ABC 612 Brisbane

26 September 2017




SUBJECT/S: New book Changing Jobs: The Fair Go in the New Machine Age; National Broadband Network


STEVE AUSTIN: You'll be interested to hear my next guest talk about the whole idea of work and the direction of the future. I quite like the idea that work is a vocation, not necessarily something you do because you're forced to, although that's a luxury perhaps of this time or this job in fact. But my guest Jim Chalmers teamed up with Mike Quigley. Now you know Mike Quigley is the former chief executive of NBN Co. He's teamed up with Mike to write a book about technological change and inequality and the labour force and the like called Changing Jobs: The Fair Go in the New Machine Age. They argue that tech basically has the potential to make things worse in Australia if it's not addressed. It can skew the power relationship and have consequences for wages and employment conditions. Jim Chalmers is the Shadow Finance spokesperson for the ALP federally. Thanks for coming in.


JIM CHALMERS, SHADOW MINISTER FOR FINANCE: Good morning, Steve. Thanks for the chance to have a chat.


AUSTIN: Give me the overview of your arguments. Why aren't you an evangelist for technological change? 


CHALMERS: We do think that there's a tremendous upside to technological change. It has the capacity to address, if not overcome, so many of the barriers to a good life in a thriving society. But there's a lot of anxiety out there as well, and your listeners would be familiar with that anxiety. People worry about where they fit, indeed whether they fit, in an economy and workplaces in particular which are increasingly dominated by machines. And what Mike Quigley and I think is it shouldn't be beyond us to work out how we address the difficult consequences of technological change without denying ourselves those broader benefits.


AUSTIN: Is there any upside to losing your job to technology?


CHALMERS: Well there's no upside to losing a job that you are keen to keep. But there is an upside to technology in aggregate. The point that we make is that when technologies change rapidly as they are now, it impacts people in a disproportionate way.  We celebrate people who do well out of technological change but, as you know and your listeners know, a lot of people miss out. What we're trying to do is say we want these new bursts of technology, but we don't want them accompanied by new bursts of inequality.


AUSTIN: I interview people occasionally who say that losing their job was a liberating moment. In other words, it changed the direction of their life path. You know, they discovered something about themselves or they discovered something new. So it's not all bad losing your job in my mind. It might be in the Labor Party, but in life it's not all bad.


CHALMERS: That's an uplifting story really, but I don't think that's the majority view. I think people are very worried, particularly as they get older in the workforce, they're worried that they'll end up somehow on the employment scrapheap. And so we've got a whole bunch of ideas in the book, which is really about how we ensure that as people transition between jobs more frequently that the social security system, the industrial relations system, our training, lifelong learning - all of these things - keep pace. Because, in our view, we're kidding ourselves if we think that we can have this enormous change in the workplace and not have it accompanied by big changes in our schools and our policies and in our personal mindset as well.


AUSTIN: What are the major new bursts of technology that threaten the status quo?


CHALMERS: The big change that we're going through now is the growth in artificial intelligence. Artificial intelligence, of course, is a system which can increasingly perform tasks that we usually associate with humans - things like visual perception, speech recognition, translation; all of these things that we have considered historically and traditionally to be human traits. Artificial intelligence increasingly has the capacity to do that. Often it does that via robotics and other technology as well. The reason we're getting this big burst in artificial intelligence is really two things. We've got this extraordinary explosion in computing power at the same time as we've got the sophistication of algorithms and big data which can analyse that big data. And so we're getting machines that can effectively learn as they process things and progress through things and that's how they pick up those human traits.


AUSTIN: Any other ones? I'm thinking 3D printing in my mind, but are there any other big technological changes that are potentially really disruptive?


CHALMERS: Yeah, they're almost limitless but 3D printing is a terrific example and even if you spend as much time in schools as I do in my community, 3D printing's taken off at the school level, which is terrific to see for those schools that have the resources to get a 3D printer. You can see how it's even changing the way people learn. It's changing the way that people come up with new products and prototypes for new products they want to sell on the market; all kinds of things 3D printing can change in dramatic ways.


AUSTIN: My guest is Jim Chalmers. In my mind, the book reads a little bit like a conservative book. I'm not trying to wind you up, but there's a desire in the book by you and Mike to maintain the status quo almost. In other words, you try to drag the old arguments into the new world of technology. Can you address that?

