Did Labour make a mis-step in supporting the Copyright Act?

Part two of Q and A with Clare Curran

In the second part of Computerworld's Q and A interview with Labour ICT spokesperson MP Clare Curran, she discusses the Copyright (Infringing File Sharing) Amendment Act, open government and raising the profile of ICT.

Copyright and file-sharing. Did Labour make a mis-step in supporting the government bill?

I describe the last two, nearly three years as an evolution of Labour’s awareness and understanding of these issues. I can’t call our support for that Bill a mis-step or mistake; I know why we made that decision and I agree with what we did, because ultimately we got a Bill through the House where people couldn’t be disconnected from the internet. If we hadn’t negotiated a compromise with the minister around that clause, we would have had a Bill that had termination active.

The Greens said we’d sold out; I said it’s all very well to argue from the high moral ground, but what we’re trying to do is get an outcome that means people can’t be disconnected. We could have said we just didn’t support it, but we would have ended up with a law that was even more wrong than the one we’ve got.

The audience didn’t understand the nuances of that - and I’m not being arrogant there; I accept that with hindsight we should possibly have opposed it.

What we’ve done now is draw a clear line in the sand; [saying we’re] fundamentally opposed to termination, which I think is a huge step forward for a major party anywhere in the world, and a prospective government.

One of the steps forward has been at the NetHui, where I issued a challenge to [Green MP] Gareth Hughes and [National’s] Nikki Kaye about us working together.

We’ve had three meetings; we’re working on a confined and defined agenda, towards thing we know we can agree on. They are about trying to make the workings of Parliament more accessible to people and to commit to try to educate our colleagues; to come up with a programme of education around the transformative effect of the internet and what this means across a whole range of policies. InternetNZ might help.

How exactly would you do this, and what role might InternetNZ play?

I don’t know yet: and I can’t speak for my two colleagues or for InternetNZ. I don’t want to go on the record yet.

But the lack of awareness that MPs have towards technology issues is a really big issue and it’s a barrier to change.

There would be very few others across Parliament who ‘get’ these issues. I’ve obviously got a greater depth of knowledge, because it’s my portfolio. It’s also Gareth’s – among the 13 portfolios he has. I’ve had a “boots and all” approach to it for three years now.

How’s the Open Government initiative going?

Watch this space. It’s critical.

But you can’t say what you’re doing?

Not yet.

What else is on your mind in the ICT area?

How government spends its money; I’ve announced policy on procurement in that area, which I think is a fundamental shift for Labour in terms of saying government, which accounts for 40 percent of GDP, can use its purchasing power to invest more in our own economy.

I see that [as ranging] from the traditional manufacturing end of the spectrum to new hi-tech industries. The area I’m most interested in is how government could use its purchasing power to allow more innovation to occur in technology and software development. That would be a responsible act of government and I find it extraordinary that we haven’t really been in that space.

How do you overcome the tension between doing it in a way that encourages innovation and doing it in a way that is safe, that produces what the client department wants?

You’ve got to be able to deliver, but at the moment the innovative start-ups in this country are being stifled because of their inability to compete with tendering processes that favour multinationals. Not that the multinationals should be excluded from the tendering process at all; but there should be a more level playing field.

How does it favour multinationals?

By specifying in some tenders that you have to have performed jobs worth so much money in order to even qualify for a tender. That’s an immediate barrier to a product that could deliver a better outcome, but which comes from a smaller company.

A lot of New Zealand companies are having to go offshore to get the contracts so they can come back and compete in their home territory, and some of them don’t bother coming back. Either they stay overseas or they get taken over by an overseas company,

Could you give me some examples?

Not off the top of my head, no. But Phil Goff and I met a couple of months ago with about five local ICT companies and talked through a lot of the effects on them of the current tendering processes. If you could sort that out and make the tendering process more equitable for local industry, that would probably make quite a big difference. If you could enable more R&D expenditure targeting the new technology sector…

In what way: tax concessions?

We’ve already announced policy on this; not aimed specifically at the ICT sector; but it could allow for them to access it a lot more easily. The New Zealand Computer Society has talked a lot about the value of internships and I think that has merit.

What’s needed to raise the consciousness of the population towards the relevance of ICT?

The problem exists for two reasons; one is that a lot of the people in the industry talk a secret language, inexplicable to mere mortals; and outside the industry, the decision-makers are often afraid of technology and have put it in a separate box and employed an “ICT person” to look after it. It’s like what I described in schools; you have to see technology as a tool to be used across every aspect of your life and in your business or your government department or whatever and understand its potential to deliver the outcomes in whatever it is you’re working on. We’re not there.

There’s a generational issue and a branding and communications issue by the industry itself.

I wonder whether our win or loss of the Square Kilometre Array project will get any significant media coverage compared to our win or loss of the Rugby World Cup.

In fairness, the mainstream media are reflective of those issues. They know it’s important so they’ve created the ICT pages. [ICT stories] are not seen as mainstream or front-page stories. They appoint a technology writer, who’s in a box; anything to do with technology goes to that person, so the rest of them don’t have to think about it or worry about it.

This was absolutely played out during the broadband debate. It was an absolute political story. But the political journalists were afraid of it; it made their heads hurt. They acknowledged that to me and I understand that.

I’ve got to accept some of the responsibility for not making it simpler. I was the only opposition person talking about it, and often the only person - the industry wouldn’t, because they all had a vested interest in what happened.

It suited the government, of course, to have it buried in the IT pages, because they didn’t want it to be a political issue. But it is. Telecom’s structural separation is one of the biggest structural issues that’s happened in this country for decades.

There may have been one or two political journalists who even attempted to write a story about it.

It’s my hope that as a country we get our heads around the importance of these issues.

In opposition you try to highlight what you see as the critical gaps or flaws in government policies and the wider issues and then proactively move in the direction we need to go; I’ve tried to do that and to elevate the issues in importance.

Others will judge, but perhaps [I’ve had] some limited success.

CLARE CURRAN – SNAPSHOT

Favourite mobile device: iPhone4 and iPad (version 1).

Car: Mitsubishi Colt Plus – small and zippy, and red

Most admired person: I don’t have one person and I’ve never been big on heroes. Politically, when I was growing up, the social justice campaigners, the Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi approach of non-violent direct action. More recently President Obama. Bill Kelty, the Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary. Closer to home, Michael Cullen and Helen Clark. I have huge regard for Trevor Mallard and I think I’ve influenced him too.

Favourite website: I think “website” is an anachronistic term. NZ political blogs and news sites; I use Twitter a lot, to follow people who are interesting and who post links to interesting stuff.

Most important ICT innovation: the extraordinary rise of social media.

See part one of Q & A interview with Clare Curran here.

Curran will take part in a debate with ICT Minister Steven Joyce, Green MP Gareth Hughes and ACT representative Peter McCaffrey hosted by InternetNZ on Tuesday October 18.

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