Never before in my recollection has the future of telecommunications been a major differentiator in a general election. Yet this year the National Party raised the bar by choosing it as the first policy off the rank. As far back as April 22 they announced their commitment of $1.5 billion of taxpayer money to drive the roll-out of a “fibre to the home ultra-fast broadband network”.
Labour followed on Budget day, exactly a month later, with a more modest $324 million or so, depending how you do the sums. National’s approach is “top down” via the industry. Labour’s is more “bottom up”, with local government to lead regional partnerships to make the running.
Both have strengths, so does it matter?
Labour has a track record of achievement in the ICT space. Under the stewardship of David Cunliffe and before him, Paul Swain, they’ve fixed the absence of industry-specific regulation that bedeviled the industry through the nineties. They’ve implemented a digital strategy, put a few seeding dollars in appropriate places, and made a lot of noise about matters digital. We can all pick at the detail, but they’ve got the direction right. Yet, while I know Cunliffe well and have absolute confidence in his good faith, I’m less sure about the digital commitment deeper into the party.
National is the party with the deep digital pockets. Maurice Williamson is out there at the front line, but leader John Key is personally leading the charge, which is immensely reassuring. Key has a private sector financial background — he is a digital native who knows all about life at the keyboard. Williamson and TUANZ had their moments in the nineties when as Minister he appeared wedded to the Telecom spin doctors’ ‘hands-off’ message of the day. But he professes to have changed his view. Personally, I’m ready to believe him. But that may or may not be relevant — his role as a future minister in this space is not a foregone conclusion.
So in my view both Cunliffe and Williamson are onto the issues. National has an extra plus in the wholehearted personal engagement by its leader.
Yet the worry to me is neither the leaders nor the telecommunications specialists but the potential mainstream ministers. It seems to me that parliament houses a disproportionate number of digital disbelievers. They’re not confined to any particular political persuasion, but scattered all around.
Generally they are longer-standing “career politicians”. They’re in one of the few remaining age groups where it is possible for technology to have passed them by. In most spheres they are politically correct to the max, yet they still think it is amusing to make jokes about their lack of understanding of technology.
Can you imagine a politician boasting about having no knowledge of economics? Or the welfare system? No way! So why, then, do some of them think intelligent audiences will laugh if they declare their incompetence in the digital world?
Maybe politicians have such a level of administrative support that they don’t need to engage online like the rest of us? Maybe they have personal assistants to manage their email, research people to do their googling, and PR firms to put their election speeches onto YouTube. This would explain why some of them see digital technology as an optional enhancement to their lifestyle, rather than a cornerstone of it.
For my part, I’m encouraged by what I hear from Key and Williamson. I know and trust Cunliffe. I can live with either. But the wild card will be the level of importance an incoming cabinet puts on digital investment.
Time alone will tell.
Newman is CEO of the Telecommunications Users’ Association of New Zealand