CHALMERS: I think it's almost precisely the opposite. (Laughs)


AUSTIN: Great, great. Tell me why!


CHALMERS: Not just because you've labelled it a conservative book - I think it's a very progressive book.


AUSTIN: Well, I mean conservatives try and preserve the good things of the past, don't they?


CHALMERS: Right, yeah, indeed. What we're trying to say is that there are three paths we can choose from.




CHALMERS: And the first path is to just let technology rip. Some people will do well, lots of people will do badly. So be it, that's how it is. Let's deal with it and move on.


AUSTIN: You hate that? That's the panic mode?


CHALMERS: I loathe that.


AUSTIN: You loathe that.


CHALMERS: That's the whole, you know, "these are exciting times to be alive" and all of those sort of lectures that we get from others.


AUSTIN: So you hate Malcolm Turnbull's model of the future?


CHALMERS: I think collectively, Australia is not real keen on that model, that "let it rip" model. But there's another path too which is just as destructive and just as dishonest, and that's the one that pretends that we can somehow hold these changes back. And if you were looking for a political association there, the sort of One Nation 1950s model, which says that "let's just deny ourselves the benefits of these technological changes". That is equally as undesirable as the first path.


AUSTIN: You can't hold them back.


CHALMERS: Exactly right.


AUSTIN: It's understandable that you want to, but you can't do it.


CHALMERS: I can understand why people have that instinct. But the best path for us to go down as a country, and the path that Mike Quigley and I have chosen is to say "look, let's see where we can make meaningful interventions, let's see whether there's things we can do in schools..."


AUSTIN: There's that old world idea - intervention in the market.


CHALMERS: I don't necessarily think it is old world. We're not talking about traditional types of interventions, we're talking about very progressive, very modern, new ways of doing things. For example, in the social security system things like income smoothing which says: OK, if you graduate from Grade 12 at the moment, you're likely to have 17 different employers. You're likely to have five completely different careers. You're likely to change jobs every three years or so. So what we're trying to say is, the old social security system cannot pace with that pace of change. So how do we need to change the way that social security is done to keep up with that? And there's heaps of examples. Most of the 33 recommendations are quite progressive. None of them are backward looking. If your point is that we want to give people the sense of security that they feel like they've lost in very uncertain times, and that probably is a very worthy thing for us to do, but we're doing it in very different ways.


AUSTIN: I guess I'm suspicious when people say "I'm going to make you feel better". Life is always insecure. Life is always unexpected. Whether it be your family or your job or something happens in your country or your nation economically or politically, you have to sort of plan for the unplannable. It's called resilience in other words. It's more important in my mind to go for resilience.


CHALMERS: I think there's something in that, Steve. I think I agree with what you're saying there. But things are very unpredictable. Let me give you two examples as they relate to technological change. First, driverless cars. The difference between when some people think that our roads will be full of driverless cars is something like 50 years of more. Some companies like Nissan, I think BMW say we'll have driverless cars by 2020 and 2021.


AUSTIN: I don't think it's going to happen, personally. You know why?


CHALMERS: Yeah, that seems unlikely now, but the Boston Consulting Group says we'll have driverless cars by 2075, so you can see that those predictions are wildly different. The same is true for how many jobs will be lost to automation and artificial intelligence. Those estimates ranged between five per cent and 47 per cent. Very unpredictable.


AUSTIN: (Laughs) Yeah.


CHALMERS: And I'll give you one more. There's this Chinese strategy game called Go.




CHALMERS: It's a 3000-year-old game. It's like chess, but it's more complex than chess. It's got more moves than chess.


AUSTIN: It's almost three-dimensional chess.


CHALMERS: And it's extraordinarily complex. And the prediction was that with the best artificial intelligence, maybe a machine could beat the world champion by 2021. That happened earlier this year. So predictions can be wildly out.


AUSTIN: I take your point. One of the things on driverless cars and why I think it's not going to happen is that human beings, people like you and me, actually enjoy driving them. We actually do it because we actually find it pleasurable. I ride motorcycles because I find it really pleasurable. I think a car is not just a function. You know, there's something more to it. Otherwise, we'd all be driving Toyota Corollas, but some people want to drive Maserati’s and supercharged Bentleys and that sort of stuff. In other words, it's not just "I have to get from A to B". 


