If South Australia Democrat Ian Gilfillan is looking for easy passage of his bill requiring State Government departments to use open source software in preference to proprietary software, the signs from the United States are ominous.
Gilfillan’s bill, inspired by the open source legislation introduced to the Oregon State legislature early this year, looks to level the playing field for South Australia. The Democrat argues open source holds out significant promise of cost savings, and says he is hopeful of support from the Rann Labor Government for the proposed bill, the first of its kind in Australia.
The bill proposed by the Science and the Information Economy spokesman states: “A public authority must, in making a decision about the procurement of computer software for its operations, have regard to the principle that, wherever practicable, a public authority should use open source software in preference to proprietary software.
Gilfillan told Computerworld last week: “The potential for cost savings will be favourably received among government departments and if they choose not to use open source software should be intensively questioned as to why not. This bill makes consideration of open source mandatory in software selection.”
And it appears the Rann Government is not entirely unsympathetic. The Hon. Jay Weatherill (Minister for Administrative Services) told the parliament open source software was more generally accessible than proprietary software, and could provide a basis for increased competition as well as opportunities for local businesses to get into the field. He also noted the obvious financial benefits.
“But there are other issues, which include the capacity of this software to be supported over a period of time (hence, its reliability, or the robustness of a platform of that sort), its capacity to talk to other systems that might already be in place, and the existing skills base of the staff, who might be already trained in the proprietary software.”
Weatherill told the Parliament that in the review of the EDS contract currently under way the Government was putting “quite a large amount of resource” into scanning the market to see what is presently available. Trials were also underway within the Department of Education and Children's Services looking at the use of open source software and its applicability to government procurement, he said.
But Gilfillan is clearly aware of the likelihood of strong industry resistance to the bill, telling Computerworld: “I am concerned about ‘buddy-buddy’ relationships between some corporations and governments which may result in lobbying against non-commercial software,” Gilfillan said. “Governments should give open source software a fair go. They need to decide if open source was successful. If not, why not?”
He is right to be concerned. A bill introduced in the Oregon State Legislature on March 5 by Rep. Phil Barnhart requiring “state government to consider using open source software when acquiring new software” has been silently and procedurally killed by the Speaker of the House.
Ken Barber, original author of Oregon HB 2892, writing in the Oregonian, wondered why this should happen in a state that needs to spend less without raising taxes. And he answers his own question by citing rumours that the American Electronics Association put a lot of pressure on Speaker Karen Minnis behind closed doors.
“That may or may not be true. Speaker Minnis has not made her reasoning known,” he wrote. “On the other hand, in the original testimony before the General Government Services committee, the AEA claimed a membership of 3000 companies.
“When pressed, the AEA representative admitted that he had no idea how many of the member companies supported or objected to HB 2892. The AEA hadn't polled their members. Of course, browsing their member directory reveals companies that do support and produce Open Source software, such Sun, SGI, Agilent, and Axian (home of Coop, one of my favorite Linux authors).
“I can't prove one way or another whether the AEA acted as all of its members would wish it to act — or even if the AEA did anything to convince Speaker Minnis to kill the bill. Still, I'm a little disheartened that the bill wasn't even brought for a vote before a committee,” he said.
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