Labor’s spokesman on the digital economy Ed Husic has become a fixture in the innovation and startup sector in the past couple of years. He is a pragmatic original thinker, he understands the industry dynamic, and he is well-liked.
Across a range of issues he is one of Labor’s best media performers, but on articulating disruptive tech and its impact on jobs Mr Husic is as good as anyone in the Parliament. (The Prime Minister was also good on this stuff, before he stopped talking about it.)
It is his role as Shadow Minister for the Digital Economy that keeps Mr Husic tethered to the tech and innovation sectors.
But he is also Shadow Minister for Employment Services, Workforce Participation and Future of Work, and this is where he has been driving discussion about preparing Australian industry for the arrival of disruptive technology.
I sat down with Mr Husic recently at an offsite meeting of the Hello Espresso group. In this podcast, he spends time wondering out loud why there are more people in the ‘debate’ about Jobs of the Future and the impact of disruptive tech.
The point about Husic being a good communicator is that the subject of disruptive tech and the future is not straight-forward. We know the Coalition has shied from talking about big picture disruptive issues since it got spanked at the 2016 election for its focus on startups and innovation.
“The whole discussion about innovation was a good thing because – at last – we were talking about the opportunities for Australia,” Mr Husic says.
After the fallow years for tech under Tony Abbott, the national conversation under Malcolm Turnbull turned to the opportunities for the innovation sector.
“It wasn’t an esoteric or niche issue – we were finally having a discussion as a community about how we are going to open up [new companies],” he said.
The concern now is that if politicians can’t articulate why this stuff is important, it becomes more difficult to develop policy.
“The problem seemed to be … that the world of politics is incapable of being able to describe or interpret the way in which technology would change things – in a way that makes people comfortable,” Mr Husic said.
And so the policy discussions were strangled because the public reaction was that “technology was just a job killer.”
“My longer term concern is that if we can’t even describe the value if technology and innovation to the nation now, how do we interpret the value of automation down the track?”
This is a theme Mr Husic has been pressing on Future of Work issues in recent months. If we can’t talk frankly about workforce change, then it becomes difficult to prepare for the disruption.
Our response to change becomes reactive and reflexive, and that’s not the best way to build public policy, let alone respond to technology changes in a business. This was a key theme in Mr Husic keynote address to the Australian Financial Review’s Innovation Summit this week.
Also in this podcast, Mr Husic talks about the structure of the Digital Transformation Agency and some of the turmoil that agency has been through in the past year, as well as government ICT procurement and opportunities for small and mid-tier Australian tech companies to get a bigger share of Commonwealth spending.
It would not be unexpected that he also discusses at length some of the government ICT problems of the last year and a half – from CensusFail to the ATO outages – and the Senate Inquiry that is looking at these problems.
While DTA chief executive Gavin Slater was in a rebuilding phase for the delivery components of the agency, “we want to see evidence of that, because [from the outside] it seems the DTA has ditched a lot of the delivery focus that it once had.”
There were also concerns about the number of key delivery personnel who had left the organisation in the wake of the agency restructure 12 months ago.
“I do think if they are focused on delivery … their big challenge now is to rebuild public faith that government can get digital transformation right,” Mr Husic said.
Given a level of inertia within the public sector in relation to technology, he says the political commitment has to come from the most senior ranks of the Cabinet to get things moving.
When former Digital Transformation Office chief executive Paul Shetler was hired, he effectively reported through the then-Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
“I don’t doubt Angus Taylor’s commitment to the DTA … but [the situation] went from having a Cabinet minister [overseeing the agency] to someone on the outside running it,” Mr Husic said.
“I think for the longer term reform, this has to be at the Cabinet level and there has to be a department that can coordinate people.”