The scene was the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA) section of Cebit. Cebit is the famously massive German IT trade show, translated to Sydney for the first time last week. The event wasn’t on the same scale as the Hanover original, but it served as the venue for about two dozen New Zealand software companies displaying their wares. Towards the end of the day-long exhibit they were honoured with a visit from prime minister Helen Clark, whose imminent arrival boosted the numbers milling around their stands.
Clark was in the country leading a mission designed to talk up trade — not necessarily between Australia and New Zealand, but as collaborators taking on the rest of the Asian region. Her message, and tour of the exhibit, was appreciated by many of the companies taking part. Among them was Data Group, whose managing director, Rollo Gillespie, is president of the New Zealand Software Association. Gillespie couldn’t recall another occasion during his 30 years in the industry when a prime minister showed as much interest in what local software companies are up to.
It says as much about this government — and its leader — as it does about the industry’s maturity that Clark should be paying it attention. With the exception of its slackness in passing new laws to bring our statutes up to date with technology, the government has a pretty good record in regard to IT. It hasn’t only made encouraging noises — such as those heard at the start of the year when ICT, biotechnology and creative industries were identified as sectors that could transform the economy. It has also shown itself prepared to spend directly — most recently in the budget, which promises unspecified millions for broadband telecomms investment. It’s also demonstrated a willingness to collaborate, working with several IT vendors on pilot projects designed to boost IT literacy in schools and communities.
Not all of this can be put down to inspired policy-making. A good deal of the government activity is merely patching up the consequences of years of neglect (particularly when it comes to helping poorer communities get their hands on computers with decent internet access). And much of the rest is a matter of the government responding to the obvious: computers are everywhere these days so, hey, New Zealand should build a knowledge economy to cash in (as has occurred to one or two other nations as well).
For all that, the computer industry itself, with its exhausting emphasis on marketing, is proof that a few well placed words can really get a campaign rolling — just cast your mind back to the excesses of the dot-boom days. Clark had a few to say at a cocktail party at Cebit, speculating that New Zealand’s overseas software sales would match the country’s wool export receipts within five years. The industry represented the new face of the economy.
One of the New Zealand AIIA exhibitors, recently returned from running a dot-com in the UK, was moved to remark that tangible support for companies like his (in the health software sector) was much more forthcoming here than there. And an Australian exhibitor, on seeing Clark’s entourage sweep past the New Zealand stands, said he didn’t think John Howard would follow her example and cross the Tasman with a delegation of Australian software companies. Maybe that’s something we can be thankful for.