Jason Clare taps a digital détente

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James Riley

Jason Clare’s western Sydney electorate of Blaxland is in the Labor heartland, a seat once held by former Prime Minister Paul Keating. Its challenges are substantial, not least an unemployment rate that is near double the national average.

So any discussion of the double-edged sword of digital disruption resonates here. Whatever the challenges, there are also opportunities.

Labor has put much of its policy-thinking on the table in relation to digital. Leader Bill Shorten announced a raft of plans in his Budget reply speech in May. In the weeks since Malcolm Turnbull became Prime Minister, the party has publicly extended those plans.

Opportunities and challenges: Jason Clare is looking at both sides of the coin*

Mr Clare, who is on the Opposition’s digital leadership team as Communications spokesman, says there is a willingness to work with the Prime Minister on digital issues.

Issues like those found in Blaxland help crystallise the thinking of Labor policy. Investing in education and digital skills are fundamental to seizing digital opportunities, he says. There are some fascinating factoids that emerge from the electorate.

Blaxland has more than its share of disadvantage. When Mr Clare is talking about improving digital literacy, he is speaking directly about opportunity.

Consider this. In Blaxland, the unemployment rate is about double the national average (of about 6 per cent). Among people in the electorate with English as a first language, the unemployment rate is about 5 per cent. But the unemployment rate among people with poor English as a second language is more than 20 per cent.

By those metrics, he says, language skills have a direct link to opportunity. And in the not-distant future, digital literacy will carry the same imperative for opportunity. It is a language of opportunity. And so the deployment of digital skills being taught from an early age are a critical component of his thinking.

The flip-side of this relates to eBay. Mr Clare boasts that his electorate contains more ‘eBay millionaires’ than any other electorate in the country. That’s more people who turn-over a million dollars or more every year through trade on eBay – accessing customers (and goods) around the world that could not have been reached by setting up a shop-front shingle in Bankstown.

And so access to quality internet becomes the other critical component of this story.

I spoke to Jason Clare last week.

You are on the record saying that you can work with this government’s new leadership on digital issues. So to start off, what’s your take on the government’s spectacular transformation from having little interest in this area, to now being quite intensely focused on innovation issues?

Jason Clare: This is not a boutique debate [about the digital revolution], this is the main game. How we transform our economy to deal with digital disruption is as important as how we take advantage of the rise of Asia, or how we deal with the ageing population.

I think it’s a great opportunity, as I said in that op-ed I wrote [last week] in the Australia Financial Review.

If we don’t treat this as just as important as those two big challenges, then we’re making a big mistake. Tony Abbott never understood this, but Malcolm Turnbull does, and Bill Shorten does. We have at this point in time two leaders to understand how important this is and it’s important that we take advantage of it.

This new mainstream conversation about innovation really changes everything from a policy perspective doesn’t it? So when Malcolm Turnbull said everything is back on the table, is that how your side of politics looks at that Big Picture equation?

Jason Clare: I don’t think this has to be an area of partisan politics. People are generally sick of the partisanship of the last few years. That emerged largely because of the approach Tony Abbott took to politics – saying no to everything we suggested.

Having a Prime Minister who is happy to look at new ideas, and work together is a good thing. I think people in the startup community and all across the country expect both sides to rise to the occasion.

You’ve had a pretty good look at Malcolm Turnbull, because you have been the Shadow Minister in his portfolio. What’s your relationship like, and how would you describe the way he goes about business?

Jason Clare: We had a good, constructive, professional relationship. There were areas where we disagreed fundamentally, like on the NBN. I thought we should be building a fibre NBN, he thought we should be building a copper NBN.

But there are other areas we were able to agree, and to work together in the public interest. A good example of that were the reforms put forward to the parliament to help Australia Post deal with digital disruption.

That is an example of a business being significantly changed by technology. There are a billion fewer letters being delivered today than there were five years ago, and Australia Post needs to be able to adapt to that environment. By working together we were able to help them to do that.

And I guess there were a couple of other areas where you guys did ultimately work together. The data retention area is one…

Jason Clare: There is data retention, the piracy legislation. They were examples of where the government came forward with an idea, and we said to them ‘look, this doesn’t stack up, there are significant problems with what you’re proposing to do,’ and we went back to them and said ‘you need to make a number of significant changes.’

And after a lot of hard work in convincing them they were wrong in a number of places, we finally made change. And this is the way that public policy should be made. No one political party has all the answers.

Both leaders, Bill Shorten and Malcolm Turnbull, have got the right vision here. They both understand that our economy is being fundamentally transformed by technology and we need to get it right. Because it’s the countries that adapt to this the quickest that are going to be the most successful in the next 20 to 30 years.

If we are going to get it right, we are going to need to work together.

Ok, so let’s talk about the NBN. Where is Labor’s thinking now on the NBN. After the 2013 election, you stepped back, but will you now be pushing harder for a greater fibre roll-out?

Jason Clare: The National Broadband Network is the biggest and most important infrastructure program in Australia. You mentioned the 2013 election – we lost that election, but it was not because of our NBN policies.

I think people overwhelmingly thought the construction of a fibre NBN was the right thing to do. It would set Australia up for the future, it would be the backbone of Australia’s digital economy.

Fibre is being built in New Zealand; it has been built in Singapore, South Korea, Japan and elsewhere. And if we don’t have that infrastructure, we’re going to be less competitive that other countries.

I said when I first got this job two years ago, that fibre is the end-game. I haven’t met anybody in that last two years who has thought seriously about this issue who has told me that that’s not the right [ambition]. In 20 years’ time it’s going to be sufficient for us to have a broadband network that’s run on copper. It’s simply not going to do the job.

That’s why our policy was the right one – build it once, build it right, and build it with fibre. This government has decided to do it as a two-step process, to build a second-rate version now with a view to finishing the job down the track.

