Discussion at the Australian Financial Review Workforce Summit

Tom Burton
 Digital platforms, AI in business; Skilled workers; Quantum Strategy.

TOM BURTON: Thanks very much. Hello everyone. Tom Burton is my name. I'm the government editor for The Financial Review. You usually find my copy at about page 10, I've got a sort of permanent slot there.

I'd like to introduce Ed. Ed is one of those people, a rare minister who has been deep in his space, the sort of broad industry space for the better part of 25, 30 years. And through his, you know, then opposition and previously in government, he's taken a real interest in this whole industry, industry redevelopment. He's become a digital sort of fiend.

I remember going to a start up meeting or something, he was in the back corner talking to someone. So he's a minister who's really learnt on the job and that’s a way to think about it, and brought those skills.

I was saying to Ed, I made a bit of a confession, I was actually when I was a young tacker brought in to write, believe it or not, the manufacturing policy for the Australian Government and two others were brought in and we took three days to do it and probably two bottles of red wine. We put that together and that became manufacturing policy for a good part of a decade believe it or not.

So unlike Ed who's got a lot of experience, I was a bit of a fake it ‘til you make it sort of person as it goes.

Ed, your big challenge, or opportunity that matters at the moment is the National Reconstruction Fund. Perhaps for the benefit of the audience you can perhaps talk about where that is and what you're trying to achieve with it and how you really want to push it through that political negotiation.

ED HUSIC, MINISTER FOR INDUSTRY AND SCIENCE: Well first, thanks for the chance to be able to catch up with you all and to be able to walk you through some of our thinking as a new Government around what we want to do, particularly to support the sort of transformation, diversification, and the industry uplift in the country.

I don't like to talk in terms of just programs and specific initiatives, I want to give you a sense of why we're doing the things we are and how we're approaching it.

The big thing for us is the moment we've all had to live through with respect to COVID, the pandemic. The impact on all of you doing the things that you normally thought would be done the same way forever and within a day everyone had to do things differently and had to ‑ you know, we talked about agility, but you really had to do it at that point in time.

One of the big things that emerged out of that, in particular a lesson that I think was impressed upon us all is not being able to have the things that we want at the times we needed the products that we thought we could rely upon that supply chains would deliver, and satisfy whatever need we had within industry or as consumers.

The realisation sort of dawned on a lot of countries, not just our own, about how concentrated supply chains were. And also made us look at, for example, our country has a record I don't think we necessarily should be proud of, that we've got the lowest manufacturing self‑sufficiency in the OECD. And the reality is, modern economies need to be able to have a string of manufacturing capabilities to drive what they want to do, and also to create good, secure, long‑term jobs.

One of the things I find really hard for me, Tom, is the mind‑set. And I suspect it's happened to most Industry Ministers before me is the overhang of the perception of what manufacturing was. The perception of what manufacturing ‑ or the perception that is held by people is that it's about smoke stacks, rusty gears, boilers, all that type of thing.

Manufacturing occurs in the medical space, in defence, not just in transport, the value‑add that we want to see in resources in terms of, for example, renewables, the development and manufacturing of batteries that we require at large scale. A lot of thinking, know‑how, clever people working in that arena, the critical technology space. We need to see that occur at scale.

For us it's about, and particularly at that leading edge, making sure the capital is there so those firms feel that they can be supported on shore, grow manufacturing capability and that they don't have to leave Australia for capital.

So the National Reconstruction Fund: $15 billion capital that we want to make available. Not being determined by politicians. A board working out in terms of loans, guarantees, equity, similar to other funds that have existed. Like, for example, Clean Energy Financing Corporation.

We have an independent board guided by an investment mandate targeting priority areas that have been informed largely by what the CSIRO has said longer term will be important for resilience in the economy, and we want to have that capital there so that when good ideas are ready to scale up they can deliver a return to government, but also generate really good long‑term jobs and economic impact.

We want that fund to be there as a layer that can work in with one of the largest saving pools in the planet, superannuation, working with venture capital, private equity.  We’ll put in investment and be able to transform those elements of the economy and build the resilience we need so we actually do something that people expect the Governments to do and they rarely do it, which is learn the lessons, don't just say them, do them, and show us how it's done in a concrete way. And that's what the National Reconstruction Fund, one of many different pillars that we'll roll out over time, that's the big driver in terms of my policy area. That's the big platform within the industry space that we'll lever off.

