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Labor’s Digital Agenda: Where is it?

by Cameron Sinclair •
Free resource

With an election on the horizon, what can the digital sector expect from the Labor party? Who is driving its digital agenda? And why are they largely silent on public funding for digital tech? 

While digital policy may not be in the headlines (or Budget reply speeches), the Labor caucus has spent almost eight years in opposition developing ideas through various discussion papers, parliamentary inquiries, and committees. 

As a result, the Labor party policy platform is dotted with digital policy initiatives, and references to digitalisation, artificial intelligence and automation. 

Specific policies include: 

  • establishing a dedicated research centre to improve digital service delivery, 

  • a National Centre of AI Excellence, 

  • a national STEM engagement strategy, 

  • supporting start-ups using algorithms and AI to improve society, 

  • expanding delivery of digital health systems, 

  • supporting digital tech to improve productivity in agriculture supply chains, 

The platform also includes some cautionary principles for digital service delivery. The party is explicit that a commitment to digital transformation must not undermine service quality, access, and public sector capability. As costs fall, that governments should redirect resources to intensive case management programmes for those in greatest need. It reiterates that digitally excluded citizens should not be at a disadvantage. 

Several parliamentary inquiries have fed into the policy platform, with two from 2017 being particularly important. 

Coverage of the Senate inquiry into “The Future of Work”, chaired by Queensland Senator Murray Watt, largely focused on insecure work (casual, gig), but much of the report is focused on the impacts of automation and AI. It recommends a major overhaul of skills training to meet future job needs. 

An inquiry into “Digital delivery of government services”, chaired by NSW senator Jenny McAllister, offers wide ranging recommendations to improve digital service delivery, with a focus on building public service capability through training and developing career pathways. The digital sector should note the recommendation that government departments “eliminate unnecessary spend on contractors, consultants and external vendors.” 

There is currently a fresh inquiry into APS digital and data capability, chaired by NSW senator Tim Ayres, due to report in October this year. 

Also more recently, Labor’s Multicultural Engagement Taskforce published a report calling on the government to make better use of multi-lingual digital tools to provide important public health information to non-English speaking communities. 

Australia’s digital sector should also be keeping an eye on the work of Melbourne MP Tim Watts, Labor’s Shadow Minister for Cybersecurity. First elected in 2013, after working at Telstra and as a political staffer on the development of the NBN, he is considered highly competent and across his brief. In May 2020, he released a cyber security discussion paper, borrowing heavily from overseas best practice. In February this year he issued another for a National Ransomware Strategy

The Labor party policies shows a strong grasp of both the benefits and risks of digitisation, but we should not expect to hear much about it during an election campaign. 

The next federal election is due between 7 August this year and 21 May 2022. It is unlikely to interrupt the traditional summer beach break (from mid-December to Australia Day) or the South Australia election (19 March 2022). 

Labor went to the last two, in 2016 and 2019, pledging complex reforms. Albanese was quick to revert to a more traditional ‘small target’ policy strategy, reducing the number of public announcements that might draw incoming criticism. 

The government confirmed $1.2 billion for digital initiatives in this year’s (FY22) Budget. Two days later, Labor leader Anthony Albanese framed his Budget reply speech around ‘secure jobs’. Like his Budget reply speech 7 months earlier, all of his references to tech were framed around jobs, with particular focus on renewable energy. 

Albanese announced Labor will establish a “Start Up Year” incubator loans program, establish an agency to monitor and fund skill shortages (Jobs and Skills Australia), but there was no mention of coding or STEM, which were prominent features of Bill Shorten’s Budget reply’s in 20152016, and 2018

Albanese’ speech also contained some not-so-subtle hints about why Labor is not talking about tech: 

“The government forced into a compensation payout in excess of a billion dollars to the people it hounded through Robodebt.” 

“The Liberals abandoned a fibre based National Broadband Network claiming it would cost $29.5 billion. Then it became $41 billion. Then 49, then 51, then $57 billion.” 

The upcoming census (10 August) will remind Australians of problems with the last, five years ago. 

The other reason Labor is not talking about technology generally (or digital specifically), is both parties need to appeal to men. For many undecided voters, tech is synonymous with automation: job losses. Talking about investments in digital transformation and coding classes will not win them over. 

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