Coonan’s own goals in ICT debate

Photograph of Senator Helen Coonan at ACS Election Forum

Body language is revealing. At Friday’s breakfast forum, two Senators’ body language showed their confidence in their grasp of Information and Communications Technology issues. Alas, the minister, Senator Helen Coonan (pictured), wasn’t one of them.

Coonan’s opening speech was long on motherhood, short on detail. Her opponents, Labor’s Senator Stephen Conroy and Democrat leader Senator Lyn Allison attacked with confidence — and hard numbers. Coonan looked rattled.

When he wasn’t speaking, Conroy was alert. His eyes scanned the crowd, noting tables for heavyweights Microsoft, IBM, Lenovo, Accenture, Fujitsu, Symantec, Gartner … though Telstra were notably absent.

Allison was relaxed and comfortable, sitting back and waiting for her turn, ready to rattle on about quantum computing, laptops in school, IT literacy, and a global brand for Australian IT innovation — something like Woolmark for wool.

But Coonan frowned and ruffled through her papers as if cramming for an exam, nodding as she recognised something. I’ve been told since that she wouldn’t agree to the debate unless she had all the questions in advance — and her answers were apparently scripted.

Then came the lists. Lists of programs and reports and millions of dollars spent. The Coalition vision, it seems, is based on how much money its spent. Few specific achievement were named.

Conroy repeated Labor’s broadband promise: A Fibre to the Node network with a guaranteed minimum of 12Mb/sec to 98% of Australians. At $4.7B, “this is likely to be the single largest commitment of a Rudd government, we’re that serious about it,” he said.

Coonan tried attacking it, saying FTTN won’t help distant farmers, but came unstuck. She claimed that with her championed technology, the OPEL consortium’s WiMaX, “if you live under a rock you’ll be able to get broadband.” Own Goal #1, Senator: WiMaX can’t penetrate rock.

“You get into trouble when politicians start picking technologies,” Coonan said. “You mean like OPEL,” retorted Conroy. Own Goal #2.

And everyone’s threatening to break up Telstra. But as one journalist asked to resounding applause, “Has anyone got the balls to say you’re actually going to do it?”

“If I tell you now you’d have to kill me,” answered Coonan. Own Goal #3: That “me” should be a “you”, Senator. Unless you really mean …

[Note: This is an edited version of an article originally published in Crikey.]

5 Replies to “Coonan’s own goals in ICT debate”

  1. As a farmer at the foot of the Great Dividing Range, I’m thrilled to hear that Labor intend to press on with FTTN, even after the idiotic me-too rush job of the Coalition’s OPEL contract.

    WiMax would be useless to us – we are already notionally covered by several wireless networks (internet, television, and mobile phone) and signal at our place is intermittent at best, and non-existent on most due to terrain blocking line of sight to the transmission towers. Most farms share our predicament, because they are down in valleys – you know, where the water is – not up on ridges where the line of sight is.

    The WiMax maps published by the government and OPEL to back the claim of 98% population coverage do not take terrain into account, even though this very easy to do. But it’s such a rush job they haven’t even bothered. Besides, if they did, it would make for a lower coverage percentage. Better to have a big number than an accurate one if you’re trying to defend spending $1B on infrastructure with an election looming.

    On the other hand, we’re not far from an exchange connected by fibre to the main Sydney-Brisbane spine, and which supports ADSL. In fact it even has ADSL2, but due to the ACCC and Telstra’s little tiff, Telstra won’t turn it on. I feel sorry for Coonan on that one, as Telstra’s greed is the reason nearly 50% of Australian don’t have access to ADSL2, even though their exchange supports it. If Coonan had the courage and the competence, she’d back the ACCC by introducing legislation to force Telstra to wholesale its infrastructure, or risk losing it, or having Telstra split up.

    Conroy has consistently shown a competent understanding not only of the technology options, but also the regulatory framework required for sharing access by all ISPs.

    Coonan hasn’t a clue, but compared to Richard Alston, she’s a genius. Much of the dissatisfaction directed at Coonan really belongs to Alston, who on retirement claimed amongst his achievements as “effective regulation of the internet”. No wonder he cocked up the Telstra sale by not splitting off the infrastructure when he had a chance.

  2. @John Kramer: Thanks for such a beautifully detailed comment, and welcome!

    The government’s WiMaX material seems to focus on “electorates” rather than technical or operational divisions that would make sense for telecommunications. Gosh, I wonder what the driving force is?

    “Rush job” seems to be the Coalition’s theme: Do bugger all about long-term planning for 11 years, even though you’re experiencing a massive resources boom, and then when an election’s looming suddenly discover all sorts of “emergencies” that need a sudden response.

    @Jim: Now there’s an image I could do without! 😉 Still, welcome and thanks for the comment.

  3. Coonen is well known in some circles for her pork-barrelling, but that aside, it is a shame that she does so little to reflect the expertise “under-the-hood” at DCITA…

    Maybe she’s under a rock and doesn’t realise that nothing at all is getting through. I’ve picked up a few in recent weeks. You can build a terrific wall, but certainly not a network.

    -ag.

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