ICT debate by major parties exposes political division

Democrats call for the structural separation of Telstra, claiming it is a monolithic monster

Innovation is set to be the ICT buzzword during the forthcoming election campaign with all three major Australian political parties set to announce significant ICT initiatives aimed at identifying export opportunities and increasing investment in research and development (R&D).

Participating in a wide-ranging pre-election debate in Sydney last week - the Government, Opposition and Democrats - all agreed the ICT sector is critical to Australia's future prosperity, but clashed when it came to deciding on the way forward.

When asked about an ICT plan to go forward, nobody could agree. In fact it didn't take long for the great political divide to emerge.

For example, Australian Democrats leader, Lyn Allison, believes Australia doesn't even have a plan but is desperately in need of one.

Allison said current policy is a "patchwork mess" with no real planning.

"We have lots of grants doing lots of things around the country but we need to start with a plan, a real cohesive and strategic plan," she said.

But according to ICT Minister, Helen Coonan, there is already a plan in place and its proving to be a very successful one.

"We are transforming this country with programs that are actually working. We are not naval gazing, or talking about another committee or setting up another centre to look at things, we are actually delivering," Coonan said adding that more than 50 percent of all Australia's business productivity gains in the last two decades can be attributed to the application of ICT.

But ask Shadow ICT Minister, Stephen Conroy, and he has other plans. Sure, there are some plans in place, but they need changing. He has a new plan that focuses on three core areas - infrastructure, skills and innovation.

Like all good debates there was some theatrics, as Coonan, Allison and Conroy, were each given an opportunity to deliver their top three ICT priorities and their party's vision for the next decade.

At one point during a discussion on broadband Conroy reached for the heavens to thank God for the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).

Coonan wanted to know how much consumers will have to pay to access Labor's planned Fibre to the Node network.

"Helen is the only politician I know always trying to set prices, thank God we have the ACCC," Conroy sighed. It followed a snide comment made earlier by Conroy who said: "The ACCC would fine the Minister with her claims of broadband coverage and speed if she was in business."

Coonan said the government's network will reach 99 percent of the population and those without coverage will be subsidised by wireless or satellite.

"Even if you live under a rock; we know what it will cost to access our network while Labor hasn't mentioned any costs," Coonan said.

While the broadband debate ignited the most colourful comments, discussion inevitably returned to innovation.

"We believe in creating an innovative culture which includes a national innovation strategy that includes commercialization to attract investment," Coonan said.

"Exports must be at the forefront of this strategy while innovation is at the heart of our future. We have overcome the tyranny of distance and carved out our place in the world economy. To lock in prosperity, innovation must be at the core.

"As we move towards an election I will disclose more detail about our innovation agenda and blueprint for an intelligent Australia."

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