Forum: Who should lead National's ICT agenda?

National's transformation will be proven in the detail

Talking this week with National’s Jonathan Coleman, spokesman for broadcasting and associate spokesman for health, made it clear that National will make every effort to avoid industry regulation and to seek commercial solutions to issues of apparent market failure.

That’s as it should be. Regulation should never be the first option.

However, reluctance to regulate brings its own issues. In the 1990s, a clearly ideological objection to regulation led our telecommunications sector into a horrible, uncompetitive cul de sac that we are still fighting our way out of.

Regulatory reluctance is good, but it can easily become bloody-minded denial.

On all fronts we are being presented with a new-look National Party. It has a new leader, born of the working classes. It has new policies, promising no asset sales and support for socialism in the form of Kiwisaver and Kiwibank.

It also appear to support public broadcasting, if not the idea of a public broadcaster, and plans to boost the role of New Zealand on Air.

I’m getting giddy.

Has nine years out of power really transformed National? The answer to that question is in the detail — of where spending cuts will be made and in how these promises are to be implemented and funded.

And, to some extent, that will be determined by the people that take control of key positions.

One of the big worries when John Key won the leadership was whether he was really running the show. As leader, he has to ensure he has support for what is being promised and that those promises will not be undermined by other market forces diehards in his ranks.

I sense that his position and support within caucus has become a lot more firm over the last year, but that doesn’t mean National has no legacy issues to deal with.

The issue the ICT industry will be watching is who takes the IT and communications portfolios. Right now, Maurice Williamson is National’s spokesman and, as we all know, he was the minister during that time of market failure in the late 1990s.

Williamson now makes very different noises. Instead of being the public face of light-handed regulation, he’s the front-man for massive investment in new, fibre-optic broadband networks.

But is he the right man for the job? Should a man who once passed on the chance to take New Zealand into a position of online leadership in the world now head our desperate efforts to catch up?

There’s been a lot of change since then, and Coleman is right to emphasise technology as the key driver of market transformation. It is likely that at some point, preferably sooner rather than later given the pace of change, the broadcasting, communications and ICT portfolios will be merged to match a merger in regulation of those industries.

That will make the combined portfolio a whole lot more important and the decision regarding who holds it all the more vital.

In the end, you have to ask yourself whether National’s makeover as a new, youthful party of pragmatism should stop at the ICT portfolio.

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