All the tech within the 2021 Australian Budget

Here's a summary of the Australian government's digital economy strategy, as well as the rest of the tech-related investments made as part of the 2021-22 federal Budget.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

The federal government officially released its 2021-22 Budget on Tuesday, after teasing the masses with a handful of pre-released initiatives in the weeks leading up to Treasurer Josh Frydenberg's third Budget night speech.

The big-ticket tech item was the digital economy strategy, to which the government has pledged nearly AU$1 billion.

Describing the investment as "delivering a modern and digital economy to drive Australia's future prosperity", the strategy covers cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, digital skills, drones, data, SME digitisation, investment incentives, and enhancing government service delivery.

As cybersecurity, safety, and trust "are the keystone of our digital economy", the Budget is pledging:

  • AU$31.7 million to secure future connectivity using 5G and 6G mobile networks;
  • Improved standards for trusted identities that underpin the digital environment;
  • Efforts to strengthen Australia's data security settings through the development of a National Data Security Action Plan;
  • The piloting of Cyber Hubs, which government hopes will see Canberra's biggest IT shops help to "improve resilience and cyber security maturity of government agencies";
  • and AU$16.4 million over three years for the Peri-Urban Mobile Program to improve mobile phone connectivity in the bushfire prone areas of the peri-urban fringe of Australia's major cities.

The government is funding AI to the tune of AU$124.2 million:

  • AU$53.8 million over four years to create the National Artificial Intelligence Centre, housed within CSRIO's Data61;
  • AU$33.7 million over four years for initiatives that support Australian businesses in partnering with government to pilot projects for "AI‑based solutions to national challenges";
  • AU$24.7 million over six years to be given to the Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Graduates Program to attract and train "home-grown, job-ready AI specialists";
  • and over a period of five years, AU$12 million to be spent on "catalysing the AI opportunity in our regions" by co-funding up to 36 competitive grants to develop AI solutions that address local or regional problems.

Digital skills as a "key to productivity" will see:

  • AU$10.7 million to be shared by the "Digital Skills Cadetship Trial" to deliver work-based learning opportunities for in-demand digital jobs;
  • AU$22.6 million for the "Next Generation Emerging Technology Graduates Program" that will provide more than 200 scholarships in emerging technologies;
  • and $43.8 million for the expansion of its Cyber Security Skills Partnership Innovation Fund to fund additional innovative projects to quickly improve the quality and quantity of cybersecurity professionals in Australia.

There was also a focus on emerging aviation tech, such as drones, through:

  • A two-year, AU$32.6 million investment in an Emerging Aviation Technology Partnerships program to "support the use of emerging aviation technologies to address priority community, mobility, and cargo needs in regional Australia";
  • A pledge to work on a new the National Emerging Aviation Technology Policy Statement to set the framework for managing new aviation technologies;
  • The creation of a framework for a Drone Rule Management System, to be developed alongside state and territory governments to result in a consistent framework for drone operating restrictions to be submitted, assessed, and implemented;
  • and the development of a National Drone Detection Network.

Under the "data and the digital economy" banner, the government is hoping its Data Availability and Transparency Bill 2020 passes through Parliament. In addition, it is :

  • Developing an Australian Data Strategy to "create a data-driven economy through better data use";
  • Ear-marking AU$16.5 million for a pilot program to make the government's data assets discoverable and support whole-of-economy reuse;
  • Allocating AU$111.3 million to support the acceleration of the Consumer Data Right rollout, including to the energy and telco sectors;
  • and pledging AU$40.2 million to deliver the Digital Atlas of Australia, which is aiming to make better use of over 90,000 open datasets to create a secure, dynamic, location-based and collaborative public data platform". 

Under "SME digitisation", AU$28 million will be spent on two initiatives:

  • AU$12.7 million to provide independent advice to Australian small businesses to help them build their digital capabilities through the "Digital Solutions – Australian Small Business Advisory Services program";
  • and AU$15.3 million to enhance the value of electronic invoicing to help businesses reduce costs and increase productivity.

