Covid-19 could be a game-changer for Australia’s tech sector
18 May 2020|

If there’s a silver lining in the dark cloud of Covid-19, it’s that previous business-as-usual practices cannot continue after the crisis is over. Not only must changes in personal and social behaviour remain, but changes in how businesses and governments approach national economic security must also remain.

This pandemic has clearly demonstrated that national security isn’t limited to military capabilities. It includes our sovereign capacity to independently meet our needs for day-to-day survival—from food production to energy and critical national infrastructure.

Our dependence on global supply chains for essential manufactured, processed and value-added products—such as pharmaceuticals, oil and energy supplies, equipment used in healthcare and other essential services, and commercial high-tech equipment and software—can also threaten our national security.

Globalisation, with economically interconnected nations attempting to engage in free trade, has led to increased specialisation, which has left many countries dependent on a few for the manufactured goods and technology required for their economies and their security.

Australia is such a country. Our dependencies expose us to security threats. When facing a crisis (national, international or global), we can expect trading partners to supply themselves first. Australia will then have to compete with the rest of the world for what’s left over.

The current situation is akin to the Wild West—everyone for themselves. The pandemic has highlighted common human failings. We’ve seen crucial supplies of protective masks hijacked en route and sold to the highest bidder, and shortages of medical-grade sanitisation products and other medical supplies such as ventilators. Australia has even experienced threats of trade boycotts by China through its ambassador because we want to understand what caused this pandemic so that we can help prevent the next one.

In this life or death battle, normal protocols of international law and contracts simply don’t apply. As a nation we’ve had a wake-up call. We have realised that when this level of trouble strikes, we must fend for ourselves and do what we can to get through it, and to ensure that our economy survives.

Australians have always been innovative, inventing and developing world-class technologies in industries such as defence, medicine and information technology. Australians developed wi-fi, Google Maps, the cochlear implant, the black box flight recorder, spray-on skin for treating burn victims, over-the-horizon radar and the electronic pacemaker. We were the first to develop and use robotics in mining and have a world’s best biotechnology company, CSL Limited.

We must not rest on our laurels. Australia must recognise that business as usual is risky business. The government, as part of a post-Covid rebuilding process, has established a taskforce to look at manufacturing sectors and how we can protect our national security by reviving specific capabilities.

We must not stop there. Australia must have policies to encourage a vibrant post-Covid-19 technology sector. We must act like the ‘smart country’ we believe we are. That requires leadership and action rather than words.

As chair of an Australian cybersecurity company with a global presence and government and enterprise customers in more than 40 countries, I’m obviously keen to see the Australian technology sector accelerate. But that will require policies that nurture these companies and their skills by supporting their commercialisation and access to financial and human resources.

The capability to produce sovereign technology is essential to national security, be it in health, defence, energy, cybersecurity, IT systems, robotics and artificial intelligence, or any other field.

A strong, robust and successful technology sector is critical to Australia’s future economic prosperity in a world that’s constantly being changed by new and emerging technologies. To be at the forefront of economic recovery, we must also have a united commitment among the federal, state and territory governments.

This is not about governments picking individual winners. It’s about creating the right policy environment to give the private sector the confidence to invest in and develop technologies of the future.

Australia’s IT industry has suffered from many conflicts over the past two decades, including a lack of clear government policies, partisan politics, a lack of government commitment to the sector (such as a ‘buy Australian first’ policy), and confusion about changing policies on taxation of and grants for research and development.

Most important will be a coherent policy to ensure effective student education in science, technology, engineering and maths and enough IT graduates. Too few software developers are graduating from our tertiary institutions to meet industries’ demands. Confusion and lack of policy commitment have resulted in a severe technology brain drain.

Covid-19 has shown how closely linked Australia’s economy and national security are to our technological capabilities, and we must learn from those lessons. The solution isn’t difficult, but it’s not attainable without resolute commitment.

Governments at all levels need to step up and not squander this opportunity. They must set bipartisan policies and gather support for them. Technology industries must provide leadership and engage with governments. Together, the focus must be on developing the optimal policies to create a thriving technology sector to boost economic growth and support our national security.