be used more effectively to drive innovation across all industries and provide a platform for the jobs of the future," said AIIA CEO Suzanne Campbell.

"This is fundamental to growing Australia's economy and positioning us in an increasingly data- and knowledge-driven world."

Similarly, not-for-profit entity StartupAUS has expressed hopes that its working relationship established with Turnbull in his tenure as communications minister will continue, with CEO Peter Bradd saying the startup industry needs greater funding and support from the government.

"As Australia enters a new era of growth, technology-based startups have the potential to transform the economy and create the jobs of the future," Bradd said.

"In the next two decades, startups have the potential to contribute up to AU$109 billion in growth to the economy, and create 540,000 new jobs.

"StartupAUS is committed to continuing its work with government to boost Australia's prosperity and modernise its economy through a well supported and thriving tech startup ecosystem."

Professional IT association the Australian Computer Society (ACS), for which Turnbull served as patron, said Turnbull's technological knowledge will bring value to the prime minister's office.

"In today's digital world, having a former communications minister take the top job will bring a much needed stronger focus on innovation, technology, and digital education and skills," said ACS CEO Andrew Johnson.

"Building digital skills is critical if Australia is to secure its economic future, and Malcolm Turnbull has strong credentials in the technology space."

Turnbull had argued in March that the government should be run like NBN, saying that transparency and frequent reviews would lead to better governance and policy.

"With the NBN, the first thing we threw out was ideology, lies, and spin. We told the truth about the project -- with an independent Strategic Review completed three months after the September 2013 election, by publishing weekly rollout statistics, through requiring the company to provide detailed quarterly financial and operational reports. In short, we made NBN Co as open and accountable as a publicly listed company," Turnbull said.

He also advocated his policy of rolling out the NBN "as quickly and cheaply as possible", recognising the need for Australians to gain equal access to high-speed broadband.

"Rather than engaging in theological debates about fibre versus copper versus other technologies, we would free the company to use whichever access technology enabled it to finish the job as quickly and cheaply as possible," he said.

"Most end users accept this approach, and are happy to forgo Labor's fibre nirvana in favour of high-speed broadband deployed sooner and costing less."

Another tech project being undertaken by Turnbull is the DTO, which works across all government agencies in collaboration with businesses and universities, and was tasked with creating a single online myGov portal for dozens of government-related services.

"This is an exciting initiative, but it's also complex and requires significant cultural change," Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull said in a statement.

"Government services don't face competition in the traditional sense, but that doesn't mean they should be immune from the disruptive technologies that are having an impact right across the economy.

"The DTO needs to adopt an agile, startup-like culture, so it's important that we recruit people with the right mix of skills and attitude to speed up the transformation of government services."

The DTO office was launched in March, despite not receiving funding for its setup until the government allocated it AU$95.4 million over the next four years in the 2015-16 Budget in May.

Over the past few years, the two major technology research organisations -- the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and National ICT Australia (NICTA) -- have had their funding slashed; Abbott faced criticism in November from the federal opposition, which labelled the cuts as hypocritical, saying it was short sighted not to support science, innovation, and research in Australia.

"Who does Mr Abbott think industry will collaborate with when he is cutting some 800 jobs from Australia's premier scientific research agency?" Shadow Minister for Science and Research Senator Kim Carr said.

Turnbull last month made this a central issue, announcing the government will merge the digital productivity arm of the CSIRO with NICTA. He said at the time the combined force will "supercharge" Australia's technological advancements.

"Having a single national organisation will enable Data61 to produce focused research that will deliver strong economic returns and ensure that Australia remains at the forefront of digital innovation," Turnbull said.

"The new combined entity will continue to train Australia's future digital technology leaders."

One digital issue that remains unclear with the change of leadership is online copyright infringement, with a piracy code lodged in April and piracy site-blocking legislation passed by both houses of parliament in mid-June.

This is despite Turnbull releasing Department of Communications research in June that revealed only 21 percent of respondents would stop consuming copyrighted content for free if they were sent an education notice.

Respondents to the survey said the primary factors that would stop them from infringing in the future are a decrease in the cost of legal content, the availability of legal content, and the simultaneous release of content in Australia alongside the rest of the world.

"Rights holders' most powerful tool to combat online copyright infringement is making content accessible, timely, and affordable to consumers," Turnbull recognised at the time.

The data-retention legislation, passed by the Australian government in March, is another outstanding issue, with the laws to see customers' call records, location information, IP addresses, billing information, and other data stored for two years, accessible without a warrant by law-enforcement agencies.

Editorial standards