Back on the fringe?

As the masses prepare to line up on either side of the ballot boxes, industry policy still seems to be a dirty word in some political agendas.

An amusing and likeable gnome named John Button pushed information technology towards the forefront of government policy in the '80s. We owe him a lot.

His Department of Industry, Science and Technology developed a number of programs, which sought to apply subtle pressure to multinational vendors to partner with local companies.

This was most obvious in the famous, and still lingering Partnerships for Development program and its smaller cousin the fixed terms arrangement.

Under Button's stewardship the programs had mixed successes, but on balance the impact was positive. The Liberals at the time, particularly when John Hewson and the other New Righters arrived, detested the idea, which they saw as a corruption of pure market driven economics.

Button's retort was that Hewson hated his policies because they worked in practice but not in theory. The multinationals didn't much like the programs either, which meant they were probably doing some good.

After Button pulled up stumps he was replaced by an inconsequential Paul Keating protŽgŽ who came and went after a minor scandal involving a cake shop, and was then himself replaced by Peter Cook.

Towards the end of the last government the Partnership and FTA schemes started to take on a distinct publicity flavour, as distinct to serious policy. Outcomes were overblown and the companies the Government targeted became skilled at promising vapour.

The other notable contributor was a government backbencher named Arch Bevis (now a shadow minister) who chaired a comprehensive government purchasing committee. His report drew bipartisan support for its recommendations that were generally acknowledged by local and international players as basically pretty sensible.

For a while Bevis was lauded by the local industry as a minor saviour, but then he too was gone, back to Brisbane to defend, just barely, one of only two Labor seats left north of the border.

When the Liberals came to power they brought not so much policy as ideology. The sweet but naive idea that government could grow the local industry simply by being an IT super-user (a policy prescription driven by then Finance Minister and now Labor leader Kim Beazley) was replaced by an ill-considered outsourcing policy that seems to have attracted the ire of all involved.

Outside of that the only real action has been on the electronic commerce front where Senator Richard Alston appears to have picked up the plumb role, after some jockeying by the Treasurer, Finance and Industry Ministers.

Now, with the troops massing on either side of the ballot box the skirmishes are heating up again, but don't expect too much action. Labor has its recycled R&D initiative and the Government seems to be placing all its eggs in reforming the Tax system. (I wonder how much less those outsourcing contracts will save when there's a whacking great GST on them)IT is back on the fringe, its brief flurry in the spotlight extinguished by other fads. It was ever thus.

* Andrew Birmingham is the CIO of IDG Communications and is a former editor-in-chief of ComputerWorld.andrew_birmingham@idg.com.au

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