Malcolm Turnbull has been appointed Australia’s newest Communications Minister -- and the telco and IT industry is optimistic about the impact he might have on the sector.
Paul Fletcher, a former Optus executive, has been appointed Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Communications.
For the past three years Turnbull has been the Shadow Communications Minister, but he has a long history in the telco industry, most famously for investing in Ozemail in 1994 and later selling his stake for around $60 million.
John Stanton, CEO at the Communications Alliance, believes Turnbull will make an excellent communications minister and that he is one of the most knowledgeable and well prepared politicians to step into the portfolio.
“He has real business experience in the sector as part of his past career and a very high level of knowledge about the way that the businesses operate. That augurs well for his ability to rationally analyse the challenges that will confront him,” Stanton says.
“He’s [also] more a pragmatist than an ideologue, which sits comfortably with industry’s view of the world. I guess it remains to be seen the type of approach that he’ll take, but everything in his period in the shadow ministry suggests that he’s going to be a realist and somebody who works from an evidence base, which is encouraging.”
Paul Budde, telco analyst, believes Turnbull clearly understands the IT and telco industry, but he says Turnbull’s challenge will be to educate his own party about the significance of ICT.
“I wouldn’t necessarily call them anti-ICT, but [it] definitely doesn’t see ICT to a similar level of importance than, for example, Malcolm Turnbull does,” Budde says.
“The real world, of course, in infrastructure is now digital and that I think will be a major problem area for Malcolm Turnbull in his new reign -- to get his colleagues to accept the importance of ICT and put the politics aside from that area.”
The National Broadband Network (NBN) is Australia’s largest infrastructure project and will undergo major changes under the Coalition government.
While Labor was rolling out fibre to 93 per cent of premises, the Coalition will be rolling out fibre to 22 per cent of premises, with 71 per cent of premises to receive fibre-to-the-node, which uses copper for the last mile connection from nodes to premises.
The Coalition has also said it would carry out three reviews around the NBN. This includes a commercial review examining how quickly the NBN could meet objectives; an audit on Labor’s NBN; and an independent study to assess Australia’s telco and broadband needs for the future, alongside a cost benefit analysis.
Budde says he has concerns around whether the reviews will be completely independent.
“[If] politically motivated questions are going to be asked in the review, then you can [frame] the review in any way you want it. The outcome is then already known because it’s not independent and it’s not open for all of us to participate [in],” Budde says.
Budde says if the new minister continues his hard line approach to fibre-to-the-node, it could create some anxiety and backlash from the industry.
“If you are going to be nice to Telstra and create more dominance, I think that will not be taken nicely by the industry, by the media or by the regulator,” Budde says.
Turnbull positive for the industry
Stanton says it is rare for a politician to have the technical knowledge that Turnbull does, which bodes well for the industry in having the “intellectual capability and the industry experience [for] the many tasks that he’ll face. That’s a good toolkit for a minister to have”.
Budde says while Turnbull’s “heart is in the right place”, he believes there could be potential problems around a lack of communication in the Coalition about ICT issues, resulting in ICT taking a back seat under the new Federal Government.
He also has concerns that Turnbull may not be as inclusive of the industry as former Communications Minister Stephen Conroy.
“[There] has been an enormous lack of consultation with the industry. So he has very much run his own show and put into that things like fibre-to-the-node, ignoring anybody else who had other opinions about that,” Budde says.
However, some in the industry have welcomed his appointment and are hopeful he will be more open to talking with the industry.
Mark Burgess, CEO of the Police Federation of Australia (PFA), has said he anticipates a far better relationship with Turnbull than Conroy, with the PFA fighting for a portion of the 700MHz spectrum that went unsold in the Digital Dividend auction.
“We had our problems with Stephen Conroy,” Burgess said. “We never even got to talk to him. Malcolm Turnbull we’ve met on a number of occasions [and] we’ve had some really good dialogue … I’d be very confident that at least he’s going to listen to us.”
The Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA) has also welcomed Turnbull as communications minister.
“Mr Turnbull’s appreciation of the role of ICT led research and innovation in driving industry development and economic growth is crucial to the government’s growth agenda, as well as its commitment to improving service delivery and efficiency,” Suzanne Campbell, CEO at the AIIA, said in a statement.
The startup community has also expressed optimism about a Coalition Federal Government, with Stephen Baxter, River City Labs managing director and StartupAUS board member, previously selling his first company to Turnbull.
“He’s definitely an exceptionally intelligent man when it comes to understanding the technology and telecommunications in particular and also how that relates to digital media and publishing,” Baxter said.
“He just knows his shit, he really does.”