Graeme Philipson
March 30, 2016

Wyatt's art of staying on message

Wyatt's art of staying on message

In conversation: Amazon Web Services' Ian Gardiner with Wyatt Roy at the Innovation Bay event

Assistant Minister for Innovation Wyatt Roy certainly gets around. He’s been popping up all over the place recently, bringing his youthful enthusiasm to the Turnbull Government’s innovation agenda.

Monday evening it was ABC’s influential Q&A show. Yesterday it was a flash lunch at Macquarie Bank in Sydney, organised by Innovation Bay and attended by the cream of the city’s innovation in-crowd.

Mr Roy attracted attention during last year’s leadership coup for his high profile support of Malcolm Turnbull. He was already well known as the youngest person ever elected to the Australian Parliament (he become member for Longman, north of Brisbane, at age 20 in 2010).

He is now the youngest ever minister. No-one denies he is intelligent, hard-working and articulate, but there are mutterings that he needs to start matching words with deeds. But then, much the same can be said of his boss Malcolm Turnbull, who has disappointed many with the slow start to his promising premiership.

The Q&A session on Monday night was not the young minister’s finest moment. He was taken to task by for not matching the government’s innovation rhetoric with funding, and also had trouble defending the Turnbull Government’s NBN record.

He had a much less hostile audience at the Innovation Bay event at Macquarie on Wednesday, but his message was much the same. The government’s job, he said, is not to fund companies or networks, but to create a policy environment which will help ensure that private enterprise will do it.

“I’m a Liberal. I want to keep government out of our lives,” he said at Wednesday’s lunch. “It’s rare to meet an entrepreneur who says that if the government become more involved in my business I will be more successful. It almost never happens. There’s enormous value in keeping government out of the way, in taxing people less, and allow them to thrive and prosper.

“Government’s role should be to help access and enablement, drawing in private sector support, facilitating engagement and the commercialisation of ideas.”

Mr Roy was asked to define innovation. “Innovation is the output of a deeply entrepreneurial culture, one that supports people and their ideas, that takes risks and supports the new wave of thinking in our business and our society.”

The Sydney event was organised by Innovation Bay, the brainchild of Amazon Web Services’ Ian Gardiner, who started it in 2003 with the mission to help Australian tech startups succeed. It is independent of AWS, and facilitates matches between startups and investors.

The event was in the format of a conversation between Mr Roy and Mr Gardiner, who nevertheless gave the minister ample time to expound his views. It was a long way from the sort of probing questions Q&A host Tony Jones, and his audience, asked on Monday evening.

Mr Roy spoke at length about the Turnbull Government’s National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA), announced with fanfare in December 2015, and of the government’s subsequent initiatives in the area – changes to taxation and attracting capital, to insolvency and bankruptcy law, to investment incentives, the formation of Data61, and a range of other areas.

He defended the level of the government’s investment. “Innovation is not about how many zeroes you have at the end of a sum of money. The idea that we will get more innovation just by spending more of the taxpayer’s money is ridiculous. We will see the big uptick when we attract private sector capital into the ecosystem.”

He used the example of Israel, to where he led a trade delegation earlier in the year. “They are held up as the best in the world, and their government commercialisation sector is going down as the private sector is picking up. It’s not about money – it’s about the change we want to see in driving private sector involvement, It’s a cultural change. We need new ways of doing business.”

Mr Roy also touched on how taxation and immigration policy affected the innovation ecosystem, but constantly referred to his theme.

“Australia is awash with capital. There’s $2 trillion in superannuation funds, and billions being invested into infrastructure and resources and property. Nit last year Australian bet $200 million on the Melbourne Cup, but only $100 million was invested in venture capital. Clearly, if we can unlick that huge pool of capital, that’s where we’ll see the big uptick.

“It’s starting to happen, and as we see more success we’ll see more money start to flow. We have difficulty with the skill sets in deploying this capital, but we are beginning to see the shift. Superannuation funds in Australia are starting to look at these sorts of investments.

“When I talk to funds that have younger members, many of them are very keen to invest in these sorts of areas. More US VCs are also looking at Australia – awareness is really growing.”

Awareness will not be enough. There is no doubt that Australia’s innovation scene is improving, and Malcolm Turnbull’s new broom has been welcomed across the high tech scene.

But talk is cheap. Wyatt Roy is clever and articulate and a great salesman for the government’s policies. But he and his boss will need to start delivering, and soon.

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