Technology problems are not going to be sorted out by more Kool-Aid

If what is on offer so far in the Australian election is what passes as technology policy, I'd like a re-roll.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor

2016: What an exciting time to be alive

(Image: LNP)

An Australian election is on again. The triennial ritual where the electorate makes a choice of which parliamentarian to elect -- who will then decide what sort of greying, white male party apparatchik becomes the Prime Minister.

With the dumping of racist and homophobic candidates being a daily occurrence, the campaign is plumbing the depths expected upon its announcement. However, on the plus side, Russian trolls and foreign actors have not stoked or created the scandals that are occurring -- this is pure, unabashed, organic, embarrassing Australian politics.

For the folks able to take their eyes off the sideshow, a common refrain from the technically minded has been the lack of policy directed towards them. But this week, like an ancient Greek god that hasn't had a good laugh in a while, the Labor party decided to announce it would erect a AU$3 million Blockchain Academy in Perth if it is elected.

This was followed in short order by AU$2 million being put towards a Broadmeadows cyber training centre, adding to the AU$3 million National Centre of Artificial Intelligence Excellence announced last month.

On the opposing side, Morrison government said last month it would spend AU$156 million to build a cyber workforce and fight cybercrime if re-elected.

The truth is that technology does not shift votes. If it did, the 2016 election campaign would have had a much better outcome for then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull -- who, running on the back of funding and tax breaks for startups, agility for everything, and the AU$1.1 billion National Innovation and Science Agenda, saw his Parliamentary majority evaporate down to a handful of seats.

In retrospect, there has been plenty of analysis stating that drinking the Kool-Aid and spouting words like "innovation", "automation", and "startups", does not work with the electorate. Those words make regular workers think the techbros and outsourcers are coming for their jobs, and given the history of the past few decades, who could blame them?

It's also interesting to consider where politicians get the Kool-Aid from, and right on cue, the Australian Computer Society (ACS) released its election manifesto on Thursday.

The manifesto contains the sorts of ideas that one expects from an industry body -- spend more money on our industry, special treatment to make it easier for IT people to get into the country, and of course, blockchain is brilliant. It also has some genuinely helpful ideas, such as recommending that Australia's whittled down public service be invested in to boost skills across the wider economy.

But the irony in this manifesto is how it was created and the results that flowed from it, as the ACS surveyed its members on policies to "advance the national interest".

"Front of mind included legislative reform of the Assistance and Access Act 2018; to recognise the potential blockers of the Act for an Australian cybersecurity export industry, as well as the technical limitations and expectations of the Act, and protecting the privacy of our citizens," it wrote.

"Having access to critical productivity-enhancing infrastructure, and arresting Australia's slide in global broadband speed rankings was also commonly identified. All citizens and businesses seek affordable high-speed internet access."

So naturally, with these concerns front of mind, the ACS produced zero recommendations relating to Australia's encryption laws, or the state of the National Broadband Network (NBN).

It should come as no surprise then, that for the politicians we have, taking the time to explain these issues and digest the impact technology has on society as a whole, instead of concentrating on the jobs-focused announcements we saw in the past week, is not only a bridge too far; it might as well be 12 rivers too far as well.

It's much easier to implement a few recommendations from bodies like the ACS and claim you are listening to industry, and move onto the next thing.

One rare sign of hope in recent weeks however, has been Labor's promise to have a human supervise any automated decision making process.

There are big societal discussions that need to happen -- how much of a surveillance state do we wish to become, what are we comfortable handing off to artificial intelligence, or how can workers be protected from exploitation in a gig economy -- but instead we are left with announcements about a blockchain academy.

Regardless of how it shakes out on May 18, it's not going to get better. One glance at this scoresheet from Digital Rights Watch [PDF] shows the bipartisan nature of the problem.

At least true believers who wish to remember the high water mark of purist technology policy can sip from a discounted LNP values coffee mug as the world burns.


The Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. Since we run a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8:00am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6:00pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America.


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