TOM BURTON: You talked about lessons learned, we've had a few of these funds, some good, some not so good. What are some of those lessons you've tried to integrate into the design of the fund? 

ED HUSIC: Well, just in terms of the type of person I am. I'm extremely impatient. It doesn't help me from time to time but on this you need patience. And we need this fund up and running. And when I've seen the way other funds have taken a while to get up and running, it's why we're pushing so hard so get it through the Parliament at the moment, and I'm hoping that by the end of March we'll get that legislation ticked off.

TOM BURTON: Before the budget? 

ED HUSIC: Yes, I absolutely want this done before ‑ like we start the process ‑ sorry, let me just say we want the legislation through before the budget, clearly. We have March to get that through. Then it's a process of working out board appointments and then CEO selection and then when you start to look at all those things you go there's a lead time there, and we need these decisions made, investment decisions made as quickly as possible.

So, the other thing that I'm looking at as well is what's the runway or the platform that will get those investable propositions moving in the NRF, so we can get the decision pumped out quickly.

And some of it too is around informing the board too. For instance at the moment we're about to release a national quantum strategy, quantum ‑ I know we'll talk about it later ‑ but quantum technologies. We've actually got some really clever people in this country working on tech that people aren't necessarily familiar with but will be responsible for driving economic growth into the long‑term and we recognise as world leaders.

So we're developing a Quantum Strategy to help inform the board when it makes decisions around the sub‑funding of the National Reconstruction Fund on critical technologies. One billion dollars we'll be setting aside for leading edge technology to be developed on shore.

The robotic strategy that I've kicked off, the development of that is not just ‑ it's not about ‑ sorry, I was just about to say it's not just about building an army of terminators, because everyone goes, "You're actually building an army of terminators?" No, we're not. But robotics is a big thing in advance manufacturing, and automation is important.

And it's really weird to hear from a Labor Minister spruiking the value of automation, but the reality is we're going to have a combination of both people and machines working in a lot of our industries, thinking about the design and the issues associated with that and then thinking of a way that they can lean in on robotics development, and particularly in sectors that frankly, have skill shortages in them, I think longer term we're not going to reconcile, we're not going to resolve that and businesses are going to need to get the job done.

So how do we have the combination of human capital alongside automation? Having a robotic strategy that can inform the NRF on investment decisions, really important, and some of the co‑investment plans we want to drive also is designed to get the board and the NRF, one, thinking long‑term and, two, confident enough to make decisions on investments.

TOM BURTON: And your message is don't be scared of automation, don't be scared of robotics? 

ED HUSIC: That's been my message for ages, but the fear will emerge if we are not seen to be considering it, taking that on board and responding to it. I think a lot of you here think about these things but you don't expect it to be sort of kitchen table conversation. I do think there is an expectation on business and government to demonstrate that we're thinking about those things and we're setting things in place to be able to deal with some of the consequences of those decisions and to take people along the way and give people a sense of particularly workplace security and there are ways that we can do it.

But part of the reason why, for example, we've focused a lot on manufacturing is overwhelming 80 per cent of those jobs are full‑time, they're secure and they've got a role to play in long‑term growth.

TOM BURTON: Right. A couple of these crossbenchers have talked about getting diversity, you know, as a criterion of the fund. Are you open to that sort of thinking? 

ED HUSIC: Yeah, I mean I've had good conversations with in particular some of the Lower House crossbenchers and there's an amendment I'm working on with the member for Goldstein Zoe Daniel who looks at that. Because the reality is you look at for instance in the venture capital market, they're backing largely firms that are created and run by blokes. Where's the female founder element there? And it's not through absence of them, there are heaps around. We've had to set up specific programs to support female founders because the VC market isn't working in the way that it's taken into account that.

And it's not just here, it's overseas. Anyone who wants to take time reading a great book written by Emily Chang called Brotopia, really good book and I recommend it to people, talk about at various instances where there are these artificial walls that have been set up that don't call up the talents of people in the broader community. So I'm working on how we do, you know, incentivise investment, work with VC and ensure that the NRF can combine to ensure that pool of capital is available.

