Thriving tech sector would create innovation, jobs

Published on Mon 25 November 2019 5:09pm

The country that played a key role in developing wi-fi technology, and with a past record of early and rapid adoption of digital communication, should not find itself ranked second last in the OECD when it comes to the relative size of our tech sector.

Mr Wilson (5:09pm) — I’m glad to speak on this motion on the digital economy, and I thank the member for Gellibrand, the shadow minister for communications and cybersecurity, for bringing it forward. I can’t think of a person in the parliament, actually, who’s brought his interest and knowledge to this particular issue more consistently than he has. And it should be a matter of great concern and much sharper focus because of the social and economic importance of digital technology and because Australia is not achieving its potential when it comes to the digital economy. The country that played a key role in developing wi-fi technology, and with a past record of early and rapid adoption of digital communication, should not find itself ranked second last in the OECD when it comes to the relative size of our tech sector. On the contrary, the tech sector and the benefits of digital innovation should be a major contributor to all areas of our economy that are currently lagging—namely, good-quality jobs, increased productivity, greater fairness and more equal and flexible workforce participation.

Unfortunately this government, in all its guises—the Abbott version, the Turnbull version and now the Morrison version—not only has neglected the tech sector but also has been a dead hand on this critical aspect of our current and future social and economic wellbeing. And it’s done harm in all the key areas: in education, in digital infrastructure and in the form of hastily and badly fashioned regulatory frameworks. Let’s start with infrastructure. It is a shame that we’re second last in the OECD for the size of our tech sector. But is that any great surprise, when we’re currently ranked 62nd in the world—and falling—for broadband speed? We have the 13th-largest economy in the world. We’re a nation that prides ourselves on scientific innovation and our capability to deliver first-rate infrastructure, yet in the first five minutes of this now third-term government the decision was made to base a 21st-century broadband network on 19th-century copper wiring. So, at a stroke, Labor’s fibre-rich and futureproof national broadband network was thrown out and replaced by the multi-technology mess that is providing a broadband service that’s more or less obsolete on delivery. In Western Australia we have the worst of it. Despite being the largest and most remote state, we have the slowest broadband speed of all the states and the highest proportion of substandard services.

There’s no doubt that for a dynamic tech sector to flourish you need a carefully designed regulatory framework. That isn’t easy to achieve. It does mean balancing imperatives that can run counter to one another, if you consider on the one hand access to data for the purpose of national security and on the other hand privacy and freedom from surveillance and the kind of system integrity that is an essential aspect of high-quality tech business products and services. In that context we can only look back with dismay at the telecommunications assistance and access bill, pushed through on the basis that it was an emergency of sorts, in the last few days of the 2018 parliamentary year. In keeping with that sense of panic, the government turned its back on important amendments recommended on a bipartisan basis by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security. Those amendments addressed very significant concerns in terms of the impact on companies in the tech space and in relation to crucial civil liberty protections. Labor supported the legislation on the basis of the apparent urgency but conditional on a promise from the government that the relevant amendments to the bill would be picked up as soon as possible in 2019.

Well, here we are, at the end of that year, and the only thing we have to consider is a bill that allows a further extension of the review process out to September 2020. Meanwhile, everyone in the Australian tech sector and many in the international tech community regard that law as establishing an effective moratorium on large-scale investment collaborations and start-ups.

Finally, if we want Australia to achieve its tech sector potential, we need to make sure that our education system is calibrated to that end. On that count, I want to acknowledge the work of the member for Chifley, who led the way for a series of policy announcements during the last term of parliament, including a commitment to deliver 5,000 free TAFE places in ICT education and the establishment of an AI centre of excellence that would bring together business and academic expertise. The value of those kinds of supportive measures was in turn reinforced by the Leader of the Opposition in his ‘Jobs and the future of work’ speech the other week in Western Australia.

I’d also like to acknowledge the work of the member for Hotham, the shadow minister for innovation, technology and the future of work in terms of what she has done to carry forward Labor’s work on digital preparedness. As she has rightly argued, if we want technology to work for us and to improve our lives, we must have the right policy framework in place. So I support this motion. Australia should have a flourishing tech sector, because we have the appetite for innovation and because we need the jobs and the productivity that comes with it.

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