Fifty three years ago next month a boy on a push bike held the fate of the world in his hands. His job was to carry a message from the Soviet Embassy in Washington DC to the local Western Union office. From there it was sent by telegram to Moscow.
In that message was the information that ended the Cuban Missile Crisis. And it was delivered by a boy on a bicycle. Seven years later ARPANET was created – the technical core of what we now call the Internet.
I love this story because it shows how fast things can change. From push bikes to the beginnings of the digital age in seven years. The same sort of thing happened to Australian politics last week. We’ve suddenly switched from a push bike Prime Minister to a digital PM.
I know both Bill Shorten and Malcolm Turnbull pretty well. One is my boss. The other has been my opposite number for the last two years. They are very different people. But both of them get this. Both of them understand how important the digital transformation of our economy is, and both are working on ideas to make the most of it.
This creates a great opportunity. Think about this, our digital economy is already growing twice as fast as the rest of our economy. If it was classified as an industry it would be larger than our agriculture, transport and retail industries.
It is also turning our economy upside down. Forty percent of the jobs we do today will disappear in the next decade and will be done in the future by machines. Most of the jobs that will be created in the next decade will require STEM skills. And most of those jobs will be in companies that don’t exist today. These are big challenges. The countries that get this and adapt the quickest and the best will be the ones that succeed in the 21st century.
Until now though, this has been a boutique debate. The big economic debates in Australia have been all about tax, fiscal policy and industrial relations. Digital transformation has been on the sidelines. Maybe that’s because some people think it is a bit too complicated, or something only hipsters or hackers or nerds are interested in. Well that’s about to change.
Paul Keating said in the 1990s that every parrot in a pet shop was squawking about micro-economic reform. There was a reason for that. He was doing it. And he was talking about it. He made it the centre of his plan to remake the Australian economy and make us globally competitive. A quarter of a century later we need to apply the same focus and determination to the digital transformation of our economy as Keating did to micro-economic reform.
That means 1. building the digital infrastructure we need; 2. building the digital skills we need; 3. making it easier for start-ups to get access to capital; 4. changing our laws to ensure they suit the digital age; 5. changing the way we use the massive amounts of data created every day; and 6. changing the culture in Australia that doesn’t really encourage smart young people to become entrepreneurs and take risks.
This is not a boutique debate. It’s the main game and it should be at the centre of the economic debate in Australia. It is just as important to making Australia globally competitive in the 21st century as Keating’s reforms were in the late 20th century.
Now suddenly we have two leaders – Shorten and Turnbull – who understand this. We need to seize this opportunity.
Turnbull has been talking for a long time about crowd-sourced equity funding. We are working with the government on it. If he has other ideas we will work with him on them as well.
Shorten has also proposed a number of big reforms – teaching coding to all primary school kids, STEM teacher training to address the lack of qualified teachers, and a half a billion dollar co-investment fund to support Australian start-ups.
Yesterday he announced a few more – A national digital workforce plan, HECs type loans for students who set up a start-up business in a university run incubator, entrepreneur visas to encourage people with great business ideas to set up in Australia, graduate entrepreneur visas to encourage people who have studied in Australia to stay and set up businesses here and work with superfunds to create incentives for them to invest in Australian start-ups. There is more to come.
The digital transformation of our economy requires us to work together – Labor and Liberal. That wasn’t possible under Tony Abbott. His response to everything we suggested was “no”. We now have a new PM and a new opportunity. Neither party has all the answers, but both leaders have the vision. If we work together we can make it happen.
This piece originally appeared in The Australian Financial Review on Friday, 25 September 2015.
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