Federation Chamber - Grievance Debate - University of Western Sydney, Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy

Mr HUSIC (Chifley—Government Whip) (21:09): A few months ago I was given the honour of addressing the graduating students of the schools of engineering, computing and mathematics from the University of Western Sydney. It was special on a number of fronts. UWS is a university I was proud to graduate from back in the early 1990s, but it occupies a valued place in our region for this formidable fact: more than half of all commencing students from UWS are the first in their family to attend university, and certainly that was the case in my family. And I am enormously proud of the fact nearly 8,000 students from across UWS campuses, a record 23 per cent of total enrolments, come from lower income backgrounds. This institution has positively and profoundly shifted the futures of so many in Western Sydney.

The other reason that I was pleased to be there was because of the potential that sat in that room. They were young people, eager to get their hands on their degrees, but they will be the people who will be at the forefront of our nation's response to the major challenges demanding our intellect and imagination, the people who, for instance, will be opening our eyes to better ways of wisely using our energy resources and assets, who think of ways to move people more freely across urban landscapes within the infrastructure they may help design and construct and who will also help to connect us across cities and continents. The development of IT skills in Western Sydney and the opportunity for our region to lever off the early rollout of the NBN in our area is truly exciting. As I reflected in my UWS speech, so much of our lives will rest on the pulse of light travelling down optic fibre, that signal that travels through the air or bounces through our homes and workplaces—that pulse, that vessel for data, the lifeblood of the internet, transforming societies in the way that it travels quickly.

I recently read that radio broadcasts took 38 years to reach an audience of 50 million people, TV took 13 years and the internet took just four. In the electorate I am proud to represent, the NBN is starting to reach westwards from Blacktown, dragging suburbs out of the broadband dark ages. With it, residents and businesses will have the chance to reap significant transformative benefits. I have previously quoted the stats. I will quote them again. According to research commissioned for Google by Deloitte Access Economics, the direct contribution of the internet to our economy is predicted to bloom seven per cent over the next five years, increasing from $50 billion now to $70 billion. As 20 per cent more Australian homes get connected to the internet in that time, the value of the net will bump up our economic growth by one per cent. That was reinforced by some terrific work authored by leading forecaster and researcher, IBISWorld Chairman, Phil Ruthven, in a recently released report, A snapshot of Australia's digital future to 2050, undertaken for IBM Australia and New Zealand. The report contained the outstanding figure that, for this year alone, ICT enhanced by emerging high-speed broadband and online information is expected to deliver a phenomenal $131 billion in Australia. Based on this report, by 2050 this could ramp up to $1 trillion. The report bluntly states:

Broadband is now one of the core economic indicators across the world, and is considered a human right by the United Nations. … High-speed broadband has pervasive usefulness that extends across businesses, governments, households and individuals.

Getting high-speed broadband is one thing; extracting the most from it and developing our digital economy is the next exciting challenge. We are seeing some terrific investment by the sector in Australia, with direct benefit to our region, Western Sydney.

Two weeks ago, Minister Stephen Conroy officially opened Hewlett-Packard's Aurora data centre at Eastern Creek. I congratulated David Caspari, HP's South Pacific managing director, on his company's $200 million investment in our region and our nation's ICT future, an investment that will facilitate, for example, the growth of cloud computing in this nation. The benefit of cloud computing cannot be understated, according to work commissioned by the Australian Information Industry Association, which said that embracing cloud computing across 75 per cent of ICT spending would result in an increase in long-run economic growth of GDP, after 10 years, of $3.32 billion per year.

According to the AIIA, the report shows that Australian businesses across many industries could reap substantial benefits through reduced capital and labour costs by adopting public cloud services. So, Western Sydney, through HP's investment, is placed firmly at the forefront of this tech development.

I would also hope to see greater ICT research and development in Western Sydney, potentially through the establishment of cooperative research centres established within UWS. These, along with other developments, will help us to powerfully expand our contribution to Australia's digital economy. It is worth noting that one of our government's aims through the National Digital Economy Strategy is that, by 2020, Australia will be among the world's leading digital economies, aiming, for example, for Australia to be in the top five OECD countries in relation to the proportion of businesses and not-for-profit organisations using online opportunities to drive productivity improvements, expand their customer base and enable jobs growth. This is a mighty agenda. It is doing what is absolutely right for the nation's longer term interests by levering off our investment in renewing in its entirety our country's technological infrastructure but also by taking advantage of our relative economic strength to make this investment now and open opportunities for businesses large and small.

This agenda reflects a recognition by this government that long-term social and economic benefit requires a deep and thorough commitment today. Reflecting that, I am pleased to advise the House that today we established the Labor Digital Economy Group, comprising members and senators from the federal parliamentary Labor Party. The group has attracted strong support and interest within our caucus. It will help to provide a focus on initiatives to advance the interests of the sector within policy-making circles. In working with the sector this group will also help with issues, like ICT skills shortages, that need to be addressed now if we want to ensure that we get the full benefit from our investment in superfast broadband.

Elsewhere, I have pointed to the work of the Australian Computer Society, which has flagged serious concerns about skill needs in the ICT area. We are confronting major shortages in ICT industry professionals, which is compounded by contracting ICT university enrolments, reduced skilled migration, an ageing workforce and community misconceptions about the opportunities and rewards associated with ICT careers. Alan Patterson, from the Australian Computer Society, said:

The critical role of ICT professionals in enabling our digital economy means that the highest policy priority must be directed at education and workforce planning.

To give you a sense of that pronounced decline, the ACS points to the VET sector, where a decade ago 75,000 people received an ICT qualification. By 2010, that had declined to 46,000. So, given the statistics, it is no surprise that the 457 visa grants for the information, media and communications industry grew by 49 per cent between 2011 and 2012, to 30 April 2012, compared with the same period in the previous year. This industry comprised 12 per cent of the 457 program over that period, and three specialist ICT occupations feature in the top 15 users of the 457 program, with developer-programmer the second-most-sponsored occupation. We have been presented with a massive opening where we can encourage young Australians to enter this sector and meet an urgent need. Having Skills Australia tasked to develop sector-specific plans will be critical, helping funnel students through vocational and tertiary pathways.

Taking a step back, we should think laterally. For example, we have made a great investment in trade training centres across the country. Located in secondary schools, these centres are helping meet skills needs as flagged by industry but they are also finding a way to capture the interests of students to maintain their schooling, putting them on a course that could enormously boost their long-term employability. In my area, they have been enthusiastically embraced, with a number of schools opening up these centres. In an electorate where roughly one-third of residents are under the age of 19, a demographic that consumes and adopts technology with remarkable ease, this is an opportunity too good to pass up. In Western Sydney, having trade training centres focused on ICT skills would provide terrific vehicles to open up pathways into VET or tertiary study, which is something I have already discussed with Minister Peter Garrett and I am hoping to progress in the months ahead.

I want to end with these words from Andrew Stevens, IBM's managing director for Australia and New Zealand, who said:

To make this digital future a reality, businesses and government must decide how best to leverage our increasingly ubiquitous digital infrastructure, and how to help Australia shift from a natural resources-dependent economy to a more diverse ‘developed resources’-oriented economy.

We need to confront this challenge and champion this sector to make sure we remain one of the world's smartest nations an innovative country with a richer, longer term future for our community and our economy.

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Ed Husic MP
Federal Labor Member for Chifley


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