Govt report pins Australia's future on technology, but ignores NBN

Technology and innovation will be at the centre of Australia's continued productivity over the next 40 years, according to the Treasury Department's latest Intergenerational Report.
Written by Leon Spencer, Contributor

The Australian government's latest five-year Intergenerational Report, published on Thursday, places technology and innovation at the centre of the country's continued productivity over the next 40 years.

The quinquennial report (PDF) is intended to assess the long-term sustainability of current government policies and how changes to Australia's population size and age profile may impact economic growth, workforce, and public finances over the following 40 years -- in this case, to 2055.

The new report highlights the impacts that technology has already had on Australia's industry and society, and suggests that by supporting innovation, adopting new technologies, facilitating foreign trade and investment, and fostering competition, the government can boost future productivity growth and living standards.

"Government policy settings will be very important to helping individuals, businesses, and governments take full advantage of opportunities from technological developments so that productivity growth is maintained, or even improved," it said. "Australia's future productivity performance will be influenced by technological developments, both domestically and abroad, which create new possibilities for production.

"As a net importer of technology, the pace of global innovation and Australia's ability to absorb technological advances from abroad and convert them into new business opportunities will be particularly important," it said.

However, it also revealed that there is evidence to suggest that the pace of technological development has slowed globally.

"Many developed countries have experienced a slowdown in productivity growth over the past decade or so," it said. "Furthermore, some commentators suggest that future technological advances may not yield the productivity improvements seen in the past. If this were the case, developed countries may see a slowdown in income growth."

Regardless, the report suggested that the government could learn a thing or two by looking at how the private sector makes use of new and emerging technology in order to remain competitive.

"Importantly, governments will need to learn lessons from the private sector -- which has harnessed new technology to achieve efficiencies in service delivery," it said, adding that the establishment of its Digital Transformation Office as an executive agency in the federal communications portfolio is an important step in this direction.

Australian Treasurer Joe Hockey, who presented the report, suggested that Australia has the potential to leverage technology in order to drive industry productivity -- an important element in the country's future, given the report also points out that Australia's ageing population will result in a slowdown of economic growth.

During a media conference following the report's release, the Treasurer said that Australians have an opportunity to get much more "bang for our buck" through innovation.

Hockey's praise for technology and innovation follows the government's move to cut funding to at least eight public programs aimed at fostering technology innovation and commercialisation, including Commercialisation Australia and the Innovation Investment Fund.

The funding cuts, which are expected to save a projected AU$845.6 million over five years for the government, were part of the 2014-15 Budget, handed down by Hockey in May last year.

Instead, the government chose to devote AU$484.2 million over five years to its new Entrepreneurs' Infrastructure Program.

The Budget also included around AU$115 million in funding cuts to the federal government agency for scientific research, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), which has since cut hundreds of jobs around the country.

Despite these cuts, the Intergenerational Report said that supporting Australia's innovation and encouraging entrepreneurship would be vital to the country's future productivity.

"Continuing to encourage entrepreneurship and innovation, enhancing resource allocation, investing in and using infrastructure efficiently, facilitating trade with other countries, and improving physical and human capital investment will all be critical to Australia's future productivity performance," it said.

While the report pins Australia's future productivity on technological innovation, it makes no mention of the National Broadband Network (NBN) -- the most expensive single civil infrastructure project in the country's history.

However, it does say that "investment in new infrastructure and making better use of Australia's existing infrastructure assets is important to generating economic activity in the near term as the economy transitions from resources-investment-led growth".

By contrast, the previous Intergenerational Report (PDF), which was delivered in 2010 by former Treasurer Wayne Swan during the previous Labor government, proposed that the "NBN, together with telecommunications regulatory reforms being undertaken by the government, will enhance the competitive dynamics of the telecommunications sector".

Since then, the Liberal leadership has significantly reformulated the NBN rollout as a multi-technology mix, rather than a predominantly fibre-to-the-premises approach.

Although the latest report makes no mention of the NBN, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, under whose portfolio the NBN is nestled, talked up the government's decision to alter its rollout strategy in a bid to expedite its delivery to the Australian population, suggesting that it reflected the report's call for the government to embrace technology and innovation.

"The reality is, if we are to win the opportunities that the future offers us ... we need to be able to embrace the future, to embrace volatility," he said during question time on Thursday, responding to queries about the report. "The future is not something we proof ourselves against, it is something we embrace.

"We need to be nimble. Take the NBN; we have been focused from the outset at what the customer needs," he said.

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