House debates

Monday, 25 November 2019


Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Assistance and Access Amendments Review) Bill 2019; Second Reading

5:15 pm

Photo of Clare O'NeilClare O'Neil (Hotham, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Innovation, Technology and the Future of Work) Share this | Hansard source

I second the amendment. It's a real pleasure to make a contribution on behalf of Labor to the discussion today. I want to thank the member for Isaacs, who's just taken you through quite a detailed account of the history of the debate that we've had about this bill in the parliament, and he's also highlighted some of the really critical national security issues that this bill has given rise to. Our spokesperson on cybersecurity is going to follow my speech, and he will make a quality contribution about those security issues.

I am Labor's spokesperson on technology, and I really want to talk today about the other side of this bill and its implications. That is about the economic impacts, because one of the first things I noticed in this portfolio, coming into the shadow ministry for technology, is that the debate we have about technology issues in this parliament needs to be lifted. I don't think anyone in this room would disagree with that. I'm very much a part of the problem—I've been here for six years—but I do think we need to improve the quality of how we talk about these issues. We don't tend to talk about technology issues at the sort of foundation level where we see them affecting the families and businesses that we represent in the community. When we do talk about tech issues in the parliament, I'm not sure that we are creating the space for the quality conversation that needs to be had.

There is literally no better example of that problem than the bill that is before the parliament and the amendment that's been made to that bill. It's absolutely obvious that technology is giving people who want to commit crimes new ways to commit those crimes. It's giving law enforcement a much broader suite of ways that it can determine and build evidence about people who are committing crimes. We need to take advantage of some of those opportunities, but the thing that always needs to be a part of this conversation—that must be central and pivotal to this conversation—is the important economic impacts that all of these decisions will have. One of the things I noticed in the discussion that we had about this bill in the parliament was we talked a lot about national security, but it was Labor people labouring the point and trying to make the case that this is an important and pivotal industry that will employ almost 800,000 Australians by 2022, Mr Deputy Speaker Georganas. They're in your electorate; they're in the electorate of every person in this chamber. When we make decisions like the one that led to this bill, we do a disservice to that industry. Instead of trying to sit on that industry's head, we need to be building, nourishing and growing it, because that is our economic future and those are the jobs of the future.

The way that this bill was put forward by the government was really poorly done—not just in the technology space, but by any stretch. The shadow Attorney­General talked about two pieces of evidence for this. Because this was a security bill, it went to the PJCIS committee, which reviews security legislation for the parliament. Through the hearings of that committee, it was revealed that when the government first proposed the bill the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security and the Commonwealth Ombudsman, which are the key oversight bodies for the bill, found out about the exposure draft of this bill from media reports. Anyone who is even faintly aware of how government works can see that is ham-fisted. It is no way to make a good law—for the pivotal people who will help oversee the legislation to find out about it from media. It is just unbelievable to hear that a critical piece of national security legislation could be designed that way.

The other extraordinary thing that came out of that committee—I thought—was the fact it uncovered that, as well as failing to consult with key Commonwealth agencies, the government failed to consult with the thousands of small businesses that will be affected by the regulatory requirements this bill puts on those businesses. We have the government coming in here every day, and they love to talk about small business and how they see themselves as representatives of that sector in this House. Well it's apparently not true, because they put together a bill with enormous impacts across the whole of the economy without discussing it with the very people who would be most affected by it.

We on this side found this whole process incredibly troubling. I think you'll remember, Deputy Speaker Georganas, at the time—this was last December—we had this discussion as a parliament. There were Labor people who were raising really significant issues of concern. The government blasted ahead. They insisted that that bill had to be dealt with before the Christmas break, and Labor agreed. Labor tries to work on a bipartisan basis with the government on national security issues because those are issues, of all the ones we deal with, that should be above politics. We wanted to work in a bipartisan way. We agreed to pass the bill even though we knew there were issues, even though the government acknowledged there were issues, on the proviso that, when we returned here at the beginning of 2019, this would be one of the first items on the agenda. What have we heard since then? Basically crickets from the government. Nothing has been brought back to the House which will help us resolve the issues in this bill. Here we are, almost a year on, having an agreement of trust that was made between the government and opposition completely broken. That's incredibly disappointing. We have our disputes in this place but, usually, when you make a deal like that about how a piece of legislation that affects national security is going to be dealt with by the parliament, you get good faith from both sides and that is how we would like to see it. But unfortunately I stand here today, a year on from an unedifying debate that took place in this chamber, and yet we're nowhere on trying to fix this issue.

This is very important to me and the people that I represent in the tech community outside the House, and I say that with absolute categorical confidence. In the five months that I've been in the role of shadow minister for technology I have met the most incredible people who are trying to grow this incredible industry for us in Australia. I've met people who are trying to educate Australians in STEM skills. I've met so many people who are doing that incredibly risky thing and starting their own venture out in the private sector, inventing something completely new, developing new technology, and scientists who are creating new ways of doing things that aren't done anywhere else in the world. The No. 1 issue that is always raised with me by people in this community is this bill. It is not even a broad suite of issues about how we're handling technology; it is this bill. When I say 'What can the government do to help you? What can we do to assist you in growing your business?' They say, 'First principle: do no harm.' That is what they see this bill as. It is the rushed nature, the lack of clarity about what key terms in this legislation mean that a year on have still not been clarified.

