The newly-elected Liberal member for Wentworth Dave Sharma has called for a greater focus on supporting technology companies and the commercialisation of ideas in his maiden speech to Parliament.
Mr Sharma, a former Ambassador to Israel, narrowly won former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s old seat of Wentworth at the May election in a hard-fought contest against independent Kerryn Phelps.
The former business consultant has a long-standing interest in the tech sector and digital diplomacy, and emphasised this in his first speech to the House.
Mr Sharma said the Australian economy was yet to make the full transition to technology and data.
“The rapid advance of technology is changing the nature of wealth creation in advanced economies such as our own. In 1967, the largest US companies by market capitalisation were General Motors, Standard Oil, Kodak, AT&T and IBM. Fifty years later, the top ranks of the Dow Jones Index are dominated by technology companies: Apple, Alphabet, Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon,” Mr Sharma said.
“These companies are about data rather than goods, services rather than products, and spaces rather than places. A quick glance at the ASX200 suggests we’re yet to make this transition. We have a lot of good companies which employ technology in their operations; we don’t yet have a lot of good technology companies.”
The focus from government needs to be on improving the commercialisation of research into large tech companies, and keeping them in Australia, Sharma said.
“In Australia, we have a highly skilled workforce, we have great research institutions and universities, and we have deep and sophisticated capital markets,” he said.
“We have not yet got the policy settings right, however, to help combine all these elements together, so that we commercialise and scale more Australian ideas in Australia, so that we create an environment which is more supportive of startups and disruptive, technology-oriented companies,” he said.
Ensuring Australia has a thriving technology sector that is supported by government policies is crucial for the future of the economy, Mr Sharma said.
“If my time as ambassador to Israel has taught me one thing, it is how valuable a thriving technology sector can be for the dynamism and health of the rest of the economy,” he said.
“This isn’t about job losses; it’s about capturing the jobs of the future, in areas such as quantum computing, cyber, artificial intelligence, space, clean energy, defence technology and automation,” he said.
“The nature of value creation is changing, and the Australian economy needs to keep up.”
In his speech to Parliament, Mr Sharma also said that Australia’s “strategic holiday is over”, and that the three main pillars underpinning Australia’s security – isolation, strategic alliances and the world order – are all under threat.
“The dependence of our modern economy and modern society on digital and communications platforms means that foreign actors have many more tools at their disposal to disrupt or attack Australia from afar,” he said.
“The changing nature of statecraft too, with blurred divisions between war and peace, and the growing use of active measures and grey-zone operations, makes an open and free society like Australia especially vulnerable. An adversary no longer needs to be able to physically reach Australia in order to coerce, threaten or influence us.”
Australia will need to “mature into more of an actor and less of an observer” in the region, he said.
“Our strategic holiday is over. Our neighbourhood is getting tougher. The certainties on which we’ve depended for decades are no longer as certain. We will need to rely more on ourselves and less on others in safeguarding our freedoms and our independence,” Mr Sharma said.
“At times, we may need to pay an economic or political price – a trade opportunity foregone, a market missed, a bumpy period in diplomatic relations – in order to retain our freedom of action as an independent and sovereign nation, or to stand up for values we support, or to uphold key principles in the current global order.
“We need to be prepared for tough decisions and trade-offs that may lie ahead.”
Mr Sharma has also previously been critical of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for not adapting to the new digital diplomacy, publishing a paper for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute on the agency’s inability to use digital tools to conduct its “mission of persuasion, influence and advocacy”.