For most Australians, federal elections are about sound bites, political gaffes, and democracy sausages. But once the ballot boxes are emptied and the BBQs packed away, the decisions of May 18 will have significant repercussions for Australia’s technology, telecommunications, healthcare, and other industries.
Liberal, Labor and Greens party policy platforms each take rather different approaches to technology, science, R&D and innovation, with the Liberals’ economic-focused management enjoying the strength of incumbency, and Labor and the Greens building narratives around disruption – some of which will draw on or benefit Australia’s technology industry.
Whereas the NBN’s future loomed large over the previous two elections, the emergence of new technologies in the past decade – and Australian centres of competence that are crying out for market realisation – has driven a new dynamic for 2019 that is seeing the major parties promising investment in areas including artificial intelligence and space industry development.
Jobs and skills
Skills reform has been a significant issue for Australia’s technology industry, particularly since the Turnbull government overhauled the 457 skilled-visa category in the wake of the 2016 election.
This move created extensive uncertainty in skills-heavy areas like technology – where Australian companies are competing on a competitive global market – and the government’s recent budget skills announcements did nothing to resolve that uncertainty.
Neither major party has a specific policy around promoting technology jobs, although scholarships and recruitment programs form a significant element of a $156m cybersecurity capabilities pledge announced by Morrison in late April.
In general, however, the Morrison government has mostly focused on spruiking its overall achievements in job creation, with claims of 1.3m jobs created since 2013 and over 100,000 new jobs created for 15-to-24 year olds in the most recent financial year.
Labor’s jobs commitments are more focused on reining in the flexibility that allows big businesses to leverage labour demand for their own purposes: Labor will formalise casual employment policies, for example, by guaranteeing similar benefits for labour-hire workers as those under direct employment.
This policy could have significant impact on tech-heavy industries that have relied on low-cost informal and casual workers to create a ‘gig economy’, such as Uber and Deliveroo.
“Labor doesn’t support a business model if it can only succeed by undermining workers’ rights and avoiding workers’ entitlements,” the party policy says, arguing that the party’s goal is to help workers avoid the “purgatory of permanent casualisation”.
Both parties have been pushing a skills-development agenda, with vocational training flagged as a critical part of this through the Liberals’ $525m Delivering Skills for Today and Tomorrow package.
This package covers a range of vocational areas, and technology has been singled out as the target for pilots of new Skills Organisations that will bolster vocational training through industry partnerships in areas such as digital technologies and cyber security.
Labor, for its part, has pledged to put public TAFE at “the centre of the vocational educational system” and will invest $200m to “revitalise” TAFE campuses around the country.
It has announced 5,000 fee-free spots at TAFE for anyone wanting to study tech subjects, and hopes up to 50 percent of these will go to women.
Skills-hungry tech companies may find much to like in Labor’s move to uncap the number of university places, providing what it says will be an average of 20,000 new university positions per year over the next decade.
To increase the diversity of students at universities, the party is also promising a $174m University Pathway Fund to increase access to university places, $3.2m for a system of 22 community-owned Regional Study Hubs, and a $300m University Future Fund to support universities in updating facilities and infrastructure.
Greens party jobs policy has followed similar lines, with concerns about insecure work and replacement of jobs through automation to be addressed with overhauled workplace laws, efforts to close the gender wage gap, and to invest in science research and innovation through an explicit plan that sets an R&D investment target of 4 percent of GDP.
Fixing the NBN
For many, this election is all about the possibility of reviewing and potentially changing the strategy for the National Broadband Network (NBN).
Network builder NBN says that the network is on track for completion in 2020, but industry experts are already pushing strategies to upgrade the network to its full potential over the next decade.
The party’s plan to improve the NBN will include a review of the “devastated” economics of the NBN, and $60m to pursue trials of fibre upgrades and evaluation of co-investment mechanisms for targeted upgrades.
Telecommunications consultant Paul Budde recently wondered aloud whether the election could “end the NBN mess”, suggesting that it is “impossible to build such a network based purely on neoliberal economics” and noting that “to date only selected data has been publicly provided by NBN Co.”
The potential for changes to the rollout of the NBN will be a key issue for many tech-savvy voters – particularly in the wake of new rankings that put Australia’s fixed broadband speeds at 62nd in the world.
Labor has answered this call with initiatives including a Digital Inclusion Drive to increase participation in the network; mandated repairs to in-home cabling problems for up to 750,000 households; and establishment of an NBN Service Guarantee to mandate service standards for fault repair and installations.
“Consumers and taxpayers have every right to be angry with the Liberals for delivering a second-rate network that costs more and does less,” Labor’s policy argues.
The Liberal platform is more of the same, with its policy position devoted to using questionable numbers to spruik its delivery to date, and promises around improving responsiveness around service complaints.
R&D and innovation
The Liberal party has long been criticised for its lack of focus on R&D and innovation, and the party’s election platform doesn’t offer any specific guidance in this area – although some of its business stimulus packages will overlap in this area.
This is no surprise given that Liberal party policies in this area were laid out in the government’s recent Budget – including a $50m reduction in R&D funding.
This was much to the chagrin of experts such as Australian Academy of Science president John Shine, who noted that “Given the Government’s focus on economic growth it is disappointing that some of the very welcome announcements in this budget went hand in hand with these damaging cuts to Australia’s research programs."
