By CHRIS BARTON
National MP Maurice Williamson says that while his party and Labour often disagree, they should have no arguments when it comes to promoting e-commerce in New Zealand.
The former minister for telecommunications and information technology, a long-time advocate of the knowledge economy, will attend the Government's e-commerce summit on Wednesday and Thursday.
Mr Williamson knows how hard it is to get other MPs to see the importance of such an event.
When National was in power, many of his colleagues regarded him as a cyber geek.
Former Prime Minister Jim Bolger had a standing joke: "One of my ministers believes that in a few years we'll all be talking to our fridges."
Mr Williamson, who has the title "e-vangelist" on his business card, says he has noticed a considerable change in attitude since then - and points out that Westinghouse released a fridge last year with a voice-activated chip.
But he believes much education and awareness is needed to seize the opportunity the coming information society provides.
He remains surprised how many captains of industry - still stuck in "industrial-age" economic thinking - just don't "get" e-commerce.
Mr Williamson says Treasury is also "deeply rooted" in the industrial age time warp, and responsible for both National's and Labour's slow progress in developing the information economy.
"Treasury needs to shut up and rethink its industrial economics. I'd like to see a cleanout of top Treasury echelons and get some really intelligent, forward-thinking people in there who understand about the information age and can advise the Government what effect it can have on an economy."
He says Treasury vigorously opposed the setting up of the New Economy Research Fund which National introduced towards the end of its term.
"They just don't believe the Government should assist with this sort of research and development. They just don't think it's necessary."
The attitude contrasts markedly with Australia, which formed a National Office for the Information Economy in 1997 and has conducted detailed research into the effects of e-commerce.
Its landmark E-commerce Beyond 2000 report, released in February, predicts that one of the significant net benefits of e-commerce is that Australia's GDP would increase by 2.7 per cent ($A15 billion) by 2007.
The office has followed up that research with a new report examining the use of e-commerce in different states and introducing a "preparedness index" to track progress.
The difference is not lost on Professor Howard Frederick, of Unitec's Centre of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, an outspoken critic of slow government progress in developing the information economy.
He warned in June last year that the country's lack of policy in this area would become known as "the New Zealand syndrome" - referring to how a developed country fails to make the transition to the knowledge-based economy.
While he supports this week's summit, he remains sceptical.
"It's all without a contextual vision. What's still lacking is an answer to the question, 'Where is New Zealand going'?"
He hopes the Government's draft e-commerce strategy, to be released by Minister for Information Technology Paul Swain, will address some of the concerns - such as setting up a Government office to lead the charge, and introducing long-overdue cybercrime legislation.
"The Government is still not leading by example - as shown by its failure to introduce government e-procurement and e-administration."
Professor Frederick says that while the Government may have bought four weeks' grace as a result of last week's Business Summit, the time for action is long overdue.
He believes Mr Swain's relatively low rank in cabinet counts against the Government adopting information economy concepts, just as it did in Mr Williamson's case.
"We need a champion for this at the top level," he says.
Meanwhile, this week's e-commerce summit is booked out, more than 500 businesses paying paid about $400 each to attend the two-day event.
Around 40 per cent of those are small to medium-sized.
The relatively low cost of attending has been made possible by an oversupply of eager sponsors, including Microsoft, IBM, Cisco and Telstra Saturn.
Telstra Saturn chief executive Jack Matthews says the summit is a chance to look ahead to where New Zealand could be.
As the official telecommunications supplier, along with Cisco and IBM, Telstra has provided fibre-optic and high-speed back-up circuits for the Auckland venue. It will also provide videoconferencing and live webcasting at www.ecommerce-summit.govt.nz, plus a cyber cafe.
Herald Online feature: e-commerce summit
Official e-commerce summit website
By CHRIS BARTON