Old economy voices lead summit

James Riley
Editorial Director

For all the worthiness of the discussion related to the tech sector and entrepreneurialism at the National Reform Summit, it is difficult to see how the motherhood statements will be translated to action.

The official National Reform Summit communique, produced by the 80-odd business and community leaders, contained a very interesting set of New Economy reform principles and calls-to-action related to digital infrastructure and the tech-enabled business sector.

But in reality, each of the areas it highlighted are already the subject of government policy and broader policy thinking. It then becomes a matter of degree and emphasis as to getting to these policy reform objectives right.

No ordinary disruption: Joe Hockey putting tech issues at the centre of the economy

This very senior collection of leaders were simply agreeing vigorously about the importance of technology – and improving the nation’s technological capability – without offering specific policy changes or adding political weight to help get us to where we would like to be.

This was always going to be the case. In a room full of industry and social groups – from the Business Council of Australia (BCA) to the Australian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (ACCI), the ACTU and the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) – there was no tech industry body.

This really is very poor.

This is not a reflection on the organisers. The National Reform Summit was always going to be weirdly skewed to Old Economy voices and the status quo. Being organised by two stately – perhaps even spritely – newspapers, how could it not be?

But the fact that the Australian technology industry – and this includes tech-enabled New Economy high-fliers – continues to fly silently, under-the-radar, undetected by the rest of the economy is really quite shameful.

The Australian Information Industry Association is a spent force. The Australian Computer Society doesn’t know what it wants to be. Various startup organisations are dripping with avarice and narrow self-interest.

None of these representative organisations were invited to attend the reform summit, nor participate in its discussions beforehand. This says more about the poor standard of leadership in the local industry than it does about the Summit organisers.

I have written about this ad nauseam about the state of local industry representation for many years. And while it is facile to suggest that there weren’t plenty in that room who grapple with technology challenges and understand the nature of change, there are sectional interests in the Australian tech sector that simply do not have a voice at the table.

I am happy to continue to bore people about it, but as this is column about the summit, I will resist the urge to rant here.

So what were yesterday’s highlights? Of course the central discussions were about productivity, tax and workforce participation. It is quite right that tax – and the core issue of distribution – formed the nub. The broad agreement around growth (including the social service representatives) is compelling and constructive.

Technology issues were only really at the edges of deeper conversation. This is partly because there is such agreement on the basics. This includes support for government to “mobilise the innovation system.”

It includes things like continuing support for the industry growth centres, support for R&D, better targeting of public R&D funding to “drive Australia’s competitiveness, and prioritising the lifting of the nation’s STEM performance.”

It is hard to argue with any of these goals. But the worthiness of the objective hides the fierce debates underlying each of these goals about how to achieve them. So there is a lot of work yet to be done. Vigorous agreement will only get you so far.

Broad statements from mainstream industry and social groups about prioritising digital literacy standards across the nation, and ensuring access to adequate bandwidth across. Also great goals. But what are we calling digital literacy? And how much bandwidth is enough … and how much are we prepared to pay for it?

The additional issues added to the official communique as a result of yesterday’s summit discussion are instructive. Among them are:

  • Searching for ways to lift collaboration between universities, research institutions and the industry (this is surely the Great White Whale of Australian industry policy)
  • Exploring ways to give young researchers (especially PhD’s) exposure to business through engagement with SMEs and other new businesses
  • Using technology to deliver better and cheaper health services (there might actually be two White Whales)
  • Anticipating and responding to the likely impact of technology and disruption on jobs and the workplace (make that three)
  • Acknowledging the importance of job creation, including the role of the startups and entrepreneurship in lifting participation

The Summit discussion paper had already adopted as part of its reform principles the “need to create an environment where entrepreneurs and small businesses can set up and grow with access to capital, adequate broadband speeds and efficient regulation.”

And in the “here come the disrupters” category, the reform principles also agreed that “government policy and its approach to regulation should facilitate the adoption of new technologies and practices and not protect old technology and practices.”

Both of these principles are easy to say, harder to do. There are whole tribes who are prepared to die in a ditch right now in order to stop/achieve both of these seemingly straight forward statements.

The National Reform Summit was certainly a worthwhile exercise, and its organisers should be congratulated. It is hard to believe so many ‘big’ Australian personalities fit into that small room.

As a side note, the Treasurer Joe Hockey continues to put startups, entrepreneurs and disrupters at the front and centre of his Big Picture presentations, as does Bill Shorten. Both men have been boasting about their bedtime reading recently.

A month ago, Mr Shorten told an audience that he had been given the New York Times best seller ‘The Second Machine Age’ by the Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen.

Yesterday, Mr Hockey revealed that he has been reading ‘No Ordinary Disruption’ by a bunch of McKinsey bright young things. In opening the National Reform Summit, Mr Hockey was inviting a conversation that put technology at its starting point. Mr Shorten followed with a similar theme.

We live in extraordinary times when an Australian Treasurer and Opposition leader are leading this conversation about technology. We need to be careful here.

Disruption issues are being hijacked to drive all manner of things at the expense of good policy.

In spurring on the crowd to open itself to new ways of thinking, Joe Hockey told the National Reform Summit that his dad used to say: “Ideas are free, but good ideas are gold nuggets”.

Well, good ideas are worth nothing without delivery. And this is where the reform summit’s work really begins.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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