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Australian telecoms industry welcomes replacement communications minister

Australian prime minister names Mitch Fifield as minister for communications

Telecommunications-industry watchers were scrambling for Wikipedia as newly appointed Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull appointed little-known Victoria senator Mitch Fifield into the communications minister spot he vacated in a leadership coup earlier in September 2015.

Turnbull is a charismatic and eloquent speaker whose rapport with journalists kept him in the spotlight as a champion of free-market broadband policy, both as opposition spokesperson on communications and – after the election of Tony Abbott’s Liberal government in 2013 – minister for communications.

During his tenure, Turnbull led a controversial effort to wind back the former government’s all-fibre to the premises (FTTP) national broadband network (NBN), favouring a complex alternative he argued would be cheaper and faster to roll out – but has, in practice, proved to be neither.

Speculation had been rife about who Turnbull would name as his successor, but looked past long-time heir apparent Paul Fletcher – a former SingTel Optus executive who often stood in for Turnbull during speeches and presentations – to appoint Fifield, a former assistant minister for social services and manager of government business in the senate who had little public involvement with telecoms during Turnbull’s years.

The appointment – which also includes oversight of the Arts portfolio – suggested Turnbull was trying to defuse the political tension that accompanied his time as communications minister, preferring instead to let the steadily accelerating project carry itself on its own momentum.

Turnbull also relieved Fifield of responsibility for the Digital Transformation Office (DTO), an expansive transformation effort that was previously managed in the Department of Communications, but now remains under Turnbull’s watch as part of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

The fact that Turnbull took the DTO with him into his role as prime minister was welcomed warmly by IT industry advocates, who took the unprecedented move as a lifesaver for a Turnbull brainchild that is driving significant change in government.

IT industry group the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA) welcomed Fifield’s appointment as a catalyst for development of Australia's global digital economy, noting that his experience in government business and social services would catalyse a broader focus on innovation.

“Execution of the prime minister’s vision for an agile and innovative Australia will require collaboration and teamwork across ministerial portfolios, in areas such as education, industry, small business, science and taxation, to lay the foundations for digital advancement,” said Suzanne Campbell, CEO of AIIA.

“We ask Fifield to take a leadership role in making this vision a reality,” she said.

The AIIA has advocated for clear plans around support for Australia’s technology startups, which it said could add 4% to the country’s GDP and create 540,000 jobs over the next 15 years. This included concerted efforts to improve digital skills and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) education; research and development tax incentives; government digitisation; an “actionable and practical national cyber security strategy”; and an acceleration of the NBN roll-out.

Lobbying group the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (Accan) also reached out to Fifield, calling on him to prioritise the interests of Australian consumers in delivering “better, more affordable and accessible communications”, ensuring the DTO addresses accessibility issues and making sure “no consumer is left behind” in the country’s transition to the NBN.

Fifield has slid into his new portfolio in recent days, telling national broadcaster ABC Radio that the ministry remains “technology agnostic”.

With the DTO out of his hands, Fifeld’s immediate role will primarily be to get up to speed with the dynamics of the telecommunications market, ensuring the portfolio is managed with a steady hand and working through a host of regulatory reforms addressing issues, such as public safety broadband spectrum and the future of Australia’s Universal Service Obligation (USO) program.

Fifeld wasn’t the only notable appointment in Turnbull's cabinet, which was lauded for its high percentage of women – including Australia’s first female defence minister – and new opportunities for lesser-known parliamentarians, such as Wyatt Roy.

Roy is a 25-year-old whose appointment as assistant minister for innovation makes him the country’s youngest-ever minister. He was only five years old when the internet hit the mainstream in Australia, and was elected to Parliament at the ripe old age of 20.

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