CHALMERS: Driverless cars are something that attract a lot of attention. I think that we'll see them in highly-controlled spaces, maybe university campuses or logistics warehouses or things like that. There will be a long leading edge before our freeways are dominated by driverless cars.


AUSTIN: I want to play you a grab from a guy I interviewed last week. I'm calling him "Hologram Kid". His name is Scott Millar. Scott runs Bop Industries. He's from a school I think in your electorate. So he's invented a hologram. I'll play you what he said. I asked him whether or not he was concerned that he might not have a full-time job in the future, like a long-term permanent job. This is Scott's answer:


SCOTT MILLAR (file audio): Young people have so often been limited to hospitality or service jobs just because they don't have any experience in anything else. Now they can become freelancers. They can do jobs that they're really passionate about, developing their skills at a younger age so then...


AUSTIN: So you're not afraid of a part-time job future?


MILLAR: No, I don't think so. It's going to be really exciting and one thing that we're looking at a lot in school is how we're going to have probably seven different professions over the span of our careers. It's going to be really exciting. We're going to get to work in so many different areas and use the skills that we've learned in previous professions to develop our careers further, which is going to be really exciting.


AUSTIN: So my question is that guys like Scott, they like the gig economy idea. They like the part-time nature of employment because they can go from this great project, then they can go to another great project. In other words, they want the change. Whereas the old sort of Labor idea was job security, income security, permanency, unfair dismissal. And that's where I'm sort of heading with that old Labor idea, versus the bold new future that Scott Millar and his mates are interested in.


CHALMERS: I don't think they're incompatible. But first on Scott, I mean that's inspiring to hear a young person speak in that way. There's another young guy who went to school in my electorate called Taj Pabari.


AUSTIN: I know Taj well.


CHALMERS: Well Taj has made a company which is all about do-it-yourself computers.


AUSTIN: Fiftysix Creations.


CHALMERS: Yeah, and he's extraordinary. Scott's obviously an extraordinary person too.


AUSTIN: Similar cyber-story.

CHALMERS: Yeah, and the same kind of attitude.


AUSTIN: Had his company before he finished Year 12!


CHALMERS: Yeah, that's right. (Laughs)


AUSTIN: (Laughs) Frighteningly talented!


CHALMERS: I was at Taj's graduation sitting up on the stage looking at him and envying Taj!  He's a ripper. I guess my point is we want more people to have that kind of confidence. And we want more people to have those kind of skills, to make that kind of career possible. And yes, some people like to be able to chop and change, some people like to be able to set their own hours, some people like to be able to pick their own projects. Not everybody has the capacity to do that. And I agree with you that is the case. Where I think you and I diverge is I actually think it is Labor and you described old Labor as security and that sort of thing. I think the new Labor project, lowercase "n" before you get all Blairite on me, Steve!


AUSTIN: (Laughs) Slap!


CHALMERS: I can see that look on your face, but I think the task for our Labor Party, the modern Labor Party that I'm a part of - and we've got colleagues, Ed Husic, Brendan O'Connor...


AUSTIN: Andrew Leigh.


CHALMERS: ...Andrew Leigh, all working on this. Most of us are thinking about these issues very deeply. What we're trying to say is, "how do we put the opportunities of the machine age within reach of more people?". That's the Labor task. The Labor is not as you describe it. It may have been historically and traditionally, but we see it very differently.


AUSTIN: Help me out with my memory here, wasn't Karl Marx's original idea for the workers to have the means to control capital?

CHALMERS: I'm not Marxist, Steve. I'm not an expert on Marxism.


AUSTIN: Here's where I'm heading. In my mind, the 3D printer delivers that. Ironically, technology is going to deliver, or is delivering, Karl Marx's original socialist dream, where you can have a 3D printer in your house and all you have to do is have the licence to print whatever the schematic or blueprint is an hey presto, you can print it out.


CHALMERS: Yeah, and people have written about that. There's a guy called Paul Mason, we talk about in the book. Mason wrote an entire book of his own about how technology's going to deliver a future where people no longer have to work, it's all leisure time, everything is free - all those sorts of things. That's an extreme end of the argument. We don't necessarily share it, but smart people have made that argument. We've also talked about in the book, how do we give people who are the biggest contributors to this technological wealth, you know people who provide the information for example to the LinkedIns and the Facebooks and all that sort of thing. How can they get a benefit beyond a free service? How can people get together? It's called platform cooperativism if you want to send people to sleep at 10:20am on a Tuesday morning.