We're also looking at, in terms of broader diversity measures, because, you know, diverse businesses are strong businesses, the figures show they perform better. And so on some of that stuff we're working again constructively with people who are in the Parliament to say well what can we stand up to ensure that those artificial barriers are removed, we call up talent from all corners of the community to deal with the massive job that we've got ahead of us in terms of modernising of the economy and setting it on a good track for the future.

TOM BURTON: Right. And you said, just on the reconstruction fund, you said previously I think to Patricia Karvelas that you didn't want to take off the ‑ you wanted to stay open to any issues about coal mines or gas mines, et cetera. Have you closed that door yet or where's your thinking gone? 

ED HUSIC: So I get irritated, this is a feature of Australian politics, but it drives me nuts, is just because an idea has been put to you it doesn't mean you've accepted it, it doesn't mean you've rejected it. You want in good faith to be able to deal with different viewpoints.

My nature is, I mean I'm happy for disagreement. I think if managed properly it can be a constructive thing to improve outcome.

The Greens have said they want us to make assurances that we won't fund, for example, coal or gas infrastructure or extraction. As I've emphasised to them and others, the National Reconstruction Fund is not about that. It's about scaling up manufacturing capability across a range of different sectors that will be important to us long‑term.

The Prime Minister and I never would have thought the NRF would be made available for that. There are other funds that do support that, to be frank, but it's not the job of this fund to do it.

This is a National Reconstruction Fund. This will be a nation building fund. This is an opportunity for us to work together, and also demonstrate to the broader public that the Parliament can actually work better than the way we have and it doesn't have to be a rabble and it doesn't have to pick fights and it can come up with answers that will mean something to the long‑term good of the country.

TOM BURTON: Right. In my glorious career at one stage I got to work on how Australia should be attracting CD factories. I think with a couple of your old colleagues.

ED HUSIC: It's embarrassing that you and I still remember what CDs are.

TOM BURTON: But I use that as an example of the, you know, the folly of picking winners. I'm sure you've got a good response to this but how do you respond to the observation, you know, you picked off six sectors of focus but next week, you know, we'll have another one, AI or however. How do you deal with that sort of thing? I mean our observation is Governments have not been terribly good at it. 

ED HUSIC: Well we've been really good at sounding urbane and smart and saying, "Well Australia will never be good at this and never be good at that".  We end up, as I said, the worst in the OECD in self‑sufficiency. We import so many of other people's ideas and as a result, you know, we ‑ I mean obviously like a lot of advanced economies we rely a lot on services. I understand that.  But there's a lot of stuff we have to do here.

We need to think longer term, and again we've been informed by what others have said longer term will be important to the economy. We know in some sectors, like energy, a lot of our sub‑fund in energy transition within the NRF is about doing what we can to manufacture low emissions or no emissions technology.

And the realisation has dawned on a lot of countries too, as I said earlier, that we have concentrated so much in one country, and let's say China, and we've got to ‑ the race is on now to sort of devolve the supply chain.

We're not going to do it all. This fund is not about doing it all. It's about seeing the parts, the elements of the supply chain, where we can lean in and make a difference. And we do have good people doing stuff. They don't get enough credit and I keep saying we need to value Australian know‑how. Not because it's a cute line but actually drives decision‑making.

Coming back to the earlier point, of saying, "Well we'll never do that in Australia. We're not smart enough. We don't have the capital. We don't have the workforce. We don't have the market". 

We're very good at coming up with reasons for things we shouldn't be doing, when in actual fact other countries have lent in and said, "Yeah, lets do it".  And then seeing our smart people go offshore and chase their dreams offshore the size of a bigger market, which is a totally rational decision. But a lot of has been faith and know‑how that people have been willing to invest. And I think we've got to shake it up a bit, and I'm very conscious in my role, in this position that we can encourage people to think, and I've seen it happen before. You've all seen it before. I don't care if they're from the other side of politics but when Malcolm Turnbull leaned in on this, I didn't agree with everything he did, but it's an important leadership moment by him and the Liberals at that point in time that made key investments. For example, in silicon and quantum computing.

I credit them to this day for the investment they made in quantum computing that is world leading. And if Michelle Simmons cracks it she will make a big difference in that field. An Australian who did her work on shore, leading the world. Like that's worth backing. And it's worth us being proud of and it's worth us saying, "Yep, we have faith in our ability to get stuff done instead of talking ourselves down". 

