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Australia’s Economy is a House of Cards: Part 4 of 4

Australian Innovation according to the Chief Scientist of Australia. Source: ChiefScientist.gov.au

In the same speech, he said that an Australian iron ore mine is every bit as innovative as a semiconductor fabrication plant. My mind was seriously blown. 

You can throw as much automation, AI and robotics at an iron ore mine as technologically possible, but it doesn’t change the fact that mines are, and always will be wasting assets that output a commodity for which we are a price taker, not a price maker, into what is currently an oversupplied global market. An iron ore mine, not matter how advanced, is not a long term scalable productivity multiplier; it is a resource to be extracted with finite supply. Once it’s gone, the robots will be dormant. 

A semiconductor fabrication plant on the other hand, makes automation of the mine possible. It powers the robotics, the AI and the software – not just for the iron ore mine, but factories and businesses all over the world. It’s the real productivity and wealth multiplier. It’s a long term sustainable, competitive advantage. Smart and efficient resource extraction is just an application of this technology.

That’s why we shouldn’t get confused about what is a technology company, because there is no other industry that can create such immense wealth, with such capital efficiency and long term benefit to the world, as the technology industry. 

Today, the largest public company in the world, Apple, is a technology company. Apple’s market capitalisation of $810 billion is bigger than the entire US retail market sector. Its revenue of over $215 billion generates over US$2 million dollars per employee per year. And that’s just the company directly. Think of all the business, jobs, wealth creation and benefits to society that have come indirectly from using the company’s computers, mobile devices, software, services and products.

The largest four companies by market capitalisation globally as of the end of Q2 2017 globally were Apple, Alphabet, Microsoft and Amazon. Facebook is eight. Together, these five companies generate over half a trillion dollars in revenue per annum. That’s equivalent to about half of Australia’s entire GDP. And many of these companies are still growing revenue at rates of 30% or more per annum.

These are exactly the sorts of companies that we need to be building. 

With our population of 24 million and labour force of 12 million, there’s no other industry that can deliver long term productivity and wealth multipliers like technology. Today Australia’s economy is in the stone age. Literally.

By comparison, Australia’s top 10 companies are a bank, a bank, a bank, a mine, a bank, a biotechnology company (yay!), a conglomerate of mines and supermarkets, a monopoly telephone company, a supermarket and a bank.

We live in a monumental time in history where technology is remapping and reshaping industry after industry – as Marc Andreessen said “Software is eating the world!” – many people would be well aware we are in a technology gold rush.

And they would be also well aware that Australia is completely missing out. 

Most worrying to me, the number of students studying information technology in Australia has fallen by between 40 and 60% in the last decade depending on whose numbers you look at. Likewise, enrollments in other hard sciences and STEM subjects such as maths, physics and chemistry are falling too. Enrolments in engineering have been rising, but way too slowly.

This is all while we have had a 40% increase in new undergraduate students as a whole.

Women once made up 25 percent of students commencing a technology degree, they are now closer to 10 percent.

All this in the middle of a historic boom in technology. This situation is an absolute crisis. If there is one thing, and one thing only that you do to fix this industry, it’s get more people into it. To me, the most important thing Australia absolutely has to do is build a world class science & technology curriculum in our K-12 system so that more kids go on to do engineering.

In terms of maths & science, the secondary school system has declined so far now that the top 10% of 15-year olds are on par with the 40-50% band of of students in Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan.

For technology, we lump a couple of horrendous subjects about technology in with woodwork and home economics. In 2017, I am not sure why teaching kids to make a wooden photo frame or bake a cake are considered by the department of education as being on par with software engineering. Yes there is a little bit of change coming, but it’s mostly lip service. 

Meanwhile, in Estonia, 100% of publicly educated students will learn how to code starting at age 7 or 8 in first grade, and continue all the way to age 16 in their final year of school.

