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Australia’s newly elected prime minister Malcolm Turnbull may be the country’s fifth leader in as many years, but he is the first prime minister to have the technology community buzzing with hope that his technological nous will raise the profile and adoption of progressive IT in the country.
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Turnbull, who replaced besieged sitting prime minister Tony Abbott on 14 September 2015 in a bitter party-room coup, served as communications spokesperson in opposition from 2010 and served as communications minister from Abbott’s election in 2013.
He has a long history of digital engagement, frequently engaging citizens on Twitter and blogging on a range of topics through his website. Turnbull made much of his estimated $180m (£84m) fortune through shrewd investments in early Australian internet companies.
He drew much ire for controversially scaling back plans to build Australia’s national broadband network (NBN) using fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) and existing networks rather than continuing the previous government’s mostly fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) network. However, his efforts to promote digital government – through the establishment of cloud-first mandates and an overarching Digital Transformation Office (DTO) this year – have been hailed as progressive and long overdue.
Turnbull’s successes in promoting a digital agenda put him in stark contrast to his predecessor, who made no pretence about his lack of technological understanding, once famously referring to himself in a now-notorious television interview on broadband policy as not being a “ tech-head” and admitting that: “If you’re going to get me into a technical argument, I'm going to lose it.”
Australia’s tech community is hopeful that the initiatives Turnbull fostered will gain new immediacy now he has taken the country’s highest office. Ovum analyst Al Blake, a former CIO with Australia’s federal Department of the Environment, said the fact that Turnbull is no longer under the mandate of Abbott – who told Turnbull to “demolish” the FTTP NBN after his election – could see Turnbull shift the NBN mix to allow for more FTTP services than he could otherwise have implemented.
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“Having someone with an understanding of technology at the highest position in government cannot be underestimated,” Blake wrote in an analysis after the coup. “Australia now has someone who ‘gets it’ when it comes to digital delivery of government services and is not going to be prepared to accept delays, excuses and second-rate solutions. With the previous champion [of the DTO] now head of the country, it’s hard to see how DTO can go anywhere but up.”
That can only be good news for Paul Shetler, who joined Australia’s DTO as CEO in July 2015 after successfully running the UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS) programme, upon which Turnbull modelled the DTO.
Handed the reins of an ambitious transformation programme by Turnbull, Shetler will now have support for his efforts from the very top of the country’s government – and a strong mandate to herd more than 100 federal agencies into a new era of customer service-focused operations.
Al Blake, Ovum
“Turnbull’s area of interest has now expanded somewhat, but he fought to have the DTO established and ultimately placed underneath his purview – so I can’t imagine that he’ll lose sight of the [digital] opportunity,” said Gartner research vice-president Glenn Archer – whose resume includes heading the DTO’s spiritual predecessor, the Australian Government Information Management Office (Agimo).
“When I talk with CIOs across the world, the degree to which they are pursuing digital government is largely driven by the aspirations of their ministers or governments to have a more efficiently operating economy, enabled by a more efficiently enabled public service.
“Whereas we’ve had the former PM raise doubts about the contribution of technology to the economy, [Turnbull] sees it as a significant contributor to the productivity of the nation. I will be stunned if that doesn’t feature in a future economic statement from him.”