Brave words for new world in WA

For those with a long-standing interest in the online economy, this last week produced a fairly significant event.

The Premier of WA announced in his speech to the University of Western Australia Summer School that “within five years...all WA households will be online.

The Premier said we were in the midst of a digital revolution and he articulated his concern about the distinct possibility of a society like ours polarising into those who have access and those who don’t.

Having dropped this pearl of wisdom, he indicated that in two Internet years’ time (i.e. six months) he would be announcing the detail of how his government would propose to handle such a challenge.

A significant percentage of the population will see a comparison to Bob Hawke’s now memorable claim that “no Australian child would be living in poverty by 1992.”.

Cynics within the IT industry are already saying that if the State Government sits back and continues to adopt a minimalist approach to the online economy, it will all happen anyway.

Although only two-thirds of a decade late, it is important for WA that the online economy has arrived as an issue of significance on the State Government’s agenda.

Across Australia, most experts who understand this important phenomenon tend to agree that the online economy has arrived in this country despite government rather than because of government.

I have had the privilege of working with governments, communities and private sector companies in all States of Australia in the last ten years addressing the challenges of the emerging online economy.

Sadly, the vast majority of elected representatives at local, State and national level, irrespective of their tribe, concurred that there were no votes to be won by extolling the virtue or importance of an Internet-worked world.

Paul Keating seems to have worked out how to make money out of the IT&T sector since his retirement but gave scant attention to the industry while he was in office.

Throughout the eighties Barry Jones was marginalised by successive Federal Labor Governments.

John Howard has only just discovered the true significance of the IT sector on a recent trip to the USA.

His Communications Minister Alston has made a credible start in a limited number of directions.

WA, like Queensland, has suffered from the myopia which all too often results from having a highly successful mining and agricultural base to the local economy.

For decades, governments of all complexions in both States believed that future prosperity depended on opening up more, bigger and better mining and agricultural projects.

The penny dropped in Queensland about eighteen months ago and the Beattie government has produced a credible communication and information strategic plan for that State.

For all his apparent political sins, Jeff Kennett was the first and, for a while, the only leader of a government in Australia who understood the digital revolution had started and an intelligent response from government was essential if Australia was to be among the winners.

As a result, the most effective group of people and government programs encouraging the information economy are today to be found in Victoria.

The South Australian government probably comes in second for its awareness and initiatives.

By contrast, New South Wales has been something of a policy-free zone. Perhaps because Sydney is so sophisticated in the Australian context, they can afford to believe that anything important will happen in Sydney/NSW anyway.

The Tasmanian economy has been in trouble for decades and with more than generous Federal Government handouts a significant number of online economy initiatives have commenced.

Perhaps it is possible that the State election due this year in WA will feature, for the first time, a genuine debate between the main contenders about the online economy.

l Mal Bryce is a consultant with Dow Digital and a former Deputy Premier of WA.

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