Coalition election cupboard empty for IT

In an election policy release as bereft of surprises as it was new funding, federal IT Minister Helen Coonan has valiantly fended off all temptation to dive into the Coalition's election coffers to buy hi-tech votes, with Australia's ICT sector emerging almost entirely penniless from the launch of the Coalition's IT policy in the Hunter Valley.

In a 48-page document brimming with colour, movement and worthy objectives, the sum total of new money directed to ICT in Australia will stop at the $2 million Net Alert National CyberSafe Program announced by the Prime Minister John Howard in early in September to protect children from online nasties.

In lieu of hard currency, Coonan set about selling a "light touch" and self-regulated IT vision for Australia on the basis stakeholders know what is best for them - and will get on with the job.

"With the world of ICT moving so quickly, the challenge for governments is to get the settings right, to regulate with a light touch and to support, rather than hinder, our ICT community. I have said before that ICT is not a field where a company or an economy succeeds by digging in and defending. You do not win competitive battles by throwing up barriers and setting arbitrary benchmarks or quotas," Coonan said.

Local industry sweeteners are also on offer, with Coonan promising the Coalition will relax unlimited liability and insurance requirements currently facing small and medium-sized IT suppliers pitching to government.

According to Coonan's policy statement, "Unlimited liability should only be required as part of IT contracts when it is justified by the size, complexity or inherent risk of a project."

To push the relaxed liability regime, the policy shift proposes to reinforce such provisions to both government and private sector organizations supplying government through changes to the General Information Technology and Communications (GITC) contracting framework "to avoid confusion and unnecessarily protracted negotiations", the statement said.

The GITC stipulates mandatory government IT contract guidelines and criteria for the way in which the government decides how it purchases ICT.

However, the proposals fall short of Labor's as yet unfunded threat to take a stick to federal departments and agencies snubbing appropriate Australian offerings under its Buy Australian industry policy.

Asked how the Coalition aimed to pull back vendor liability, a spokeswoman for Senator Coonan said the move was a new one and said the next version of the GITC "would make it explicit", adding that "purchasing officers [across the whole of government] will be trained".

On the contentious issue of offshoring, Coonan again qualified the government's non-interventionist position saying that, while Australia's ICT industry must compete on the global level for ICT jobs, the offshoring balance sheet would be closely scrutinized.

"I have said before, and will repeat it ...the potential for Australian IT jobs to move offshore is a significant matter that requires careful monitoring. But offshoring is not a one-way street.

"I believe that the glass can be half full when it comes to outsourcing - that Australia stands to benefit from onshoring rather than the scaremongers' predictions of offshoring decimating Australia's ICT industry.

"There are great opportunities for Australia to win jobs in the offshore outsourcing market," Coonan said.

In terms of how the Free Trade Agreement will be applied to the IT industry, Coonan has pledged trade promotion initiatives such as Invest Australia will be further bolstered to give Australian companies access to US government tendering markets which it claims are worth more than $70 billion.

Frequently criticizing Labor IT shadow Kate Lundy's proposal to move the IT ministry from the Communications portfolio to the Department of Industry, Coonan reaffirmed the government's commitment to retaining both the Australian Government Information Office (AGIMO) and a federal CIO.

"The government remains absolutely committed to maintaining a dedicated agency focused on productive use of IT by government ... with the Australian government CIO at its head for this express purpose," Coonan said.

However, Coonan's policy ambiguity surrounds an apparent contradiction on the current AGIMO doctrine of allowing federal agencies to self assess and decide the IT procurement and management model, at least in so far as it is stipulated in AGIMO's guide to federal government procurement.

While the AGIMO guide recommends agencies assess potential IT purchasing and management models for best value and best fit - namely insourcing, outsourcing and hybrid combinations of the two - the election policy appears tilted towards continued support for outsourcing.

"The Coalition's commitment to outsource its information technology requirements and the devolution of ICT outsourcing to smaller, departmental contracts [from large clusters] has provided new opportunities for ICT SMEs to win government work," the document states.

Computerworld has asked for a clarification on what proposed IT purchasing guidance will be given to government agencies departments, with a spokesperson for Senator Coonan stating she would look into whether this constituted a change from the current position.

Labor has proposed the creation of a Government Information Technology Office (GITO) under IT's shift to the industry portfolio.

Labor's IT shadow Kate Lundy immediately branded the Coalition IT policy a disgrace, warning Australia's already ailing IT sector will be run into the ground.

"The ICT trade deficit will continue to rise at a rate of knots. What we know from nine years of neglect... is that the Coalition will say one thing and then do what they want, just like the GST. Labor is fully costed and we've made the hard decisions

"Let's not rewrite history. The idea Invest Australia is some sort of success is complete mythology. We've seen the Howard government promote offshoring jobs, so this policy will not ring true to the ICT industry," Lundy said.

Lundy also accused Coonan of wanton policy shoplifting over proposals to lighten insurance and liability requirements for SMEs.

"Hello - that's our idea. Why wait until now? They have ignored the SME working group on this."

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