Probing the parties' IT policies

With the election looming, how do the two main parties' policies stack up?

This should have been the first election in New Zealand where the major political parties actually had some technology policies.

In years gone by, we’ve called all the parties asking for their views on issues like R&D tax breaks, telecomms regulation, computers in schools, the digital divide, and even the knowledge economy.

Typically, we’ve been met with the email equivalent of blank stares. The more adventurous have tried to answer some of the questions but have struggled to see the relevance.

I’d hoped this election would be different and in many respects it has been. Labour has a platform, a strategy and a vision for the future. The Greens have realised that technology can help solve a number of the issues they see as important and are promoting open access as the way of the future. Even New Zealand First, long the bastion of minimalist policymaking, fronted up and I had an interesting chat with NZ First’s Brent Catchpole about regulatory affairs and how better to spread the IT net.

So, with many questions in hand, I fronted up to an online debate, run by InternetNZ, with a view to securing an interview with National’s Maurice Williamson. I wasn’t disappointed — that came later.

Williamson spent the best part of a decade threatening to regulate Telecom and not actually getting to that point. He derided the government inquiry into the telco sector when it was launched and he mocked the Telecommunications Act when it was finally passed into law.

However, he’s come to realise, I believe, that time has moved on and if Telecom can’t be coerced into acting in the nation’s interest, after a decade of using generic trading regulation, it’s going to take more to move that particular mountain.

I don’t agree with Williamson, but he has a coherent, logical and, most of all, consistent framework for his points of view and that surprised me. I’d all but written him off as a “you can’t touch Telecom” redneck politician, but that’s quite wrong. As much competition as we can get, as little regulation as is possible, is Williamson’s mantra and it’s not a bad one at that.

Which is why the National party’s telecommunications policy is so appalling. It consists of three paragraphs — 84 words — entirely contradicting both its communications spokesman’s statements and would roll back our regulatory regime by a decade. National will allow any telco to appeal regulatory decisions made in the courts, which would simply mean no decision would get ratified for a decade. National will not consider unbundling because it’s an invasion of Telecom’s property rights. There are many reasons to leave Telecom’s network alone but, as Williamson said during the debate, that bird has flown.

Ultimately, the real disappointment is the lack of emphasis placed on ICT by a party that could form the next government. Telecommunications and IT are the backbone of our future economic growth and they’re worth far more than 84 words dashed off a week before the election. What should have been a key election platform is not even rated as important and that’s not on.

Brislen is a Computerworld reporter

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