Clare O’Neil on the big picture for tech

Denham Sadler
National Affairs Editor

Federal Labor will bring a comprehensive, tech-focused policy package to the next election after the government’s “ad-hoc and knee jerked” approach to the sector across the better part of the last decade, shadow innovation minister Clare O’Neil says.

Ms O’Neil, who was appointed to the innovation role a year ago, said the COVID-19 pandemic provided an opportunity for Australia to adapt to the digital age, but the federal government had missed the point.

She is pushing for an overarching strategy for focused policies that impact both the tech sector and the wider economy and a move away from what she calls a piecemeal approach to the industry of the last several years.

It follows on from shadow assistant minister for cybersecurity Tim Watts signalling that Labor is pushing for a strategic technology industry policy earlier this week.

Clare O'Neil
Clare O’Neil: Tech policy needs to move beyond ‘ad hoc knee-jerks’

Ms O’Neil is now looking to hire a senior policy specialist for a short-term project investigating tech policy, with a focus on regulation, privacy and associated risks.

Recent government policy focused on technology had hurt the local sector, Ms O’Neil said. Government policy in the space has included the controversial anti-encryption powers, the robodebt scandal, and plans to force Google and Facebook to pay media companies for the use of their content.

“The government’s approach to digital has been so problematic and has created so much damage. It goes from the things they try to create that relate to technology, like the NBN, COVIDSafe and the robodebt scheme, which really reduced the public’s confidence in technology to solve big social problems,” Ms O’Neil told InnovationAus.

“The regulatory interventions the government is tending to make are knee-jerked and aimed at getting a front page. They are not well-thought or consulted on, and they’re rushed through Parliament. Then we see consequences we weren’t aware of when the legislation was passed.

“How the government is engaging in technology is doing us huge damage globally and not doing all the things we know we need to do if we want to have a thriving digital economy in Australia.”

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic there is a huge opportunity to drive digital transformation across the economy and improve the performance of the tech sector, Ms O’Neil said.

“This is a genuine, once in a generation opportunity to make up some lost time and properly prepare the nation for a digital age. Everyone is going through a radical switch in how they do things, this is time to think about how we help SMEs use this chance to rethink the way they’re using technology,” she said.

“In politics the tech conversations can become about startups and big tech, but that’s not what digital is about. It’s all of us across the economy changing the way we do things. That’s the real space for the government to ask questions.”

The Coalition lacks an overarching strategy to its approach to the tech sector, the shadow minister said.

“The thing that worries me most of all is there’s just no real strategy about all of this. It’s so ad-hoc, you never know why the government is lurching out on competition reform but ignoring critical issues like digital skills,” Ms O’Neil said.

“It just looks to me like no-one has sat down and said what the government’s job here is, in engaging with technology to get the best for Australia.”

This is what the project in Ms O’Neil’s office will look at, covering the regulation of big tech firms and the impact of these companies and new technologies on democracy.

“I’m excited about it because I think this is a problem in Australia, because the government is choosing to be interventionist in some areas of technology and not others, with no sense of cohesion or description,” she said.

“I don’t think anyone has been able to clearly articulate what the role of government is in these areas. Legislators around the world haven’t quite been able to nail the answer and we probably won’t get to the answer, but I want to see us have a good, comprehensive conversation about this issue in Australia.”

Legislation focusing on specific areas of the tech sector has been rushed through Parliament in recent years, Ms O’Neil said, without any real plan or analysis.

“The problem with the way the government is handling legislation that relates to technology is that we’re not having a proper conversation about technology. The tech community, much less the public, doesn’t have time to get their head around the issue before the legislation is in Parliament and smashed through.

“We need a better conversation about what we want. What is the national interest in this area and what is the government’s role, and how can we take a much more careful and strategic role.”

In the short-term, the government needs to address the skills shortage in tech, she said.

“There’s just tens of thousands of jobs on the table, there for the taking if we had the right people skilled here in Australia. The government has done nothing about that in seven years. There are big opportunities and huge benefits here but instead we’re having not very high-value debates about really narrow issues in technology,” Ms O’Neil said.

The longer-term issues that need to be addressed include the National Broadband Network, culture and education and skilled migration, Ms O’Neil said.

“There’s a lot of stuff in the long term that needs to be done. The frustration for me is obviously there’s so much to be done, but instead of doing those things the government is delivering really ham-fisted, crappy technologies that reduce public confidence in technology’s ability to solve problems, or focusing on ad-hoc regulation in a way designed to get a front page but not solve the problem,” she said.

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