You've got to wonder if Special Minister of State Gary Gray purposely chose the Qantas week to announce the success of the government's telepresence program.
I mean, Innovation Minister Kim Carr decided to postpone his release of the Book Industry Strategy Group's report on the publishing industry (which I would have been really interested to read) because of the Qantas affair. But then, books don't have a whole lot to do with planes, except if you're one of those people who don't spend their whole time during their flight watching movies.
Telepresence, on the other hand, has everything to do with planes, or avoiding them.
Two years ago, the Federal Government announced that it would roll out 20 Cisco TelePresence units at a cost of $13.8 million for federal and state government use.
Today, Gray said that the government finished its roll-out 18 months ago, fielding an increased footprint of 36 units instead of 20, at a cost of over $18 million.
Back in 2009, former Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner had said that cost savings were set to start slow as it was impossible to change the ingrained habits of thousands of public servants. I gave him a bit of a hard time about it then, saying he should just lay down the iron fist of law and force people to make use of the new technology bling.
Previous comments aside, I'm sure it was a bit of an uphill battle to try and get people to ditch a flight for a video call. Yet, despite the difficulty, it must have happened, because the units have saved $12 million in the 18 months since the network has been operational. And I'll bet that some public servants wished that they had gone the telepresence option after last weekend, where Qantas made the shock decision to ground its fleet. As it turns out, it's not only the internet that can be unreliable.
If you think about the problems of a telepresence unit not working — being that you have to return to the office and back to work — versus the problems of a flight not flying — you get stuck somewhere and have to pay thousands of dollars to try and get home — telepresence seems like an attractive option.
Gray did say at the announcement that the industrial dispute had shown that "There is no doubt that these systems come into their own when otherwise transportation systems are placed under stress".
Indeed, I wonder how many businesses will consider installing units after last weekend's debacle. The Qantas weekend, following the volcanic ash issue in Europe (at least it's worth getting stuck there), really does drive home the ease of just pressing a button to have that meeting.
Updated at 5.09pm, 31 October 2011: the minister mistakenly said that the cost of the telepresence units was $24 million when it was $18.4 million.