"It's commerce by day and culture by night," said Helen Coonan, Australia's Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts as she explained the broad swathe of her responsibilities to members of the Israel-Australia, New Zealand & Oceania Chamber of Commerce.
Coonan is in Israel as the head of a top-level Australian trade mission that attended Telecom 2006.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post Coonan noted Australia's significant role at the United Nations in paving the way for the establishment of the State of Israel and said Australia remained a significant political supporter of the country. She also was confident that Australia would become a more significant trading partner.
Although bilateral trade has risen by leaps and bounds from A$10 million in 1970 to close to A$800m. today with the balance of trade in Israel's favor, Coonan was convinced these figures could be radically improved.
She would like to see more industrial collaboration between the two countries, she said, especially because they complement each other on so many levels.
She was pleased that 50 Israeli companies - most of them specializing in Information and Communication Technology, or ICT - have offices in Australia, whose economy, she said, is one of the world's most robust.
One of the attractions for multinationals and foreign investors, she stated, was that the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ranks Australia as one of the lowest cost business locations in the industrialized world. There is also the proximity to Asia and the ability to service the Asian market in real time.
A lawyer by profession, who practiced as a commercial barrister in Australia and an attorney in New York before tossing her cap into the political arena, Coonan has been a senator since 1996, and now is deputy leader of the government in the Senate, one of three women in the Federal Cabinet, the first woman to be appointed to the coalition's leadership team and the first woman in Australia to hold a Treasury portfolio. Prior to her current appointment, she was Minister for Revenue and Assistant Treasurer.
In introducing her, Australian Ambassador James Larsen, who is also a lawyer by profession, said that Coonan had been battling some of the most difficult policy issues.
Her history in politics is characterized by sweeping reforms - most recently the full privatization of Telstra, the Australian counterpart of Bezeq. She is now in the process of overseeing wide-ranging media reforms that include the relaxation of restrictions, progressive deregulation and the switch from analog to digital services with the end of 2008 as a target date for flipping the switch on analog and transforming into a totally digital system.
In her previous position, she oversaw the implementation of major reforms in superannuation, insurance and taxation.
Her ministerial purview at the present time includes responsibility for the Australian broadcasting and telecommunications industries as well as the IC sector, the Australian Post and the visual and performing arts about which she is very passionate.
The Australian government contributes significantly to the development of ICT, she said.
"ICT is deeply embedded in the Australian economy."
Always on the side of the consumers and people who need a little help in finding their place, Coonan recently established a tele-working task force designed to help more people engaged in IT to work from home.
Asked whether working from home would not eventually rob them of their social skills, Coonan replied that they're not forced to work at home but that it was an option for people who need to look after children or an aging parent or who have some other reason for not operating out of a regular workplace. Yet, she doubted that working from home would become so widespread as to have an impact on the regular workplace in terms of downsizing working premises.
People like to interact socially, she said, and most people would take the working at home option only for a short period before returning to the more common working environment.
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