Citizen tech fears putting economy at risk: Foreign policy white paper

Fears of job losses is driving protectionism around the world, bad news for an ‘export nation’

Rising citizen concern about the impact of technology on jobs is putting the Australian economy at risk, as some countries adopt a protectionist stance in response, the Australian government has said in its Foreign Policy White Paper, released today.

“[S]ome countries are dealing with a backlash against globalisation as citizens express concern about the impact of technological change, overseas competition and migration on their societies. Technological shifts and competitive trade pressures will sustain concerns in many countries about job security,” the paper states.

The knock on effect of these concerns is governments come under pressure to protect certain industries, the paper says, before name-checking the United States as an example of a government debating whether open trade and investment work in its interest.

US President Donald Trump has made a number of 'America first' moves, speaking out about restricting imports, renegotiating trade deals and subsidising domestic industries.

As “an export nation”, this “significant retreat” from a liberalised world economy in reaction to technological change and other factors “represents a serious risk to Australia’s interests”, the paper says.

The paper, released by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and foreign minister Julie Bishop earlier today concedes that citizens are probably right to be concerned.

“In the developed world, productivity gains associated with technology advances in the 1980s and 1990s have largely been exhausted and new advances in information and communications technologies have not yet translated into higher productivity across economies. Real wage growth is not expected to improve unless productivity increases, particularly in developed economies,” the paper, the first on foreign policy since 2003, states.

The white paper also says that “over time, we can also expect the nature of work to change further as more jobs – or parts of more jobs – are automated”.

“Digital platforms will allow more tasks to be done anywhere in the world. Without policy responses to manage change and seize the opportunities that will come from innovation, there is a risk that income inequality in some countries could worsen,” it adds.

Despite the negative effects of technological change on citizens, the Government says it represents “an opportunity for business and the wider community”. It will assist local workers with retraining, it said.

“Our flexible vocational and higher education pathways help Australians to develop skills to find jobs and opportunity in changing workplaces. At the same time, our social safety nets, skills retraining and labour market programs for Australians affected by technology and competition, including in regional centres, will also help communities adapt to change,” the papers states.

Be afraid

Despite reassurances from governments and major technology companies that robots and artificial intelligence will not lead to mass unemployment – ‘they’ll augment not replace jobs’ is a common refrain – citizens remain concerned.

A 2017 Infosys commissioned survey of employees at 200 Australian companies found that more Australian workers fear AI will lead to job losses (60 per cent) than any other nation surveyed.

A study earlier this year from SelectHub found that 48 per cent of those familiar with the idea of disruptive technologies fear it will cause layoffs in their industry and more than 38 per cent said it might cost them their jobs personally.

Last September, Forrester Research released a report contending that in just five years, smart systems and robots could replace up to 6 per cent of jobs in the United States.

Those in lower-wage jobs, suggests analysis by the White House Council of Economic Advisors, may be the first to suffer.

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Tags employmentrobotsjob lossesfederal governmentwhitepaperAIJulie BishopForeign policyPrime Minister Malcolm TurnbullForeign Minister Julie Bishop

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