Australian Economy

Australia gets its second shot at being a tech nation

Turnbull attempted to put innovation policy at the centre of his platform, and his Innovation Statement was announced with the kind of grandeur usually reserved for a federal budget.

But it all fizzled out. The country outside of inner cities was not brought along for the ride and the Coalition perceived its poor performance at the 2016 election was caused by a population spooked by fears of their jobs being automated, and unable to identify with the cocky young start-up crowd.

This election just showed Australia has become more progressive as a nation. Instead of electorate whiplash, our politicians are receiving positive feedback.

Andrew Porter, CEO, FinTech Australia.

The former government largely sidelined the innovation portfolio, with a procession of ministers barely penetrating the public’s consciousness until the industry was publicly unimpressed by the decision to park Christian Porter in the role, while he was otherwise engaged in fighting to save his political career.

“Over the past 10 years, technology has become a significantly greater part of the Australian economy. This constitutes both the more rapid adoption of technology by many businesses as well as rapid growth in the tech sector in Australia,” Business Council of Australia president, Potentia Capital managing director and Transurban board member Tim Reed says.

Tim Reed says the shared COVID experience has shown the country that technology underpins better business resilience. Louie Douvis

Reed, who as a long-time CEO of Australian tech stalwart MYOB, has witnessed the awakening of all-sized businesses to the modern tech era, is optimistic that the country is now ready to embrace an economy more centrally focused on tech innovation.

“As we stand here today Australia has the opportunity to double down on the progress that has been made and accelerate our progress towards being a tech nation. This will require, however, both government and business working together to get the settings right,” he says.

“Pre-COVID, there were some places where there was still a fear that technology takes jobs and leaves people worse off. Through the shared COVID experience I think we’ve seen that technology underpins better business resilience, but also opens up more options to teams to work in new and different ways, which provided individuals with more flexibility.

“Today, with Australia facing a labour shortage in many sectors, I hear a lot more about technology enabling workers rather than replacing them.”

Reed’s view is backed up by Australian entrepreneur Dr Catriona Wallace, who founded and ran Flamingo AI, an enterprise software company in the artificial intelligence field, for seven years until it was sold.

She now acts as executive director at ethical AI research and consulting firm Gradient Institute and as executive chairman at AI scale-up accelerator Boab AI, and says technology will be critically important for Australia to stay relevant, grow and to reduce the brain drain of its smartest people to other tech-progressive countries.

“Labor’s election should be a vast improvement on the previous government’s commitment to and understanding of technology, which was very low,” Wallace says.

“I’d advise [incoming Minister for Industry and Innovation] Ed Husic to determine a few areas where Australia can build an international reputation for technology, such as Responsible AI, AgTech or MedTech and double down on those.”

Wallace also suggests the new government consider investment into the rapidly emerging blockchain-based web3 industry and Metaverse technologies, to ensure Australia doesn’t get left behind in this next big trend.

Dr Catriona Wallace says a progressive tech policy will be crucial in keeping the smartest citizens in the country. Louie Douvis

It is, though, of course a challenge to execute on the idea of business and government working together, and avoid the likely instances where corporate and political interests are unaligned.

Despite the tech sector broadly supporting Albanese’s pre-election platform and leading venture capitalists, including OneVentures’ Michelle Deaker and AirTree Ventures’ Craig Blair keen to assist in the deployment of its fund, they are also very keen to pressure the government on issues like skilled migration, where it appears more reticent.

The Prime Minister’s planned Employment Summit to bring together industry and trade unions has a stated aim of raising wages without harming productivity, but the tech sector is demanding looser immigration rules to ease an immediate skills shortage, in a sector with soaring wages.

Given the Australian Council of Trade Unions has previously warned against tackling local skills and wages issues with more immigration, it could turn into a battle.

Craig Blair of AirTree Ventures says embracing technology and innovation is Australia’s best chance of increasing productivity and wages for all. Dominic Lorrimer

“The right settings start with talent; we need to significantly increase the rate of our talent development – both new talent and retraining existing workers, and supplement this with a streamlined and expanded immigration program,” Reed says.

“This isn’t an either-or, we need to do both because the attraction of experienced, talented tech workers from overseas helps accelerate the development of our own talent.”

Blair is confident that the industry can work well with the government, and has long advocated for the sector to do more to help government sell the positive virtues of a more progressive tech and innovation policy.

He has expressed concerns that angst about the negative impact of big tech companies on society has been prejudicing politicians and citizens about the productivity, jobs, wealth and fairness improvements being ushered in by entrepreneurial vision.

He nominates the aged care sector as one area that Australian voters know needs to be improved, and which can be helped immeasurably by tech innovation. This is one area, he asserts, that would be visible and help demonstrate that a tech nation is not just about flashy start-ups.

“Embracing technology and innovation is Australia’s best chance of increasing productivity and wages for all,” Blair says.

Whether the push to be a tech nation is given the profile within the new government as it once was under Turnbull remains to be seen, but those in the sector say there is no longer any need for the Prime Minister to be scared of giving it a try.

“Timing was perhaps one of the most fundamental flaws of the original Innovation Agenda. It was announced at a time when the tech sector was still somewhat emerging in Australia, and despite best efforts from the sector, was broadly perceived as a destroyer of traditional jobs,” CEO of FinTech Australia Andrew Porter says.

“Our thinking has shifted since then. As this election just showed, Australia has become more progressive as a nation. Instead of electorate whiplash, our politicians are receiving positive feedback for framing technology as a means to create better, more sustainable jobs.”

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