Investment incentives in this year's Budget are:

  • Providing a "digital games tax offset" for qualifying Australian games expenditure to eligible businesses, which will see the introduction of a 30% refundable tax offset for eligible businesses that spend a minimum of AU$500,000 on qualifying Australian games expenditure;
  • The ability for taxpayers to self-assess the effective life of certain depreciating intangible assets;
  • and the announcement the government would be undertaking assessment review of the venture capital tax concessions to ensure they are achieving their intended objectives.

In a bid to enhance government service delivery, and make good on its promise to bring government services online by 2025, the digital economy strategy also pledges AU$200.1 million to enhance myGov -- a single portal to access all government services -- to deliver a "simpler and more tailored experience for Australians based on their preferences and interactions". This will include a digital assistant or chatbot.

Also in the Budget is AU$301.8 million for enhancing the My Health Record system, adding support for COVID-19 testing and vaccinations, connecting residential aged care facilities and connecting specialists in private practice, and delivering improved telehealth, emerging virtual healthcare initiatives, and digitised support.

Outside of the digital economy strategy, Canberra has also opened the purse to continue a handful of existing projects, such as funding for Services Australia and the Department of Finance to support its work on building and delivering "modernised government technology" for managing accounts, resources, and the Australian Public Service, through its shared enterprise resource planning technology platform, GovERP.

The government will also provide funding, but it has not disclosed how much, to support the continuation of the Cashless Debit Card (CDC).

The government will also provide AU$2.6 million over four years from 2021-22 to support Australian business participation in Commonwealth procurement.

Changes to Employee Share Schemes were also made to help Australian companies to engage and retain the talent they need to compete on a global stage.

This was accompanied by a "patent box" to drive research in medical and biotech technologies, and support skilled jobs by encouraging companies to base their R&D laboratories in Australia.

The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), meanwhile, has been given a 10-year funding boost as part of the 2021 federal Budget, walking away with AU$1.3 billion of the AU$1.9 billion allocated to enhancing Australia's national security capabilities.

The funding also includes a handful of measures for three yet-to-be-passed security Bills: The Security Legislation Amendment (Critical Infrastructure) Bill 2020, Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (International Production Orders) Bill 2020, and the Surveillance Legislation Amendment (Identify and Disrupt) Bill 2020.

A AU$387 million, 10-year pledge to meet Australia's commitments to co-host the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Observatory was also made.

AU$301.4 million will be used for the construction and operation of the Square Kilometre Array Observatory; AU$64.3 million has been allocated to the data processing centre, which will be located at the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre in Western Australia; and the remaining funding will go to site readiness and fibre optic connections.

The space sector will also get a boost, with the provision of an additional AU$13.3 million over four years from 2021-22, and AU$3.3 million per year ongoing, to the Australian Space Agency to increase its regulatory and technical advisory capacity under the Space (Launches and Returns) Act 2018 and support the growth of the industry.

The government will also be investing AU$204.6 million into telehealth, renegotiating the AU$114 million promise to extend the services that were introduced initially in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, until the end of the year. 

AU$111.2 million over four years, meanwhile, will be used to expand and enhance the nation's digital mental health services to provide Australians with easier access to high quality digital mental health services.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) will get AU$4.2 million to "support the implementation and administration" of the News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code.

The federal government also announced it would be ploughing an additional AU$130 million into the "hugely popular" Regional Connectivity Program (RCP).

The funding has been broken down into AU$106 million for a second round of the RCP, of which AU$45.6 million has been "quarantined" for Northern Australia, and almost AU$25 million for additional "shovel-ready" projects in round one.

The Budget papers also revealed the extent to which NBN has met its loan obligations.

"The Australian government has provided a loan of AU$19.5 billion to NBN Co, on commercial terms, which was fully drawn in July 2020. The loan was established in December 2016 and must be repaid in full by 30 June 2024," it said. "AU$3 billion was repaid in December 2020 and a further AU$2.6 billion was repaid in May 2021, with an outstanding balance of AU$13.9 billion expected as at 30 June 2021."

Under the headline of "Building Australia's Resilience", the federal government has set aside AU$1.2 billion over four years to improve how Australia prepares, responds, and recovers from natural disasters.

A small portion of that funding, AU$2.2 million over two years, will be used to design a "cell broadcast national messaging system" that is intended to "provide information to the Australian public concerning events of national significance".

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