After only six months in the post, Communications, IT and Arts Minister Daryl Williams will not contest his lower house seat in the forthcoming elections "for family reasons" and has effectively ceded control of the national ICT agenda to the office of the Prime Minister, John Howard.
"I am privileged to have been Attorney General for more than seven and a half years and to hold the interesting and diverse portfolio of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts.
"I will continue to address the many important and challenging issues in my portfolio and to deliver the strong policy outcomes that Australians expect and deserve," a statement issued by Williams' office said.
Williams' decision to stand down appears to confirm long standing speculation that John Howard would seize direct control of the government's ICT agenda, not least several frustrated efforts to dispose of Telstra.
Former chief of staff to erstwhile ICT Minister Richard Alston and closest adviser to Howard on IT issues David Quilty has been promoted to the post of Senior Adviser of the Cabinet Policy Unit since the departure of Alston, with sources close to the government saying it was normal that "top line decisions go the top".
Another source close to the government confirmed that Telstra and ICT policy issues, not least the perception that thousands of white-collar Australian jobs may be sent away to cheaper markets, had become a strategic election issue.
Telstra's efforts to reduce its operating expenditure landed it deep in hot water with the government earlier this year when Treasurer Peter Costello was forced to publicly chastise the 800-pound telco over forcing outsourcer IBM to redeploy application code cutters to India - while at the same arguing it was fit to be sold off.
Two possible contenders to succeed Williams 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, with no formal requirement for Ministers to actually understand their portfolio.
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.
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.
"The government are 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," Lundy said.
A Queen's Counsel and Rhodes Scholar, Williams served as Attorney General with the Howard Government from its election in 1996 until September 2003 prior to becoming the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts and has, in the past, applied for a seat on the bench of the High Court of Australia.
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