ABC RADIO SYDNEY
TUESDAY, 26 NOVEMBER 2019
SUBJECTS: Innovation + Equality; Westpac.
WENDY HARMER: We have a text here saying ‘more good news stories please’. Maybe we've got one, maybe we can put Andrew Leigh under the category of a good news story. He's a Federal Labor MP, co-author of a new book, Innovation + Equality: how to create a future that is more Star Trek than Terminator.
ROBBIE BUCK: Well we hope it's a good news story, but is it going to be a good news story? That's the big question. Good morning, Andrew.
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TREASURY AND CHARITIES: Morning, Robbie. I think it's a good news story, but I'm not sure it's as good news as kids playing in gardens.
HARMER: [laughter] Well, we'll do our best.
LEIGH: You've set the bar.
HARMER: Alright, now you make the point in this book that you have written with Joshua Gans - tell us about your partner in crime here.
LEIGH: So Joshua is an expat Aussie, a professor at the University of Toronto. We got together because he's been working on innovation a long time, I've been working on equality a long time, and lots of people, Wendy, say that you've got to choose between one or the other. They say society either needs to go for growth or fairness, but you can't have both. We think there's actually a whole set of sweet-spot policies that allow Australia to become more innovative and more egalitarian.
HARMER: How do we get to the point where we think that innovation – and are we talking, just to clarify terms here, are we talking as if innovation and growth are the same thing?
LEIGH: Well, innovation is a core driver of growth, and technological progress is one of the big things that that underlies productivity.
HARMER: Alright. I just wanted to clarify that.
HARMER: Okay. So how do we get to the point then where we think that innovation is something that can't be inclusive and that drives inequality? Give us the examples of where that is so.
LEIGH: People have seen a lot of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs become billionaires and thought that innovation is fundamentally about growing the size of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The thing is when you look at how innovation starts off, very often it's those barriers to getting going that matter much more than the potential prize at the end. So Joshua and I look to ways of getting potential Marie Curies and Albert Einsteins who might grow up in disadvantaged circumstances and might not have the access to resources and mentors that someone in an affluent family would have. We really admire the work that the iAccelerate incubator is doing at the University of Wollongong, taking former manufacturing workers and encouraging them into 3D printing. We admire the work being done by UTS Startups, which is aiming to give half of their students a start-up experience, or the University of Western Sydney Launchpad, working with firms in Penrith, Liverpool and Parramatta. Finding entrepreneurship in unexpected places doesn't just make us more equal, it also makes us grow faster.
HARMER: So when can you say we can have either a Star Trek future or a Terminator future, tell me what you think - what do they both embody?
LEIGH: Star Trek is the ultimate utopia, in which technology allows us to live better lives. Terminator the dystopia, in which a machine intelligence takes over the system. I think many people worry that artificial intelligence could spell the end of their job and that they wouldn't be able to find another good job in the future. Joshua and I say it's impossible to predict the future. Anyone who tells you they've got a perfect crystal ball and they know which industries will succeed and fail is just making it up. But we need to think about creating more flexibility. Education programs that provide generalist skills and allow that continuous learning that we're going to need in a world in which artificial intelligence will change all of our jobs. Providing a social safety net that allows people to fail and to try again, which is so crucial to the experience of entrepreneurship.
BUCK: Andrew, these are all lofty ideals, but I guess we must point, you can point to just recent history in the way that a lot of innovation has developed and the effect that it's had. And even looking at the concentration say of media for example or social media, and the fact that very few companies that are controlling a lot more of it – Facebook, the Googles of this world, etcetera - and whilst they're bought a lot of opportunities and advantages to people, they've also sort of removed some of those I guess, those community aspects that perhaps would have taken that space in the past. Does recent history mean that the direction that we're heading is not quite as rosy as you'd like to think?
LEIGH: Robbie, like you I worry a lot about the growth of monopolies, and particularly some of these big tech monopolies - the so-called FAANGs. We need to make sure that we get more entrepreneurship by removing barriers to entry for new entrants. We suggest in the area of social media platforms for example, that there should be more data and identity portability, allowing new social networks to emerge rather than ensuring that the incumbents lock in. Strong competition policy isn't just good for consumers - it's also good for employees who then have more places that they can choose as to where to work. And of course it's good for innovation, because a lazy monopolist doesn't do the research and development that a hungry competitive firm will be inclined to do.
HARMER: Now we're speaking with Dr Andrew Leigh. He's a Federal Labor MP, co author of Innovation + Equality. You're known around the traps as a bit of a policy wonk, Andrew.
LEIGH: [laughter] I'll take that as a compliment, Wendy.
HARMER: How many how many of your colleagues in Parliament do you imagine will read this book?
LEIGH: I'm expecting 100 per cent of them. There’s going to be a test at the end of the year-
LEIGH: We’ve got two weeks to go and what I'm hoping is we can have a test that no one gets on a plane in Canberra airport unless they can recite our 20 policy proposals.
BUCK: There's going to be some very, very lonely MPs in Canberra over Christmas by the sounds of this.
