A day before she was rolled as National’s leader, Judith Collins released – via YouTube – National’s “big fix” for the technology sector.
In it she identified technology as one of the eight “big fix” areas the National Party believe need fixing – issues the government hasn’t delivered on.
In the 45 minute video she addresses the sector directly – “We’re here to listen. You’re the experts, you’re in this space, you know what works…” and asks the sector to consider two questions.
“What is the barrier for growth in your sector?” – and – “What can a National Government do to help?”.
The video then features appearances from an AI professor, NZTech’s Graeme Muller CEO of NGO NZTech, AgriTech NZ chief executive Brendan O’Connell and Rocket Lab’s founder Peter Beck – “We need to create environments where our people can think and go big.”
All touch on points the sector has been vocal about for some time – access to skills, access to global markets and the need for government support to grow innovation and keep NZ competitive or risk us becoming consumers of other’s tech products.
While the investors of the world are noticing us – Muller points out in his time in front of the camera – three NZ firms sold last year for a combined total of more than $2b – government support has been patchy – “It’s time to tell the world, and ourselves, how great we are at tech,” he says.
Sitting at only 267 views it’s fair to say Collins’ announcement didn’t exactly set that world on fire – but it did draw attention to the Labour-led government’s perceived weakness in the tech area which is one a smart opposition should be attacking at every opportunity – (anyone recall 2018’s debacle surrounding the appointment of Derek Handley to Chief Technology Officer – a role that was supposed to develop a “coordinated, national technology strategy”?)
Especially galling is the lack of government support in allowing tech talent into the country during Covid. While Google’s Larry Page – who we learnt this year holds New Zealand citizenship – as does PayPal’s Peter Thiel – can fly in and out whenever he wants, if you’re a booming tech start-up wanting a software engineer – facing a debilitating skills shortage – your chances are slim to zero.
While our tech companies are often world beaters, punching far above their weight and offer high-wage jobs (there’re an estimated 20 000 tech firms in the country) and earn valuable export dollars (tech is our third largest export sector according to TIN) the lack of sustained government support or real policy means that often companies forge their own path.
Government help is limited. Filmmakers can access tay-payer funded support through the screen production grant but a NZ gaming company can’t.
New Zealand is one of the only countries in the OECD that hasn’t got a Digital Strategy in place (it’s in the discussion stage with results likely next year). At present the responsibilities for the sector are split between a multitude of various agencies from MBIE, CERTNZ, Internal Affairs and others.
While we do now have a Minister for the Digital Economy and Communications held by David Clark (who isn’t free of controversy either – he resigned from being Health Minister after he broke lockdown restrictions last year) the sector is one the government doesn’t really seem to know what to do with.
So far Clark has turned his attention to top line issues like data portability and digital identity.
While the government is happy to say nice things when companies see success, the tech sector is one it seems to think is smart enough to fight its own battles, as the government turns its attention to more pressing social problems like housing and child poverty (tech got little in this year’s budget.)
That inattention however leaves gaping holes as fast moving technologies like biotech, AI and cryptocurrencies outpace the government’s ability to come up with credible, forward-thinking policies or strategies at a time when they’re most needed, setting the sector back.
A lot has happened in the weeks since that video was released – Collins, while still holding her technology portfolio (which encompasses research, space, science and innovation) was demoted some 19 places by new leader Christopher Luxon this week and her long term future in the party is uncertain.
Leaving the demoted Collins with the tech portfolio doesn’t send a great message to the sector, despite “growing the technology sector” featuring at number two on the party’s list of policy priorities.
Collins has long been a vocal, if unlikely, advocate for tech – an interest ignited, she says, after her son became a software developer. It’s a sector she has never tired of telling the media “could be bigger than our dairy sector in 10 to 15 years.”
But just how to meaningfully support the sector beyond the Callaghan Innovation Fund and R & D tax incentives, without stifling it with regulations, is something neither major party has quite got its head around.
In many ways this year’s Big Fix is National’s version of 2019’s Digital Technologies Industry Transformation Plan, an on going industry/government collaboration created to help grow the digital technologies sector as part of the New Zealand Government’s industry policy.
But surely the tech sector is tired of telling the same story in endless discussion loops and white papers, no matter how well-meaning the party sitting across the table is, when the issues are well known.
Indeed the “tech talk-up” has become a regular event – good for a few headlines on a quiet news day.
In pre-election promise mode last year Collins announced her aim to double the size of the technology sector by 2030 and create a Minister for Technology that would be tech’s “champion at the cabinet table”.
She was willing to throw over a billion dollars at the plan if National were elected. Other initiatives included establishing STEM-focused partnership schools, introducing a fast-track technology skills visa and investing $1 billion in technology infrastructure upgrades – a year on they still sound like a good start.
If National plays it right, technology can become an issue where it can offer a clear differentiation on policy; but just who’ll be driving the party’s technology Big Fix in 2023 is anybody’s guess.