When COVID-19 made many of us shut our doors, something happened. Digital doors opened in their place. We embraced technology like never before to keep businesses running, people working, kids learning and ourselves entertained.

We now have a growing digital economy – something I recently highlighted as a significant opportunity we as a nation should seize. With businesses reopening and social restrictions relaxing, (albeit with some constraints given the risk of increased infections), we should stop thinking about post-COVID-19 as only a “recovery”, but as an opportunity to grow the economy in the long term and put us in a better global position.

From the Industrial Revolution to the Great Depression, profound disruption has brought opportunities to be bold, to re-think conventional wisdom, and seek out new economic and social opportunities to help build a stronger future for everyone.

COVID-19 has proved change can be made and embraced quickly. During the height of the pandemic we saw a huge acceleration in digitisation – from telehealth to online learning, remote working and e-commerce – and the fast-tracking of numerous policy and regulatory changes to break down long-standing digital roadblocks.

As a nation we have achieved in a few months what might have taken us years to progress, and it is important that we now do not lose that momentum.

However, a single company, a single organisation or a single government cannot achieve this on its own. Through coalitions across the public and private sectors, we can affect change by removing barriers and incentivising growth so it is faster and more pervasive.

Over the past few weeks I have been Chairing the Business Council of Australia (BCA) Digital Economy and Telecommunications working group, and this is exactly our aim: to map out tangible ways we can put Australia at the forefront of a digital future – paperless, cashless and virtual – so we can come out of this stronger as a nation, not just bounce back.

This requires reform in five key areas: 

  1. Digital transition 
  2. Infrastructure 
  3. Regulation 
  4. Cyber Security 
  5. Skills  

1. Digital transition

Australia’s local businesses and enterprises pivoted quickly to ensure they could keep running – from working from home, to medical practitioners delivering telehealth consultations, we even saw interactive online cheese tasting sessions!

Technology was at the core of many businesses that adapted well. That said, a range of recent studies found that Australia’s small-to-medium enterprise sector could be substantially enhanced by a greater investment in digitising their internal processes and developing an effective web presence. Xero’s September 2019 Small Business insights indicate that businesses that boost technology spending the most grow revenue three times faster than those with the weakest technology spend.

Some options we are exploring include potential incentives and assistance to help the small business sector access the benefits of greater digitisation of business processes and an improved online presence.

2. Infrastructure

Connectivity is what powered many workers and businesses during the crisis, ensuring they could continue running.

For Australians to effectively participate in the digital economy, they need access to affordable, fast and reliable telecommunications services.

Telstra announced $500 million of capital expenditure planned for the second half of FY21 would be brought forward into the calendar year 2020, to increase capacity in our network, accelerate our roll-out of 5G, power more people with connectivity as well as provide a much needed economic boost.

With the completion of the nbn rollout nearing, there is now an opportunity for the Australian Government to develop its future vision for Australia’s digital economy and the telecommunications industry for the next decade – a vision that is technology agnostic and provides an environment that is pro-investment and pro-innovation.

3. Regulation

Governments and regulators play a significant role in enabling a digital nation, as well as ensuring as many Australians as possible can take advantage of the opportunity.

They took significant steps forward during the pandemic, including measures to help provide better access to telehealth, virtual AGMs, electronic execution of documents, and national electronic pharmacy scripts.

In the spirit of those last two initiatives, the BCA will be recommending a systematic review of regulation from federal to state to local, to eliminate barriers to a virtual and paperless society and a cashless economy.

4. Cyber Security

Last week was a timely reminder about the importance of strong cyber security, with the Prime Minister highlighting major cyber-attacks that are putting pressure on critical infrastructure and public services.

Cyber security is a large and growing area of risk for the security of the nation, and COVID-19 has increased that risk with so many people working and studying from home, away from traditional security measures.

Separately, I have been working with the Government chairing its industry advisory panel on the development of the 2020 Cyber Security Strategy. This will contain a number of significant initiatives to strengthen our collective cyber defences.

5. Skills

It was inspiring to see the flexible and innovative mindset many businesses adopted during the pandemic. This mindset needs to be deeply ingrained in Australian culture and to do this we need to invest in science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics (STEAM) skills.

We have partnered with five Australian universities to jointly develop critical skills and capabilities in areas such as network and software engineering, cyber security and data analytics. But we also need more people entering technology courses, and particularly more diverse talent, including female and Indigenous students.

We are also working on a suite of proposed improvements to the way industry and the education system collaborate, to ensure Australia’s school leavers have the foundation skills needed to succeed in the modern digital economy.

Australia’s opportunity to lead

The economic downturn caused by COVID-19 has left many businesses and families doing it tough and we need to do everything we can to build a stronger economy in the longer term in response.

Australia has been a world leader when it comes to protecting the nation’s health and economy during COVID-19, and now we can lead again. It will be important in so doing that this includes success for all of our communities.

I recently posed the question What type of historical moment will this turn out to be?. As life slowly begins to return to some type of normal, we are approaching a sliding doors moment.

We can go back to the way things were, or we can build on the innovative, can-do mindset that drove so many positive changes during the most significant disruption to daily life in a generation.