After more than 17 years in Parliament -- including more than 11 years in the communications portfolio -– Minister for Communications, IT and the Arts Senator Richard Alston has decided to stand down from the Ministry.
In a statement, Alston said heavy time demands, long periods away from home and the burdens thereby placed on his family were all considerations in standing down during Howard's cabinet reshuffle.
Attorney-General Daryl Williams will take over the portfolio of communications portfolio as part of the reshuffle.
Alston -- who has been dubbed the World's Biggest Luddite by some international media -- said he has been fortunate to serve in an area of policy that he always regarded as the most exciting and interesting portfolio of all.
“I take particular pride in the fact that Australia's enthusiastic adoption and effective use of ICT, underpinned by Australia's information industries, has transformed many traditional industry sectors and has played a large part in Australia's achievement of world-leading economic growth and productivity improvements,” Alston said.
Shadow Minster for IT, Senator Kate Lundy, was not surprised to hear the news of Alston's retirement. “Three strikes and you're out,” she said. Lundy listed those three strikes as: Australia's backward steps in ICT development, resulting in a “devastating” ICT trade deficit; Australia's decline in ranking of broadband penetration; and the mishandling of internet content regulation regarding adult content and online gambling.
“Alston's other noteworthy debacles include: the failed Framework for the Future Report (his only ICT policy contribution); his failure to address Telstra's growing dominance in the broadband communications sector and, finally, his departmental website which cost a whopping $4 million,” she said.
On Alston's replacement, Daryl Williams, Lundy said he is “not known for his dynamism, but is known as being a plodder”. With him in the hot seat, Australia's ICT strategy is in for “more of the same”. “I think this is a portfolio that calls for dynamism,” she said.
Shadow Minister for Communications Lindsay Tanner also commented on the news. “Senator Alston is abandoning ship as his communications portfolio sinks in a series of policy disasters,” Tanner said.
“He is leaving behind an uncompetitive telecommunications regime, soaring phone line rental fees, internationally embarrassing broadband take-up rates, a fiasco in digital television and a vicious government war against the ABC,” Tanner said.
Williams has a “great challenge” to “clean up Senator Alston's mess” and “turn around Australia's poor performance in the communications area,” Tanner added.
Among the tasks Tanner suggested Williams needed to tackle was to guarantee the independence of the ABC; accelerate Australia's broadband rollout; and reform the government's strategy for digital television.
Labor leader Simon Crean also speculated on Alston's future plans. "The only outstanding questions are why the prime minister pre-empted the announcement of Senator Alston's retirement, and which cosy overseas appointment has been earmarked for him," Crean said.
“Daryl Williams -- shifted for repeated failures on national security. A man who can't get the terrorism hotline number listed in the phonebook has been put in charge of Telstra,” Crean said.
In his prepared statement, Alston said that in March 1996 -- when he commenced as Communications Minister -– “there was little or no competition in telecommunications, no government support for regional telecommunications and virtually no consumer safeguards while Telstra was in full public ownership. The information technology industry was not seen as a priority while the internet was only for academics and geeks.”
"There was no such thing as digital TV. SBS, the ABC and community broadcasters were far less accessible, Pay TV was in its infancy and many Australians resided in TV blackspots. Australia's major arts organisations were not sustainable, there were no parallel imports of CDs or software and the copyright regime remained in the analog environment,” he said.
Alston has indicated that he will remain in the Senate at present, and will give careful consideration to his longer-term future in the lead-up to Christmas.