At my company, Freelancer.com, we’ll hire as many good software developers as we can get. We’re lucky to get one good applicant per day. On the contrary, when I put up a job for an Office Manager, I received 350 applicants in 2 days. 

But unfortunately the curriculum in high school continues to slide, and it pays lip service to technology and while kids would love to design mobile apps, build self-driving cars or design the next Facebook, they come out of high school not knowing that you can actually do this as a career.

I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s actually all too hard to fix – and I came to this conclusion a while ago as I was writing some suggestions for the incoming Prime Minister on technology policy. I had a good think about why we are fundamentally held back in Australia from major structural change to our economy to drive innovation.  

I kept coming back to the same points. 

The problems we face in terraforming Australia to be innovative are systemic, and there is something seriously wrong with how we govern this country.

There are problems throughout the system, from how we choose the Prime Minister, how we govern ourselves, how we make decisions, all the way through.

For a start, we are chronically over governed in this country. This country has 24 million people. It is not a lot. By comparison my website has about 26 million registered users. However this country of 24 million people is governed at the State and Federal level by 17 parliaments with 840 members of parliament. My company has a board of three and a management team of a dozen.

Half of those parliaments are supposed to be representatives directly elected by the people. Frankly, you could probably replace them all with an iPhone app. If you really wanted to know what the people thought about an issue, technology allows you to poll everyone, everywhere, instantly. You’d also get the results basically for free. I’ve always said that if Mark Zuckerberg put a vote button inside Facebook, he’d win a Nobel Peace Prize. Instead we waste a colossal $122 million on a non-binding plebiscite to ask a yes/no question on same sex marriage that shouldn’t need to be asked in the first place, because those that it affects would almost certainly want it, and those that it doesn’t affect should really butt out and let others live their lives as they want to. 

Instead these 840 MPs spend all day jeering at each other and thinking up new legislation to churn out.

In 1991, the late and great Kerry Packer said “I mean since I grew up as a boy, I would imagine, that through the parliaments of Australia since I was 18 or 19 years of age till now, there must be 10,000 new laws been passed, and I don’t really think it’s that much better place, and I would like to make a suggestion to you which I think would be far more useful. If you want to pass a new law, why don’t you only do it when you’ve repealed an old one. I mean this idea of just passing legislation, legislation, every time someone blinks is a nonsense. Nobody knows it, nobody understands it, you’ve got to be a lawyer, they’ve got books up to here. Purely and simply just to do the things we used to do. And every time you pass a law, you take somebody’s privileges away from them.”

Last year the Commonwealth parliament alone spewed out 6,482 pages of legislation, adding to over 100,000 pages already enacted. That’s not even looking at State Governments.

In Australia, the average person in the street might think that the way that you get into the Prime Minister’s office is by being elected by the people. Since 1966, this has only been true about 40% of the time. 

In fact, of the 15 Prime Ministers since Menzies, only six have come into the office via being elected by the people. Yes, only six since 1966. They were Gough Whitlam in 1972, Bob Hawke in 1983, John Howard in 1996, Kevin Rudd in 2007 and Tony Abbott in 2013 and Malcolm Turnbull in 2016.

In the technology industry we had high hopes for number fifteen but it looks like we might be onto our sixteenth very shortly.

I say it looks like we might be onto number 16 shortly as the Australian government is currently in the grips of a major political crisis. A crisis for the absurd reason that a large number of our politicians do not know they were a dual citizen of another country (or worse, they tried to hide it)! In Australia this is not allowed under section 44 of the Constitution. On almost a daily basis, members of parliament across the political spectrum have been found to be dual citizens of other countries. This has happened to such an extent that the coalition government has now lost its majority and is teetering at the brink of collapse.

The level of incompetence from these politicians that spend all day dreaming up rules about how we all should live our lives and standards to that our businesses must submit to is astounding, not to mention their parties. I would have thought that the first page of the “So you want to be a politician?” checklist that each party handed out to bright young recruits would have said “Have you stolen any money? Are you a drug addict? Have you fiddled with any kids? Are you a citizen of another nation? Then the career of a politician probably isn’t for you!”.

