Pure coincidence...The direction of the $40 million dollar Unlimited Potential (UP) charitable spending spree unveiled by Microsoft chairman Bill Gates and Prime Minister John Howard shows that, on an electoral breakdown of the location of recipients, the scheme aims hard and deep into marginal Labor seats.
A list of 61 UP recipients Computerworld obtained from Microsoft shows the ratio of recipient organizations located in marginal Labor seats (11) compared to those in marginal Coalition seats (five) is just over double - effectively giving Coalition candidates a corporate-sponsored, ICT credibility boost in the areas they need it most. The document does not list recipient organizations by electorate.
The chances of such a favourable skew being caused by demographic coincidence are entirely possible. Yet the figures jar sharply with the almost equal numbers of UP recipients located in seats classed as safe by the Australian Electoral Commission - with Labor on 23 and the Coalition 22.
Both Gates and Microsoft Australia managing director Steve Vamos went to pains to insist to the media, during Gate's only public appearance in Sydney, that Microsoft was not meddling in partisan domestic politics.
A Labor spokesperson confirmed Gates also met with opposition leader Mark Latham, albeit behind closed doors, referring questions about Microsoft's charity funding to IT shadow Kate Lundy, who said many questions surrounded the timing of Gates' visit and the motivation behind recent Microsoft donations.
"It's unusual for such a large amount to be donated on the eve of an election, especially when the Howard government is under pressure to rectify this area [closing the digital divide] of policy neglect. It's curious that Microsoft has chosen to engage with the Prime Minister in such an overt manner at such a sensitive time.
"Obviously the investment is welcome, but that doesn't excuse [a lack of public funding for community ICT initiatives]. I hope and expect delivery of these funds to recipient organisations will be a bipartisan affair.
A spokesperson from the Prime Minister's press office, Willie Herron, said the government had "no involvement in where the funding [for Unlimited Potential] was directed".
"Microsoft consulted with five non-government organizations, including the Smith Family, WorkVentures, Australian Seniors Computer Club, Inspire Foundation and Yarnteen. We are not involved in that," Herron said.
Microsoft senior corporate affairs manager Julie Inman said decisions where UP project funding went rested solely with partner recipient organizations such as the Smith Family and WorkVentures.
"The whole idea of doing it through partners is that they are at the coalface - they know what is most suitable [in terms of how and where money is spent]," Inman said - adding 77 rather than 61 centres are to be funded under Unlimited Potential and that "an old list" may have been inadvertently distributed.
Microsoft wanted its funding to be spent in manner that was sustainable, sensitive to the real needs of disadvantaged Australians and provided tangible benefits to them, Inman said.
A spokesperson at Microsoft PR agency Howorth said that she didn't want to use the term "pure coincidence" about the figures "but that's what it is".