Big Tech has a leadership problem

James Riley
Editorial Director

Big Tech is on the nose in large parts of the community which does not trust its motives and fails to recognise its promise, according to Labor digital economy spokesman Ed Husic. This is a problem for the industry, and an even bigger problem for the broader economy.

Without a greater industry leadership and engagement with the community, Australia risks being buffeted by the negatives of transformative technology without enjoying the upside of a digital economy that can drive huge job and economic growth.

Ed Husic: The tech industry must step up its active engagement with the policy process

It is more than an image problem, he says. It is a deep-held fear in parts of the community that needs a broad section of leadership – from the industry and from politics – that must be overcome in order for policy debates to advance.

“I am genuinely concerned that biggest challenge confronting tech right now is one of legitimacy,” Mr Husic said. “A belief that technological advancement profits a few at the expense of many.”

“This is an exceptionally dangerous and corrosive attitude that will eat away at the standing of the sector,” he said.

This is not a uniquely Australian sentiment, but is exactly the reason that innovation policy was suddenly withdrawn from the public view in the wake of the 2016 election.

“An inability to translate in practical terms the value of innovation in the face of concerns about employment, was the biggest reason why the Turnbull Government dropped the attention it gave this issue,” Mr Husic said. “A simply unsustainable position.”

“The best way to deal with these concerns is to show you’ve thought about the challenge and are prepared for it.”

Speaking at the Open Opportunity Canberra forum at the National Press Club, Mr Husic said the tech sector does itself no favours, he says, by not engaging with politicians.

Without the help of tech leaders actively involved in public debate, good public policy in support of tech industry development becomes more difficult.

There are very few tech players who spend time talking to people in Canberra about what they are doing, and even fewer that do it well. The ones that do will talk ahead of time about the benefits the technology is bringing to ordinary Australians and businesses, and to demonstrate the value.

“Many others look down their nose at community engagement,” Mr Husic said. “Some big players think that their success will speak for itself and there’s no need to sully themselves by interacting with politicians.”

“But politicians are hard-wired to be sensitive to community concerns. And if they think a big tech player is simply about advancing their own benefit at the expense of the community, they’ll act.

“The other downside is they’ll also fail to recognise the value of the sector.”

This was exactly the case in relation to the changes to temporary skills visas recently, when Atlassian chief Scott Farquhar complained loudly about the dearth of qualified people available in Australia – when Immigration minister slapped down the criticism and questioned what Atlassian had done to boost local skills.

While you might marvel at the fact that Mr Dutton seemed unaware of Atlassian’s history, Mr Husic says this is the point: “The sector can’t afford to be a ‘behind the scenes’ enabler. It needs to step to the fore and demonstrate value.”

Mr Husic took a shot at the local sector for not engaging with people beyond the inner city, or in regional areas. These are the sections of the community that need to be brought along if the public debate is going to progress.

“Bringing more young people from our suburbs and regions into the tech fold is the hands down best advertisement for the value of the sector to the economy.”

But he saved his biggest serve for multinationals and the increased tendency to set up sales and marketing offices in Australia, without making a broader contribution to training and R&D capability.

“Instead of seeing us as outpost to extract sales from, they need to also give back by investing in local talent. Some tech players do that; they hire talent with great skills in tech or engineering, for example, to work locally on products that will be used across the globe,” he said.

“Many others simply setup a sales and marketing presence here, dust off their hands, and say that’s all to their presence is in this country.

“Australia use to be colonised outpost; it should not tolerate the revival of that. For the big names here, we should be challenging them more about how broad their job impact is.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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