It’s not like this hasn’t happened before, either.

Now how the sixteenth Prime Minister will pick their team is completely crazy. The problem is section 64 of the Constitution. This is the part that says that federal Ministers – members of the executive – must sit in Parliament. This is nuts.

Not so long ago the former Minister of Trade for Indonesia, Tom Lembong, visited my company. Tom’s entire career has been in private equity and banking. He’d never been in politics before- Jokowi simply asked him to be Minister of Trade. Similarly the Minister for Communications, Rudiantara, spent his entire career running telecommunications companies. In Indonesia they vote for the President & Vice President, and then separately for the legislature. The President can pick his own team for the executive. This is how you get good people in government, because you can pick people with real world domain expertise to run a portfolio. In Australia we end up with lawyers, evangelicals or career politicians. People who don’t have a clue about their portfolio. Imagine trying to run a company, but instead of of being able to pick the best engineer to be Vice President of Engineering, you have to pick it from a pool of lawyers, crazy people or card carrying political hacks. How can we have a science, technology and engineering focused agenda, which the country critically needs, when this is how cabinet gets chosen?

Then we have the problems that are a result of regulatory duplication, confusion and duplication of responsibilities or the mindless populism of absurd policies of the State Governments. Here I think we have some of the biggest problems.

I ended up doing Electrical Engineering completely by accident. I went to one of the best private schools in the country. When I graduated, at careers day, nobody talked about engineering. In fact, nobody even mentioned the word engineering throughout my entire schooling. I honestly thought it had something to do with driving a train.

I was disheartened to go back to that same school, Sydney Grammar, to talk at careers day. The students still thought that engineering had something to do with driving a train.

This is completely nuts, when I told the students that by working in engineering you get to design satellites, self driving cars, virtual reality helmets, design rockets like those SpaceX will one day send to Mars or build the next Facebook, many in the room got excited. Just they didn’t have a clue how to head towards a career in engineering because it wasn’t mentioned once to them in thirteen years of schooling. It’s not just my old school, almost all the schools are like this.

So how do you fix K-12 education in this country so that we can drive innovation in the future? It’s the remit of the bureaucracy of the State Governments.

Trying to get them to all agree to modernise the economy is an exercise in futility. Since taking power, the NSW Government has sold 384 Department of Education properties. That is despite leaked Department of Education documents that report NSW is facing an influx of 15,000 school students a year, and will require $10.8 billion in funding for 7,500 new classrooms and buildings over just 15 years.

If you look at their profit & loss statements you’ll see the bizarre way in which State Governments think.

The biggest revenue generator for NSW is payroll tax. In NSW companies pay $8.4 billion dollars as a result of this idiotic tax which is basically a penalty imposed on you for hiring a lot of people. $8.4 billion that could be better used employing more people. If I hire a lot of people, I should get a discount, not a penalty. 

The second is stamp duty & land tax. NSW collects $7.8 billion of stamp duty. This is a tax that simply makes it expensive to transact. The stamp duty on an average house in Sydney is $42,000, or about 70% of the average NSW citizens’ post tax annual income. The average person has to work for most of year just to be able to transact in the housing market. The illiquidity this tax causes will be one of the biggest pain points behind a housing crash.

The State Government then tries to build a road between all these apartments, and because property and construction costs are too high, Westconnex, a 33 kilometer road, will cost between $20 and $40 billion. Trump’s wall, which is 1600 km long is costed at around $15 billion. 

When the NSW government proposes to build a 14 kilometer tunnel to Manly, it’s costed at $14 billion dollars. That’s $1 million dollars per metre just to build. At $14 billion, that’s about the same price Gotthard tunnel cost, which is the deepest and longest tunnel in the world which goes for 57 kilometers under the Swiss Alps, 2.3 km below the surface of the mountains above and through 73 different kinds of rock at temperatures of up to 46 degrees. Yet a tunnel to Manly costs New South Wales the same price.