TOM BURTON: You talked about supply chain being one of the sort of, if you like, you know, big issues you've had to deal with when you came into the job.


TOM BURTON: Clearly skills, you know, you've made the pledge for 1.2 million tech jobs.


TOM BURTON: I think Scentre ran the models and said you're going to lose 300,000 before you even start.

ED HUSIC: Well someone's telling us it's going to be a hard job to do what we want to do.

TOM BURTON: Okay, idea. But there is a big leakage issue, how do you deal with that? What are your strategies for saying, "Okay, we're going to have find 600,000 new ones over the next eight years? 

ED HUSIC: Well I mean we deliberately set that target. The Tech Council said we should aim for it and we said, "Yep, we agree. 1.2 million tech jobs in the country are important. Not just for the tech sector but in terms of the capability when it's spread out across sectors. So many of you now know you need to have a game plan on digital transformation to survive. It's not just a survival thing, it's about a growth strategy and we need to keep thinking, particularly as a country within a growth agenda that leans off human capital. This is the one of the big plays, encouraging that to occur, and we're standing up measures to see that support for people who do want to develop their skills base and apply it across industries.

I was at the Australian Retailers Association this morning. I said ‑ actually when I think of digital transformation, yours is one of the sectors I think of because you've had to contend with this for ages. Bricks and mortar competing against online. It's not about a binary we're going to go from bricks and mortar to online. People expect a combo. How do we get ready for that? 

Having that skill available is really important and getting that skill and getting businesses to think it's important for our long term viability and growth is important and that's why we've set that target.

Now in terms of the ‑ we have 860,000 employed in tech related jobs right now and we're trying to get 1.2 million. I was really grateful for people to say, "Well, you're going to have to find another 300,000 for the people that leave the workforce".  So yep, challenge rich environment. But I reckon there are a number of ways. We obsess about the incoming, the new entrants into the labour market and that will be important. But there's also within the labour force people that will move from one job to another. I often remark on, you know, the person I literally did see who went from being a chef to a coder and is now making way more than running the business that he had, seeing that transition.

So moving within the labour market. We need to bring in skills. And again it's hard for my friends in the union movement when I make this point. We cannot have businesses going against the wall because they can't find talent. So we need to get the balance right.

We've got the human capital investment onshore, bring the skills we need offshore, and as I've also made this point, we could have every single job filled by a local in the tech and digital space and I'd still want to bring people in. Because if someone's doing something smart on the other side of the planet and there's an edge in the skills race, we need that talent onshore.

So having that come in is important. And I think the other thing is finding a pathway for people that are ready to leave the workforce but can still, we can retain that skill and apply it in a mentoring sense to bring the next along. I see a number of different avenues.

TOM BURTON: Just exploring that last idea. These are people getting close to retirement. 


BURTON: Rather than just see them wander off and sit on the beach.


BURTON: Is there a better way to tap that? 

ED HUSIC: Well I would like to do it but I also appreciate I'm running up against a very human sentiment, which is well, “how much longer do you want me to work?”. I get that. But there is, you know, there are pathways to explore and it's part of the reason why Brendan O'Connor and I have got a digital and tech skills working group together working with people in the sector to go, "Well, what can we do to encourage this?"  Because it's going to be important to us longer term to have that capability thread through the broader economy. Bringing people in will be important and what we can do in the neighbourhood too. I think we share those challenges.

Indonesia, I talked of our Indonesian colleagues quite a bit. They're very keen to see how we can collaborate to get young Indonesians in Australia and vice versa, Australians working in Jakarta.

The business-to-business relationship. As much as we've talked about this relationship for years, it's really poor. We don't have enough Australian businesses working in Indonesia and vice versa, yet they've got 250 million people right at our doorstep, and everyone skips over them to go to the States for a similar amount. But they’re willingness to embrace digital and they’re deep thinkers, now the Indonesian Education Minister when I visited him in June with the PM is saying, "'They're rethinking what the concept of a university is”. So they can be a lot more agile in skills development, so they can apply that skill really early on.

The reason I mention this guy is because he was an entrepreneur. He's built businesses over in the Indonesian market and he's responsible for thinking about skills development in the Indonesian context with massive market right on our doorstep.

