Corner's column: Information policy deja vu

At the end of November the government announced the latest move in its strategy to develop Australia's information and communication industries, the membership of the Australian Information Economy Advisory Council (AIEAC). The 24-member council comprises leading figures from government, academia, and industry and replaces a number of other similar advisory boards.

The move is part of a wider restructure of the former Department of Communications, the Information Economy and the Arts -- which was renamed the Department of Communications Information Technology and the Arts -- announced in the wake of the last election.

The restructure also included a downgrading of the National Office of the Information Economy (NOIE) with its head, Paul Twomey losing direct access to the minister. Under the new structure the head of NOIE reports to the head of the department, currently Neville Stevens, who has responsibility for IT policy co-ordination and industry development.

These coalition government moves to create leadership and a sense of vision to drive the development of the Australian 'information economy' represent the latest in a decade-long history of similar attempts by successive governments, most of which have come to nothing.

In 1986 -- long before the Internet and multimedia became household names -- a report on the need for a national information policy for Australia raised policy concerns which are still the hot topics today. They concerned: information and economic development; the adequacy of telecommunications infrastructure to allow for the growth in the information industry; equitable availability of services to all citizens; balancing social and economic considerations in service planning and provision. Nothing was ever implemented.

In 1990 Barry Jones chaired a federal government enquiry, "Australia as an Information Society". In a subsequent talk he summarised the findings: "There is an urgent need for Australia to recognise the centrality of information as [an] organising principle, and a vital element in trade expansion . . . and a pressing need to increase the community's use of information."

He summarised the report's fate by saying: "The government took 18 months to respond to the report; and its response was delivered in the dying hours of the 36th Parliament in December 1992, and regrettably it received no coverage at all."

In 1995 the Broadband Services Expert Group (BSEG) released its final report recommending a national strategy for new communications networks be implemented, "based on three key elements: education and community access, industry development and the role of government".

Before anything substantial could be achieved there was a change of government and the process started all over again. Will things be any different this time round?

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