Computerworld

Updated - Election 2010: The policies so far

Labor, Liberal and Greens reveal their policies on key ICT topics

Australian political parties have wrapped up the third week of the Federal election campaign but, while there has been plenty of talk, it hasn’t been the most riveting or even the most informative of periods. To the uninitiated, it can easily become confusing exactly what each of the parties’ policies are, particularly when they seem to spend more time refuting each other’s cabinet discussions than the promises themselves.

Though there are hopes all will become clear when respective ministers, Stephen Conroy, Tony Smith and Scott Ludlam go head to head in a debate on the ICT issues next Tuesday. Until then, however, Computerworld Australia has summarised and presented some of the ICT policies of each of the main parties for your perusal.

Each of the major parties were given the opportunity to put forward their policies on each major ICT topic. However, in cases where a policy was not provided, past comments and policies from relevant ministers have had to be used.

Fast broadband infrastructure

Labor

The Labor party remain committed to rolling out its proposed National Broadband Network (NBN) across Australia, which will use a variety of fibre-to-the-home (FTTH), wireless and satellite technologies to deliver speeds of at least 12 megabits per second (Mbps) to all premises, and 100Mbps for fibre-connected homes. As part of the election campaign, communications minister, Stephen Conroy, extended the commitment of FTTH rollout from 90 per cent of premises to 93 per cent of premises, including an extra 300,000 homes previously under wireless, and 1.3 million greenfield estate homes. The Labor party has also released an exact footprint of which towns and cities will be connected by which technology, allowing those unsure to see what technology they will receive.

Originally announced in April 2009 after a scrapped Mark I project based on fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) technology, the NBN has, in the past 14 months, seen three Tasmanian towns covering roughly 5000 premises connected with FTTH technology. Construction on the first five mainland sites were also expected to begin in July, with a further 14 mainland sites, and 200,000 Tasmanian premises already slated to receive the NBN within the next year.

A lot of focus has been placed on the initial $43 billion costing placed on the NBN when it was first announced. However, the NBN Implementation Study released earlier in the year by consultants McKinsey & Company and KPMG forecast a peak government investment of $26 billion, with expectations the total cost will fall $5-6 billion short of the initial cost, despite claims to the contrary.

Liberal

The Liberal party will spend $6.25 billion in joint public and private investment and grant funding for its alternative broadband strategy, which is aimed at removing competition bottlenecks on the telecommunications industry as well as pitting competitive technologies against one another in hopes of lowering end-user pricing and raising technological standards.

In addition to scrapping the NBN - labelled a "white elephant" and "reckless" by numerous Liberal MPs - communications minister, Tony Smith, will oversee the establishment of a National Broadband Commission, which will design and manage a selection process of private sector companies to execute the plan. The Commission will also create and maintain a database of information on the type and availability of broadband services for each individual premises.

The funding will be directed at four separate technologies:

  • $2.75 billion of public funding and an additional $750 million private funding on building an open access, optical fibre backhaul network
  • $750 million on “fixed broadband optimisation” with a focus on upgrading telephone exchanges without existing ADSL2+ capabilities
  • $1 billion public grant funding and additional, undisclosed private funding for building a wireless network for rural and regional areas
  • $1 billion on building a metropolitan wireless network focussed on outer metropolitan areas
  • $700 million on improved satellite services for the three per cent of Australians not covered by other technologies

The Coalition expects to deliver a "national broadband baseline" of 12 megabits per second (Mbps) for 97 per cent of Australians by 2017, though since the figure has been used in the context of both "peak speed" and "minimum speed", there remains confusion on what speed guarantees will be provided to Australian residents. Smith said Australians would ultimately be given the choice of a variety of broadband technologies, including DSL, fixed wireless and technologies not covered under the broadband strategy such as hybrid fibre-coaxial (HFC) cable.

The Liberal party will also commit to regulatory reform to ensure access pricing and broadband competition in the market, while also ensuring universal service obligations are maintained under a new framework known as the Communications Service Standard (CSS). But the party has promised it will not forcibly separate Telstra.

Greens

Clause 19 of the Greens Media and Communications policy states '[The Australian Greens want] affordable and reliable high speed Internet connections available for all Australians'.

The Greens, voiced by Senator Scott Ludlam, have largely been in support of the NBN, with the senator taking part in the Senate select committee on the project. Ludlam has said he is not concerned about the lack of a cost-benefit analysis for the project or the commercial rate of return expected on it.

However, the party has continued to reserve concerns on some aspects of the NBN, including the Labor party’s intentions to fully privatise the network wholesaler, NBN Co, within five years of the project’s build completion. Ludlam has cited the loss of government power over the company in running the project to the best interests of the end users as a key reason for keeping it in public hands for the life of the network.

