STUART KENNEDY
May 25, 2016

Innovation policy missing in action

Election 2016

Innovation policy missing in action

Christopher Pyne: Talking a lot, just not much about innovation policy

We know Malcolm Turnbull’s Coalition has a clue about nurturing the innovation sector, but so far in this election Labor seems oblivious to the nation building potential of startups and the innovation economy.

Maybe Labor figures startups are too inner city hipster to resonate in focus pocus Western Sydney seats like Lindsay and Greenway. Or possibly the party is still smarting from the way Julia Gillard stuffed up employee share schemes in 2009, when she went after investment bankers and instead managed to king-hit the defacto remuneration system for Australia’s fragile tech industry.

Whatever the reason, you won’t hear much about the need to promote and nurture the startup economy from the supposedly tech-savvy Ed Husic, Jason Clare, Chris Bowen or the big boss Bill Shorten.

Perhaps Labor is happy for Australia to trail Canada, New Zealand and South Korea at 17th overall on the Global Innovation Index and languish at 72nd when it comes to innovation efficiency.

Or maybe the party has simply ceded the ground to Mr Turnbull and his startup spruiker, Wyatt Roy.

It’s not as if Labor is a policy free zone on startups, innovation and survival through tech diversity for local firms marooned by nasty circumstances – such as the collapse of vehicle manufacturing.

Inside Labor’s policy kitbag is the Smart Investment Fund that promises $500 million to partner with VCs and fund managers to co-invest in early stage companies with up to 50 per cent of the startup capital, as well as StartUp Finance, a proposal to part guarantee small loans from finance institutions to give start-ups cheaper capital.

The proposed Australian Angel Investment Scheme promises full capital gains tax exemption for equity held in a startup venture for more than three years and upfront 50 per cent tax deductions for an investment up to a maximum of $200,000 per year. Labor defines a startup as having a maximum of $400,000 in assets and 25 employees or less.

There’s also measures to help local businesses that supply Victoria and South Australia’s soon to be dead vehicle manufacturing industry pivot into other areas.

But you just don’t hear much about Labor’s startup stuff. Could someone on the Red Team please shove it into the talking points for at least one day of the campaign?

The Coalition hasn’t made much startup noise in this campaign either. After the very promising Innovation Statement late last year, and the equally strong Cyber Security Review and its subsequent train of policies this year, there was not much in the May Budget.

In the campaign so far, the government has banged on long and hard about jobs and growth and its 10 year-long tax cut plan that begins with small business and ends with a 25 percent rate for every business.

Implicit in the small business end of the plan is tax relief that will help new tech businesses, but you heard it here first. No-one is spelling it out.

This week’s Q&A on the ABC demonstrated the lack of campaign rhetoric around the innovation economy.
Innovation Minister Christopher Pyne and Labor shadow infrastructure spokesman Anthony Albanese went head-to-head on Q&A where everything from refugees through to the NBN got a Guernsey, but startups did not rate a mention.

Strangely, Mr Albanese fronted Q&A and not Senator Kim Carr, who had been Innovation Minister – twice – during four years of the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd government, and is the current Shadow innovation minister for Bill Shorten.

Perhaps Senator Carr, was too busy campaigning to spend time on Q&A. Thus far in the election there’s been precious little from Senator Carr on fostering innovation, although he has had a few digs at protesting job cuts at the CSIRO.

Mr Pyne and Albo had a lengthy debate on refugees, there was plenty of Green bashing from both men, plus a brief foray into STEM education, but precious little on fostering new, high tech businesses and jobs
It wasn’t until 20 minutes into the show that they got anywhere near the challenges of 21st century techno-economics, and even then they were in furious, bipartisan agreement.

An audience member asked about the worthiness of splashing $50 billion on new submarines and Mr Pyne, who would probably lose his seat if the subs weren’t built in his state of South Australia, gushed long on how we needed a fresh underwater fleet to hold up our end of regional security.

Mr Albanese embraced the subs as well, lauding the potential for jobs, technology transfer, and spin off industries loaded with advanced manufacturing capability.

Just over half an hour in to Q&A, a high school age audience member lobbed in a question about cuts to CSIRO and its climate scientists. Mr Pyne did get on the front-foot here, and mentioned the refunding of NICTA love child Data61, but mostly it was backwards and forwards on what constituted a CSIRO job cut as opposed to a job shift.

A late question on the NBN offered another entre into debate around the country’s digital future. Mr Pyne did himself no favours by telling us the Coalition’s NBN had enough grunt to stream five movies at once (!!) while Albo got a sniff of some the real issues by saying the NBN was critical infrastructure for the economy.

But that was all she wrote on a supposedly innovation focused Q&A.

Time is running down for a serious debate on the best ways to deal Australia into the global tech business revolution.

Soon enough we will be in the last weeks of the campaign when both sides go ultra-negative until polling day.

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