ACS ICT Debate – Coonan v Conroy v Allison


9.10am: That’s it. I think it was about as good as it could be given the pre-election status. Coonan started very safe, but she got fired up and defended well while Conroy was a little less heated in his rebuttals. But with zero forward policy from Coonan, Conroy did look a little better. Senator Allison was the surprise package, and I’d give her the points for offering ideas that rang true with this knowledgeable audience. Of course, she isn’t genuinely in the race for government, so it was easier for her to say whatever she felt – but that’s what wins respect, so here’s to her.

9.07am: We’re into the wrap up from the ACS head now. Loud shirts are gifted to the panel from Peter, matching his own.

9.03am: Luke Coleman from Comms Day has one. “We’re hearing a lot of threats about Telstra separation. Does anyone have the balls to actually do it!” Cheers! Coonan: “If I tell you I’ll have to kill you.” Conroy: “The government has locked us into the current corporate arrangement for the life of the current prospectus, when 12 months ago they could have enacted a separation while they still owned 50% of the company. Now we face the threat of class action to do so. Labor does have ideas on how to perform a separation that could see a co-owned infrastructure alongside a separated commercial company.” (* I missed part of that last Conroy answer, sorry. *)

9.02am: So far the questions from the floor have been lame, just asking the panelists to repeat themselves. Fresh questions, folks! Please! And no hobby horse essays pre-question, Blasina adds.9.00am: Allison: “Yes, there are good initiatives in place for whole of government support for IT, but the fact is we are losing ground to overseas.”

8.57am: Coonan: “Anyone with any tech knowledge would know that you cannot achieve 98% fibre roll out in a country like Australia. Be afraid, be very afraid of these other folks here, because a few years ago they were backing a $5bn plan to mandate dial-up!”

8.56am: Allison: “The minister seems to be suggesting we don’t have a problem. But we really do.” Applause. “We agree with Conroy on fibre to the node, equal access to services, and a genuine plan for the future – not just a random approach that doesn’t actually ensure services to anyone.”

8.55am: Conroy: “On a question of price, Coonan was going to agree to an $85 access price with Trujillo, but thank god for Samuels (ACCC) who stepped in and said no way!”

8.54am: Coonan: “Government plan will have us blanketed by 2009. Labor plan will take until 2013.”

8.51am: Government wants broadband to be fit for purpose, affordable, and be delivered via a mix of options to suit a country like Australia. Coonan believes the future mix of services will “mop up those last few black spots” and deliver 99% coverage. Conroy hasn’t said anything about price, Coonan says, and the government plan is for $30-$60 range for appropriate services around the country.

8.48am: The question is broadband. Conroy starts. Says Coonan would be sanctioned by the ACCC if she was a business, because she keeps claiming broadband speeds that do not exist. Labor isn’t going to accept a two-tier system, nor false wireless infrastructure claims that don’t consider line of sight, nor shared spectrum. A base station and a circle on the ground does not count as true coverage. Conroy wants fibre to the node, in the ground, right across Australia.

8.45am: Coonan: “Sorry to do this to you, Steve, but industry centres are already here.”

8.43am: Conroy back onto enterprise centres. But says he can’t say too much about other ideas they’re R&Ding because we’re not yet in full election mode. Booooo!

8.42am: Coonan – extraordinary lack of information from colleagues here on the initiatives in place right now. There are e-health initiatives rolling out right now. She calls Conroy’s statements “facile criticisms”. SLAM! We should deliver services now, not conduct more navel gazing through centres. Now it’s heating up!

8.38am: We’re onto improved access to IT. Conroy pointed to infrastructure again, and a need for better e-health infrastructure. Allison gets onto some fundamentals as well, like better keyboard skill education because this is where many people give up on IT.

8.35am: Allison has a damning stat: 40% of secondary students are taught maths and science by teachers untrained in that area! No wonder, she says, that students are not feeling enthused about going into this area of study later on. More encouragement needed for such teachers to come from appropriate backgrounds.

