Young liberals: the winds of tech change

Federal Liberal MP Jamie Briggs doesn't respond like your typical conservative politician when you ask him about his attitude towards technology.
Written by Renai LeMay, Contributor on

Federal Liberal MP Jamie Briggs doesn't respond like your typical conservative politician when you ask him about his attitude towards technology.

Jamie Briggs

Jamie Briggs
(Credit: Liberal Party)

When you ask politicians what they think of technology issues it's common for them to talk about the dangers, such as online pornography, violence in video games, the need to carefully evaluate the impact of new innovations on society.

Briggs, however, takes a different slant. Although when you ask what his favourite gadget is, like many in positions of power, he mentions his BlackBerry, but quickly follows by noting that the device isn't his choice — it's simply the phone that parliamentarians are given by default. And then he immediately starts talking about Apple.

The MP says he's tempted to get an iPad to replace his daily newspaper reads as "the newspaper function is very good" and he would probably even read books on the Apple tablet. He notes that his wife is about to get an iPhone.

But it's in his political career that you can see Briggs' understanding of technology.

During his maiden speech in October 2008 (Briggs won the South Australian seat of Mayo formerly held by Alexander Downer in a by-election in mid-2008), the MP mentioned broadband as an important issue in his electorate.

"The internet is the great enabler of our time. It has indeed flattened the world. It is a tool for commerce that will drive economic growth. It is a tool for education that will help our children learn. It is an essential tool in our modern society," he said.

"I believe that broadband must be reliable and it must be available at a reasonable price. To ensure that outer metropolitan and regional communities like those in Mayo get access to faster speeds into the future, there must be investment in a mixture of technologies."

The MP has a Twitter account and more than 1200 followers, and where some MPs target newspapers, he has a regular column on News Ltd blog, The Punch.

One of his earliest jobs (before his election he rose to the position of adviser in the office of Prime Minister John Howard) saw him employed by South Australian State Treasurer Rob Lucas. Lucas has been one of the few state politicians to take a strong interest in IT policy, being a constant thorn in the side of the state's Labor government on IT spending.

But it was really Briggs' intervention in the mandatory filter debate in mid-2009 that brought him to the attention of the broader technology community.

At the time, few Liberal politicians had aired their views on the filter publicly, and it would be months before senior party stalwarts like Joe Hockey would express their disapproval of the policy.

Briggs' article on the drum at the time was widely circulated as a sign the party was debating about the way to handle Labor's controversial plan.

In an interview conducted before the election was announced, Briggs said that although the Coalition had not yet revealed its policy on the filter and had declined to do so until Communications Minister Stephen Conroy publishes the associated legislation, he hasn't spoken to anyone within the party who thinks it's a good idea.

Senior figures like Hockey already oppose the filter, and other MPs like Alex Hawke, Michael Johnson and Simon Birmingham have also flagged their opposition to the policy.

Briggs reiterated his view that the filter was a waste of time, calling it "a piece of political fluffery dressed up as a genuine attempt to make the internet safe". In general, he said the policy plays to parents' fears about their kids using the internet. But in general, he believed it was an attempt to add another layer of protection that won't add any value at all.

"I have young children that are about to enter the World Wide Web," he says. "And of course I'm concerned. I'll address that by ensuring that when they access the system, they'll do it in front of us. They won't do it in their bedroom with the door shut."

Briggs acknowledged that the internet can be a dangerous tool. But he said it was "mistaken policy" to assume that the government could take parental responsibility for it. Parents will mistakenly believe the filter will solve all their problems, he said, "even if the government system works, which I don't think it will".

Another technology issue the Opposition has not yet spoken out on is a proposal by the Attorney-General's Department that could see Australia's internet service providers store data such as records of telephone calls and emails.

Briggs said he was "vaguely aware" that the idea had been around for a few years, but added that the policy sounds like "a red tape nightmare" to implement and that he didn't know what his party's official response was. But he noted the party has been strong on issues such as freedom of speech.

The MP has also kept up with the NBN debate. He backed the Liberal view that it's not necessarily the government's role to get involved commercially as Labor is with its National Broadband Network policy. The Opposition has promised to cancel the project if it is elected.

In Mayo, he says, there are still substantial problems with broadband, which are slowly starting to be addressed through offerings such as Telstra's Next G mobile network. Though there's still a ways to go.

In general, Briggs said he was interested in new technology, as it is a field that offers Australia great potential. "I'm not sure we're doing enough at the moment to enter into that space," he said. "There are a range of things we can do in future."

When former Liberal Leader Malcolm Turnbull brought an iPad into the parliament earlier this year he caused a stir — the new device had not yet been seen in the chamber. It was not unlike a similar situation Communications Minister Stephen Conroy narrated last week at an event in Melbourne: Conroy had faced pressure in the Senate after bringing in a laptop to a room which had — up to that point — only seen briefing notes on paper.

But as young gun MPs like Briggs enter the Federal Parliament and bring technology with them, this situation may alter. Certainly Australia's industry will be watching the youngsters closely to see what winds of change they will bring.

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