AUSTIN: (Laughs)


CHALMERS: It's called platform cooperativism, which is how do we get people to have a stake in these big new developments when they're contributing the information that's making it successful.


AUSTIN: So how do we, Jim Chalmers?


CHALMERS: There's all kinds of ways. We talk about it in the book, but there's nothing preventing people from setting up their own platforms with broader ownership than what we see right now.


AUSTIN: You mean collectives?


CHALMERS: Yeah, well cooperatives.


AUSTIN: Workers' cooperatives?


CHALMERS: Cooperatives. You keep trying to drag me back. (Laughs)


AUSTIN: (Laughs) I'm being cheeky.


CHALMERS: Things like workers on boards of technological companies. All kinds of ways that we can try to give people a stake, because one of the big issues is, as technology hollows out middle-income jobs, as the location of jobs changes, as the skills you need to do a job change - and those skills are sometimes hard to acquire - that changes the power relationships that people have at work and that has implications for wages and inequality. So there's some very smart American academics who talk about this idea of "counterpower". How do we empower people in the machine age so that they can have a legitimate say in their own work?


AUSTIN: Andrew has sent me a note saying "didn't Kim Beazley describe New Labor 'the dregs of the middle class'"?


CHALMERS: I think that's conflating two stories. I think Kim Beazley Sr said that when he joined the Labor Party, it was the cream of the working class and by the time he'd finished with it it was the dregs of the middle class. Very unkind interpretation, but the Beazleys are heroes to me so we'll leave it there!


AUSTIN: Now you don't like the idea of a universal basic income. I interviewed Rutger Bregman for the Brisbane Writers' Festival recently. He wrote the book Utopia for Realists. Now he does look at this idea. He's not an economist like you, but he's an economic historian. He quite likes the like idea. It has some lovely little anecdotes, some trial that took place in 2009 in London - 15 homeless guys, they just gave them money and the majority of them solved their own life problems, so he used that as an example. Just giving away money has some surprising effects. It's not just burning it off. You hate the idea of universal basic income because of what it does to consolidated revenue. Just explain why.


CHALMERS: That's not the only reason. I wouldn't say that I hate it, and I see you've got a clip there from The Guardian that says that I "ridicule" the idea. I do neither of those things. I neither hate it, nor do I ridicule it. A lot of very smart people, including the author you spoke to are all in favour of universal basic income and I've got a lot of feedback since that Guardian article appeared yesterday about the UBI, which is what it's shortened to. My view is not just the cost of it. That's important, but even if you set the universal basic income at $10,000, that would be twice the current social security budget. That's an argument, but it's not the only argument. The main one is that if you stop means testing social security, or if you make everyone entitled to a payment, you lessen your capacity to be able to means test it, to target it to the people who need it the most. And we've got this extraordinarily well targeted social security system in Australia. The OECD and others say it's among the best targeted on the planet. And I don't think we should throw that away just because it would be simpler to just give everyone the same amount of money.

AUSTIN: My guest is Jim Chalmers. Jim Chalmers, together with Mike Quigley has co-authored Changing Jobs: The Fair Go in the New Machine Age. 


CHALMERS: Why did that spine make a crackling noise when you opened that (book), Steve? Is that the first time you've opened it?


AUSTIN: (Laughs). No, I've marked it well. You've addressed the issue of, it's not just STEM but mathematics in particular. And you observe that much of these ideas are really reliant on having a really high-level grasp of mathematics. In Australia, the students aren't performing badly, but they are heading in the wrong direction. In my mind the blame for that lies not in politics, but for some reason mathematics has fallen out of favour. I don't think it's a problem with the Labor Party, I don't think it's a problem with the Coalition, I think for some reason it's lost it's inspiration for people to play with. And unless we get on top of that mathematics issue, all of these arguments are going to be a waste of time, because if you can't do the maths, you can do the science. If you can't do the science, you can't do the tech.


CHALMERS: There's something in that, and I would say to anyone who's not inspired by maths to sit down for half an hour with Mike Quigley, who's one of the most passionate advocates for maths and science that I've ever come across. But we do have a serious problem and the serious problem has many facets. The most recent data, which we cite in the book says that something like one in five high school students aren't doing maths at all. More than half are just doing elementary maths. The amount of people who are doing intermediate and advanced maths has dropped substantially over the last 20 years.


