Google launches $1b Aussie tech initiative as govt relations thaw

Denham Sadler
National Affairs Editor

Google has launched a $1 billion, five-year digital initiative in Australia as the tech giant looks to thaw its frosty relationship with the federal government following a tense year.

Google global chief executive Sundar Pichai and Prime Minister Scott Morrison headlined an event at the tech firm’s new Sydney office on Tuesday morning.

Mr Pichai announced the $1 billion Digital Future Initiative, which will see Google investing in Australian digital infrastructure with a focus on cloud computing, the launch of a new research hub and a number of partnerships with research organisations, including with CSIRO.

“We believe a strong digital future is one where everyone has access to technology and the skills to use it, where the internet economy fulfills its enormous potential,” Mr Pichai said in a recorded address.

“We look forward to working together as Australia builds that future, and we can’t wait to be part of it.”

Google Australia managing director Mel Silva with Prime Minister Scott Morrison

The research hub, the first Google has launched in Australia, will bring in local researchers and engineers to work on a range of issues. Through the $1 billion in funding, Google will also partner with CSIRO to work on clean energy, and Macquarie University on quantum computing.

According to Google-commissioned research, the initiative will “support” 6,529 new direct jobs over the five years and 28,057 jobs in total.

“We’re investing in the fundamentals and foundations of digital technology, like digital infrastructure, partnerships like with CSIRO and investing local talent with the launch of Google Research Australia,” Google Australia managing director Mel Silva said.

Mr Morrison also addressed the event, saying Google’s announcement is a vote of confidence in the government’s digital economy strategy. The $1 billion for the initiative will be coming entirely from Google, with no funding from the Commonwealth.

“The announcement by Google is a $1 billion vote of confidence in Australia’s digital economy strategy. A $1 billion vote of confidence in our economic recovery. Today’s announcement by Google demonstrates that we are taking the right approach and it recognises the digital leadership that is necessary for Australia to emerge as a top digital economy by 2030,” Mr Morrison said.

It’s been a testing time for Google’s Australian operations of late, with the federal government’s attempt to force the tech giant to pay local news organisations for the use of their content severely straining the relationship.

Google at one point threatened to leave Australia entirely, and has been subject to repeated criticisms from government members. The news media bargaining code was eventually passed into law with some amendments, and Google has since signed a number of commercial deals with Australian media organisations.

The federal government is also yet to actually designate Google under the bargaining code.

The government is also planning a number of new crackdowns and regulations focusing on Google and other tech giants such as Facebook.

Just last week, Mr Morrison name-checked Google directly, saying the company will not get a “free kick” and signaling more industry codes and potential government intervention and regulation.

Both Mr Morrison and Ms Silva flagged that the $1 billion digital initiative marks a turning point in the relationship between the Commonwealth and Google.

“I particularly appreciate the approach Google has taken to dealing with some difficult issues, but we’ve sat down and we’ve worked through them and I think we’ve gotten the right result for both the citizens of Australia and the tech future that we both want to embrace,” Mr Morrison said.

“The fact that Google has decided to invest in the way they have seals that partnership. We have worked together with the tech sector on so many fronts, and there are so many more that we need to.”

Ms Silva said that Google will be working with the government on the reforms currently in the works.

“As technology scales it’s important that regulation keeps up and we always want to work alongside the government to create a safe environment for consumers,” Ms Silva said.

“We are very pleased we are able to continue our relationship with Australia, and now we’re looking at how we really focus on the future, and the impact we can have in Australia as we look towards the next 20 years.

“We’ve always worked constructively, we did have to work through a very crunchy issue last year and we did that….we’ve always had a very strong relationship with the government and we want to continue to do that. Last year was a very difficult situation, we were very pleased to come to a constructive outcome at the end and now it’s time to look forward.”

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