Business and technology industry groups welcomed Tuesday night’s historic budget but the public sector union is lamenting another missed opportunity to build internal ICT capacity. 

The budget included a swathe of announcements for funding of technology initiatives in the Australian Public Service and support for businesses as part of a $796 million “Digital Business Plan”.

The Plan includes a small business advisory service to encourage small businesses to introduce digital solutions (however the target is to help 10,000 small businesses, and experts say there are 2 million such businesses in Australia), significant upgrades to the business register to create a single source of business data, more investment in the government’s digital identity system, $29 million to accelerate the roll out of 5G, $3.6 million for electronic invoicing in government agencies, and $2.5 million for digital skills training for SMEs.

There was also a funding lifeline for the CSIRO which has had to shed more than 200 jobs since the coalition government came to power and reduced the agency’s funding. The agency will receive $459 million in funding over four years from 2020-21 to help offset the lack of commercial activities because of COVID-19.

The announcements follow a $4.5 billion upgrade to the NBN. The government insists Australia can become a leading digital economy by 2030.

“The APS has built on the Government’s investment in more accessible, smarter and seamless digital services. Leading global expertise in ICT has been engaged to ensure that we build the most advanced technologies,” the Budget Papers state.

Public sector workers miss out

That outside expertise is not always the best option, however, according to the public sector workers, who had been urging the government to scrap the controversial Average Staffing Level cap and rebuild its internal ICT to better support service delivery.

Staffing levels will only increase temporarily in a few departments as part of the government’s COVID response and the budget indicates a continued preference for outside help on ICT.

Following the budget release, the Community and Public Sector Union said the government had failed to deliver necessary public services or to provide the sector with necessary resources in its financial plan.

In a statement CPSU National Secretary Melissa Donnelly said, “For those hundreds of thousands of Australians directly affected by this crisis, the Government’s failure to address public sector capacity means that you will continue to face long call queues when calling Centrelink, more unanswered calls, and longer waits for those small business trying to access support from the ATO.”

Industry welcomes tech spend

Leading industry groups and IT vendors largely welcomed the budget.

“We see this October 2020 budget as laying the ground work for further important measures in the May 2021 budget to fully realise the Prime Minister’s ambition for Australia to become a leading digital economy.

Ron Gauci, CEO of the Australian Information Industry Association, the peak ICT industry group representing the world’s biggest tech companies, said the budget shows the importance of technology in a COVID recovery and that it lays the groundwork for further measures needed for Australia to become a leading digital economy.

“With the pending retirement of Minister Cormann and the reshuffle opportunity that his departure presents, we also call on the Government to create a Minister for Digital Capability to ensure that cross government digital initiatives critical to Australia’s future success are represented in Cabinet and to industry,” Gauci said in a statement.

The Australian Computer Society is also pleased with the budget and its emphasis on IT and cybersecurity.

“The 50,000 new higher education short courses which include IT subjects is an important part of addressing skill shortages across the Australian economy,” said Andrew Johnson, ACS Chief Executive Officer, who left the role the day after the budget as the ACS deals with infighting.

“Coupled with this, the announcement of $240m to support female cadetships and apprenticeships in science, technology, engineering and mathematics will go some way to address the under-representation of women in the ICT sector.”

Fintechs happy

Rebecca Schot-Guppy, CEO, Fintech Australia agree the STEM initiatives are fantastic and said the overall budget was positive for financial technology firms.

“This is an incredibly positive budget for the fintech and innovation sector. The Digital Business Plan ticks most of our wishlist and pulls all the right levers to help bolster the fintech industry. It includes support for the CDR rollout, helping fintechs expand into overseas markets, a review into the payments landscape and investing in a digital business register, and e-invoicing measures.”

Schot-Guppy also welcomed the government’s reversal of its cuts to the R&D initiatives but said the scheme could be introduced earlier.

“The policy is important for fintechs capital run way particularly at their earlier stages  and the changes will no doubt support their growth. In addition, the increased R&D spend will ensure that new innovative businesses come into our economy which will help lead our recovery. Our only concern is that the reform comes into effect on July 1, 2021. For us to have the best chance of supporting the sector through this pandemic, its needs to be introduced now.” 

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