Australia can’t afford ‘tech passivity’ in parliament any longer


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China has a national will for cyber power, Australia does not. That is a crude comparison but probably fair.

My judgment is based on many years of personal research as well as feedback from students across the Australian workforce over fours years of teaching graduate courses in related areas.

Perhaps ‘cyber power’ is an unfamiliar term in Australia. We should adopt it.

Somewhat incredibly, Malcolm Turnbull was the first Australian prime minister in office to use the term “information society” in a public speech.

It came more than a decade after Australia participated in the World Summit on the Information Society and more than three decades after the term was first coined.

Becoming an ‘information society’

Australia has been comfortable with the concept of digital transformation. In recent times, that policy has not served this country well.

As James Riley from InnovationAUS points out in an online commentary of 21 May, the policy has largely been limited to maximising the share of Australian government IT procurement for Australian firms.

Riley’s assessment is that we fell off the pace even with that quite modest goal.

In 1989, an economist at the University of Queensland, Neil Karunaratne, presciently predicted that Australia may have trouble exploiting the opportunities of the information age because of the political straightjacket of the “jobs and growth” imperatives (my paraphrase).

He warned of “conflicts between long-term goals of structural change and short-term stabilization goals of maximizing income and employment”.

I interpret this to mean that any impulses to transform the Australian economy to a digital one would come up against the politically more acceptable policy of promoting jobs growth in old industries with only low levels of digitisation, while relying on economic growth through mineral exports.

It is my assessment that Australia’s political class, before and since Turnbull, in all political parties, have little commitment to comprehensive restructuring of the Australian economy to exploit the information age, especially its education underpinnings.

And the universities and state education departments have so far had little influence on the political class.

We are stalling, not moving forward at all

In 1990, an Australian parliamentary committee for long-term strategies, chaired by our much loved leader of science, Barry Jones, conducted an inquiry into “Australia as an Information Society”.

The report concluded then that “Australia has fallen behind other advanced nations in failing to use its intelligence/knowledge to produce brain-based, high value-added goods and services.”

It said there was an “urgent need for Australia to recognise the centrality of information as a central organising principle” of economic life and problem-solving.

In the decades since, Australia has variously stalled or continued to slip off the pace—in spite of some great achievements by individual entrepreneurs and researchers.

In 2003, an analysis by Jack Wood of Monash University was still talking of Australia’s need to “create a new economic agenda based on increased investment in knowledge and knowledge‐based industries”.

It’s an intergovernmental matter

In 2019, a study by Canberra-based academics Tuli, Hu and Dare found that key obstacles to a knowledge economy in the case of Melbourne included federal level problems:

  • the absence of overarching national urban policy;
  • a lack of “inter-governmental planning coordination for global competitiveness and innovative capacity”; and
  • a “lack of a focus on human capital, especially for developing homegrown talent and equity for international students”.

The President of the Academy of Science, John Shine, criticised the April 2019 federal budget for its cuts to research funding in excess of $300 million for its likely negative impact on the economic ambitions of the government.

Australia’s inability to consistently leapfrog competitor countries in key indicators of competitiveness for the knowledge economy are well documented in annual indexes by the World Economic Forum.

By 2018, after quite a deal of backsliding, Australia had reached one spot above the ranking it held in 2010 in the Global Competitiveness Report.

It needs the active will to move forward

What would an Australian will for cyber power look like?

Apart from addressing the high quality and complex recommendations of scores of reports from social scientists on the subject, in crude terms — a will to cyber power has to be demonstrated by actions that look and feel radical, much as China has done.

Here is one: Australia could set up a national information technology college with accredited diplomas available by modular part-time online study, open to all citizens regardless of educational attainment and age, and completely free of charge.

Regional drop-in nodes could be created in key locations, like the Galilee Basin, Menindee Lakes, the Pilbara, and the Great Barrier Reef hinterland.

According to a recent report by Sarah Nolet, Australia is not even capitalising yet on the full potential of digitisation of agriculture compared with peer economies.

One particular obstacle is “lack of access to critical telecommunications and internet infrastructure in rural Australia”.

Only a rapid and radical shift by Australia to a more vigorous knowledge economy, driven by a much faster take-up of information technology across the country, will enable Australia to adapt to the several global crises the country now faces—in ICT trade wars, cyberspace security, geopolitical confrontation, and sustained drought (known by some as the climate emergency).

 

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