With broad perceptions that the current government has turned its back on R&D and ignored science around areas such as climate change, Labor has doubled down on its investment in Australia’s intellectual capital – promising to “end the war on science and research” with a policy based around putting “science at the centre of government”.
This includes a commitment to boost R&D investment to 3 percent of GDP by 2030, up from 2.12 percent in 2011 (under the Gillard Labor government) and 1.88 percent in 2015 (under the Abbott Coalition government).
Among the promised initiatives are the creation of a Prime Minister’s Science and Innovation Council, and a Charter that will seek to align scientists and the government by laying down the expectations of scientists and government.
While industry and business investments are likely to have flow-on effects into the ICT industry, specific investments in IT-related areas are few and far between.
Labor, for one, has promised a $3m investment to establish a National Centre of AI Excellence and recently announced that it would invest an equal amount to establish the country’s first Blockchain Academy in Perth.
It also plans to reform the Research and Development (R&D) Tax Incentive, a move praised by the Australian Technology Network of universities and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Labor has seized upon the promise of Blockchain as both a commercial opportunity and a jobs generator – noting a recent ACS report that suggested that for every Blockchain developer there are 14 job opportunities – and argued that the Morrison Liberal party “has failed to tackle major tech skills shortages that are holding back Australian businesses”.
In the third relatively piecemeal announcement from Labor, the party also recently promised it would invest $2m to establish a TAFE-based cyber security training centre at Melbourne’s Kangan Institute, Broadmeadows – noting that the newly free TAFE Certificate IV in Cyber Security is already at capacity.
There would also be strong opportunities for IT firms in space strategies such as Labor’s plan – which includes initiatives such as an Australian Space Science and Industry Agency, academic appointments, advisory boards, industry development, a Space Industry Supplier Advocate to create space-related business opportunities, and four Australian Research Council Space Industry Research Hubs to focus space-related R&D.
Investing in green tech
Another area where the major parties diverge widely has been in their approach to energy and resources policy.
Liberal policy promises “more affordable, reliable electricity” and a “technology neutral program to underwrite new reliable energy generation”, but while it backs infrastructure investments like Snowy 2.0, the party’s environmental policy has little to offer in terms of specific programs to promote renewable-energy use.
Labor, by contrast, has doubled down on initiatives such as renewable energy, with its Neighbourhood Renewals Program and $100m Community Power Networks promising to bolster the rollout of solar panels, battery storage options, and other renewable technologies.
This focus will see Labor investing $201.3m to promote the use of solar panels and battery storage, with a target of 100,000 new battery installations and rebates of up to $2000 available from 1 January 2020.
Labor is also pushing an aggressive agenda towards promotion of electric cars adoption, while the Liberal policy is built around a more consultative National Electric Vehicle Strategy to guide that transition.
In line with these investments, Labor has laid out a plan to strengthen Australia’s role as the world’s largest supplier of lithium – the basis of most modern batteries – and parlay this into larger market opportunities around battery metal extraction, advanced processing, and battery metal manufacturing for renewables, electric cars, and other fast-growing markets.
This effort reflects the goals of the larger $1b Advanced Manufacturing Future Fund (AMFF), which Labor says will help small Australian innovators overcome a lack of private funding for “transformative investments” in sectors such as automotive and food manufacturing.
Greens party policy has a heavy focus on building a renewable economy, arguing that this election is in fact the “climate election” and that the country already has everything it needs for a “renewables revolution”.
This includes moves to phase out coal-generated power, creating new jobs in renewables, creating a national public renewable-energy retailer, supporting electric-vehicle rollouts, and backing “clean, safe, affordable public and active transport”.
Scott Morrison’s Liberal government has been actively pushing its economic credentials on the back of its recent tech-light Budget, which forecasts a government surplus and promises incentives like tax relief; increased investment in schools, hospitals and roads; major highway upgrades; subsidised access to new medicines; and new funding for schools over the next decade.
The government’s business focus on areas like small-business tax relief, clamping down on multinational companies (MNC) tax avoidance and increasing the Instant Asset Write-Off to $30,000 are all designed to level the playing field and encourage business investment.
This may foster greater efforts around digital transformation by encouraging small businesses to upgrade their technology equipment.
The Liberal platform spruiks its efforts to give small businesses “a fair go” through efforts such as changing competition law to stop abuse of big businesses’ market power; legislation around unfair contracts, improved dispute resolution, illegal phoenixing, and a Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman.
The party is also promoting its Export Market Development Grant scheme, which has gotten a $60m injection that may benefit small and medium sized Australian tech exporters.
Labor, for its part, is working to convince voters that it is a forward-looking party with a real, viable vision that is markedly different than that pursued by the incumbents.
A key element of the party’s policy platform has revolved around making MNCs “pay their fair share” – closing down tax-deduction strategies used by MNCs, halving the current $200m threshold for public reporting of private companies’ tax data, mandating public reporting of country-by-country figures, improving risk reporting, pay transparency for large company CEOs, and so on.
Labor has positioned its big-business clampdown as a way of funding small-business initiatives and the Australian Investment Guarantee, which will combine targeted tax relief with initiatives such as support for reducing the corporate tax rate to 25 percent by 2021-22; spending incentives like a 20 percent tax deduction on any new asset worth over $20,000; and protections against anti-competitive conduct and unfair contract terms.
Liberal policies are also built around investing in small business, with the party promising a new $2b Australian Business Securitisation Fund to improve small business access to funding, and a $100m Australian Business Growth Fund that will see it partner with financial institutions on small-business equity funding.