Technology

Is Australia headed for a robot tax? Government urged to adopt new approach to future of work

Matthew Elmas /

The changing nature of work is prompting some pretty frank discussions about the future of Australia’s labour market and how businesses will use labour in the coming years.

Entrepreneurs such as Richard Branson, Bill Gates and Elon Musk are concerned that as businesses continue to automate roles with new technologies like artificial intelligence, there will be less of a role for humans.

That means fewer jobs, and lots of discussion about exactly what people are going to do for a living in 50 years.

Things such as universal basic income (UBI), where the government would provide a basic wage to everyone, have been floated as a way to protect people from the tide of automation, but it’s a pretty contentious idea.

A common counter-argument asks how such a policy would be funded, or could be.

Enter the so-called robot tax, an idea popularised by Microsoft founder Bill Gates earlier this year.

Gates said last March robot workers taking human jobs should pay taxes to compensate for the externality of unemployment — money that would essentially be able to fund a UBI style scheme.

The idea got some local attention last weekend when Labor’s Shadow Minister for the Digital Economy Ed Husic told automation conference attendees Australia may have to consider such a tax if regulators are unable to prepare the country for the implications of an automated workforce.

“If unemployment goes through the roof and we haven’t prepared for what’s to come then yeah, we will [have to consider a tax],” he said.

But Husic doesn’t think this is a best-case policy solution, saying, if anything, it focuses attention on the right questions, namely on how automation will change the nature of work.

For businesses, the changing nature of employment holds important implications, particularly if policy stagnation leads to an automation tax.

David Fagan, Adjunct Professor of business at QUT and author of a book on digital disruption, tells SmartCompany the government needs to move away from its “piecemeal approach” and adopt a big picture view on the future of work.

“Automation will change work and if it leads to fewer people in the workforce, governments will need other ways to raise taxes just to fund existing services, let alone rising welfare demands,” he says.

“A robot tax is worth a really close look but not if it stifles investment in innovation that can create more and different jobs in Australia.”

Automation is already changing the business landscape and could even make well-known rolls in payroll, bookkeeping and financial analysis redundant in the coming years, according to World Economic Forum research.

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Matthew Elmas

Matthew is the news editor at SmartCompany.

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