Australia’s digital economy: four issues to tackle now

Australia has its eyes on becoming one of the world’s leading digital economies, for example, aiming for us to be in the top five OECD countries by 2020 in relation to the number of businesses and not-for-profit organisations going online to become more productive, expand customer bases and boost jobs.

But we’re not going to get there wishing for that to happen – it’s going to take some work to match the vision, which is why our government developed the National Digital Economy Strategy.

The NBN delivers us the infrastructure, but people and companies will lever off this to help vault us into that top five of the OECD.

Last week the Prime Minister announced another important step towards that – by inviting the major players in Australia’s ICT sector to join her at next month’s Prime Ministerial Digital Economy Forum. This forum will be an important way to mobilise the sector to help us all get the most out of our world-beating investment in our country’s technological infrastructure. But the biggest reason I’m a fan of this Forum’s establishment is this: the sector is the forgotten pillar of our economy – overlooked by a overwhelming focus on our resources boom, while neglecting ICT’s massive economic and employment contribution.

To ensure we see the sector enhance its future contribution to the nation, here are just a few things we could address, starting right now:

Skilling up:

We currently import IT skills because we’re starved of home-grown talent. Companies tell me their local talent gets poached on a regular basis and there aren’t enough new people coming through, trained up to meet the needs of industry.

Three specialist ICT occupations feature in the top 15 users of Australia’s 457 visa program – and the need for developer-programmers has pushed this occupation to be the second most sought after skill from overseas. The Australian Computer Society has done a lot of work mapping out the need and has said it’s deeply concerned about the skills shortages squeezing the sector. I spoke about this in Parliament, here’s my speech .

To help tackle this we need to kick-start some serious work in the area of workforce planning.  The Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency (APWA) – formerly Skills Australia – has undertaken work to deal with skills issues in the resources sector and has looked to lift our “green” skills base.  If we’re to truly wring out the full advantage of the NBN, we need to gear up the APWA to develop an ICT Skills Plan to help funnel more skilled people into the sector.

Thinking laterally, we could also take another great idea and apply it to the ICT sector.  We’ve invested significantly in rolling out trade training centres in secondary schools.  With a massive number of tech savvy young people In Western Sydney, it would be terrific to see trade training centres set up to focus on developing ICT skills right in our schools.

Postal infrastructure and retail skills:

It probably seems weird to include a reference to the uncharitably dubbed “snail mail” when talking about our digital economy but think about this: having a dynamic, convenient postal service is a crucial part of any e-commerce discussion.  Australia Post has been working with various firms to help develop innovative ways of packaging products for postal distribution.  Getting the parcel price competitive and ensuring the delivery methods are convenient and embraced by consumers will be vital for local retailers.

Australia Post is investing in its parcel business.  Encouraging the corporation to stick with its smarter approach to parcel prices has to be supported.

What’s also relevant in this space is finding a way to get Small to Medium Enterprises (SME) investing in an online presence.  According to recent work by Sensis, many SME’s still haven’t embraced moving into the online world.  Smart partnerships between government, bigger ICT players and small business groups (like BECs) could help foster an attitudinal shift in SMEs and create a vehicle for lifting ICT skills in small business.

Cloud computing:

A few months ago I had the chance to attend the opening of Hewlett Packard’s new $200m Aurora data centre at Erskine Park, Western Sydney.  Last week, I visited Macquarie Telecom to see the PM open up their Intellicentre2 data centre.

These data centres will not only free up businesses from hosting their own servers and data storage but they will also do so in a much more energy efficient way. 

Encouraging all levels of government and business to shift their data storage to these centres will be critically important – and the centres themselves have to strictly observe client demands for privacy and security.

We should also recognise that the investment in the NBN plus our nation’s commitment to privacy and data security should also give us an edge in our region with businesses looking for solid, well-run, high capacity data facilities.  Government, working with business, should find ways to promote this internationally to help secure strong contracts to help underpin the growth of these centres here in Australia.

Pricing:

According to Sensis, two million SMEs in Australia are looking to invest an average $11,000 in new IT hardware and software over the course of the next year.  That is a significant investment – and a critical one longer term to ensure they can generate benefits for themselves from the NBN rollout.

But, according to CHOICE Australia, local businesses and consumers are victims of price discrimination that sees them charged over 50 per cent for IT hardware and software, compared to the US and UK markets.  That’s inflating costs in our economy and affecting our competitiveness.

I’d argue that a fairer pricing approach by multinational IT vendors is a national microeconomic challenge.  Tackling this will not only be good for local business – but should also be good for IT vendors if it helps lead to an uptick in demand for their product in those SMEs that are still not sure about investing in an online presence.
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Ed Husic MP
Federal Labor Member for Chifley


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