TOM BURTON: You're the Digital Economy Minister as well, small job. You would have seen a lot of the chat about AI? 


TOM BURTON: Perhaps give the audience a bit of a sense how you're thinking about AI. What do you think is a sensible way, you know, at a national policy level to think about AI, you know, both for corporate and government. You also have the ethics framework, I think you're responsible for that.


TOM BURTON: What are you top level thinking around AI? 

ED HUSIC: I was waiting for someone to chip me about not getting involved. I would have got easy media, just mentioning the word ChatGPT. And the politicians are always seeking it. But that stuff, I've been watching that stuff, generative AI. We've been talking about how AI would potentially impact on journalism. Geez, we saw it.

I think a lot of people when they test the accuracy of ChatGPT, they ‑ as one form ‑ I think there's others that come through. And they'll sharpen up. I don't think this is the end point. A lot of these things have developed over time.

But again, we don't pay attention to technology and its development until right at the last minute.

Artificial intelligence. Do you know when that phrase was turned? 1956, about a conference in 1956 in the States and they needed all people together, and that's the first time artificial intelligence was mentioned.

It kept kicking along. There were different factions that were forming as to what path it would take. I see a similar sort of pathway on quantum by the way. And then it was really when computer power like exploded and then you could apply AI.

The development time frames are much more compressed, and what that says is we should as parliamentarians in particular and governments, and I must say in the big thing, and I'm not sucking up because he's sitting over there, but I've always said, Stutch, the good thing about The Fin focusing on tech is to, in particular, keep the broader corporate Australia thinking about this. That's been the big thing. We all need to think deeply.

TOM BURTON: What should corporate Australia be thinking about then, big question but you've been looking at the space probably since 56, but what else are those high level ‑ you know, should they be focusing on the ethics piece, or where do they go?

ED HUSIC: Yeah, I think there is an element of that. I mean the ethics piece is not about being holier than thou. It's about thinking around the ramifications of investment decisions made around technology and what impact that has on your firm, on other firms, on the broader community.

I mean obviously no one really thought about well generative AI, something like ChatGPT, what if a kid starts using it to write their homework? Or for example the other big case that we're doing, we've got a whole Royal Commission dedicated to is Robodebt.

I'll tell you I have said to colleagues if we think this is the end of automated decision‑making we're wrong. I think there's a good reason for automated decision‑making we're trying to make for a large group of people decisions in a quicker time frame where you don't have the people around, humans to make those calls, to go through reams of paperwork and determine that. There's a good reason for it.

Again, there's another really good book I'd commend to you, both Henry Kissinger and Eric Schmidt ex Google wrote talking about the future of AI. They actually think governments will be questioned as to why they have decided not to use AI and automated decision‑making as the quality improves. Think about that. Like there'll be an expectation, people will say, "Why didn't you use AI?"  At the moment people are saying, "Why are you using AI?"  And it's understandable. But the big thing around Robodebt was not about the technology, it was about the whole process around it. Now, "Did you think about people at the start?  How have you designed it?  The way the technology operates?  What are the feedback loops? Who can challenge the decision?"  All that.

I get different reactions when I make those points, by the way, I'm quite upfront about it. But what I'm saying is it's not technology as ‑ I made this remark earlier, technology is a tool. It's designed to improve the quality of our lives. The way we use that tool, the way we deploy it, the way we think about it and the way it's impacted others, there are very human decisions that can be made around that. We need to take responsibility around that.

TOM BURTON: You probably saw overnight the company called the Kingston Group.


TOM BURTON: I think making a plea to you, "Please invest in AI and AI capability". 

ED HUSIC: I'm really getting used to that as a Minister, people making very public approaches to me through the media.

TOM BURTON: Got the money. What are your thoughts ‑ how do we ramp up that AI investment and capability piece? 

ED HUSIC: I think, well I took out of them that they really want like a dedicated AI strategy and I'm trying to get through to all these things as quickly as we can. I mentioned quantum, I mentioned robotics. AI is something I've spoken about for years. I mean I dig around the ethical issues. I argued many years in opposition that Australia should leverage off its ‑ its well‑regarded in international and diplomatic circles for being a clean skin, genuinely engaging with countries in a collaborative way, and that we should push on ethical development and that's slowly occurring.

