Mr FLETCHER (Bradfield—Manager of Opposition Business) (16:39): The Australian economy has experienced significant digital transformation over the last decade. Ride-sharing technologies, online accommodation providers and online shopping are all digital platforms that have empowered consumers and businesses with greater choice and convenience. They have helped foster a more competitive marketplace. There’s another technology that could deliver real consumer benefits: digital currency. The potential efficiency gains and consumer benefits from using blockchain technology as a means of recording and executing transactions could be very substantial. That’s why it’s pleasing to see the Reserve Bank of Australia conducting a trial of a central bank digital currency in partnership with the Digital Finance Cooperative Research Centre.
In recent weeks I have had the chance to meet with some of the companies participating in the trial. One project, led by fintech business NotCentralised, is testing the use of digital currency to address the problem of subcontractors in the construction sector not being paid. This problem could be addressed by making payments in digital currency and attaching one or more conditions to the payment so that the money is automatically released when those conditions are met. For example, the head contractor would pay the electrical contractor in digital currency with the embedded condition that the payment is released when an independent third party, such as a certifier, issues a certificate confirming the work has been done. Importantly, the subcontractor would know the payment would flow once the certificate was issued. Another company, Unison, is looking at digital currency as a way to allow a business to receive payment from a third party on an invoice it has issued to a customer. During the trial, the invoices would be transformed into automated payment tools and fractionable, high-liquidity assets. Small and medium-sized businesses could benefit from improvements to supply chain finance efficiencies and a possible reduction in financing costs. Fintech company Imperium Markets operates in exchange for buyers and sellers of bonds. The company is leading a project showing that bonds and deposits can be traded and settled instantly. Currently, bonds sit in escrow for one or two days after a trade but, if parties buying and selling bonds used digital currency, payment could be made instantly, removing the escrow period. Innovative payment platform Manoeuvre, another trial participant, is using the trial to explore cross-border settlement and custody. By increasing their exposure to blockchain technology, they anticipate being able to identify opportunities to improve foreign-exchange transactions through improvements in transparency and speed.
I must confess that, prior to these visits, I was somewhat sceptical about digital currency. I associated it with offerings like Bitcoin and Ethereum, which seemed to me to be vehicles for speculation and hype, bedevilled by the fundamental problem that there was no reliable way for the holder of digital currency to convert that holding at a reliable valuation into cash issued by sovereign nation and widely accepted as a medium of exchange. But these meetings over the past few weeks have been very instructive as each of these companies has explained to me the potential that they see for blockchain-based digital currency to allow people and businesses to transact with each other in more speedy, flexible and efficient ways. In many of the trials that I described, there are real businesses and transactions involved. NotCentralised, for example, informs me it is having its technology used in a building project in Queensland, and Unison plans to use its technology in transactions involving a motor vehicle dealer.
It’s also interesting to consider the opportunities for a central bank digital currency issued by a globally respected jurisdiction such as Australia to potentially become used by people in other countries where the rule of law is not as robust as in Australia. I think that is a relevant consideration as we think about the digital economy opportunities for Australia. We have, as a nation, made significant progress in the digital economy. There’s more to do. A central bank digital currency is an interesting area to explore. I commend the Reserve Bank, the Digital Finance Cooperative Reserve Centre and the trial participants, and I look forward to learning about the results of these trials.