ChannelLife New Zealand logo
Story image

Labour’s David Cunliffe on ICT

A long time ICT fan, David Cunliffe was keen to step back into an ICT role, taking over as Labour spokesperson when he took over the reins as Opposition leader.

He talks to Heather Wright about technology's role in his life, and for New Zealand in general.

As the father of two 'nearly teenage' sons, David Cunliffe, Labour leader and spokesperson for communications and IT, among other roles, is well aware of household demand for technology.

One of his sons has just saved up and bought his first iPad, and Cunliffe's own iPad is also in hot demand each time he walks back in the door at home. “I'll have two kids jostling to grab the iPad as soon as I get home,” he says.

“We gobble a lot of broadband,” he adds. “It's part of our daily lives.”

His wife, lawyer Karen Price, also runs a network at home and depends on good upload and download speeds. For Cunliffe himself, there are two iPhones which he admits to 'constantly' using and a laptop as well as the iPad.

“Technology is absolutely fundamental for New Zealand's future,” he says. “New Zealand changed out of sight when refridgeration was invented and we could ship meat to mother Britain.

“Suddenly you could ship ideas around the world and small companies could go global. It is hugely important to our future,” he says.

“I've always enjoyed technology,” he adds. “I loved being the minister of ICT in the last Labour-lead government. “I was very keen to pick it up again.”

His move in naming himself as communications and IT spokesperson was welcomed by some in the industry who see it as a sign of the importance Cunliffe places on technology.

In fact, his involvement with ICT goes back to his days as a graduate student at John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, where he did a dissertation on the economics of regulation in the telecommunications industry, focusing on the Telecom versus Clear case in the High Court in the 1990s.

Early days

The son of an Anglican minister, Cunliffe grew up in Te Aroha and then Te Kuiti before moving to Pleasant Point in Canterbury when he was 10.

As a teenage he worked evenings and weekends in a fish and chip shop, mucking out pig pens, ploughing fields and rousing for a shearing gang.

A scholarship to study the International Baccalaureate at the United World College of the Atlantic in Wales followed, before studying politics at the University of Otago, gaining a Bachelor of Arts with first- class honours.

A career in technology was never really on the cards.

“I'm sadly middle-aged. It's a terrible phrase,” he quips. “Computers didn't arrive until I was leaving high school. The year I left there was an Apple Mac IIE.

“My god, how the world has changed!” He recounts driving a car with someone using a mobile phone. “It was a lightening moment for me, when I realised the world had just shrunk.”

In 1987, Cunliffe became a diplomat for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. By 1990 he had been posted to Washington DC. Even then, he continued studying, gaining a Diploma in Social Sciences in economics with distinction from Massey University.

He held a Fullbright Scholarship at Kennedy School of Government in 1994-1995, earning a Master of Public Administration.

Come 1995, he headed back to New Zealand for a stint as a management consultant with The Boston Consulting Group in Auckland. In 1999 he decided to run for Labour in Titirangi, winning the seat and entering Parliament. The seat became New Lynn the following election, and Cunliffe again won.

The rest, as they say, is history.

His first term saw him chairing the Commerce Select Committee and sitting on the Finance and Expenditure, and Regulations Review select committees.

In 2003 he was appointed to Cabinet as Minister of State and Associate Minister of Finance; Revenue; and Communications and Information Technology – as associate to Paul Swain.

“It's quite a funny story how I got the role,” he says. He then recounts how then Prime Minister Helen Clark approached him one day. Dropping into a gruffer tone, he mimics Clark: “David, I hear you did some work on telecom... you can be Associate Minister then...”

In 2004, Cunliffe took over the role of Minister of Communications and Information Technology.

A long time ICT fan, David Cunliffe was keen to step back into an ICT role, taking over as Labour spokesperson when he took over the reins as Opposition leader.

He talks to Heather Wright about technology's role in his life, and for New Zealand in general.

ICT shortcomings

He's undeniably proud of his role in breaking up Telecom's market monopoly, its stranglehold on the local loop, and the company itself, and strenghtening the role of the Commerce Commission. And he's equally happy to point out what he perceives as his opponent's shortcomings.

In 2008 he launched Labour's 'Digital Strategy 2.0', an update to Labour's 'flagship' Digital Strategy, launched in 2005, with its building blocks of 'super fast connection, enhanced user confidence and cool content'.

“It wasn't just about the connectivity,” he says, though he notes 'that's a given [requirement]'. “It was also about getting users capable and confident and having the content available – the killer app.

“And that's part of the real problem with the failed [UFB] roll out we see now,” he says. “The uptake is so low because the content is not there.” Cunliffe is scathing of National's handling of the situation when they took power in 2008.

“When I left the position of Minister of ICT in 2008 we had a quarter of a billion dollar regional broadband programme ready to go.”

Cunliffe says the documents 'were sitting on my desk' awaiting signoff, but because of constitutional requirements to enable the incoming minister, Stephen Joyce, to review the project, the deal wasn't signed off.

Under the new government, things went on hold for another two years, Cunliffe says, before re- emerging as the ultrafast broadband initiative.

“We call like to call it Ultra Slow Broadband because of the snails pace of the rollout.

“The work is proceeding, and the fibre is going in the ground ok, but the number of Kiwis linking up is absolutely dire and that's because of the lack of education and an online environment that does not contain all the killer apps,” he say, adding that if Hulu and Netflix were available, signup would likely be higher.

He's adament broadband needs to be better priced for the average Kiwi, recounting the story of one constituent, a mental health nurse, who after paying rent has just $125 a week for all other expenses for herself and her two children.

“For people like that, every cent counts and we shouldn't be subsidising Chorus at the expense of families like that,” he says, noting one of the current hot potatoes – Chorus' claims it'll go broke if forced to drop its access charges by the 23% determined by the Commerce Commission.

He claims Labour would look at low interest loans to defray the cost of hooking up to broadband to stop those at economic disadvantage having a technology disadvantage 'layered on top'.

A 'coherent digital strategy' is also necessary he says, and one that includes not just the connection, but content. “We need to look at the whole system and have a dispassionate assessment of the road blocks so we can make bold moves going forward.

“We don't want to just bail out, but work out what is behind the problems.”