Next: The filter

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Internet filtering

Labor

The Labor party has continued to assert that it will implement a mandatory, ISP-level filter designed to block all HTTP traffic that falls afoul of the Classification Board’s definition of Refused Classification (RC) material, including child sexual abuse imagery, bestiality, sexual violence, detailed instruction in crime, violence or drug use and/or material that advocates the doing of a terrorist act. As many as 10,000 websites would be blocked under the scheme by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), with a placeholder page notifying the visitor it has been blocked and who to contact, though it is believed the number of websites blocked is currently under 2500.

Communications minister, Stephen Conroy, has said a person of “high social standing” - such as a retired judge - would review the list on an annual basis.

However, legislation for the filter has yet to pass Parliament and, in the lead-up to the election, Conroy announced a review of Refused Classification content. Three of the ISPs involved in the initial trial - Telstra, Optus and Primus - have already begun voluntarily implementing a filter for only child porn content. The filter as it originally stood has effectively been delayed pending the result of the RC content review.

Though the filter remains the key piece of Labor cybersafety plans, it will also continue to implement other measures including greater expansion of Australian Federal Police (AFP) Child Protection Operations Team to detect and investigate online child sex exploitation, as well as additional cybersafety education programs organised by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (the ACMA).

Liberal

Shadow Treasurer, Joe Hockey, recently announced that the Liberal party would block legislation pertaining to the mandatory filter even if it doesn’t win government on 21 August.

Shadow communications minister, Tony Smith, instead announced a $90 million program which will see $60 million provided over four years to reintroduce PC-based filters such as those provided to families under the Howard Government. The remaining $30 million will spent on expanding the Australian Communication and Media Authority's (ACMA) existing cyber-safety programs.

Greens

The party’s relevant spokesperson, Scott Ludlam, has been a vocal critic of the Labor party’s mandatory filtering proposal, tabling a petition containing more than 19,000 signatures of those against the filter. Concerns largely circulate around the notion that the scope of refused classification material could conceivably expand to cover other topics in the future, should legislation pass Parliament.

The party has said it will work with any major party who wins government in developing and assuring a pertinent policy, but also released an online safety policy of its own, promoting greater research into online risks and an obligation for ISPs to provide software-based internet filters that are easily customisable by parents and users.

Under the Greens cybersafety plan, State and Territory-based cyber crime units will receive additional funding, and the establishment of an online single portal for reporting cyber crimes, available for use between different authorities.

Next: Telecommunications reform

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Telecommunications reform

Labor

In what communications minister, Stephen Conroy, has called a “wrestle with Telstra”, the Labor party has continued to tackle telecommunications reform in parallel to discussion surrounding the NBN. The main focus of the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer Safeguards) Bill 2009 introduced by the Labor party while in power has been to structurally or functionally separate Telstra from its wholesale and retail arms, while also expanding the powers delivered to ACMA and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) for consumer rights.

Key aspects of the bill may be redundant pending the approval of a $9 billion deal between Telstra and NBN wholesaler, NBN Co, which would see the incumbent telco voluntarily separate, progressively decommissioning its copper network and transitioning all copper and HFC cable-based customers to the NBN as it is rolled out. The Rudd Government also committed an additional $2 billion that would relieve Telstra of its universal service obligations, to be responsible under a government enterprise business, USO Co.

The amendment to telecommunications legislation is yet to be passed through Parliament, however. The Labor party has committed to a continued push for the bill, provided key opponents such as the Opposition and Family First senator, Steven Fielding, approve its passing.

Liberal

The Liberal party has continued to block the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer Safeguards) Bill 2009 in Parliament in an act Greens senator, Scott Ludlam, said was “filibustering”.

The party itself is yet to announce a specific policy on telecommunications reform. However, should the Liberals win Government and scrap the NBN, it is likely its unconfirmed broadband policy may involve the utilisation of key Telstra assets such as its dark fibre network.

Liberal leader, Tony Abbott also told 2GB radio that, while Telstra’s not perfect, “it’s better in private hands than it ever was with the public servants running it and we don’t want a new Telecom in this country today”.

Greens

Ludlam has welcomed the telecommunications bill as important legislation for telecommunications reform, “so owners of broadband infrastructure no longer have an incentive to discriminate on the basis of content and content provider”.

Next: Distribution of IT responsibilities

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Distribution of IT responsibilities

Labor

Though spokespeople for Julia Gillard’s Federal election campaign refuse to confirm any speculation on the issue, various Labor members, including senators Kate Lundy and Stephen Conroy, have hinted a Labor Government would consider a redistribution of IT responsibilities across ministerial portfolios.

An IT ministry remains a plausible option, largely reclaiming responsibilities currently under the guise of Finance and Innovation. However, Conroy’s comments - and calls by the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA) - point to the possibility of a cross-portfolio minister that would combine the responsibilities of various ministries rather than siloing them into a new ministry.

