In mid-December last year, then US President-Elect Donald Trump invited America’s leading technology executives and entrepreneurs to his golden eyrie in Trump Tower
“I’m here to help you folks do well,” he explained to what must have been a very wary audience. “And you’re doing well right now and I’m very honoured by the bounce. They’re all talking about the bounce. So right now everybody in this room has to like me – at least a little bit.”
Well, President Trump certainly isn’t acting like he is here to help them now, the share-market ‘bounce’ is fading and it is not clear whether the property magnate and beauty pageant proprietor understands – beyond the operation of his own Twitter account – what makes the tech sector tick.
His flurry of executive orders signed in recent days that have banned refugees and targeted the citizens of seven Muslim majority countries against entering the United States. This has the technology industry – along with much of the rest of the world – in uproar.
Senior executives and company founders from Silicon Valley and other tech hubs across the US have gone on the front foot in opposing the anti-immigration moves of the Trump Administration.
Much of the success of US technology has been built on being able to attract the best and brightest from all corners of the globe into the world-beating ecosystem. This has seen the US lead the technology race since the Second World War.
“Immigrant STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] workers have contributed an outsize share to founding new companies, getting patents, and helping build up American companies, which in turn because of their success have created tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of jobs,” Brookings Institute senior fellow Gary Burtless explained on Bloomberg.
Many of the US’ biggest tech companies were founded by immigrants, such as Intel’s Andy Grove (who was born András István Gróf in Hungary), and Google co-founder Sergy Brin, a Russian immigrant.
Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella was born in the Indian city Hyderabad. And Apple founder Steve Jobs’ father was an immigrant from Syria.
And that’s just the top end of town, the tip of the iceberg, with an estimated 51 per cent of Silicon Valley companies run my immigrants
Mr Brin joined protests at San Francisco airport on Monday as other technology companies fell over themselves to speak out against anti-immigration measures.
Consider this excerpt from a statement by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos:
“This executive order is one we do not support. Our public policy team in DC has reached out to senior administration officials to make our opposition clear. We’ve also reached out to congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle to explore legislative options.”
“We’re a nation of immigrants whose diverse backgrounds, ideas, and points of view have helped us build and invent as a nation for over 240 years. No nation is better at harnessing the energies and talents of immigrants. It’s a distinctive competitive advantage for our country – one we should not weaken.”
And then from an all-staff memo from Apple CEO Tim Cook
“(Apple) would not exist without immigration, let alone thrive and innovate the way we do.”
And on it went.
It’s not just the US of course. Every nation that has a vibrant and innovative technology sector relies on the smarts and brio of immigrants, forced out of their homelands by wars, discrimination and systems that simply do not create opportunity.
As technology companies spoke against the Trump Administration’s policies, so did the leaders of nations across the world. Like Canada’s leaders of Australia’s fellow Anglophone nations such as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who tweeted: “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength.”
Even British Prime Minister Theresa May spoke out against the refugee and “extreme vetting” immigration clampdown. Ms May had been previously derided for her early visit to meet Mr Trump in Washington, and for inviting him for a state visit which was already the subject of much protest.
But from Australia’s embattled Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull: deafening silence. Mr Turnbull, of course, is busy worrying whether his deal with the United States to take 1,200 refugees currently languishing in (documented) horror camps on Manus Island and Nauru will come off under Mr Trump – the reports remain conflicting,
But what of the one-time centrepiece of Mr Turnbull’s political strategy: to reshape both Australian industry and thinking about the future, the National Innovation and Science Agenda?
Such a strategy most surely relies on attracting the best and brightest from around the globe regardless of race religion or colour. We are an immigrant nation, just like the US.
Yet it is a measure of the political pressure that Mr Turnbull has, in many ways brought upon himself, that the NISA was only a passing thought in his set piece address to the National Press Club on Wednesday laying out the government’s agenda for the year.
“Our Innovation and Science Agenda ensures we have more kids studying science and technology, and more research and investment in the technologies of the future. All creating new jobs and more opportunity,” he said, nothing about creating exciting new industries for an Australia so long reliant in the rocks in the ground and agriculture – the famed sheep’s back.
There was a nod, too, to the arguably highly protectionist” Defence Industry Plan” Turnbull said “not only delivers the capabilities our ADF (defence force) needs, it provides the high tech platform that reboots advanced manufacturing, delivering thousands of new jobs and unprecedented opportunities.”
But the PM’s focus was squarely on hip pocket issues and gaining political leverage over the opposition, hence the big focus on education, healthcare, electricity prices and “energy security”.
Indeed the meta-motherhood themes, typical of one of the world’s greatest nanny states, were “security”, “safety” and, the old favourite – border protection.
So much, then, for the technology “vision thing”.
And as he answered questions after what was largely a paint-by-numbers speech, the final question – interestingly from The Australian’s David Crowe who cut his teeth as a technology writer was about Mr Trump’s “extreme vetting” policies.
In his answer, Mr Turnbull said that “US vetting has always been rigorous, ours is too,”, adding that that Australia doesn’t cut corners on keeping its citizens safe. “Vetting will always be rigorous,” he said.
That’s certainly something for the local tech sector to chew on.