I think on AI there's a lot. I think there's probably ‑ I reckon around the SME space and getting more SMEs to appreciate what they can do with AI and the way they can crunch data to improve the way they operate, there's probably something in that.

And I'm not a pessimist, I think it will happen. The pandemic, everyone focused on the pandemic and the way that had an impact on digital transformation. I'd urge people to take a step back. I think the big thing was before. A lot of SMEs did not want to embrace IT because what hardware do I get?  How do I maintain the software?  Will this chew up a lot of my time? Do I have to hire a new person with the skills to do it?  Is this going to cost me too much? Is it worth the investment? 

The big thing that transformed all that was going to Cloud based software as a service, apps, being able to reach, you know, people a lot easier way without having a lot of hardware. The cyber side being thought through.

You've seen big firms, for example Xero, MYOB transform their offerings to make it as easy as possible for small businesses to embrace that. I think a similar mentality ‑ they're using a lot of AI obviously to drive their thinking. A similar sort of thing has to be well, what's the offering that's put forward to businesses to lever off AI to improve the way they work, to drive the data analytics and inform decision‑making, to build customer bases, retaining them longer term. There's a lot that needs to be done there on the SME side.

You know, I take on board what's been said on the AI side. It's just the next job we've got to do.

TOM BURTON: We'll get a question in just a second. The AI piece, I think someone said to me the other day, a smart 23‑year‑old said, "Look, the AI tech piece is actually pretty simple, you know, it's comparing one pixel to another or 1 and 0, you just need big computers to do it and very smart math modellers".  And I thought that's an interesting observation. The tech's not the hard piece, it's the sort of conceptualisation that is the more interesting piece and that is a huge opportunity, you know, I think for people to take it.

Are there any questions from the floor before we wind up?  We might have one or two perhaps. We'll go for perhaps two more minutes and then we'll wrap up and have a sandwich.

KATIE RICHMOND: Thanks Minister. My name's Katie Richmond, I'm from the University of Sydney.


KATIE RICHMOND: Hi. It was great hearing obviously your, you know, pushing forward agendas on quantum and robotics and all that sort of stuff. Particularly from our university where we've got huge talent, as does the University of New South Wales as you touched on.

I was interested though that when you were talking about the collaboration to move this agenda forward universities were not really part of that. While I understand the National Reconstruction Fund will be largely scaling up there's also that huge bit in the beginning around discovery, quantum, nano, all those sorts of things, so how does the Reconstruction Fund feed into developing that pipeline of talent? And if not in that fund where will that come from? 

ED HUSIC: Yeah, that's a fair observation. I do mightily respect the work of universities in the space. The Uni of Sydney I think have just made a massive investment, quantum investment of 4.7 million off the top of my head, in supporting some further quantum tech and I'll be speaking later this afternoon at the quantum conference that's driven largely out of people operating out of the Sydney Quantum Academy out of Uni of Sydney.

And on the AI side, for example this week we had the head of the National Science Foundation out of the US team up with CSIRO and a number of universities around responsible AI and the application in ways, particularly around the pandemic, drought, emissions reduction, and universities do have a big part to play, particularly the basic research side is going to be really important, and then translation and commercialisation as well.

Universities have been really good. In fact, you've been too good. The issue for me longer term is how do we lift business expenditure on R&D. This week we're kicking off the consultations. There's a three‑step process we're embarking on: refreshing the national science priorities, which haven't been looked at since 2015, embedding those into a national science statement.

And then the longer-term thing is a written branch review on the research and what we do to drive uplift.

But yeah, I do think there is something there. And the thing is too there are a number of manufacturing as well, like people would not know this. The biggest user of the R&D tax incentive is manufacturing. So there is an appetite there.

We've got to be able to do this better and it's hugely frustrating for a lot of us when you look at our position on the global innovation index, we always seem to go lower. And when you dig deep into it, it's not the human capital. We rate very well on our know‑how and our skills but it's the application, the output where we've got to do better.

I deliberately avoided announcing another commercialisation review because we have six of the bloody things. The reports are weighing down someone's bookshelf and collecting a lot of dust. I'd rather us act and move on stuff and that is still a puzzle piece I'm working on. Frankly, I can just confess to you all because there's no media, there's no journalists here when I say that I haven't worked it out. Wow, I thought that joke would do better. You laughed at that, fine. But yeah, that's the other thing I've got to work on

BURTON: Last question.

