Election campaign tech wishlist

James Riley
Editorial Director

The federal election campaign has officially kicked off, and it’s already clear that the tech sector will not feature in the prominent way it did during former PM Malcolm Turnbull’s campaign last time around.

Along with strengthening the research and development tax incentive, better support programs and skills programs, the main thing that the various tech industry groups want from the campaign is just a recognition of the sector and its economic and job-creating potential.

“The thing we’d most like to see in the lead-up to the election is a sense that our political leaders understand the scale of the opportunity presented by technology, and the importance of entrepreneurship unlocking that opportunity,” StartupAus chief executive Alex McCauley told InnovationAus.com.

Prime Mover: Scott Morrison facing calls for changes to the R&D tax incentive and AA bill

“That would translate into a desire to see Australia rapidly produce world-leading tech companies. Taking the next meaningful steps down that path will require vision, leadership and a capacity to understand and embrace change,” he said.

“If we get the sort of leaders that can recognise the economic opportunities and challenges ahead, support for entrepreneurs and growing tech companies will naturally follow.”

Other policies that StartupAus wants to see from both parties include improvements to the RDTI, more direct government funding through grants programs and the modernising of the Export Market Development Grant scheme.

“We’d like our politicians to be talking about our economic future in terms that make sense in the 21st century,” Mr McCauley said.

“We need to recognise that young, innovative companies building technology products are fundamental to our continuing prosperity and the job prospects of the next generation of Australians.”

For the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA), the biggest area that politicians need to address is the looming skills shortage in ICT.

“We’re hoping that both sides of politics see the economic benefit that the ICT industry brings to the country and our competitive position globally, and we hope that plays out through policies and investments on the skills shortage,” AIIA chief executive Ron Gauci told InnovationAus.com.

“Our industry is growing significantly and there is an opportunity there for employment, re-skilling and retraining opportunities, and investment in STEM and tech skills. We’d like an increased investment there,” Mr Gauci said.

The current state of the research and development tax incentive (RDTI) will also be a primary concern for the tech sector across the month-long election campaign.

A series of amendments to the scheme, making up a $2.4 billion cut, have been left languishing in Parliament, but this month’s budget featured a further cut of more than $1 billion over the forward estimates.

Fintech Australia general manager Rebecca Schot-Guppy said she hopes both parties commit to not cutting the scheme any further.

“We would like to see a firm commitment on R&D spending in the forward estimates to ensure they are not cut again in future budgets,” Ms Schot-Guppy told InnovationAus.com.

“We would also like further clarification on what’s included in this funding, and moves from government to ensure this funding is directed towards emerging companies rather than Australia’s largest businesses,” she said.

The AIIA has called on the major parties to make their positions on the RDTI clear.

“We see that we’re losing competitiveness on R&D in terms of investment, and our ranking is slipping significantly. All developed economies are investing heavily in R&D and we are slipping back – we’d like to see a reassessment of our position on that matter,” Mr Gauci said.

FinTech Australia is also hoping for a new startup loan scheme from the government, similar to one in the UK, to get companies off the ground, along with a broadening to the tax breaks on offer for investment in early-stage tech companies.

Further funding is needed to support the launch of the Consumer Data Right, which is meant to be kicking off next year with open banking as well, Ms Schot-Guppy said.

The times when the tech sector has hit the mainstream in politics in recent months have not been good news for the sector. First there was the passing of the Assistance and Access Bill last year, followed by the rushing through of new social media laws last month.

While Labor has pledged to make a series of amendments to the encryption bill if it forms government in May, the Coalition has not made any commitment on the controversial laws.

Communications Alliance chief executive John Stanton said he hopes both parties will commit to fixing the legislation.

“We would like to see bipartisan commitment to seriously address the problems in the Assistance and Access Bill post-election. At the moment there are two reviews into the legislation, neither of which will report before 2020, and there are real risks now to the cybersecurity of all Australians, and real damage being done to the Australian tech manufacturing and exporting sector,” he said.

Mr Stanton hopes to see a focus on improving regulations in the communications and tech sectors during the election campaign.

“It would be good to see recognition of a few issues around regulation. There needs to be a genuine commitment to best practice regulation, which I think has been questionable at some stages in recent years in Australia, where important issues that put an impost on consumers and industry have been waived through without a full impact statement,” he said.

“We’ve also gone from a situation in which the government had an avowed commitment to deregulation to a situation where in the past 18 months that trend has reversed and we’ve seen a massive amount of additional regulation imposed on the tech sector…there has to be a sensible judgement about where the balance lies.”

Policies focusing on the burgeoning Internet of Things sector are also on the Communication Alliance’s election campaign wish-list.

“I’d like to see more explicit support from the government for the development of the IoT sector. We are behind the game in Australia and not accelerating quickly enough. In particular I’d like to see funding for a certification regime around connected products given the threats and vulnerability to attacks on devices in the home,” Mr Stanton said.

The tech sector should be an area of political opportunity with its potential for job creation, the AIIA’s Mr Gauci said.

“If our politicians want to be positive, progressive and innovative then that’s where we’d like to see their priorities. We hear about job losses and yet we’ve got a significant shortage within our industry. There are opportunities to create jobs if that’s the priority of the government and opposition,” he said.

There’s hope among the industry groups that there will be an acknowledgement of the importance of technology to Australia’s future.

“The massive disruptive effects of IoT, AI and 5G create the sort of opportunities that Australia actually can take advantage of and is equipped to exploit. I would hope that the government will get more serious about fostering Australian prospects in those sectors and working with industry,” Mr Stanton said.

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