How Australia's government-by-parrot is flying backward on drones

If Australia wants to be a leading digital economy, the government must plan ahead with a clear head, not just react to the latest tabloid scare campaigns.
Written by Stilgherrian , Contributor

It's a cliché, but the law really does lag behind the development of new technologies. Government agencies often see the need for change, and at least start the ball rolling. But the politicians don't seem to notice until things become, well, political.

That needs to change.

The Australian Industry Group (Ai Group), an employers' lobby group that claims to represent the interests of "more than 60,000 businesses", highlighted a key example recently: Drones.

"Drones are becoming more ubiquitous and play an important role as part of the industrial IoT ecosystem for observation, data gathering, and increasingly logistics," the Ai Group wrote in their submission [PDF] to the current consultation on developing a national Digital Economy Strategy.

Goldman Sachs, they write, estimated in 2016 that the total spending on commercial drones in Australia will be around $3.9 billion over the next five years. According to that report, the uses for drones include firefighting, aerial inspection of infrastructure such as pipelines and power grids, and monitoring crops.

It's no surprise, therefore, that in the same year Australia's Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) decided to update the safety regulations for drones. They came into force at the end of September 2016.

"CASA recognised that this was a necessary decision that reflects a modernisation of outdated regulations to keep up with rapid advances in drone technology," Ai Group wrote.

But just two weeks after those new regulations came into force, the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee launched a fresh inquiry into drone safety. It is due to report on March 28, 2018.

Earlier, in April 2016, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Agriculture and Industry had also called [PDF] for an inquiry into emerging technology for the agricultural sector, including "telecommunications, remote monitoring and drones, plant genomics, and agricultural chemicals".

It's hardly surprising that industry has been frustrated by this seemingly scattergun approach to legislating for a key new technology.

"While there may be legitimate public concerns around drones, the alarm and reactive response from parts of government and the public highlights a bigger issue: the role of government in managing the social risks and disruptions associated with new technology," Ai Group wrote.

"It is important for regulators to be mindful that we have been through similar experiences before with other technological advances like automobiles, telephones and cameras, and more broadly industrial revolutions. As history and experience has shown with these technologies, as the public became more exposed to their presence and practicality, they not only accepted it, but embraced the positive impact that these technologies have had to their lives. Many initial concerns and fears were resolved or proved groundless, and regulation focussed on specific genuine and continuing risks, such as traffic safety or interception of telecommunications."

This is true. But on the other hand, the human species has a history of forging ahead with new technologies, and only later discovering and addressing the safety risks. I've written previously about how technology doesn't get regulated properly until people start to die, and how the Australian government itself has been reckless with personal data.

"Drones are yet to reach that full public comfort, and similar concerns are being expressed about other emerging technologies such as AI, robots and driverless vehicles," Ai Group wrote.

"While regulation has a role in addressing reasonable public concerns around security, safety, privacy, and environmental issues, there are also often alternative approaches to the regulatory 'stick'. In the case of drones these include technology-based responses such as geo-fencing and collision avoidance. Regulatory barriers should only be introduced where there are clear net community benefits."

Referring to regulations as "barriers" is predictable industry propaganda, of course. Food safety regulations, for example, shouldn't be seen as "barriers". The food processing industry shouldn't be seen as having a right to sell dodgy lasagne. Nor should the existence of magic technology -- when it even exists -- be seen as obliterating the need for industry to be required by law to use that technology to meet specific safety targets, and be required to prove that they've implemented it properly.

These predictable industry calls for less regulation need to be tempered with proper consideration of safety risks, and the effect of new technology on society generally. That's part of what governments are for.

Indeed, that's what government ministers and their staffers are for.

Ministers need to understand how technological trends will affect their portfolio. They need to lead the policy debate, following best-practice processes that will lead to rational policy responses.

Reacting like startled budgies to tabloid media scare campaigns isn't good enough.

Alas, these days government ministers are little more than expensive parrots, endlessly squawking the day's party-political talking points without understanding them, in the hope they'll flap their way up the greasy political ladder to ring their little bells on the top perch.

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