The COVID-19 pandemic has propelled the world suddenly into unfamiliar times of uncertainty, hardship and health fears. It has challenged governments and people working together against a common deadly enemy.
If there is a ‘silver-lining’ in the ‘cloud’ of COVID-19, it is that previous ‘business as usual’ practices cannot continue in the post COVID-19 era. Not only must changes in personal and social behaviours remain, business practices and government policies towards Australia’s economic national security must also change.
For the first time since the end of WWII in 1945 we are witnessing federal and state governments and politicians from all political persuasions taking a non-partisan approach to dealing with a common deadly enemy – the COVID-19 virus.
Governments of all Australian jurisdictions have even won the support of an overwhelming majority of citizens and businesses to accept what otherwise would be regarded as an anathema.
Following otherwise draconian laws limiting daily lives – from work and schooling to shopping and exercise – and social interaction such as weddings and funerals, are unheard of in any democracy and certainly considered ‘un-Australian’.
Allowing the state to tell us where we can go and with whom and how we may interact is new to many generations. And in Australia’s federation history the idea of closed state borders is unheard of.
These are certainly worrying times. However, the COVID-19 pandemic may well have brought forward what has already been underway, albeit gradually – a change in how our society and businesses function – the ‘silver lining’.
Whether it be the sudden exponential rise in working from home and rapid uptake of new technologies used, such as necessary for performing business functions securely from home, and our day-to-day purchasing and social interaction.
More importantly, this pandemic has clearly demonstrated the serious risks such an event has on Australia’s national security, and what Australia must learn from it. A ‘business as usual’ approach, now and post COVID-19, is not acceptable.
National security is not limited to military capabilities alone. It includes our sovereign capacity to independently meet Australia’s needs to survive day-to-day – from food production to energy and critical national infrastructure.
Hence our current dependence upon global supply chains providing essential manufactured, processed and value-added products, such as pharmaceuticals, oil and energy supplies, equipment used in healthcare and other essential services and numerous commercial high-technology equipment and software products, are just a few examples too often overlooked that also maintain Australia’s national security.
In this current post-WWII ‘globalisation’ period – a globally interconnected economy attempting to engage in free-trade – has led to increased specialisation resulting in many countries’ dependence upon a few for other essential produce, manufactured goods and technologies necessary for their economies and national security. Australia is such a country.
Our dependencies expose us to national security threats. When facing a crisis (national, international or global) we can only expect trading partners to supply themselves first. Then Australian will compete with the rest of the world for what’s left over.
The current situation is akin to ‘the wild west’ – it’s everyone for themselves! The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly highlighted common human failings, for example: crucial supplies of PPE masks hijacked en route, then rerouted to the highest bidder; unusual delays in medical grade sanitisation products and other medical supplies; and a national shortage of ICU ventilators.
We’ve even experienced recent threats of trade boycotts by China through its ambassador because Australia has requested details necessary to understand the roots of this pandemic!
Today, in this life or death battle, normal protocols of international law and contracts simply do not apply. As a nation we have collectively had a wake-up call.
We have realised that when the [proverbial] hits the fan Australia is alone to fend for itself and do what we can – both to ensure we survive the pandemic and that our economy survives. Indeed, our politicians and governments have engaged in best practices towards this end.
This should come as no surprise. Australians have always been innovative, inventing and developing world class technologies in industries ranging from defence, medical, pharmaceuticals, and information technology among many others.
Australians developed Wi-Fi, Google Maps, Cochlear Ear implant, Black Box flight recorder, Spray-On Skin, over the horizon radar, and the electronic pacemaker among many others. We are the first to develop and use robotics in mining and have the world’s best serum company (CSL).
We must not rest on our laurels. Instead Australia must recognise that “business as usual” is risky business!
The Australian government, as part of a COVID-19 rebuilding process, has established a task force to look at manufacturing sectors and how we can ensure we protect our national security interests by reviving specific areas of our manufacturing capabilities.
However, we must not stop there. Australia must ensure it has the required policies necessary to encourage a vibrant post COVID-19 technology sector. We must act like the “smart country” we believe we are. That requires leadership and action rather than words.
As chairman of Senetas, an Australian cyber-security company – a developer and manufacturer – with a global presence and government and enterprise customers in more than 40 countries, I’m obviously keen to see that the Australian technology sector accelerates post COVID-19.
But that will require Australian government policies that nurture them and their skills, such as supporting their commercialisation and access to Australian financial and human resources.
Australian sovereign technology capabilities are essential to Australia’s national security. Whether they be health, defence, energy, cyber-security, IT systems, robotics and AI or any other activities.
A strong, robust and successful technology sector is critical for the future economic prosperity of this country. The world continues to change, which changes are driven by on-going developments and uses of present and emerging technologies. This is essential to lead Australia out of the current COVID-19 driven economic crisis.
For Australia to be at the forefront of economic recovery, we must have the required national policies and united commitment among the federal and state governments that will ensure renewed economic prosperity. Moreover, this is essential to our national security interests.
The issues of Australia’s economic recovery and national security are not about government picking individual winners. They are about creating the right policy environment, providing our private sector the confidence to invest in and develop technologies of the future.
Australia’s IT industry has suffered from many conflicts over the past two decades ranging from a lack of clear government policies; partisan politics; lack of government commitment to the sector (such as a ‘buy Australian first policy’); confusion around changing R&D taxation and grant policies; and most importantly, a coherent STEM policy that ensures sufficient student education and IT graduates.
Australia especially lacks new software developers graduating from our tertiary institutions to meet industries’ demand. Confusion and lack of policy commitment have resulted in a severe technology ‘brain drain’.
There are lessons that must be learned from COVID-19 and how these technology issues have exposed Australia’s economy and national security. The solution is not difficult. But it is not attainable without resolute commitment.
Governments at all levels need to step up and not squander this opportunity. Post-COVID-19 governments must establish bipartisan policies and political support. Technology industries must also provide leadership and engage with governments.
Together their focus must be on developing the optimal government policies necessary to create a thriving technology sector thus boosting economic growth and supporting our national security.