“The Rudd Government is focused on creating a platform for economic growth and is committed to leading and growing our digital economy,” generalised Senator Stephen Conroy as he opened the Digital Economy Forum in Melbourne this morning.

His keynote speech regurgitated budget promises, generously sprinkled with doubleplusgood words about “encouraging” figures and “driving innovation”.

Uh oh. A “Digital Economy Forum”? Already I’m seeing blokes in suits jostling for room at the trough of government largesse. So who’s at this all-day talkfest? Aha! The CEO of Fairfax Digital; reps from Cisco, Google and Intel; a past president of the Australian Computer Society, the CEO of the Australian Internet Industry Association (which overwhelmingly represents big players; the Research Director for Ovum (presumably representing their big clients)… all the usual suspects.

But if the government is truly committed to supporting innovation and economic growth, where’s the involvement from small business?

As the latest ABS figures remind us, “Most business entries (93%) continued to occur in the micro business population, which comprises non-employing businesses and businesses employing between 1-4 employees.” Despite news stories about “business” being illustrated with images of office towers, factories and coal mines, the median business is actually a sole trader, often working from home, perhaps with a part-time bookkeeper.

The Forum is a follow-up to workshops held in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne.

“A valuable opportunity for Government to hear from a range of stakeholders on the future directions of the digital economy,” Conroy said.

Stakeholders. I see blokes in suits again.

Let’s decode the Senator’s speech…

“Most stakeholders agreed about the importance of Government investments in the digital economy — in particular the National Broadband Network and the Digital Education Revolution.”

Translation: Yes, gifts of $4.7B and $1.2B would be nice.

“Participants also agreed that there is a key role to be played by the private sector by collaborating within industry and with the Government.”

Translation: Please give the money to us.

“Many participants argued that ‘industry development issues’ are critical.”

Translation: It’s critical that you give the money to us.

“The shortage of professional ICT skills was also a recurrent theme in all three workshops.”

Translation: We’d also like you to pay to train our staff.

“Ladies and gentlemen — and this is something I’ve been emphasising a lot of late — the Rudd Government hears the industry loud and clear on these issues.”

Translation: Yes, the taxpayers will bend over and you may rifle their pockets.

As we go to press, the forum’s still got half a day to run. But once the big end of town has finished gorging itself, I don’t think there’ll be much left for the 1,171,832 (58%) non-employing businesses, or the 755,758 who employ less than 20 employees but who make up 90% of employers.

Peter Fray

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