Howard seizes control of ICT agenda

Howard seizes control of ICT agenda

With only months until a federal election, Prime Minister John Howard is understood to have brought the strategic control of Australia's telecommunications and IT policies back under the wing of his department.

The move comes alongside the decision of the government not to replace current ICT minister Daryl Wlliams, despite his decision not to contest his Western Australian lower house seat and the elevation of David Quilty to the post of senior adviser of the Cabinet Policy Unit.

Quilty, a battle-hardened former chief of staff to previous ICT Minister Richard Alston is possibly the Prime Minister's closest adviser on ICT issues, having managed several attempts to both sell off Telstra and appease its various stakeholders.

Sources close to the government told Computerworld that Telstra and ICT policy issues, not least the perception that thousands of white-collar Australian jobs are being sent away to cheaper labour markets such as India, had now become a strategic election issue and would be managed "from the top down".

Telstra's efforts to reduce its operating expenditure landed it deep in hot water with the government earlier this year, after Treasurer Peter Costello was forced to publicly chastise the heavyweight telco over forcing outsourcer IBM to redeploy application code cutters to India - while at the same arguing it was fit to be sold off.

Williams' decision not to contest another election - yet hang onto his portfolio in the interim - provoked an angry response from the opposition, with IT Shadow Senator Kate Lundy and Communications Shadow Lindsay Tanner demanding Williams be immediately replaced and accusing the government of cutting IT and communications policy completely adrift.

"It is untenable for [Williams to] continue, having announced his intention to resign. The Howard government will not deal with these fundamental issues of nation building. This is a seat-warming exercise," Lundy said.

"The government is not proceeding with a [policy] agenda, there are very important IT decisions that have to be made, like the Digital Rights Agenda. It's another slap in the face," she said.

In terms of who might replace Williams, two possible contenders are Finance and Administration Minister Nick Minchin and Costello acolyte and Parliamentary Secretary for Family and Community Services Christopher Pyne - although the field remains relatively open.

Meanwhile, well-known Liberal ICT proponent Senator John Tierney has been knocked out of the race after losing party pre-selection to be put fourth on the Senate ticket – prompting a reportedly dismayed reaction from the Prime Minister at recent Liberal Party meeting in March.

One potential silver lining for the government in Williams' resignation is that despite being labelled a lame duck by the opposition, the quietly spoken, former Attorney General will effectively have nothing to lose if he is ordered to ram through contentious or unpopular policies.

In terms of driving through contentious changes in the way the federal government purchases ICT from its suppliers, Williams might just prove be the sort of bullet catcher Howard and Quilty need to deflect the powerful lobbying of the multinational vendor community.

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