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Griffin on Tech: The biggest fix of all

Peter Griffin, Editor. 26 November 2021, 2:56 pm

A day in politics is a very long time, as Judith Collins found out this week.

On Wednesday, there was Collins launching an issues paper outlining how National would address eight "big fixes" the country needs, including "growing the tech sector".

"When I speak with tech people, I sense a great deal of frustration and a feeling that we could be doing so much better," said Collins. 

"We could be applying technology to so many more of our problems and challenges, and using tech to seize more opportunities for our people."

My ears perked up at that. Collins has been a surprising advocate of the tech sector since just before the last election, rightly identifying it as a point of difference from Jacinda Ardern's Government, which has always seemed a bit ambivalent about tech. 

The Tech Ball

Here was an intriguing proposal to better support the tech sector and in doing so, enable it to address big problems, such as lifting incomes, building houses faster and delivering world-class health services.

To say that Collins torpedoed her own policy announcement is an understatement. Pattrick Smellie writing for BusinessDesk reached for a more powerful military analogy:

"The only rational explanation for Judith Collins's bizarre kamikaze mission today is that she thought she could take Simon Bridges down with her."

As I was browsing National's tech issues paper on Wednesday, a friend messaged me about Collin's move to demote Simon Bridges over an off-colour comment he made five years ago. Within 12 hours, Collins was climbing into a taxi and departing Parliament, ousted by her caucus colleagues who clearly saw through her attempt to see off a political rival.

We need a strong main opposition party whoever is in power, so it's a bit of a worry that National's ranks are looking increasingly thin. The caucus will have to heal and fix its own cultural problems before it can even think about suggesting ways to fix the tech sector - or the country.

But what of that tech focus that Collins, as the spokesperson for technology, artificial intelligence and space, was gearing up to make a key policy issue out of?

Well, it notes the incredible success of our tech sector ($12.7 billion in exports last year from our top 200 tech-related companies) and also points out that the sector "has been growing in recent years, but not as fast as it could be".

Screenshot 2021-11-25 at 4.41.14 PM.png

Source: National's tech issues paper

This is a sentiment commonly shared around the tech industry.The sector is doing very well, but so is everyone's tech sector at the moment. Tech is big. There's a sense that ours isn't quite achieving its full potential. The issues paper hits most of the key topics tech leaders have been concerned about - developing the start-up ecosystem, improving access to capital, encouraging faster uptake of new technologies and investing more in infrastructure.

It talks of addressing the lingering digital divide, though there's only a fleeting mention of tech's role in tackling the biggest issue of them all, which isn't one of National's intended big fixes - decarbonising the economy to meet the country's net-zero 2050 goal.

While its six areas of focus outlined in the paper are broad-brush bullet points at the moment, National is setting out to get feedback to help flesh them out and will hold a summit at one point.

Several ideas from National's 2020 election policy paper remain, such as reviving ICT graduate schools, which Labour cancelled, extending the Ultrafast Broadband Network a bit further to 90% of New Zealanders and making sure that everyone else can access 100Mbps (megabits per second) by 2030, and developing "tech-friendly regulation".

So will the tech focus die with Collin's leadership? I hope not. 

National says in its paper that its values align with the tech sector.

"Values like our unwavering commitment to competitive enterprise and rewards for achievement, the promotion of individual freedom and choice; and our unrelenting desire for a society marked by equal opportunity for all."

It sort of suggests that a right-leaning government is better for tech. That need not be the case. The Labour Government has economic, social development, equity and environmental goals that technology can help them achieve. But it has been slow to move on many of the issues identified by National and the tech sector got the cold shoulder during the pandemic when it asked the Government to free up immigration to help address a major tech talent shortage.

So I hope whoever becomes the leader of the opposition next Tuesday takes this piece of work and runs with it. Offering a strong alternative vision for the future of our tech sector can only help in pushing the Government to raise its own ambitions.


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