On Tuesday the government announced an $800 million package aimed at, in the prime minister’s words, “[backing] the uptake of technology across the economy”.
The funding package – branded as the JobMaker Digital Business Plan – is directed at a range of initiatives including the ongoing 5G rollout ($29.2 million), support for local fintech companies ($9.6 million), and more funding for the Consumer Data Right ($28.5 million).
Speaking to journalists in Canberra, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said this plan was about “making it easier for people and businesses to do business in this country … and making it easier and safer to deal with government.”
“This saves time and it saves money and that is good for our economy and it's an important part of the change program we need to see Australia's economy build for the future,” he said.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg – who is particularly keen to see the Commonwealth agencies move away from paper invoices – said digital transformation should be viewed “as an opportunity, not as a threat”.
“We want existing Australian businesses to transform by using the digital opportunities available to them,” he said.
“We want new businesses in Australia to be born digital and, in doing so, we will help Australian consumers and Australian businesses alike.”
Indeed, the $800 million package includes a $22.2 million spend on the Australian Small Business Advisory Services (ASBAS) Digital Solutions – a program which offers “high quality advice” on business technology.
“The expansion of this service means a further 10,000 Australian businesses will be able to these services,” Employment Minister Michaelia Cash said in a statement.
Despite the treasurer using a significant portion of his speech to the Canberra press gallery on Tuesday to explain that “90 per cent of small business today still use paper-based invoices”, the government’s $800 million digital business plan is only throwing $3.6 million at standardising electronic invoices by July 2022.
So where is the money going?
An overwhelming majority of the $800 million package is slated for two programs: $256.6 million for a digital identity system to encourage secure access to government services, and $419.9 million for the Modernising Business Registers program.
But the opposition claimed that much of the funding in Tuesday’s announcement – which was dropped early for major Australian news outlets to run with in morning bulletins – had featured in prior announcements.
In 2017, the government proposed anti-phoenixing reforms designed to stop businesses from moving assets to avoid liabilities.
Part of that package was the creation of a Director Identification Number – a system that belongs under the Modernising Business Registers program which the prime minister in November last year.
“When you look at the detail, it's more about announcement than delivery,” Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese told journalists in Sydney.
“Scott Morrison is always there for the photo-op, never there for the follow-up.”
Albanese then went after the Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) which is tasked with building the government’s digital identity ecosystem which includes the tax office’s myGovID that cybersecurity researchers have warned Australians not to use because of an unpatched phishing vulnerability.
“The Digital Transformation Agency was set up by Malcolm Turnbull many years ago,” Albanese said.
“The only thing we've heard of it in recent times is the extraordinary amount of money that they spent on stationery, which is ironic given that it is supposed to be about digital transformation.”
The DTA has been criticised for its tender process which sees tens of millions of Australian dollars fall into the hands of large consultancy firms to complete various digital transformation projects such as the troubled COVIDSafe app.
At the bottom of the government’s $800 million digital business plan was a bullet point announcing a mere $2.5 million “to connect workers and small and medium sized businesses to digital skills training”.
Industry has been crying out for more initiatives to upskill the Australian workforce toward technology, with ACS' 2020 Digital Pulse flagging retraining as an important part of Australia's post-Covid economic recovery.