PARTICIPANT: Joanne from the University of Sydney's ‑‑

ED HUSIC: Okay, did you guys gang up? 

PARTICIPANT: Yeah, sorry. No, you've partially answered my question.

ED HUSIC: Which university? 

PARTICIPANT: University of Sydney.

ED HUSIC: Terrific.

PARTICIPANT: As we know Australia's economy saw 28 years of continuous expansion which was heralded by many as a triumph economic management and evidence of a resilient and prosperous nation, but what lies as we know underneath that trajectory is an overall decline, as you mentioned in R&D, invocation and post‑secondary education and skills training, a precipitous decline in the global competitiveness rankings, as you also mentioned, an insidious increase in under‑employment. The under‑employment rate for women has more than doubled since the 1970s and there's been a five fold increase in youth under‑employment. There's also been a 34 per cent increase in the prevalence of very high psychological distress in the Australian working age population, and an unprecedented 50 per cent increase in the prevalence of mental disorder in young people over the last 15 years. So we've seen of course labour productivity growth in decline, all of which have left the business sector highly vulnerable. So I was interested in your view on what specific priority investments there may be in brain capital in this period of post‑pandemic reconstruction that might put us on a more robust social and economic footing for our future resilience.

ED HUSIC: Thank you for the question. There are a lot of issues in there I can say you and I both think about. It's underpinned in some of the points you raise in that question. Being able to, particularly in this role as a minister to see light and shade is really important because we're low in technology, particularly what captures attention, as often does, it's the bad news, the dark side that always catches people. We've got a responsibility or a need to have a wide field of view.

Some of the things in terms of post‑pandemic, if we can say post‑pandemic, I don't know if anyone can make that confident assertion, we're still living with waves but as you know this is still going to be a problem and pandemics will still emerge, but for the here and now we want to be able to address, as I've said earlier, some of the areas of sharper points of supply chains, the way they haven't worked for us, and building up capability on shore, and some of that is driven by under‑employment and part of that is security of employment, the nature, style, full‑time, being part‑time casual. Do the hours and the pay rates match expectations?  The workforce, they need to be able to have a quality of life. They absolutely should be pushing for.

So that's in the manufacturing side I've mentioned that stat, not just because it's a good stat to roll off the tongue, it's what's underlying it is the full‑time secure work and the fact that we also need to diversify the offering. There’s a lot of stuff on medical manufacture, for example. If you go into that space, gender diversity in that sector is probably leading and a lot of others can do better, you can always do better on it. But the nature of that work is really important in terms of addressing some of the things you raised.

There are some other elements that you touched on and this does come to the heart of the way technology is embraced and the impact it has on mental health and the broader good issue. And I still don't think we've got an answer as a community to that and it will require us to work collaboratively across government, academia, business on how that's shaped. More of it is being focused on now, the way in which some of that, particularly in social media and the focus on the work of algorithms and the way that's driving some reactions. I think that is important longer term to do. And those are human decisions made. It's not just we set it up and it just works that day. There are countless examples of the way in which algorithms have worked that they should be kept in check, we should be monitoring and doing a better job on the impact of that longer term.

Not everyone is going to be a digital and tech savant. They're not all going to have those skills and we shouldn't place that expectation on people. We need a broad variety of skills in the community. And the other thing that I'm very focused on in my area is ‑ when I say this, please don't shoot me ‑ but innovation shouldn't just be about making a buck, it should be about making a difference. The reason I'm saying that is not because I want us to turn into a hippy commune. It's because the profit motive is very important. We need successful businesses. We also need its application to drive a quality of life, national well‑being is just as important. And having breadth and view within government on that is critically important.

BURTON: We can obviously talk about this for a long time, unfortunately we've got to go to lunch--

ED HUSIC: Oh wow, I don't want to hold people back. Do you want me to hold people back from lunch? 

BURTON: But on that Jim Chalmers note, talking about values, et cetera, and how you measure things are important I think we'll break. Thank you very much, Ed, for being here, really appreciate it. We did cover a lot of territory and I hope the audience has found it useful as well.