Who will lead the Coalition’s ICT agenda?

The Australian technology sector may be well represented in the cabinet but can it reasonably hope to be a priority industry under an Abbott government?

The return of Ian Macfarlane to his old stomping ground as industry minister might be a good thing. If nothing else, he is on familiar ground, having run the portfolio through much of the Howard years.

But there remains genuine concern about where the information and communications technology sector will sit on Macfarlane’s long list of other priorities. In another throwback to the Howard era, ministerial responsibility for resources and energy has been brought back into the industry portfolio.

The tech sector cannot reasonably hope to be a priority industry under an Abbott government - the commitment to a faster national roll-out of faster broadband notwithstanding. Tony Abbott and his cohorts have never promoted any overarching technology-inspired economic or social narrative.

As ever, the success or otherwise of industry development policy for the ICT sector will depend on how three powerful departments - Finance, Industry and Communications - interact with each other. And that depends on how three powerful ministers - Mathias Cormann, Ian Macfarlane and Malcolm Turnbull interact.

It's worth looking at the Administrative Arrangements Order issued by Prime Minister and cabinet just after the new Abbott ministry was sworn-in to get an understanding of how these departments can make a difference.

Industry portfolio bigger than ever

Firstly, the industry portfolio is actually bigger under the Abbott government, despite all the talk of simplifying portfolios. Macfarlane is responsible for policy ranging from skills and vocational training, to manufacturing, to minerals and energy policy, to science policy to domestic tourism. This is in addition to the cross-sector industry innovation responsibilities that make up the core of portfolio.

Macfarlane runs science policy, has responsibility for the Australian Research Council, and shares ministerial responsibility for NICTA with Malcolm Turnbull. (NICTA have dealt with him in its early years and are probably comfortable about his return.)

The Administrative Arrangements also give Macfarlane direct portfolio responsibility for ICT industry development, as well as the various innovation funding, R&D tax concession and venture capital contribution schemes.

While it looked like Malcolm Turnbull would take industry development responsibility for ICT from the industry portfolio, things haven’t gone entirely to plan.   

Because the Administrative orders give Turnbull’s Communications department portfolio responsibility for “National policy issues relating to the digital economy” and for “Content policy relating to the information economy.” These provisions are effectively a licence to play.

So Turnbull will keep and expand on the areas of digital economy strategy that former communications minister Stephen Conroy had brought to the portfolio - but still does not have the purse strings of the Industry Portfolio.

Also less certain is his role with NICTA. He is still nominally sharing responsibility for NICTA with the Industry Department. But because Joe Hockey’s budget costings released prior to the election cut a $42 million funding extension to NICTA from the Communications budget - his continued involvement is up in the air.

Turnbull obviously has carriage of the NBN within the communications portfolio - but shares ministerial ownership of the NBN Co with new finance minister Mathias Cormann. It’s still unclear how effectively these two  will work together.

Turnbull clearly has his sights on taking responsibility for at least some of the Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO) - and there is certainly overlap in policy-making areas between Finance and Comms that make a positive impact on broader industry development in the tech sector

Areas of intersection 

Prior to the election, in a joint announcement with former shadow finance minister Andrew Robb, Turnbull made clear the areas of intersection between Comms strategic policy development, government ICT procurement and the potential for tech sector industry development.

Cormann and Turnbull will meet with senior AGIMO management to discuss the agencies role, and the role of the two departments in its management. This is good.

The unknown quantity here is Cormann.

We know from the Lindsay Tanner experience that when the finance minister is fully engaged with ICT policy development, there are huge dividends - better government services provided at lower cost, with more innovation and a bigger payoff to the local tech sector.

We don’t know what Cormann looks like in the Finance role, it is too early to tell. But Cormann is a conservative in the Liberal Party, a climate sceptic who helped Tony Abbott roll Turnbull as Opposition Leader in 2009. He has shown no interest in the sector.

So whether Turnbull and Cormann will be able to work together in the way you would have expected Turnbull and Andrew Robb to pull together is an open question. Maybe new special minister of state, Michael Ronaldson, gets carriage of AGIMO - but that doesn’t help much.

Which brings us back to Ian Macfarlane, the industry minister with a list of portfolio responsibilities longer than your arm.

Macfarlane represents a fairly old-school, rural/regional electorate outside of Brisbane. He is a heavily resources sector-focused guy. He has little apparent interest in the information technology sector. But he has a somewhat more interesting relationship with Turnbull - and maybe the two could work together productively.

Macfarlane was a climate change sceptic who had a change of mind and ended up leading Malcolm Turnbull’s negotiations with the then Climate Change minister Penny Wong on the doomed emissions trading scheme legislation during the first Rudd Government.

It was the planned ETS legislation that led to the revolt against Turnbull and the rise of Tony Abbott as Opposition leader. Macfarlane has served in the Abbott shadow ministry since 2010 as shadow energy and resources minister. Industry was added to his responsibilities when the former shadow Sophie Mirabella lost her seat of Indi.

If Turnbull’s digital economy and information economy policy can cross-fertilise Macfarlane’s ICT industry development schemes, this industry has much to gain.

The tech sector does not have a prime minister that has much interest in addressing its needs. The sector is well represented in the cabinet but what we don’t know is whether Turnbull will get consumed by the daily morass of NBN minutia, and just how engaged Macfarlane and Cormann will choose to be with the tech sector. 

James Riley has covered technology and innovation issues in Australia and Asia as a writer and commentator for 25 years.

He has a special interest in public policy as it affects the tech sector and has written for newspapers and trade magazines, including The Australian, the South China Morning Post, InformationWeek and PC Week.

Contact James at james@innovationaus.com

Related Articles