Liberal

The Liberal party is yet to comment on the issue.

Greens

As a minor party, the Australian Greens do not work on specific cabinet ministries. However, senator Scott Ludlam has told Computerworld Australia that should the party win extra seats in the Senate, the party may redistribute its internal responsibilities.

Next: E-health

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E-health

Labor

The Labor Government introduced and passed legislation covering unique health identifiers for each Australia, a database which would be run by Medicare Australia in cooperation with the National eHealth Transition Authority (NeHTA) in the lead-up to a more concrete e-health policy.

As part of the 2010/2011 Federal budget, the Government also committed $466.7 million to investigating and implementing voluntary, personally controlled e-health records by 2012 that would tie into the unique health identifiers already assigned. Investigation has already begun on the issue by services provider, CSC, and the Labor party is yet to announce any commitment to the contrary.

Liberal

The Liberal party has revealed a health plan worth $3 billion but is yet to announce a concrete policy on e-health.

However, shadow Treasurer, Joe Hockey, has said that he sees “waste in e-health” and would conceivably scrap Labor’s e-health records project due to potential problems of incompatibility between clinical institutions and information systems.

Greens

The Greens support an e-health system designed to “enhance patient care” but retains concerns regarding the privacy of consumer information in the implementation of an electronic database.

According to a party spokesperson, “the Greens believe that universal data will contribute to reducing the incidence of misadventure, save costs and improve performance across our health system”.

Next: Government 2.0

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Government 2.0

Labor

The Government 2.0 Taskforce report commissioned by the Rudd Government outlined specific ways the Federal Government could enhance engagement with citizens through the use of online tools and Web 2.0 technologies.

Since the report’s release, the Minister for Finance and Deregulation, Lindsay Tanner, has declared and open government, and varied government information has been made available under a Creative Commons by attribution (CC-BY) license. Government departments have also retooled their social media policy and initiated consultation blogs designed to initiate conversation with the public on specific topics.

Liberal

The Liberal party is yet to produce an equally vocal equivalent to the Labor party’s main Gov 2.0 advocate, Senator Kate Lundy.

The party is also yet to deliver a firm stance on Gov 2.0.

Greens

The party’s media and communications policy deal directly with government 2.0 and engagement, including a mandate that government documents in the public domain should use non-proprietary formats and be interoperable.

The party has also committed to strengthening Freedom of Information laws and push for community groups and individuals to be exempt from FOI fees for material gained.

Next: ICT innovation and industry advocacy

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ICT innovation and industry advocacy

Labor

Labor is yet to introduce a policy specifically around innovation and industry advocacy. However, the current government has introduced new amendments to legislation around research and development which would introduce a tax concession of 45 per cent for externally facing software.

Communications minister, Stephen Conroy’s comments regarding the possible redistribution of IT responsibilities may also hint at a new focus on industry advocacy.

It did, however, set up the Information Technology Industry Innovation Council, part of the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research which came out with the Australian technology roadmap in May.

Liberal

The Liberal party is yet to introduce a policy specifically regarding ICT industry advocacy and innovation.

Greens

The Australian Greens’ Science and Technology policy pushes for increased research expenditure, based on past support for legislation around local ICT innovation.

Next: Computers in schools

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Computers in schools

Labor

Former prime minister, Kevin Rudd, announced the Digital Education Revolution (DER) scheme as part of the Labor Federal election campaign in 2007. The program expanded to signify up to $2.4 billion in funding over seven years aimed at providing at least one computer for every two students in secondary education. Funding was delivered to states, with public schools providing laptops to Year 9 students. $100 million was also provided by the Federal Government to equip schools with fibre-to-the-premise (FTTP) broadband.

The program is set to last to at least 2014 under current Labor commitments.

Liberal

The Liberal party has promised to cut the Digital Education Revolution as part of its budget cuts to curb spending. It will also implement an $120 million "School Technology Fund" which will deliver grants of up to $50,000 directly to schools to spend on technology. The policy does not distinguish between primary and secondary schools, and doesn't set clear objectives on how the grants should be spent. Proposed spending could be used in:

  • smart white boards and other projection technology
  • implementation of Learning Management systems
  • professional development in the area of lCT for teachers
  • laptops or fixed computers
  • software
  • printers and scanners
  • digital cameras and video cameras
  • extra utilities – such as additional of power points or storage facilities for ICT technologies

    Funding assessments will be determined by a “School Technology Assessment Panel” to be setup under a Liberal Government, with education sector stakeholders and IT experts invited to serve. Disadvantaged schools will be prioritised under the scheme.

    Greens

    The Greens has voiced support for the Computers in Schools program, but retains concerns in regard to the digital divide between more privileged students and remote communities through geographic or socio-economic dimensions.