AUSTIN: We've lowered the bar here in Queensland for maths standards. We've lowered the bar.


CHALMERS: Queensland's doing some terrific things when it comes to technology and education.


AUSTIN: STEM, but not maths.


CHALMERS: Nationwide, we've got an issue with people doing maths, and to a lesser extent science. And the other thing that people don't talk about enough in my view is that we've got something like twice as many boys doing maths than girls doing maths, so we need to fix that as well. That is a huge, huge part of the problem. And if you talk to kids like I do at schools, they'll tell you that they're worried that maths is so hard that it will impact on their exiting grade and because a lot of the courses that people want to do at university don't have maths as a pre-requisite, they can get away with making that decision. That decision collectively - I'm not making judgements about anybody's individual decisions - but collectively those decisions in aggregate are bad for Australia.


AUSTIN: My guest is Jim Chalmers, he's the Shadow Finance spokesman for the ALP federally. So you want to try to shape the technology, correct market failures, rethinking industrial relations, restitch the social safety net, care about redistribution of economic power and leap tall buildings in a single bound. Is that right?!


CHALMERS: (Laughs) Well we tried to be pretty comprehensive, Steve. I'm not sure that we got quite to that last one, but we try to be pretty comprehensive. There are 33 policy directions and ideas in there. Some people will like them, other people will disagree with them. We're just trying to have a conversation. We think that the country is pretty dangerously ill-prepared, like a lot of developed countries, for the changes that are coming at us. And so what we want to do is make our contribution to that. People should have a read of it and let me know whether they agree or disagree. That would be a good thing.


AUSTIN: Make your contribution. Hey let me give you the list - Terri Butler, Andrew Leigh, Clare O'Neil, Tim Watts, Sam Dastyari, Chris Bowen, Mark Butler. You're all writing books. Does anyone do any work in federal Labor? You're all writing books, all this year.


CHALMERS: Well we think it's core business to think pretty deeply about these issues, particularly this one.


AUSTIN: It's a great marketing line.


CHALMERS: Well, no it's core business. We had a count actually. Somebody asked me about this last week and we counted them up - I think three times as many Labor books as Liberal books. Even the crossbenches nailed the Liberals when it comes to deep thinking and writing about these sorts of things. It's not the only way to set out your ideas obviously, but I think it's a pretty good way.


AUSTIN: Before I go, Mike Quigley, he was booted by Malcolm Turnbull - I don't know if booted was the right term - let go, outsourced by Malcolm Turnbull to get someone else in to run the NBN. What's Mike Quigley's current view of the National Broadband Network?

CHALMERS: Mike has strong views about the National Broadband Network...


AUSTIN: I bet he does!


CHALMERS: But I wouldn't want to put words in his mouth. I'm sure at some future point he might be happy to talk to you about them. He's actually a bit crook at the moment and we wish him a really speedy recovery from that. Mike Quigley is a really, really fine Australian who's made an enormous contribution by his work at the NBN, but also he's donated millions of dollars to cancer research, for example. He is an extraordinary person and one of the most fun things about writing this book was the opportunity to collaborate with him.


AUSTIN: Does he say that the NBN as it's currently headed is going to be the right skeleton for Australia to take advantage of the technology that is here now and we need to develop for the future? Because this was supposed to be our platform on which everything else stands for the "internet of things". Is it up to it?

CHALMERS: Well I think technologists right across the board are worried about the technology the Government is using, the copper technology which John Howard flogged off in the 1990s and Malcolm Turnbull thinks is sufficient for a National Broadband Network for a first-world, first-rate economy now. And that's obviously insufficient. And we've made our differences known. But if you go through the various technology news outlets and blogs, it's an almost universal view that the technology that Malcolm Turnbull is subjecting us to is not what we need if we're going to be a serious economy.


AUSTIN: Andrew, my listener, says he's just confirmed you were right, it was Kim Beazley Sr. 


CHALMERS: Thank you, Andrew. I'm very rarely right when it comes to remembering things like that!


AUSTIN: Jim Chalmers, thanks for coming in.


CHALMERS: Thank you, Steve.


AUSTIN: He co-authored the book, Changing Jobs: The Fair Go in the New Machine Age, written by Jim Chalmers and Mike Quigley, published by Redback, which I think is released through Black Inc books in Australia.