Tech sector wishlist topped by funding for skills developmen…

Focus on sovereign capabilities

Minister for Science and Innovation Ed Husic has rolled out a series of programs aimed at boosting Australia’s technology education pipeline including “start-up year”, a consultation process with universities where students can tack on an extra year of HELP-funded study to commercialise a start-up idea.

But the recent Optus hack, and the countrywide refocusing on the sovereign capabilities of Australia, has highlighted a difficult reality: the need for onshore investment in advanced manufacturing and local innovation combined with the desperate shortage of talent to meet this demand.

“The incentive to offshore is stronger than ever, precisely at the time when geopolitics makes it imperative to grow our sovereign capabilities,” Dario Valenza, chief technology officer of Carbonix, a carbon-fibre drone company that manufactures in Australia, said.

“Federal budgets should and must be sharply focused on providing real incentives to innovate, manufacture and hire in Australia.

“They should reflect well-thought-out policies of nurturing hubs where supply chains can develop as an ecosystem. They should reduce admin and compliance burdens by simplifying access to grants and entitlements that offset costs imposed by regulation, where that regulation itself can’t be further simplified.”

Cybersecurity top of mind

Following the Optus hack last month, there has been a countrywide refocus on cybersecurity, which experts have long argued requires increased attention from the government.

Over the past 12 months, the Australian Cyber Security Centre received more than 67,500 cybercrime reports which, the centre pointed out, equates to one incident every eight minutes.

Nicole Quinn, head of government affairs – APAC at security firm Fortinet, says the government can reinforce that cybersecurity is a core business function through tax incentives, training programs and legislation.

“Government investment in big-ticket items like infrastructure projects need to include cybersecurity as part of the project design and implementation,” Ms Quinn said.

“Cyber resiliency can be significantly improved through dedicated government investment in education, training, and upskilling of Australian businesses.”

Two programs were recently closed: the Cybersecurity Skills Partnership Innovation Fund, designed to boost skilled cybersecurity professionals, and the Cybersecurity Business Connect and Protect Program, aimed at advising small and medium businesses on cyber risks.

Privacy compliance under-funded

Johanna Weaver, the director of ANU’s Tech Policy Design Centre, says the budget should equip the existing regulators with the resources and capacity to respond adequately to privacy threats.

“Our privacy commissioner is the least resourced regulator in Australia’s tech ecosystem,” Ms Weaver said.

Privacy Commissioner Angelene Falk has warned that her office is unable to keep up with the increased scale and complexity of cases with its current funding.

“Their funding level is less than their funding in 2014-15, but their workload has increased exponentially,” Ms Weaver said.

“If the Albanese government is serious about responding to these breaches [at Optus and Medibank], the first step, the most simple step, in the budget is to increase the funding for the privacy commissioner.

“And then if new power is given through the Privacy Act reforms etc, there also needs to be new resources.”

Decarbonisation plans

The government-funded CSIRO has launched a $90 million fund to help commercialise technology breakthroughs in decarbonising Australia’s heavy industries such as agriculture and steel production.

But while Australia’s legislated climate change goals – to reduce emissions by 43 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 and achieve net zero emissions by 2050 – have been met with much relief by Australia’s innovation sector, many hope the budget will reveal more of the overarching incentives to decarbonise.

Doug McNamee, chief executive of Jolt, an electric vehicle infrastructure start-up, says an emissions standard is critical to incentivise the transport market towards electrification.

“Without a target to outlaw the sale of petrol cars by a certain date, global carmakers will just keep sending their petrol stock here because they can get full price for them,” Mr McNamee said.

He says the top-level climate goals are welcome, but little has been rolled out in the way of how cities and towns will adjust their planning to accommodate charging infrastructure. He hopes the federal budget will include funding for work that will plot a plan for the impending EV boom.

“We’re putting in as many EV chargers as we can at the moment, but without a co-ordinated strategy coming from the top down, we’re just going to have this lopsided market growth that won’t reach the targets at all,” he said.

Partnerships such as the University Trailblazer Program are critical to launching Australia’s technology into the market. But Li-S Energy founder Dr Lee Finniear, who developed its lithium sulphur battery with Deakin University, hopes the budget has carved out funding for a gigafactory to produce batteries for electric vehicles on a large scale.

“In Australia we are now behind the eight-ball,” Dr Finniear said.

“Europe has over 40 large gigafactories in construction or operation. We have none – zero – and our ambition as a country is not matched by action at the level that is needed.

“Plus we have advanced battery technology invented here, so we could be a powerhouse in advanced batteries, with the materials, scientific know-how and opportunity. We just need the commitment from government to partner with new industry to create a multibillion-dollar industry, rerisk our road to carbon zero, and supply thousands of new technology, well-paid jobs.”

Crypto calling

How the government can position Australia as a technology hub amid the global change is evident in the unregulated and fast-moving world of cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology.

Over the past 12 months, Treasury’s internal blockchain regulation capability has ballooned from three people working on crypto regulation to more than two dozen.

Following last year’s Senate Committee report on regulating digital assets, Treasury has signalled it is likely to launch a token mapping project as a first step to better define different token types.

The industry, which has been plagued by disingenuous crypto offerings alongside its ambitious technical development,- is eager for regulation and support that will establish a valuable industry onshore.

“I hope to see the budget deliver measures that recognise the urgency for Australia to move forward with crypto/blockchain specific initiatives in the region.” Jonathan Miller, managing director of Kraken Australia, a cryptocurrency exchange, said.

“Australia has the opportunity to become a market leader in fintech competition and crypto/blockchain technology, but only if we sustain the right regulatory environment and support mechanisms for businesses in the space that help continue to drive innovation, competition and success here, as well as attract top-tier talent.”

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