8.33am: Conroy points to Labor plan to $111m over 4 years to encourage ICT at uni by halving HECS fees for maths and science degrees. Coonan interjects “it is already being done.”

8.31am: Into general debate now, first question on skills. Coonan is pointing to the many initiatives in place now by government to encourage skill development. But she just runs through stats and stats, no genuine engagement with the question, nor the fact these initiatives are not translating to improvements in skill and literacy issues.

8.28am: Allison finishes. Her speech was DENSE with ideas! Great stuff. Sorry I couldn’t keep up! Focus was very much infrastructure, skills, support for tech in schools and research. Good skills quote: “The kids are passing the adults in knowledge, and many teachers, and Senators, don’t know enough about IT.”

8.27am: Pleased to hear the government is now thinking about structural separation of Telstra, as the whole industry has been saying that for some time. It would have been easier at the time when it was 50% owned by Telstra! ZING! This gets a good ‘hear, hear’ from the audience.
Suggest ideas on how to avoid legal action by Telstra on a push for such a separation – regulatory issues to reduce assistance to integrated carriers.

8.25am: Allison has the floor. Emphasises Democrats eagerness to offer suggestions and play a balancing role in the Senate. She wants researchers to be able to research, not spend their days wading through grant applications.

8.22am: Ten enterprise connect centres to be set up by Labor around the country to assist people in the development and commercialisation of new tech ideas.

8.21am: Skills shortage commitment – Labor wants to encourage ‘best and brightest’ to join ICT, as well as improve general IT education to improve the literacy standard in this area.

8.17am: Conroy at the helm. OECD report puts us at 16th on broadband penetration, and another study that puts our speed access at 26th. Our backwater status must be turned around. Labor plans includes fibre to the node that will deliver MINIMUM speed of 12Mb to 98% of Australians. Conroy just announced Labor is set to commit $4.7bn to the broadband infrastructure – the single largest commitment they are likely to make during this election campaign.

8.16am: You have my strong commitment to drive outcomes for the ICT industry that will enable growth and prosperity and a competitive environment. We as a nation must be bold with our vision for the sector. [Yeah, meaningless drivel like that.]

8.13am: Bland, bland, bland. Coonan plays to form. Investment encouragement, deregulation, blah… all spoken as if to an audience who doesn’t know what she is babbling about. All talking up the government’s achievements in this space, and their [insert positive action verb]to continue this [positive adjective]progress.

8.09am: Coonan takes the conch. Instantly tells us that because the election has not been called she can’t share short, medium and long term aims for ICT. Boooooo!

8.03am: Rules of engagement – Blasina says he’s framing the event on ep 139 of The West Wing! Format: each gets 5 minutes for short to long term vision. Then 5 questions that all have had access to in advance. He can stop the answer if they wander off topic (yay). Nice point: he’s asked that they don’t just be too scared of making a mistake that they don’t end up saying nothing. THAT is the real mistake and it will look as such if they do it!

8.00am: Blasina’s intro – he’s pointing out how important infrastructure is not just to business, but more and more to the living rooms of all Australians. And that is where more people will very soon notice things are not up to scratch to deliver content services.

7.59am: Peter Blasina, the Gadget Guy, is the moderator.

7.57am: We’re underway. An intro video is playing, and it’s slamming the current standing of our country’s IT literacy and broadband status, and that we stand to lose millions (billions?) if we don’t get things sorted out.

7.39am: Still no start yet.

7.26am: We’re here at The Westin, Sydney, and the show is getting ready to roll. This is a very big event, hosted by the Australian Computer Society, with quite the array of tech companies and tech industry bodies in attendance. The event is entitled “Australia – The Next Wave or Just A Backwater?”

Will be interesting to see whether the Senators go for each other, or stay cagey and play it too safe. With so many sore points that could be discussed – Telstra, kid protection online, recent refusal to support the local games industry (though that last I doubt will be on the radar of most here in this room) – it will be a win to Coonan if things don’t get fired up.