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Brislen on Tech: the halls of power

Paul Brislen, Editor. 21 May 2021, 3:13 pm

It's always tricky at Budget time. On the one hand, you really want the government to do the right thing in terms of support and engagement with the sector. On the other, you hope they don't notice you and go on about their business without interfering in the smooth running order of your part of the world.

This time round is no different, really, with a relatively mild eye cast towards the tech (sorry, "digital") space.

There's money for skills (around $44 million) and there's a lot more money for the health sector transformation which, let's face it, is entirely appropriate and a long time coming as we've discussed previously.

But that's about it. So while we got off lightly, we also got off lightly, if you know what I mean. There are far more important issues afoot and I'm pleased to see the government addressing some of those head on.

Halls of Power

But I have to say part of me misses the old days when technology and politics were more closely related. Not that tech was a political football, but that we were on the radar, so to speak.

I can track the waxing and waning of political interest in the tech sector quite closely and it starts with a man's beard.

Maurice Williamson was the Minister of Research, Science and Tech stuff back when I was a junior reporter. We ran a witty cover campaign one year that included all the times Maurice warned Telecom he would regulate them (with beard, without beard) but we had a soft spot for him, largely because he was the only MP would was even remotely interested in the industry.

He's the one who insisted on getting a Blackberry when they first came out. He was the one who insisted Parliamentary Services get with the programme and offer up MP and ministerial email addresses. He's also the last person in the house who has claimed (to the best of my knowledge) to be able to code.

After Maurice we got Paul Swain and David Cunliffe who reformed the telco sector but never claimed much in the way of hands-on tech skills. Gareth Hughes came along for the Greens about this time too, in 2010, and he at least was a modern super-user of tech (as far as parliamentary levels of use are concerned, that is).

Today we have none. Not one, in any party on any side of the house. Nobody at all from the tech sector, and given the importance of tech and digital skills in our economic world, this is a real problem.

Because we are still standing on the cusp of that tech-sector renaissance with almost everything we need to make New Zealand into that high-tech paradise that Sir Paul Callaghan and, more lately, Gabe Newell seem to think we can become.

We have the network, we have the know-how, we have the physical plant, we have the international connectivity. What we lack is the political will to become a world-class leader in the tech sector.

As a wise man told me over coffee last week, it's as if the farmers were deciding how to roll out the Industrial Revolution.

There are many levers the industry can pull to make the tech sector successful but without the political support, and vision, and direction and guidance and damn it all yes, without its money and influence, we're really going to struggle to match the primary sector any time soon.

Industries need to spend time and effort engaging with politicians and nurturing them. ITPNZ and NZTech, to name two, do a lot of work in this area for the tech industry. But some sectors go further - even recommending some high fliers enter politics, and then supporting them to election day. But we in the tech sector shy away from such things, and so despite having great people who would do well for the country as a whole, dairy and others keep a strong influence in the halls of power.

It's excellent to see our industry work with Government, such as with the Digital Tech Industry Transformation Plan - a project with strong political will going right up to the Prime Minister. ITPNZ is working through the skills part of how we transform and scale the industry, directly with Government and while engaging the new Minister David Clark.

But we need to build on this work and do more. If we want to help shape the Digital Age we might have to rethink our approach to the relationship with politics, and dive in even deeper. Because otherwise we'll never get the focus enjoyed by Dairy, Farming and others.


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John Way 26 May 2021, 11:24 am

I clearly heard the Leader of the Opposition on National Radio this morning state that Dr Shane Reti used to lecture in cyber-security. Does that count?

Paul Brislen 26 May 2021, 11:37 am

A quick review of Shane's official bio reveals zero mentions of this, and a look at his newsletters suggests no interest in IT issues.

So it's possible he has secret involvement but he's hardly championing the industry from the rooftops at this point in time.

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