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Tech election 2019 — what the parties are promising


By Chris Herrmann, Director, ITPA
Wednesday, 01 May, 2019


Tech election 2019 — what the parties are promising

So it is candy time again, where the various parties line up to promise us goodies or scaries. Technology touches on most portfolios in some shape or form and — while we haven’t been able to address all of the portfolios and announcements here — we have taken a look at some of the technology-related policies and announcements from the major parties, and provide our take on what these mean for the information technology sector.

NBN and communications infrastructure

Why are we talking about it? The National Broadband Network (and communications infrastructure more generally in Australia) has been a very large, visible elephant in the room for several years now. It offers much promise — obviously for the IT industry, but also for the entire economy. Many pundits have criticised both NBN Co on its execution, and also politicians of various colours for their direction and interference over the years.

The NBN is the IT-related area on which all political parties have focused most of their efforts and dollars — it has the most day-to-day relevance for the average mum, dad and small business, and offers headlines that are easier to digest than with other areas.

What do we think? The Coalition is largely not saying a lot. It is doubling down on the multi-technology mix, and promising to make it easier to complain to (and have those complaints resolved by) the TIO.

Not surprisingly, the ALP is trying to differentiate itself here. Tangible impacts are likely to come from the promise to get NBN Co to fix in-home cabling problems for copper customers. The ALP is being cautious and not promising FTTP or FTT(anywhere), but is promising to trial copper-to-fibre upgrades and model the economics of this more broadly. Expect to see some political point scoring as it reviews “the economics of the NBN”, but what outcome that will have for end users at the end of the day remains to be seen.

The ALP has provided very little information on how it aims to achieve its stated Digital Inclusion Drive goals, which feels more like a nod to improving access for the targeted segments of the community. In general, the ALP’s technology policy statements have more meat, and are likely to result in more positive change.

The Greens are doubling down on FTTP, but also have a strong focus on improving access — using words such as “equitable installation” and “affordable and reliable high speed”. This ties in strongly with an overall theme from the party around open access and improving access. (However, we’ll talk about the broader theme later in this article.) Mobile phone towers fall into the necessary evil category for me — I rely on my phone a lot — but they’re not pretty, and I don’t want one on my roof. It’s not clear from the policy document, but it sounds like the Greens intend to change the consultation process (more consultation?) but also make the process more straightforward by improving the relevant planning provisions for local/state/federal levels of government. I’d like to think it’s possible… but it sounds like a tall order to get all those wins on the board.

Space technology

Why are we talking about it? Space is a high-tech field that requires high-level technical skills from a range of industries, including IT. It is likely to see the creation of new jobs that have not previously existed, and it feeds back into the IT Industry — GPS and mapping are two obvious examples from the past, but other less obvious examples might include manufacturing materials in space for computing, or development of radio technologies (think CSIRO and Wi-Fi).

The Coalition has announced $55 million for a Smart Sat Cooperative Research Centre in South Australia. The goal is to advance Australian space technologies research to compete in the emerging space economy and generate high-tech and communications employment opportunities (amongst others).

The Coalition also has some education goals, assisting 73 PhD students and building a pipeline of students through the school, university and vocational education systems. The party has also stated a goal to advance gender and diversity equity in STEM-related industries by inspiring women and Indigenous Australians to pursue career in the space sector.

Labor’s aim is to establish an Australian Space Industry Program, delivered over several strategies including:

  • Four Australian Research Council (ARC) Space Industry Research Hubs — the goal is to advance capability in emerging space technology and research.
  • In education, two ARC Space Industry Training Centres working with industry, offering 25 industrial PhDs.
  • Oversight and international promotion via a Space Industry Innovation Council.
  • Space Industry Supplier Advocate, targeting investment and jobs.
  • CRC funding priority for advanced manufacturing and space technology.
     

What do we think? Both the ALP and Coalition have committed to funding space research. The Coalition is doing so through an existing program (the CRCs), while the ALP has a multi-pronged approach that includes establishing bodies to target specific parts of the problem (for example, research, education, overarching policy direction, international promotion, employment). The ALP approach is more holistic.

Artificial intelligence

Why are we talking about it? This area is similar to space in some respects (see below), but is more directly related to IT. The growth in AI requires highly technical skill sets from a range of IT disciplines, and in turn has the potential to change the IT industry (not to mention SkyNet). AI is likely to play an increasing role in our lives — as medical, financial and logistical decisions come to rely on it. All of us in the industry face direct immediate changes to our work, as AI is increasingly being used to automate and analyse the IT world. In many ways we will be the canary in the coalmine — there’s a lot within our industry that lends itself to AI, and we’ll be forced to adapt and change before many older industries.

