The Digital Economy: just for big business?

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[This article was first published in Crikey on Wednesday, based on Senator Conroy’s keynote speech to the Digital Economy Forum. See below for updates.]

“The Rudd Government is focused on creating a platform for economic growth and is committed to leading and growing our digital economy,” generalised Senator Stephen Conroy as he opened the Digital Economy Forum in Melbourne [on Wednesday morning].

His keynote speech regurgitated budget promises, generously sprinkled with doubleplusgood words about “encouraging” figures and “driving innovation”.

Uh oh. A “Digital Economy Forum”? Already I’m seeing blokes in suits jostling for room at the trough of government largesse. So who’s at this all-day talkfest? Aha! The CEO of Fairfax Digital; reps from Cisco, Google and Intel; a past president of the Australian Computer Society, the CEO of the Australian Internet Industry Association (which overwhelmingly represents big players); the Research Director for Ovum (presumably representing their big clients)… all the usual suspects.

But if the government is truly committed to supporting innovation and economic growth, where’s the involvement from small business?

As the latest ABS figures remind us, “Most business entries (93%) continued to occur in the micro business population, which comprises non-employing businesses and businesses employing between 1-4 employees.” Despite news stories about “business” being illustrated with images of office towers, factories and coal mines, the median business is actually a sole trader, often working from home, perhaps with a part-time bookkeeper.

The Forum is a follow-up to workshops held in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne.

“A valuable opportunity for Government to hear from a range of stakeholders on the future directions of the digital economy,” Conroy said.

Stakeholders. I see blokes in suits again.

Let’s decode the Senator’s speech…

“Most stakeholders agreed about the importance of Government investments in the digital economy — in particular the National Broadband Network and the Digital Education Revolution.”

Translation: Yes, gifts of $4.7B and $1.2B would be nice.

“Participants also agreed that there is a key role to be played by the private sector by collaborating within industry and with the Government.”

Translation: Please give the money to us.

“Many participants argued that ‘industry development issues’ are critical.”

Translation: It’s critical that you give the money to us.

“The shortage of professional ICT skills was also a recurrent theme in all three workshops.”

Translation: We’d also like you to pay to train our staff.

“Ladies and gentlemen — and this is something I’ve been emphasising a lot of late — the Rudd Government hears the industry loud and clear on these issues.”

Translation: Yes, the taxpayers will bend over and you may rifle their pockets.

As we go to press, the forum’s still got half a day to run. But once the big end of town has finished gorging itself, I don’t think there’ll be much left for the 1,171,832 (58%) non-employing businesses, or the 755,758 who employ less than 20 employees but who make up 90% of employers.

Post-Crikey Update

As it turns out, there was some representation from small business.

Crikey commenter George Fong wrote:

A pity you were not there for the workshops. A pity you did not stay for the full event. A pity you did not stay for the discourse and robust exchanges between Dr Geneveive Bell, Greg Stone, Paul Twomey and others and The Minister himself on a one to one debate. And a pity you did not note the number of consumer advocacy organisations represented and contributing in the forum, including ATUG and ISOC-AU.

As a representative from Ballarat in regional/rural Victoria and as a person involved with small regional businesses (most of whom have less than 20 people and a turnover of less than $200,000pa), communities and individuals on both the supply and advocacy sides, I have not in a long time felt so optimistic that we finally have an opportunity to speak, to advocate and to participate meaningfully in the formulation Federal policy in relation to a way forward for the people and organisations we represent.

I agree, it’s a pity I wasn’t at the Forum at all, let alone “all day”. Crikey‘s deadlines for a lunchtime email are such that articles need to be written before noon. I was writing in response to the Minister’s keynote and the promoted list of participants. It’s good to hear that there was discussion related to small business once things got going — and disappointing that only (mostly) big players get mentioned when such forums are promoted. I’d love to hear what the tangible results were.

Ian Birks, CEO of the AIIA, also took exception to my characterisation of his organisation.

Currently more than 300 of our 500 member companies have revenues under $5million — we advocate for the whole ICT industry and not just the big end of town.

I stand corrected, at least with regard to the claimed representation.

Still, a turnover of $5M is still a pretty decent business. My point is that the vast majority of new businesses are in the micro category. They’d be lucky to have a turnover of half a million, let alone ten times that. The AIIA’s members are also folks who are in the internet industry. What I’m interested in how businesses can be supported who are in the myriad other industries.

3 Replies to “The Digital Economy: just for big business?”

  1. I think the original Crikey article was unbalanced, but at least it was clear that it had been written without the reporter being present for most of the event.

    I agree with others that the discussion was robust and the Minister and his advisors not only participated but remained present for over 6 hours — I have never known a Minister to stay at an event for that amount of time. It reflects a genuine interest by Stephen Conroy that deserves much greater recognition and approval than he receives. It means that the entirety of the discussion went unfiltered to the Minister’s ears; it means that decisions can be made with the benefit of a broad range of perspectives being taken into account and without any minders’ spin affecting the outcome.

    Great as Crikey normally is, on this occasion it was badly off the mark due to deadline constraints.

  2. @Philip Argy: Ah well “the reporter” in this case was me. Yes, I was writing solely from the perspective of Senator Conroy’s keynote. And, for that matter, from an emailed transcript rather than personal experience. I wasn’t even in the same city!

    The process which produced this story is an interesting example of 21st Century media. I make no claim to “balance” or being a “journalist” — though I’ve worked as a media professional in various ways, primarily as a producer for ABC Radio in a distant past, and the fact that I write about current events for money means I get labelled a journo sometimes. I don’t subscribe to capital-J Journalism’s myth of “objectivity”, however, but instead write it openly from my personal perspective — putting my biases on the table for all to see.

    I only heard about the Digital Economy Forum that morning. The information didn’t seem promising: only Big Business names were mentioned. When the transcript of Conroy’s speech arrived at 1010, the words seemed to reinforce my fears. I phoned Crikey‘s editor, pitched the story and got a green light. By 1145 the story was written and submitted.

    If you wanted to summarise the story in a sentence it would be, “Please God, don’t make this another Big Business pig trough!” As it turns out, it wasn’t. Good. And you’re right, Philip, it is very unusual for a Minister to stay for a day like this. Full marks to Conroy.

  3. I’d suggest you could more productively turn your critique skills toward Dr Terry Cutler’s Innovation Review Report entitled “Venturous Australia”:

    “Venturous” I assume is a Freudian admission, because it’s not at all adventurous, and it’s more deja vu than review!

    Very light on the critical issues of digital literacy and competence which are essential life skills if Australia is to have any hope of remaining globally relevant let alone competitive.

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