It was billed as the first debate of the not-quite-campaign. Two Senators confidently outlined their parties’ Information and Communications Technology strategies to the Australian Computer Society. Minister Helen Coonan was there too. After Coonan’s opener (long on motherhood, short on detail) Labor’s Senator Stephen Conroy and Democrat leader Senator Lyn Allison attacked. With hard numbers. And Coonan scored at least three own goals.

Student enrolments in IT have fallen 18% in 12 months, says Conroy. It’s a “crisis”! Trade deficit in IT equipment and services is $20 billion, says Alison. Communications policy is a “train wreck”. Conroy repeated Labor’s promise: Fibre to the Node with a minimum 12Mb/sec to 98% of Australians.

At $4.7B, “this is likely to be the single largest commitment of a Rudd government, we’re that serious about it,” he said.

There’s $111M over four years for skills, including incentives to study maths and science, and 10 industry innovation centres. When they weren’t speaking, the Senators’ body language was revealing.

Conroy was alert, eyes scanning the crowd, noting tables for heavyweights Microsoft, IBM, Lenovo, Accenture, Fujitsu, Symantec, Gartner … though Telstra were notably absent. Allison sat back, relaxed and comfortable, ready to rattle on about quantum computing, laptops in school, IT literacy, and branding like a Woolmark for IT innovation.

But Coonan frowned and ruffled through her papers as if cramming for an exam, nodding as she recognised something. And then came the lists, lists of program names and report titles and millions of dollars spent. The Coalition vision, it seems, is based on how much money its spent, and few specific achievement were named.

Coonan was confident, attacking Labor’s FTTN plan, critical that it won’t remote help farmers, but came unstuck. With OPEL, “if you live under a rock you’ll be able to get broadband.” Own Goal #1: WiMaX won’t penetrate rock.

“You get into trouble when politician start picking technologies,” Coonan said. “You mean like OPEL,” retorted Conroy. Own Goal #2.

And everyone’s threatening to break up Telstra. But as one journalist asked to resounding applause, “Has anyone got the balls to say you’re actually going to do it?”

“If I tell you now you’d have to kill me,” answered Coonan. Own Goal #3:

That “me” should be a “you”, Senator. Unless you really mean …

Conroy reinforced the ALP’s plan for joint ownership of the wholesale broadband network between Telstra and the successful bidder for the FTTN network. An open network, he emphasised, unlike Telstra’s original plan for a closed network.

“To Helen’s credit, and to the government’s credit, they said ‘No way’,” Conroy said.

Afterwards Coonan told the descending pack of journos: “There will be no unilateral action by the government to force the structural separation of Telstra.”