This is the absurdity of how State Governments think and operate.

Something is clearly very wrong.

New South Wales also collects $2.4 billion in fees for access to roads, and fines for actually using them. Fines which are erratically enforced through the strategic placement of cameras in areas of maximal revenue, random busts on jaywalkers, through to the ridiculous 350% increase in fines on cyclists for not wearing a helmet, when all the public health policy globally says it’s better to have your citizens ride bikes and get healthy. 

It’s so absurd that in NSW a kid riding home on his bike without a helmet now gets fined more ($319) than the speeding driver doing almost 80kms/hr in a 60 zone that ran over him ($269).

Of course, this gets sold to you again under the banner of ‘health and safety’. But that’s all a load of crap. The only health and safety it’s ensuring is the health and safety of government finances. 

This is why I wouldn’t hold your breath for the deployment of electric cars in Australia. State governments will get a rude shock when all of a sudden car ownership collapses and there are no more fines from speeding, red light cameras or poor driving, let alone a crash in fees from parking meters and parking levies. State governments simply won’t let it happen. They’ll also find an excuse to still stop and search your car even though driving under the influence won’t be an adequate excuse anymore.

Why is this important? Well if you are trying to attract young smart people to come back to Australia to join the technology industry, it’s a bit hard when the hashtag #nannystate is trending on Twitter.

After that, all you are left with of any size are gambling and betting taxes. In NSW this is $2.1 billion. The NSW Government is so addicted to gambling revenue that it has shut down most of Sydney’s nightlife in order to boost this line item by funneling people into the casino or pokies rooms, which has the added benefit that they can turn those entertainment areas into apartment blocks for more stamp duty & land tax.

Again, of course, the general public has all been taken for fools because once more it has been sold to you under the guise of ‘health and safety’. It’s a bit hard to enact structural change in the economy by building a technology industry when every second twenty year old wants to leave because you’ve turned the place into a derelict bumpkin country town.

A little while ago I was sent an essay by Paul Graham of YCombinator, the greatest technology incubator in the world entitled ‘How to make Pittsburgh into a Startup Hub’. The main thesis of this essay was to make it somewhere that 25-29 year olds want to live – build restaurants, cafes, bars and clubs- places that young people want to be. 

About young people he said:

I’ve seen how powerful it is for a city to have those people. Five years ago they shifted the center of gravity of Silicon Valley from the peninsula to San Francisco. Google and Facebook are on the peninsula, but the next generation of big winners are all in SF. The reason the center of gravity shifted was the talent war, for programmers especially. Most 25 to 29 year olds want to live in the city, not down in the boring suburbs. So whether they like it or not, founders know they have to be in the city. I know multiple founders who would have preferred to live down in the Valley proper, but who made themselves move to SF because they knew otherwise they’d lose the talent war.

He then went on to say:

It seems like a city has to be very socially liberal to be a startup hub, and it’s pretty clear why. A city has to tolerate strangeness to be a home for startups, because startups are so strange. And you can’t choose to allow just the forms of strangeness that will turn into big startups, because they’re all intermingled. You have to tolerate all strangeness.

Sydney will never be a technology hub if all the young people want to flee overseas.

You’re kidding yourself if you think they are going to come back one day. In the last 18 years that I have been running technology companies in Australia, out of the scores that have left I’d estimate that less than 10 percent come back. They are at the time of their lives where when they go overseas they usually meet a boy or a girl and eventually settle down. 

Not so long ago the topic of Innovation was discussed on ABC’s Q&A.

Stephen Merity asked: “I’m an Australian programmer working on machine learning and artificial intelligence in San Francisco after studying at Harvard. I want to return to Australia but I fear it won’t ever be the right choice. Research and educational funding has been slashed, the FTTP NBN has been abolished, and my most competent engineer friends have been left with the choice of leaving home for opportunities or stunting themselves by staying in Australia. Even if all that was fixed, it’s not enough to just prevent brain drain, we need to attract the world’s best talent to Australia. Does the Liberal government truly believe their lacklustre policies can start fixing this divide?’

