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What my Briefing to the Incoming Minister would say

Paul Brislen, Editor. 19 October 2020, 7:27 am

(Note that this post is editorial opinion - ITP will be producing a formal BIM briefing for incoming ministers in due course)

Dear Minister,

Well, congratulations are probably in order - even though we don't quite know who you are yet. But what a night, eh? You'll be pleased with that result. Not even a game of two halves, that's a drubbing in anyone's book and now you have an opportunity we haven't seen in New Zealand since MMP was introduced - a chance to govern alone. No need for supply and confidence deals or giving away your policy positions to some handbrake-focused party that doesn't want to do the cool stuff. Just you.

Which of course, is a bit of a problem as well. You might not have anyone else to share the limelight with but that means no-one else to blame when things go wrong.

But that's above this column's pay grade so let's stick to our knitting: the tech sector.

You're it, now chum. The only tech representative in the entire parliament at this point. There isn't a single MP from the tech sector, not one of your colleagues has ever coded or welded or extruded. You've got lawyers galore, the odd accountant (some very odd), and as you would hope there are plenty of farmers, but not a single geek, hacker, developer.

This is fine - you don't need to be able to code to be involved in the industry. I can't, and I've been in the sector for two decades now. But you do need to understand the sector in all its glory - from the companies to the academics, from the "yes, we can actually do that" to the snake oil. You'll need to set the parameters for growth in a way that encourages and supports without directing, without determining which areas we'll support and which we won't. 

There really isn't anyone else in the sector with quite that weight of responsibility on their shoulders, so I hope you're up to it, because this year is really one of opportunity and potential if we don't sit on our hands again.

This is the year you chaps will have to rebuild the economy. The focus will inexorably move from health to the economy and we're well placed to do well with the right push, but it won't be easy.

Tourism, our number two export earner, is gone. There will be almost no inbound tourism here in the next 12 months. Even if we get our act together (and we have) and can move around freely (which we can) nobody else is in a position either public health-wise or economically to travel to the far ends of the earth for a holiday.

You're going to need to replace about $12 billion worth of income with … something else. That's where we come in.

Left to our own devices, the tech sector is growing at about 10% year on year. Imagine what it could do with a bit more support from the policy makers?

To do that, we really need you to think about a few things. You've got a bit of a gap between now and the end of summer to get some plans in place and you'll need each initiative to do some heavy lifting - it'll have to tick a lot of boxes to be declared "shovel-ready".

There's a tech skills shortage and has been for as long as I've been around. Here you need a two-pronged approach: build up local skills and import those we don't currently have.

Reduce the costs for those who want to study tech (in all its facets from design to coding to building) and offer up scholarships on a grand scale. 

Our education sector is also crying out for that lovely international student money so let's help them focus on tech at a local level. Dish out some cash and they'll build you a programme I am sure. That'll help them survive, help us train the next generation and gets you two birds with one stone.

You'll need to offer up a high-tech visa that encourages internationals with a wide range of skills to come to New Zealand. Wear the costs for the quarantine period as a gift, encourage them in, because there aren't many places in the world that has the same level of attraction that New Zealand has currently. With the United States actively turning away smart people, this is to our advantage.

Encourage businesses to migrate to the regions. Actively encourage tax breaks for tech companies setting up outside Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. Help everyone work remotely where possible with subsidies if you have to (I know, it's a dirty word but these are dirty times) but let's think about resilience and the need to keep the lights on. Because we will get another outbreak, right? We do need to prep for that now.

Engage with the business leaders in the tech sector. They're a strange lot, believe me, but they can help you understand the difference between the next big thing and the snake oil you'll be getting pushed your way. Put a council together and listen to them. Mostly they will tell you to stay out of their business but that's good, right? Find out about the technology and where the gaps are and see if you can help plug those up.

And finally, you'll need to be the full time cheerleader for the industry, both here and internationally. You'll need to sell the opportunity because suddenly all those things that stood in the way of New Zealand tech exports (distance to market, lack of face time with partners and clients) are now strengths and we can absolutely capitalise on it.

So congratulations again on the role and good luck with it. You are the sole political representative of the second largest economic export earner this country has in a time of economic crisis. It goes without saying that what you do over the next three years will be of critical importance.


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