Australian organisations told they would receive federal funding from a $68 million cybersecurity grant program that closed last year are still waiting to hear if the commitments will be honoured by the new government which has “paused” the program.
At Senate Estimates on Thursday, Industry department officials confirmed some applicants to the Cyber Security Skills Partnership Innovation Fund had been told in confidence they would receive grants, but no contracts had been executed.
The same total funding for the program remained in Labor’s budget last month but its profile has been spread an extra year and its unclear if the new government will alter its delivery.
The program is part of the federal government’s 2020 Cyber Security Strategy — a plan Labor is also redeveloping — and aims to improve the quality and diversity of Australia’s cyber security professionals by funding collaborative projects between industry and the education sector.
It’s first round awarded $8 million to organisations like CSIRO, NSW Treasury and La Trobe University to run education and awareness projects.
The much larger second round of the program offers up to $60 million in total grants for collaborative projects. The second round opened more than a year ago and stopped accepting applications in December 2021, with applicants told approved projects could start as early as the first quarter of 2022.
But recipients have never been publicly announced and no contracts have been signed.
At Senate Estimate’s on Thursday, Industry department officials said it was one of several programs which is still funded but may be subject to change under the new government.
The department’s head of technology Anthony Murfett confirmed some applicants had been told they could expect a grant but no agreements had been formalised.
“Applicants had been advised in in confidence, but no contracts had been entered into,” he told the hearing.
Mr Murfett said the program had effectively been “paused” as part of the new government’s review of all its predecessors spending commitments — including every Industry portfolio program — and it remained a matter for government for what happened next with the Cyber Security Skills Partnership Innovation Fund. He said a decision is expected “shortly”.
Liberal National Party Senator Susan Macdonald led the line of questioning on the program at the hearing and asked specifically if Australian cyber security firm CyberCX had been among the applicants, saying the government was “making them wait” for funding.
The company has been assisting Medibank in its response to a high-profile data breach. Ms Macdonald asked if funding from the government cyber program would have assisted with this response.
Officials declined to offer an opinion, but the government’s representative, assistant minister for manufacturing Tim Ayres dismissed the suggestion.
“That is the longest bow I’ve seen drawn over the course of the day,” he said.
“But there are, of course, challenges for the country in this area. We are going to have a growing requirement for tech skills, not least in cybersecurity. Of course, the deficit in technical skills and cybersecurity skills occurs after a decade of Coalition government.”
Mr Ayres said unallocated funding is being carefully considered alongside policy levers to close the skills gap. But the cyber grants program in question does not “touch the sides of the skills gap”.
Earlier in the hearing the Australian Space Agency confirmed many of its funding programs had been paused for the same reasons but all of its funding in this regard had been preserved in Labor’s budget.
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