Where are the ICT Citizens' Assemblies?

Why is it that tech policy misses out on public consultation?

blog Why is it that tech policy misses out on public consultation?

Last week Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced that should Labor be returned after the election on 21 August, she would seek to establish community consensus via a "Citizens' Assembly" on any carbon tax the government would introduce to combat climate change. The assembly would involve around 100 to 200 people from the general public gathering with the government to discuss potential policy.

It's a nice idea, but if climate change is such a controversial issue that the government needs to consult the public on it, why doesn't the government want to have frank and honest discussions with the public over similarly controversial IT issues such as mandatory internet filtering and the possibility of recording web-browsing history?

Instead of a citizens' assembly, what we get instead — in the case of the internet filter — is the government meeting with "a range of stakeholders" like the Australian Christian Lobby to advise the group ahead of time that the legislation was going to be put off until after the election.

Last week, I asked the office of Senator Stephen Conroy whether the names of any of the other stakeholders informed could be released. Once again, I was told it was a "range of stakeholders". No names were forthcoming. I know that one of the groups most active in the filter discussion, the Electronic Frontiers Australia, was not one of the stakeholders kept in the loop about the shelving. So who was?

Sure, the government quite often asks for submissions on technical issues, such as calling for submissions in Senate inquiries on topics such as cybercrime. It has also called for review and comments on the government's intention to buy a telecommunications operational management system.

But when do we get to air our thoughts on the big ticket items like the NBN, the filter and possible data retention, which all have direct impact on our lives?

Thoughts on policies from our politicians have been scant in the election run up. As Suzanne Tindal noted last week, there was barely anything tech related in the first election ads. Now we are over a week into the election and, apart from the Greens pledging support for the NBN and Labor promising an extra 1 per cent of Australia would get fibre access to the NBN, the major parties have been almost completely silent on policies relating to the technology industry.

In the mind-numbingly, stage-managed hour-long debate on Sunday night between Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, IT issues were only mentioned once — in two sentences in Gillard's closing statement.

"I wouldn't cut back our investments in e-health records, the shape of the future and I wouldn't stop building the National Broadband Network — so important to the jobs of the future," Gillard said.

She then repeated the line about "shaping the future" with the NBN. But that was all. If it's "so important" as she says, why only the one mention?

Abbott wasn't any better, he made absolutely no mention of IT issues at all. He completely failed to outline what alternative he would offer if he went through with his threat to cancel the National Broadband Network, nor did he explain what the alternative plan for e-health would be if he scaled back funding as much as he did.

So bring on the citizens' assemblies, and do it before we cast our vote.