What do we think? Both major parties have communicated that AI is a crucial tool for the future, and both have allocated funds to furthering it. They’re both cautious in their support however — seeking ethics reviews (Coalition) or stating that any AI needs human oversight (ALP). The Coalition has committed significantly more than the ALP to AI via the 2019 Budget. At this stage we don’t know how this would change with an ALP Government. However, both parties’ promises are still very small in the scheme of the overall budget. At this stage both parties appear to regard AI with FOMO, and so are cautiously nudging it along. But it’s not a big ticket item like the NBN.

While the Greens have a senate candidate (Dr Penny Kyburz) with a PhD in AI, there’s been very little public policy from them. Their position on AI is essentially, “Great power, great risks — regulate”.

Research and development

Why are we talking about it? R&D is relevant for IT not only because of direct investment within the field, but because a lot of R&D will end up relying on IT systems and expertise to achieve its goals. Any increase in R&D is likely to have flow-on effects for high-skilled IT jobs. R&D is touched on in several other areas — for example, space, AI, health and industry grants — but in this section we’re discussing the parties’ broader positions on R&D, rather than specific projects.

What do we think? Labor and the Greens have both committed to increasing overall spend on R&D, from 1.8% of GDP to 3% and 4% respectively, whereas the Coalition has made no overarching commentary on this. It’s impossible to determine how this will flow through to specific areas such as IT, education and communications; however, an overall increase in R&D should be generally beneficial to IT related areas. It’s good to see a commitment from two of the parties to significantly lift R&D.

Equity and diversity in STEM

Why are we talking about it? Unfortunately STEM industries have historically poor representation vis-a-vis the broader community. It’s an area dominated by males with access to technology and education. It’s a situation that is slowly changing — and we’d like to see commitments from the major parties to accelerate this.

Unfortunately STEM industries have historically poor representation vis-a-vis the broader community. It’s an area dominated by males who have access to technology and education. This situation is slowly changing, and we’d like to see commitments from the major parties to accelerate this.

The Coalition has announced:

  • an ‘Advanced Women in STEM strategy’ to improve participation of women in STEM,
  • an additional $1.8 million over three years to support an Science in Australia Gender Equity initiative, and
  • an additional $1.5 million over three years for education-related activities promoting women in STEM.
     

Labor is offering:

  • 100,000 STEM award degrees over five years with 50% allocated to women (no HECS payable).
  • $4.5 million additional funding for Girls into Code.
     

The Greens’ stated goal is to increase participation of underrepresented groups in STEM.

What do we think? The ALP and Coalition have both committed to additional funding for promoting women in STEM. There is less material available on other underrepresented groups and how these two parties will support and promote them. The Greens have a broad policy statement promoting underrepresented groups in STEM but no specific program announcements.

Blockchain

Why are we talking about it? Whether you love or loathe blockchain, many groups have an interest in it for their own reasons. For example, financial institutions consider it a dual/alternate currency, but also a means to potentially change the way transactions are stored and communicated. Iceland considers it a great way to sell power generated by geo-thermal. Australia’s Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) was allocated $700,000 to investigate blockchain in the last year. DTA Chief Digital Officer Peter Alexander was questioned during senate estimates a couple of weeks ago. His position can be summarised as “for every use of blockchain you would consider today, there is a better technology — alternate databases, secure connections, standardised API engagement…” and that while it warrants ongoing investigation, we’re in the Betamax/VHS/DVD/Blu-ray wars — with no clear format/technical choice standing out as the likely winner at this stage.

What do we think? The Coalition has announced a modest $100,000 to develop a national blockchain roadmap. Labor’s Ed Husic is more publicly bullish on blockchain, but without any policy or specific funding announcements from the ALP you’d have to assume that it’s obviously not a high priority for either of these parties. At this stage my personal viewpoint is that blockchain has a way to go before it has demonstrated tangible impact for most of us day to day.

What do you think?

As always, we welcome any comments and feedback from you on the information above. Let us know what other announcements and policies you’d like us to review and we’ll address those in the next issue of the newsletter.

Image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/r-o-x-o-r

Information Technology Professionals Association (ITPA) is a not-for-profit organisation focused on continual professional development for its 18,700 members. To learn more about becoming an ITPA member, and the range of training opportunities, mentoring programs, events and online forums available, go to www.itpa.org.au.

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