LEIGH: We tell a lot of stories. We've got the story about how America once banned the sale of sliced bread. We tell about the invention of forceps, and how they were kept secret for hundreds of years because there wasn't a patent system in place. Unexpected inventions like the Segway, which people expected to succeed and turned out to be a terrible flop. So it's a book of stories, not just dry policy.
HARMER: Okay. Yes well, I'm opening up here on Chapter 7 – ‘providing insurance’ - and it opens with the 1967 film The Graduate. Does that say more about you than anyone else?
LEIGH: [laughter] There may be too many Gen-X references in there, you're quite right, Wendy. But we talk about The Graduate because of that moment in the film where Mr McGuire corners Ben Braddock at the party and says ‘I've got one piece of advice for you – plastics’. We say that there's a lot of people around spruiking today's equivalent of plastics, whether it's the blockchain or mathematics, telling young people to narrowly focus on a single thing. We think there's no equivalent of plastics. The world is fundamentally uncertain and you should design your policies and as a young person pick your career opportunities based on that uncertainty.
HARMER: Because of course in the movie, as you say here, the needless to say the hero ignores this life advice-
LEIGH: And that's exactly what we advocate today, Wendy.
BUCK: Andrew, what is the reception like for people who work in these really advanced industries when it comes to those suggestions about equality, about the nature of what technology should do for the community, for people in general? I know that there's a lot of criticism about a lot of modern technology and particularly software etcetera, because it's built by people in places like Silicon Valley where they've just come, you know, blokes coming straight out of university and they're building social networks, but their own sense of social network is very different to what the rest of the community can be.
LEIGH: Absolutely, Robbie. There's been a lot of concern among Silicon Valley about the impact of their technologies on our community life (and there's other work I'm doing on that issue), but also on the impact on inequality. But I think sometimes they've grabbed for the wrong solutions. So there's been a bit of a push for this idea of a universal basic income, which Joshua and I say doesn't work purely on the numbers. It's difficult to imagine a tax base that would support a handout to allow people to live decent lives. But also it gives up on the idea of work which gives meaning to so many of our of our lives. It's difficult to find a country around the world which has low employment rates, and yet a happy population. So we think it's a matter of ensuring the people have the skills they need, MOOCs - online learning - have great potential, if we integrate them better into universities. We advocate improving the quality of vocational training as well, which needs to really step up for the 21st century.
HARMER: And is there a place for us, as I mentioned earlier, not you know a bunch of little drones working in a cupboard, is there any place for us in this world of AI?
LEIGH: Absolutely. Forecasts that jobs would disappear as a result of technology go back to the Luddites in the 1810 - even Keynes in the 1930s - and they've been proven wrong. Joshua and I are temperamentally optimistic, and we do think that artificial intelligence will not only make lives better for people as consumers, but also as workers. Jobs will be different, but working with augmented systems that allow us to do our jobs better can provide greater satisfaction. The best chess players now are humans who are using several chess machines. That meld of computers and humans is the kind of thing I think we'll increasingly see in a whole lot of other contexts.
HARMER: Okay. Well, just before you go - because we've got you on a landline there, that cuts off pretty soon - can you, I wonder if you could make a comment. We just heard the news that’s come through in the last hour that Westpac’s chief executive Brian Hartzer will step down in the wake of allegations that the bank committed those 23 million breaches of Australia's anti money laundering laws. Can you make a comment in your capacity as Deputy Chair of the Standing Committee on Economics?
LEIGH: I welcome the decision. I think it was the right decision for Brian Hartzer to make, but it doesn't end the matter. Westpac is still accountable for these 23 million breaches. It's just extraordinary, Wendy, thinking about the impact that's had and particularly the aspects of it going to child exploitation. I think Australians will be looking for Westpac to be fully accountable and to explain how it's changed its systems to make sure this doesn't happen in the future. Government's got a core interest in this - Westpac is the number one banker to the public sector. So I think governments will be looking at it very closely.
BUCK: That said Andrew, it seems that these kinds of revelations come with a certain monotony. We tend to- even after a banking royal commission, we're still hearing about these kinds of transgressions.
LEIGH: Absolutely. We on the House Economics Committee have been scrutinizing the big four banks since the royal commission was handed down, and we've continued to find things that we're dissatisfied with. It's important these institutions are held to account. The banking sector isn't just any other sector. Finance is the lifeblood of the economy. If it goes wrong, then there are huge risks for the productive capacity of the rest of the economy. We have a monopoly challenge in banking, as we do in many other sectors of the economy. We have to make sure that that doesn't lead to bad behaviour of the kind exposed in the royal commission and just this past week.
HARMER: Alright. Well, thank you very much Andrew, for dropping by. And the book is Innovation + Equality: How to Create a Future That is More Star Trek than Terminator. I vote a tick for that one. And you've written it with Joshua Gans. Thank you.
LEIGH: Thanks so much.
HARMER: All the best for the book, and I hope that everyone reads it. Good on you.
LEIGH: Thanks, Wendy. Thanks, Robbie.
BUCK: Here's a song for you, Andrew.
[Simon & Garfunkel’s Mrs Robinson plays]
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.