Australia’s reforms to tech firms need more support than the economy is giving | Sushma Dhingra

The tech monopolies are too big to fail

The Liberals have an ambitious plan to tame the tech monopolies, but the tech industry is poised to hand them a huge advantage by opposing the regulation.

When the Australian Liberals came to power, one of their big promises was to start dismantling Australia’s “Asian Century strategy” and the Asian Century White Paper that supported it. By removing the explicit support for economic integration with Asia, and strengthening ties with friends from the west, the Liberals made it more likely that one of the two countries to win this war will be Australia, as China’s allies North Korea and Iran wither. The Asian Century: Rethinking American Strategy was the first leg of the policy. The second will be the Liberal party’s promised digital economy plan.

The Asian Century drive was not a campaign promise, of course. After Labor replaced the conservative government in the 2006 election, John Howard said they would go on a “socialist” rampage, ruling without accountability. So they started racking up tax concessions for corporations and offering a wildly-priced payroll tax to small business. The Asian Century drive was one of Labor’s first items of business.

The Liberal plan to tame the tech monopolies, well, it too was a campaign promise. But as the Liberal party really does seem committed to putting this idea into action, it’s important to remember that this policy looks like it was built on a foundation of good faith. After all, it’s at least the last of the promises the Liberal party made to Australians ahead of the 2016 election.

Yes, there is the tech industry’s dislike of the regulation the Liberals were proposing. But while it seems more than a bit disingenuous to slap down the Liberals for taking this position after pre-election commitments, there has been a history of tech companies going against their own strategic interests to weaken regulation. In 2015, Google was against efforts to make it easier for internet users to leave their account due to fears of user security breaches and PR nightmares. Then in 2016, after being criticised for its behavior in China, Facebook modified its site to make it easier for users to leave accounts and avoid the adverts that are scheduled to start every year now.

Nevertheless, this should make Australians more concerned than ever about the power of Big Tech, as the tech industry has the power to get this regulation over the line. The Liberal plan to tame the tech monopolies relies on a proposed ban on monopoly pricing. Free to use platforms like Facebook and Google, government contracts and regulatory bodies were supposed to help force a level playing field for small and medium-sized businesses. But what are they? Why should the tech monopolies’ unfairness cost small businesses all the while, while it should be the government’s duty to fix it. It’s more likely than not that the tech monopolies will resist such reforms, and play this role all while loudly banging on about how much these “independent” firms help small businesses.

You can’t fix inequality with the welfare state

When we first came to office, we said this was one of the biggest fights we would have with Labor over the years to come. And while that may have been true, it turns out it was also true to be one of the most underestimated.

Our fight was never about whether welfare benefits were important, but more about how government plays an important role in ensuring that people can prosper from a society that invests in them. Inequality existed long before the welfare state, and only became bigger after welfare was introduced. And yet in government, we have been unable to get Labor to recognise this. It was impossible to convince them to eliminate the level of inequality that Labor’s policy and policy ideas would increase. And it was beyond impossible to get them to stop exacerbating it through their demeaning, dishonest and censorious rhetoric.

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The government has now been forced to take on this ideology and, unsurprisingly, it’s not winning. We are coming closer to defeating it, though, through the policies we’ve developed.

The Liberal plan to tame the tech monopolies is an important part of this. It’s the start of the fight to usher in a new approach to poverty and inequality in this country, a fight that will surely continue in this next term of government.

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