I'm referring specifically to issues that are core to the way that the Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Act 2018 works, including systematic weakness and vulnerabilities that were added to the bill quite late in the day. Still today there are people out there trying to run technology companies and cybersecurity companies, and the impact of this legislation is not clear. The government has had a year to fix this problem and, despite having promised the opposition, promised the tech community and promised the Australian people that they would come back in here and, as a matter of priority, fix this bill, we're here a year on and nothing much has changed.

The clarification of these specific terms that I mentioned is crucially important to the impact of this bill on the sector. That's because—you'll probably remember from the initial debate we had, Deputy Speaker Georganas—the existing systemic weakness or vulnerability limitations don't prevent a tech company being directed by a government agency to do things that would or could compromise the security of their critical systems. This is the No. 1 thing people in the community have been concerned about. I've mentioned some of the stakeholders that I represent in this chamber and I use those words specifically because it's actually not Labor that is alone in criticising the way the government has handled this. I want to share a couple of quotes from people working in technology who have been particularly upset by this bill. Scott Farquhar is one of those. He is the co-founder and co-CEO of Atlassian. He said:

We've got to recognise this law threatens jobs.

…   …   …

The fact is that the jobs of the future—these high paying jobs, export dollars that we bring to Australia, largely in technology—are at risk because of the laws that have been passed.

Alan Jones, the general partner at M8 Ventures, has said of this legislation:

It won't have a practical effect on monitoring the people they want to monitor, but it will cripple Aussie tech.

What I hear from those leaders, as well as the general concerns that they have about this bill, is that they actually see this legislation as emblematic of the government's entire approach to their industry. It is absolutely deaf to the voices in the digital sector, and it's not particularly interested in supporting the future growth of those jobs of the future.

I'm really worried about this. One of the other aspects of my role is spokesperson for my party on the jobs of the future. There are communities around this country that are hurting a lot because of the way the economy is changing and the way that's benefitting and hurting different Australians. The very least thing government could do in the face of that problem is, if we as a nation are going to cop some of the downsides of the future of work, we have to capitalise on the upsides; otherwise we pay a huge price for these changes that are occurring and all the benefits and the highly skilled, high-paying jobs that might be created through the new economy are going to end up offshore. This is a very important issue for Australia's economic future, and it's frustrating to see the government deal with it in such a ham-fisted way.

I want to speak a little bit more about the digital economy, because it's not just this bill that I'm worried about in the context of the government's failure to support this industry. AlphaBeta, a consulting firm in Sydney, produced a report recently commissioned by the Digital Industry Group. It showed that Australia is lagging behind global peers and failing to capture the economic opportunities of the very fast-growing digital economy. The report found that Australia ranks second-last among OECD countries for the relative size of our technology sector and its contribution to the economy. This is such a wake-up call for us. We're second-last in the OECD when we are one of the richest countries in the OECD. That is a harbinger of very concerning things to come. This is meant to be the way we build our economic future, but we're second to last in the OECD.

There's no doubt that the technology sector is making a significant contribution, but we can do so much more to help and support them. We need the active engagement and leadership of our government. The AlphaBeta report indicates that the tech sector contributes $122 billion to the economy every year, equivalent to 6.6 per cent of our GDP. Even with all the neglect and the blithe unconcern on the other side of the chamber about the future of this industry, they are growing against the odds, and there is so much more that we could do to support them. They're creating $44 billion a year in additional value to consumers in the form of free, cheaper and more convenient access to the resources, entertainment and information that improve our lives and wellbeing. We think those figures could and should be higher with the right policy settings. Some of the figures suggest that the Australian tech sector could create an additional $50 billion per year if Australia could catch up and match the tech sector growth rates of our global peers.

The research has also shown that small businesses in Australia that have embraced digital technology have experienced a massive productivity boost over the past decade. There is a huge opportunity here to unlock productivity and unlock additional economic impact if we can actually help our tech sector reach the 2.2 million Australian small businesses to make sure that they're accessing and utilising the latest technologies. There's huge growth potential here, but we need to have a coordinated approach to the digital economy. What we have on the opposite side of the chamber is a government which is almost in its seventh year of office and which still has nothing to say on these subjects, except an incredibly damaging piece of legislation that they'd promised to fix within a number of months and haven't done anything about.

It's not just the digital economy where we see this sort of neglect from government. One of the other areas that's related to this subject is about innovation and the digital economy. I'm sure many members of parliament read the reports of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull making a rare foray into public commentary to give the government a bit of a whack over its approach to innovation since he left the prime ministership. He said that innovation is not Prime Minister Scott Morrison's comfort zone. I think many people on the Labor side would agree with that.

Mr Turnbull also said Australia cannot drop the ball on innovation any longer. I think that when we look at the numbers, there is absolutely no question that dropping the ball is exactly what has happened in the last six years. Despite all the hype and all the talk about the ideas boom and that this is the greatest time to be an Australian, government research and development expenditure fell 19 per cent in real terms in just two financial years. A fifth of our spending disappeared within two financial years. In 2019 there were 2,000 fewer people working in government funded R&D programs than there were in the mid 1990s. Deputy Speaker, think about how much our economy has changed and yet we're short-changing R&D, we're short-changing our scientists and we're short-changing our tech sector.

I'm going to have to leave my comments there, but maybe I'll just finish with a call to arms for the people on the opposite side of the chamber who actually understand this industry and care about its growth. This is the pivotal building block of Australia's economic future. We have a government that is not only neglecting to have a plan to do anything about helping that sector grow but actually has introduced legislation—and that's probably the only way that Australia has made the news on this subject in recent years—and it's a downside. We can do better. (Time expired)


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