COVID-19 in Australia has done more than expose different government approaches to managing the pandemic and the challenges of our federation model. It has also exposed the way in which governments at different levels respond to policy challenges and opportunities.
The federal government, its ministers and departments have been moving at pre-pandemic speed: that is to say, slowly and with a lack of foresight.
Australia has before it a sliding doors moment coming out of the pandemic. This is our invitation to invest in the right areas, be smart and innovative, support our emerging economic strengths and ensure our traditional industry strengths are not eroded.
Further, the new AUKUS defence arrangement demonstrates that our defence and security allies want us to lead and invest in critical technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum technologies, as well as critical supply chains – all areas in which Australia has global expertise.
The Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA) has been calling for significant AI funding from the federal government. While $124 million was secured in the May budget for the government’s AI strategy, it failed to incorporate commercialisation and this funding has still not been made available to industry.
We don’t have this time to waste. One need only look at the rapid rate of adoption globally to see how we are falling away from the leaders in the race.
Australia also lacks a National Quantum Strategy, and we have no funding of scale – this is a national concern, yet without ministerial continuity in the Industry portfolio, perhaps it ought not be surprising.
Where there are signs of leadership and investment, however, is at the state level. This month, the NSW government announced two significant investments, the first being the establishment of a Semiconductor Sector Service Bureau (S3B) to be funded by its Emerging Industry Infrastructure Fund (EIIF) and the second being the funding of a $96 million pilot to build an mRNA manufacturing facility to develop new drugs and vaccines.
These are national projects being led by a forward-thinking state, following its good work on AI Ethics, digital customer service delivery via Service NSW and minister Victor Dominello, the Cyber Standards Harmonisation and Sovereign Procurement Taskforces, all backed by significant dollars poured into Digital Restart Funds, which other state governments have now adopted.
The states are also leaning in heavily on the tech skills crisis, quickly introducing reforms and new training initiatives, including micro-courses that the AIIA has been piloting with QUT and the Queensland Government.
Then there’s the Victorian Government’s recently announced Digital Jobs Program, which AIIA and its members also directly supporting along with the new Cremorne Hub tech precinct, aiming to accelerate industry and research collaboration on strategic technologies.
South Australia has done a tremendous job establishing a central hub at Lot Fourteen in the heart of Adelaide, attracting global tech companies and talent through political leadership and technology driven policies; whilst the SA Premier has personally made calls to Australian tech CEOs to promote his state. This modus operandi contrasts with some federal ministers who exhibit a lack of interest in engaging with industry.
We need leadership from all sides of politics across all levels of government. It must start at the top, extending to our agencies and bureaucracies.
We must also ask why policy departments are outsourcing policy reviews to consultants when a confident policy vision should be at the core of their responsibilities. Secretaries and Ministers must insist that policy reviews are undertaken by their teams and done so at pace, rather than dragging on for years.
When it comes to innovation, Australia can’t afford to sit on the fence and watch as the world passes us by.
Simon Bush is General Manager for Policy and Advocacy at the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA).
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