The Gillard Government is believed to be “actively considering” an IT portfolio and accompanying minister, should it win Government on 21 August.
The portfolio would consolidate some of the responsibilities currently under the lead of the existing Minister for Finance and Deregulation, Lindsay Tanner, as well as the Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, Kim Carr. It would complement the existing Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy portfolio currently headed by Senator Stephen Conroy, and look to encourage the development of the IT industry, with a focus on government engagement and online services.
Tanner has announced he will quit Parliament following the election. Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, refused to comment on a possible replacement until after the election.
The second Howard cabinet added IT responsibilities to the communications portfolio under “Communications, Information Technology and the Arts,” led by then Senator Helen Coonan until the 2007 federal election. However, since the Labor Government won power in 2007, various aspects of responsibilities pertaining to the IT industry have been disaggregated into at least three different portfolios.
The Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy largely pertains to the existing telecommunications industry as well as aspects relating to consumer protection and the Internet, particularly the Government’s National Broadband Network (NBN) and a mandatory ISP-level Internet filter.
The Department of Finance and Deregulation’s Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO) has assumed responsibility of some of the “harder” aspects of IT, including those recommendations outlined in the Gov 2.0 Taskforce report on government engagement, and the consolidation of IT procurement and assets outlined by the Gershon report released last year.
Carr’s Innovation, Industry, Science and Research portfolio is largely focussed around the research and development aspects of the ICT industry, including the Government’s proposed tax concessions pertaining to software development, and IP Australia.
Some in the IT industry, as well as the media, have suggested the possibility of instating an overarching IT ministry to consolidate some of these responsibilities, with campaigns supporting Labor ACT senator, Kate Lundy, for the role. One media report suggested a reevaluation of the portfolio divisions was certain, should Labor succeed in winning Government.
Lundy told Computerworld Australia that it was no secret she would appreciate being given such a role but that it was “the leader's call on where it sits in that relative policy".
“I'd encourage it to be considered as an option,” Lundy said. “I'm sure it is actively considered as an option.
“I think part of the issue is that the ministers are all doing a terrific job in that area, so whether or not it warrants an emphasis over and above the other priorities of government, that really comes back to the Prime Minister's decision.”
A spokesperson for Julia Gillard refused to confirm or deny speculation on the ministry.
“The Prime Minister is focussed on the election and her positive plans for the future,” they said.
“We will not be getting ahead of ourselves by speculating about portfolios in a possible future Government.”
Some have pointed to Lundy’s husband, David Forman, as a potential point of conflict. Forman founded anti-Telstra telecommunications alliance, the Competitive Carriers’ Coalition (CCC), in 2001, and was executive director there until recently. It is believed he left the group in March to work at consulting firm and lobbying group, CPR. Lundy confirmed that CCC remained a client of CPR, but said that all of his interests and business relations had been fully disclosed.
David Forman was not available for comment at time of writing.
Australian Industry Information Association (AIIA) chief executive officer, Ian Birks, said the current distribution of IT-related responsibilities was “siloed” into separate departments.
“There isn’t a lot of communication between the Department of Innovation and Industry, and the Department of Broadband and the other key sector portfolios like health, education and energy,” Birks said.
Instead of a specific IT ministry, the industry group has been lobbying for a productivity portfolio that would work in a cross-government sense to provide a focal point for application of technologies in varied sectors.