National says it wants to double the value of tech sector exports from $8 billion to $16b by 2030, in part through a series of measures to address the skills gap.
The party's headline measures are to:
• Establish a Minister for Technology
• Offer 1000 tertiary scholarships per year targeted at students from low decile schools to undertake science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) degrees
• Establish a Stem-focused partnership school and restoring funding for specialist ICT graduate schools.
• Introduce a fast-track technology skills visa
• Invest $1b in technology infrastructure upgrades with the aim of achieving 100 megabit per second uncapped internet speeds for everyone using Ultrafast Broadband or UFB or Rural Broadband Initiative (RBI) faster internet by 2030. For rural users, that would be a 5x speed boost.
• Establish three targeted investment funds for tech start-ups worth $200 million each, with the cost split evenly between government and the private sector.
• Develop the world's most tech-friendly regulation.
The party says the policies would cost a combined $1.29 billion over the next four years.
Today's announcement continues National and Labour's extended period of broad consensus on tech policy on public-private broadband infrastructure, public-private angel funds and now R&D.
The current Government has continued the public-private broadband rollouts begun by John Key's administration - which in turn built on initiatives begun by David Cunliffe and Paul Swain during the Clark-Cullen government. It has been a broad arc of consistent policy across nearly two decades, compared to the chopping and changing in strategy with Australia's National Broadband Network as different governments have come and gone. Arguably, New Zealand has been stronger for it - particularly for remote-working during lockdowns.
In keeping with historic trends, National is planning to out-Labour Labour by increasing spending on broadband infrastructure by $1 billion - though it's worth noting that its potential coalition partner Act was split down the middle on backing the UFB, meaning National had to rely on its then-coalition partner the Māori Party to get the original UFB rollout up and running.
In venture capital, the current Government mated the old NZ Venture Investment Fund with money from the Super Fund to create the new $300m Elevate Fund - whose investments will be matched by private partners for a $600m total spend.
National says it prefers three $200m funds (each a 50/50 mix of public and private money) with two focused on early-state companies and one aimed at more advanced firms after Series A capital. It's a slightly different slice-and-dice of the same.
A point of difference at the last election was research and development: National favoured maintaining Callaghan Innovation's Growth Grants, with saw around $300m in matching R&D funds granted to a select group of companies in what critics like Sam Morgan called a "government picking winners" strategy.
Labour vowed to scrap the grants and use the money to fund a universal tax break for R&D; a policy that it duly implemented.
This time around, National's policy makes no mention of scrapping the universal tax break for R&D. Labour and National now seem on the same page here. National does say it would make our regulatory environment more attractive - although, given the wide latitude given to the likes of Rocket Lab, and the Google-backed Wisk testing pilot-less flying cars near Christchurch, things are relatively open already.
One point of difference is National's plan to have a dedicated Minister of Technology once again, for focus. The incumbent Kris Faafoi is also Minister of Broadcasting - something Labour argues is better given the convergence between technology and content delivery. That being said, list MP Melissa Lee is currently National's spokeswoman across both tech and broadcasting issues.
Good start, more detail needed
Last week, tech pundit Paul Brislen criticised all of the political parties for their near-lack of technology policy. At that point, only the Greens had an explicit ICT policy, which Brislen judged big on lofty goals and short on practicalities.
What's the commentator's reaction to National's effort, now that' it's on the table?
"I'd give it a merit - it's a good start and there's potential there but it's missing some key detail," Brislen says.
"It's great to see the focus on training and more of that would be welcome. 1000 scholarships a year won't go very far, nor will a graduate programme of 12 PhDs per year in an industry where very few bother with doctorate-level training, but it's a good start.
"Likewise it's good to see a new tech visa being suggested.
"As far as creating 100,000 jobs there's no word on how they will do that, or what 'developing the world's most tech-friendly regulation' actually means," Brislen says.
He thinks the new technology funds represent, "yet more public money being thrown at the problem of investment when we should be resetting the parameters and encouraging private investment in the tech sector."
Brislen adds: "Getting 100Mbit/s out to 90 per cent of the population is a great goal but I suspect $1bn is a bit on the light side to achieve it, especially when that amount also includes beefing up cybersecurity, getting rid of blackspots on the mobile networks, securing backhaul capability for rural and supporting the 5G deployment."
National does mention cybersecurity in its announcement, but only in passing (it pledges to "Improve cybersecurity defences across our communications networks through equipment upgrades and procurement of tools to deal with future attacks" and it is not included in a breakout table of costed policies.
With New Zealand businesses reeling under a barrage of cyber-attacks, and our government failing to follow Australia's example of dramatically increasing cyber-defence spending, it's arguably an opportunity missed by National.
Scholarships, broadband investment appeal
Technology Users Association of head Craig Young says "Tuanz is pleased to see that the National Party's tech policy is looking long-term to develop not only the sector but to improve access to education and connectivity."
Young says "the announcement of a Minister for Technology is really just a renaming of the current portfolios."
But he sees it as a starting point. Tuanz' main wish is that the portfolio is the appointee's primary ministry - and that they are a minister insider cabinet, not outside.
"We're also supportive of the two major investments - the scholarship programme to encourage lower decile students to take up technology as a career, and the investment in upgrading not only UFB, but also the RBI programmes to uncapped 100Mbps services in the next 10 years," Young says.
"One of the significant calls at last week's Rural Connectivity Symposium was for decision-makers in Government to take a non-partisan 10-year view on connectivity across Aotearoa."