The response from Labor’s Ed Husic was ‘Okay. So on the issue of the brain drain, you can take it two ways. Obviously you can, as Stephen was saying, there is some negative factors that drove him away and I’ve had a father email me of a son who said ‘I had to leave because I didn’t have opportunities, I had to go elsewhere to pursue’, in terms of his science career, you know, pursue opportunity elsewhere. I actually also see the positive in that, you know, a lot of the start-ups, a lot of people that are moving overseas are pursuing opportunity to grow and they’re going to gain experience and potentially come back and replenish our pool. The key for us is if people are leaving, what’s being done to backfill the places? What’s being done to replenish the talent pool?’

This is like a business saying well we have no customer retention because our product is crap, so let’s go find some new customers.

I taught Stephen Merity here at the University of Sydney. He also worked for me at Freelancer. He’s one of the top graduates in computer science that this University and country has ever produced. He’s never coming back.

What about trying to attract more senior people to Sydney?

I’ll tell you what my experience was like trying to attract senior technology talent from Silicon Valley.

I called the top recruiter for engineering in Silicon Valley not so long ago for Vice President role. We are talking a top role, very highly paid. The recruiter that placed the role would earn a hefty six figure commission. This recruiter had placed VPs at Twitter, Uber, Pinterest.

The call with their principal lasted less than a minute “Look, as much as I would like to help you, the answer is no. We just turned down [another billion dollar Australian technology company] for a similar role. We tried placing a split role, half time in Australia and half time in the US. Nobody wanted that. We’ve tried in the past looking, nobody from Silicon Valley wants to come to Australia for any role. We used to think maybe someone would move for a lifestyle thing, but they don’t want to do that anymore.

“It’s not just that they are being paid well, it’s that it’s a backwater and they consider it as two moves – they have to move once to get over there but more importantly when they finish they have to move back and it’s hard from them to break back in being out of the action.

“I’m really sorry but we won’t even look at taking a placement for Australia”.

We have serious problems in this country. And I think they are about to become very serious. We are on the wrong trajectory.

I’ll leave you now with one final thought.

Harvard University created something called the Economic Complexity Index. This measure ranks countries based upon their economic diversity- how many different products a country can produce- and economic ubiquity- how many countries are able to make those products. 

Where does Australia rank on the global scale? 

Worse than Mauritius, Macedonia, Oman, Moldova, Vietnam, Egypt and Botswana.

Worse than Georgia, Kuwait, Colombia, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and El Salvador.

Sitting embarrassingly and awkwardly between Kazakhstan and Jamaica, and worse than the Dominican Republic at 74 and Guatemala at 75, 

Australia ranks off the deep end of the scale at 77th place. 

Australia’s ranking in the Harvard Economic Complexity Index 1995-2015. Source: Harvard

77th and falling. After Tajikistan, Australia had the fourth highest loss in Economic Complexity over the last decade, falling 18 places.

Australia keeps good company in the Harvard Economic Complexity Index at position #77. Source: Harvard

Thirty years ago, a time when our Economic Complexity ranked substantially higher, these words rocked the nation:

“We took the view in the 1970s – it’s the old cargo cult mentality of Australia that she’ll be right. This is the lucky country, we can dig up another mound of rock and someone will buy it from us, or we can sell a bit of wheat and bit of wool and we will just sort of muddle through … In the 1970s … we became a third world economy selling raw materials and food and we let the sophisticated industrial side fall apart … If in the final analysis Australia is so undisciplined, so disinterested in its salvation and its economic well being, that it doesn’t deal with these fundamental problems … Then you are gone. You are a banana republic.”

Looks like Paul Keating was right.

The national conversation needs to change, now.

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Originally published by Matt Barrie & Craig Tindale