It’s going to be a Labor government that will finish the job.

Did you get a sense of what Malcolm Turnbull’s thinking is on this? Tony Abbott famously told him to destroy the NBN. He has gone for a different [multi-technology] roll-out as a member of the Abbott Cabinet. Do you see any changes likely?

Jason Clare: I can’t look into Malcolm Turnbull’s mind to tell you what he really thinks about the NBN, but three years ago he said he can build a fibre-to-the-node network for $29 billion and provide everyone in the country to 25 megabits per second by the end of next year.

That cost has now blown out from $29 billion to $56 billion, and the timeline to give everyone access to the NBN is now blown out to the end of this decade. So any plans to do it cheaper and faster have now been proven to have been hopelessly wrong.

Well, we can look forward to that continuing to be a political football then. But there are lots of things that the government can do to make sure people are equipped for digital. Investing in education would be one … it can’t just be about spending X billions of dollars on fibre.

Jason Clare: That’s right, it’s very important. If we’re going to set ourselves up for the future here, we need the right infrastructure, and we have to build the right skills.

[There is a report that] came out recently saying that 40 per cent of the jobs we do today will be done by a computer in a decade or in 15-20 years. A lot of the new jobs that will be created in the wake of this will require different skills, often tech skills in science, engineering, mathematics.

And so a key role for government is making sure that we’ve got the right education system, teaching people the right skills to get these jobs. And that doesn’t start at high school or at TAFE or university; that has to start right back in primary school.

And that’s why Bill Shorten announced that the first stage of the jobs and future plans should be making it compulsory to teach children coding from primary school up. That doesn’t mean everyone is going to become a computer programmer, that’s not right, but it means everyone will have the skills people are going to need in the jobs that they’ll do in 10-20 years’ time

It’s the same as when I was at school. While everyone was taught maths, we didn’t all become mathematicians, but we all still use that in a conscious or subconscious way every day.

One of the things I’m very concerned about is not only the economic challenges faced from disruption, but also the social challenges.

The economist Tyler Cohen says that in the future, there’ll be two types of workers: those that can work with advanced machines, or those that are replaced by advanced machines.

Now, in an electorate like mine in Western Sydney at the moment, if English is your first language, your unemployment rate is about 5 per cent The average unemployment rate for people with English as their first language is 5 per cent.

If you can’t speak English very well – if English is your second language – in my electorate the average unemployment rate is 25 per cent. So, we know that language is the big factor to employment.

In the future, it’s going to be more and more about digital skills – that digital language. If you don’t have these digital skills, it’s going to be harder and harder to get a job. And this is a social challenge.

The risk is, unless we get our educational system right and skill up our workers to do these jobs, we’re just going to entrench disadvantage.

George Megalogenis talks about this stuff and builds a lot of immigration thinking into his social narratives. He’s very fascinating on this and says we’re at a point in time now where this could be a challenge.

Jason Clare: He is right. I compare this challenge to the challenge that confronted Australia in the 80s and 90s. The reforms that Bob Hawke and Paul Keating embarked on were about making Australia competitive.

Unless we made our economy more productive and competitive, we were going to become a poorer country and living standards would drop.

The reforms they made were the right ones, and we’ve seen 25 years of uninterrupted economic growth and a rise in living standards (as a result). The same sort of challenge exists today.

The internet means you’ve got now 3 billion people connected world-wide, and it means that businesses can find employees to do the work they need, not just around the corner or in the same city, but overseas.

If you can’t find the right sort of people to do the work here, you need to bring them to Australia, send the work overseas, or send the business overseas. We need to be globally competitive.

Just as Hawke and Keating were trying to reform the Australian economy to make it competitive in the late 1980s-early 1990s, we need to look at this challenge of digital disruption, and make sure Australia is globally competitive, has the right laws and infrastructure, the right skills, the right access to capital, the right culture, to be able to complete with countries around the world.

And if we don’t, then we’re going to lose jobs, lose businesses, and living standards in Australia are going to drop.

In your portfolio responsibilities you talk to a lot of smart people who get this stuff. But when you’re talking to the people in your electorate, is there the same kind of urgency about what’s happening now?

Jason Clare: Some people do. Others won’t see this now, but will understand it more in the future. The interesting thing about my electorate, South-West Sydney, is that it’s one of the poorer parts of Australia and has unemployment rates almost double the national average.

But there are more eBay millionaires in my electorate than any other electorate in the country. Here there are people who have been able to use the power of the internet to create a business that couldn’t have existed before, and make more than $1 million a year out of it.

This opportunity exists everywhere, but unless we have the right policies in place to make sure everyone can take advantage of it, then there will be people that miss out and that lose out.

And they will find it harder to get a head in the digital century that we’re living in right now.

Labor announced a set of innovation policies last week, so now that they’re on the table, where to from here, for this discussion.

Jason Clare: The policies we announced last week, entrepreneur visas, the graduate entrepreneur visas, the startup year at university, and the development of a national digital workforce plan.

We also announced plans to work with superannuation industry to develop policies to provide incentives for superannuation funds to invest in.

We are also interested in policy to replicate what the United States has done with Challenge.Gov to provide opportunities for startups to work with government. All of that is really stage two of our jobs of the future policies.

There’s a lot more work that we’re doing here and it’s based upon an analysis on what’s best practice around the world. But it’s also a lot of conversation that Bill Shorten, Chris Bowen, Ed Husic and I are having with Australian startups and venture capital leaders right across the country.

Over the last six to nine months, we’ve been holding roundtables with the experts, with people who aren’t with industry bodies necessarily, but who work in the industry on a day-to-day basis.

So we’re picking their brain, getting their advice on what works and what is really needed.

Photo Credit: Getty 

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