Australia’s own assets can ensure national digital resilience

By Marcus Thompson

May 6, 2022

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Australia has world-class capabilities and world-leading investment in critical data storage and protection.(Scanrail/Adobe)

When Australia casts its votes in the upcoming federal election, our digital preparedness and resilience should weigh heavily on voters’ minds.

Australians have a high dependence on digital services and capabilities. The pandemic accelerated this adoption and we now rely on digital information to work, play, live and interact.

The economic contribution of Australia’s information technology (ICT) sector is now more than the finance and insurance sectors combined, and it’s more than four times as large as our agriculture sector. Research has found the ICT sector contributed more $161 billion to Australia’s GDP in 2020-21.

Our workforce, once characterised by sunburnt arms and calloused hands, has made way for digital professionals, with software engineers and application developers among Australia’s fastest-growing professions in 2022.

The digital economy is now key to Australia’s national prosperity. Government policy should aim to nurture and develop this burgeoning industry because doing so will foster stronger economic resilience as global markets move away from carbon-intensive goods and services.

It will also serve to bolster the protections our people and businesses need against the rising number of cyber-attacks.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine and subsequent sanctions imposed by Australia have heightened the risk of cyber retaliation. As a result, prime minister Scott Morrison recently told organisations to “urgently adopt an enhanced cyber-security position”.

Meanwhile, opposition leader Anthony Albanese called our national cyber resilience a “whole-of-nation endeavour”, alluding to the risks involved with storing our data offshore and claiming that for “some types of data, appropriately securing it may require mandating… it be kept in Australia.”

A local-first approach to the storage and management of Australia’s data would alleviate concerns around who has access to, and control over, our most sensitive information.

But some vocal naysayers — including (supposed) Australian tech representative bodies and advocacy groups — have characterised this as a deliberate attempt at unravelling globalisation.

Proponents of this narrative have even gone as far as to say we should view local subsidiaries of big tech giants as essential to Australia’s sovereign capability, as if Australia cannot scale our current capability and cultivate the skills and talent needed to deliver it throughout the economy.

Local subsidiaries of multinational corporations today are just as they’ve always been — beholden to the directives of global boards of directors mostly based in the US or UK. We should pay close attention to the countries in which these multinationals are domiciled.

In the defence industry, when a country gets drawn into a conflict, its military-industrial complex — wherever it’s located in the world — becomes the extension of its military capability. This requires satellite subsidiaries to support the home nation in its war effort.

Further, these global giants have a proven record of putting their own needs first, often at the cost of Australian jobs and individual freedoms. No amount of ‘green and gold washing’ will change this.

Google this month announced plans to shed support jobs within its Australian offices. This follows its threat last year to pull operations from Australia altogether, a move that would have rendered close to 2,000 local professionals jobless shortly after an economic recession.

Let’s also not forget when Facebook, now Meta, shut down its Australian operations due to a dispute with the federal government, in a clear demonstration that our nation’s digital sovereignty — the data each nation publishes on the platform — can be threatened by executive boards on the other side of the world.

Do these actions seem like those of organisations that are especially concerned about Australia’s economy, prosperity, or social cohesion?

Arguing that a preference for local capabilities is inflammatory to other nations is simply dishonest. Take the US, for example, which sits at the epicentre of international trade and investment. In taking action to rebuild its economy, the Biden-Harris administration recently announced it is increasing the amount of US-made content the government buys from 55% to 75%.

This isn’t a simple call to only ‘Buy Australian’. It’s a call to look first in our own backyard for the capabilities we need to ensure our national resilience.

When we don’t find what we need, we have alliances and trade partnerships we can turn to for support. We need to start practising smart globalisation to ensure we are not over-reliant on others for our digital and cyber-security needs. The same should be true across a range of other critical industries.

There is no reason we shouldn’t be using our own valuable assets for storing and protecting Australia’s critical data when we have world-class capabilities and world-leading investment in these areas. There are so many outstanding Australian technology and cyber security companies that are either wholly or majority Australian-owned. They’re also Australian controlled, which is critically important for security and sovereignty.

Local analyst firm Telsyte has put the growth of the local cloud market into numbers, predicting it will be worth more than $3 billion by 2025.

Similar growth is well underway in the data storage and processing sector, where Australia is one of the fastest-growing data centre locations. We now occupy one-tenth of data centre space in the world.

Along with the obvious economic benefits, this local-first approach provides Australians with an added layer of assurance when it comes to the security of digital supply chains. As the prime minister said at the launch of Macquarie Data Centres’ new facility, “In a more troubled world, especially from a data security point of view… supply chains are frankly more about trust now than they even are about efficiency or cost.”

To seize this moment and use national data security as a catalyst for economic growth and technology uplift, Australia needs leadership from all sides of politics, at both federal and state levels, to advocate for investment in local, homegrown technology. This must go further than campaign slogans to garner votes and favourable headlines as we head towards the election.

Rather, it requires a true change in the approach of our federal government and the culture of our bureaucracy where buying local is concerned.

By world standards, Australia plays fairer than most — truer to the letter of our obligations to free trade agreements and World Trade Organisation regulations.

Through our actions, we’ve set a high benchmark that few of our trading partners have reached.

It’s time to seek a better balance in the interest of local capability, and we should start this by buying local to support our digital economy and critical digital data.


READ MORE:

DFAT partnership to develop international standards on critical technologies

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