Ed Husic’s address to the 2021 GAP Summit

| October 12, 2021

First, I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land from which I join you, the Dharug people and pay respects to elders past, present and emerging, acknowledging their custodianship of this land.

NSW is counting down the days to Monday when it begins to emerge from a difficult COVID-triggered lockdown.

Plans are being made by people here about catching up with friends, going out for a dinner (or two) and maybe even playing some sport, as warmer weather invites us outside.

The future feels immediate, and plans more likely to turn out and not be dashed.

Fixing on the future cannot be a short-term sensation for people in the world of politics or business.

This moment provides us with a chance to take stock of what we need to build, and a rare opportunity to tackle issues that seemed too difficult to confront until COVID laid things bare.

COVID triggered some lasting memories. Some of them very tough.

Others changed our daily, accepted take on things.

We know how often we’ve reminded someone ‘you’re on mute’.

We remember the odd sight of barren shelves in grocery stores.

These instances speak to something: the opportunity to do things differently.

At the start of lockdowns, as a nation, we discovered that the essential items we needed were not as easy to get as they once were. We had to improvise.

And we did.

When we couldn’t work together physically, we turned to digital platforms to get the job done.

Out of these moments, we must reconceive the way we produce essential items, taking a fresh look at manufacturing and applying our know-how differently.

Woefully, when countries in the OECD are ranked for their manufacturing self-sufficiency, we appear last.

In the last month, the Australian Sovereign Capability Alliance – working with Flinders University – observed we remain largely an importer of critical goods.

And not in trivial, easily dismissed areas.

Health, energy, infrastructure, defence, space, communications and technology, and advanced manufacturing.

Too reliant on non-value-added raw material and food exports.

In the past two weeks, Australia’s continuing fall down global innovation and digital competitiveness rankings has again been highlighted.

We’ve dropped five places to number 25 on the Global Innovation Index and slipped to 20 on the World Digital Competitiveness Ranking (WDCR).

But not for a second do I think this is representative of our domestic talent or know-how.

Look deeper though: we can’t argue that thrift or scarcity drove us to this point.

While there are many reasons – it’s hard to argue that these outcomes don’t reflect choices that are being made, or harder decisions that are being avoided.

For instance, through the week it was reported that of the $5 billion worth of government-funded major infrastructure projects currently underway in the country, not one Australian firm has been appointed a major contractor (tier one).

Not one.

In NSW, the Government said we couldn’t build ferries. They sent that work offshore and, in return, got ferries that couldn’t fit under bridges.

Simple take? Sure.

But the cost of rework and the delays – combined with lost local economic benefit – would have made it a compelling case to do the work right here.

Given the ten-year, $110 billion infrastructure pipeline in the Federal Government’s healthily-advertised economic recovery plan, our nation’s private sector would benefit immensely from a commitment that maximised benefits for Australian firms.

The annual government spend on ICT, at a federal level, is closing in on $10 billion, which gives government significant ability to provide broad benefits to the Australian economy and industry.

Yet major digital contracts keep going to overseas-based firms.

Governments know they need to spend taxpayer dollars to get the things it needs. It can, and should, chose to use procurement dollars to benefit the nation, instead of funnelling economic opportunity and value to the big businesses and SME’s of other nations.

I constantly hear stories of local talent chasing those opportunities and being denied.

On the issue of choices not being made, look at the field of resources.

Lithium battery manufacturing illustrates another area for government to potentially value add by increasing the benefit from overlooked parts of supply chains.

Australia has the majority of the raw materials required to manufacture lithium-ion batteries – an industry that has the potential to contribute $7.4 billion annually to Australia’s economy by 2030.

According to the CSIRO State of Play report, 0.53 per cent of the battery value chain is currently being realised by Australia. A damning statistic only compounded when you consider the 34,700 jobs we are missing out on.

Let that sink in.

More than 34,000 secure, well-paid jobs can be created if we stop overlooking Australia’s potential.

But if we are going to commit to this, we need to be serious.

That’s why Federal Labor has announced a $15 billion National Reconstruction Fund to support the growth of ideas championed by firms that will spearhead Australian prosperity for years to come.

We need policy settings that signal to investors ‘Australia is an innovation nation’.

And we need to support Australian ingenuity and trust in our domestic know-how.

Innovation in recent years seems to always focus on the rewards available to capital, with massive underinvestment in human capital.

The nationwide technology workforce has now grown to be over 805,000 strong.

The Tech Council of Australia this week forecasting suggests we will crack one million by 2024, representing an annual growth rate of 5.4 per cent.

While this rate of growth provides tremendous potential, it also presents a policy challenge.

IT is slowly – very slowly – becoming the fastest-growing field of education, with over 41,000 domestic enrolments in 2019.

But we still fall short of the extra 60,000 technology workers needed on average each year to reach our forecasted growth in the workforce.

For instance, our AI specialist workforce is forecast to grow to between 32,000 and 161,000 by 2030.

The recent World Digital Competitiveness Ranking which I mentioned earlier places us at 37 for training and education.

An Albanese Labor Government would back a ‘Startup Year’ which will offer 2,000 students the opportunity to be mentored by our most innovative incubators to turn their ideas into Australia’s future businesses.

Startup Year will aim to increase the number and scale of new high-growth firms that are creating economic growth, innovation, and good quality jobs for the future.

New firms, new jobs, new growth. Australia is home to great ideas and huge potential.

It’s time we back that up.

We can choose to do so.

We can’t lose the moment to do so.

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