news Palmer United Party Senator Dio (Zhenya) Wang has taken the Government to task over its handling of Australia’s ICT research and tech startup sector, in a fraught Senate session which appeared to illustrate how little the Government’s Senate spokesperson on the issue appeared to understand about the sector’s basic dynamics.
Australia’s peak ICT research organisation, National ICT Australia, is currently undergoing a merger with Australia’s peak scientific group the CSIRO, as a result of the Government cutting all funding to NICTA in the 2014 budget. Up to 200 jobs remain at risk in the merger, which is still being finalised.
In Senate Question Time last week, Palmer United Senator Dio Wang asked the Government a series of questions about the merger and about Australia’s technology startup sector in general. The first question, posed to Senator Michael Ronaldson, who is the Minister for Veteran’s Affairs but also represents Industry and Science Minister Ian Macfarlane in the Senate, was as follows:
“We learned this week that up to 200 jobs are at risk while the apparent merger of National ICT Australia, NICTA, with CSIRO is being negotiated behind closed doors. NICTA is projected to contribute over $3 billion to Australia’s GDP and has been incubating and producing start-up business at an average of one new company every three months. Minister, are we going to discover that this so-called merger is a backdoor for cost-cutting and how do government promises square with the continual shedding of valuable jobs in the research sector?”
However, Senator Ronaldson appeared to have little understanding of the issue Senator Wang was discussing. In response, the Minister read from a document passed to him by an advisor.
“The two organisations have begun working together on some projects. Formal ratification is required, but I understand that the merger will build a more impactful ICT capability for Australia by creating one of the largest single digital innovation teams in the world,” Senator Ronaldson said.
“In relation to the staff, I have a note here from the minister saying that it ‘will create one of the world’s largest cohorts of highly qualified ICT staff and the collective skill of this team will be used to keep Australia at the leading edge in science and innovation.’ The current reduction in funding to NICTA requires a close inspection of all aspects of the merged body to reduce cost.”
However, the Minister’s answer was given in such a monotone, with Senator Ronaldson reading directly from his notes, that the Opposition appeared to lose patience with the answer and started counting down the seconds to his conclusion.
Senate President Stephen Parry described the interjections “very disappointing” and reined in the Senate Chamber, but the mocking of Senator Ronaldson continued after Senator Wang asked a series of follow-up questions. The Palmer United Party Senator asked firstly, why the Government insisted NICTA be self-sustaining, instead of viewing “viewing well-founded ICT driven productivity gains as a boon to our economy and to our standing in this globally aggressive digital age?”
Secondly, Senator Wang said: “Yesterday an ABC report stated that early-stage businesses in Australia are being starved of funding, because venture capital is drying up. What is the government doing today, apart from [the Medical Research Future Fund], to restore confidence in Australia’s research capabilities and address the insecurities that are impairing the motivation of our research workforce?”
Senator Ronaldson appeared unable to substantially answer either question.
“CSIRO is of course an independent body,” he said in relation to the first question. “They will make decisions about how they think the organisation can best go forward. The merger with NICTA, clearly, is from the board’s view an appropriate way forward for both organisations. Like you, I would hope that they would manage any potential job losses on the way through.”
And in relation to the second:
“I say to Senator Wang that the relationship between science, scientific organisations, the business community and education institutions is the only way that this nation will advance. The day before yesterday we announced an advanced manufacturing institute in Geelong.”
“We are determined to ensure through a variety of programs—and I will get you further information as I have only got 21 seconds left—that the entrepreneurship that drove this nation’s growth is at the heart of what this government wants to achieve. We believe that appropriate partnerships between government, education and commerce will indeed drive that and we have many, many programs in place which will achieve that.”
The news comes as the Opposition appears to be seeking to increasingly capitalise on Australia’s growing digital economy in terms of its political strategy.
The Australian Labor Party has created a new internal policy group focused on building a “new economy” through fostering innovation, startups and entrepreneurs, in a move that appears to have support from the highest political levels within the party.
Senior Labor figures such as Shadow Communications Minister Jason Clare and Shadow Parliamentary Secretary to the Shadow Treasurer Ed Husic are regularly attending tech startup sector events in Australia and discussing the issues being faced by the sector. The Coalition has also started to focus on the sector, but not to the same degree.
It’s important to acknowledge that Industry and Science is not Senator Ronaldson’s portfolio or expertise. Minister such as Senator Ronaldson have to be across many, many different topic areas, and we have to cut him a bit of slack for not being 100 percent across technology sector details.
However, it’s also important to acknowledge Australia’s technology sector could not help but view the performance given by the Minister on these issues in Senate Question time as a little disappointing. Whatever you think of NICTA, it is a major organisation, and Australia’s tech startup sector is likewise a highly important economic vehicle. One can hardly imagine a Government Minister being as unprepared for questions on the resources, agricultural or financial services sectors.
One would hope the Government prepares its Ministers for these sorts of questions about tech issues better in future — I suspect there will be more along these lines down the track as the Parliament as a whole starts to recognise their importance.
And kudos to Senator Wang — he clearly understands the issues facing Australia’s ICT research and tech startup sectors. It is fantastic to see the Palmer United Party raising these questions in Question Time — it makes a fantastic break from the usual Government/Opposition bickering over the political issue of the day.
Video credit: Parliamentary Broadcasting