James Riley
August 24, 2018

Turnbull: Heavy lies the crown

Politics

Turnbull: Heavy lies the crown

Malcolm Turnbull: Innovation policy that burned fast and bright

Australia is 27 years into the longest period of continuous economic growth in the history human kind – as measured against an arcane set of dusty metrics – and yet we cannot find a way to allow a Prime Minister to serve a full term of a Parliament.

It is a good time to acknowledge that a spade is a shovel and that we are magnificently stuffed, cornered and snookered.

And the shit hasn’t even hit the fan yet. That moment will arrive with accelerated automation, when our economy starts shedding jobs by the tens of thousands.

Right about then, we will be looking around for those “jobs of the future” we’ve heard so much about at conferences in recent years. And we might just come up empty.

At a moment in history when Australia needed to embrace long-termism, to build on a nascent pivot, we’re stuffed. Literally we are down to looking at our future hour by hour. Or news site refresh to news site refresh.

For the record, and lest we forget: Malcolm Turnbull is the most technologically tuned-in Prime Minister this country has had. That’s why people liked him. It turns out that optimism and the vision of a promised land is a compelling narrative. Who knew?

The tech industry – and the startup sector in particular – marked him down heavily when he went quiet after his initial, vocal enthusiasm.

It turns out also that grand visions of the future that are not relentlessly and doggedly pursued in public debate quickly atrophy.

You certainly wouldn’t call the National Innovation and Science Agenda a brain fart, but it is much diminished, starved of ideas and energy. And sunlight.

Within a few short hours Australia will almost certainly have a new Prime Minister. So where to from here?

For the tech and innovation sector and its many, many, many industry associations, you might hope political grid-lock is a call to public action. Maybe it will be a shock to the system strong enough to jog the memory of just how barren the policy landscape in 2015.

Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott did not give two actual shits about developing a local tech industry, or attempting a build a functioning innovation ecosystem.

The policy debate about these things are at the far edge of public consciousness. It is hard to mobilise public enthusiasm from the periphery.

Just to repeat the point. It was Malcolm Turnbull who brought innovation policy closer to the centre of the economic agenda. However briefly this innovation policy party was celebrated in public, the big levers of the NISA remained in the background after the 2016.

There are big chunks of that agenda that have been quietly very successful. The focus on cyber has been spectacular, from both an industry development and security perspective. The growth in local venture capital has been incredible (even if there is no credible mechanism for measuring its impact.)

There are positive signs in the development of a data economy, considering it was starting from nowhere, not bad.

The jury is out on efforts to spontaneously create “entrepreneurialism” by funding cheer squads, but it is policy to drive change. We just need to measure it, judge it and make changes where needed.

What we need at this moment is long-termism and we need industry leadership that is prepared to talk-up that long-termism publicly and doggedly.

Rather than an insiders clique of industry statesmen, corporate leaders and their lobbyists, and narrow, connected special interests driving policy in the background, we need our industry leaders to broaden the view, and drive policy agendas in the public square.

It is the only way that the political leadership can get enough cover to drive effective policy.

It is an extraordinary thing that Australia has not had a Prime Minister serve a full term since John Winston Howard.

We have three candidates expected to run in the leadership ballot at mid-day. None of them are shouting about disruptive technology or innovation ecosystems

People will have their own view about who might do a better job as political leader if they are allowed to form a government. It does not matter who wins.

The government is not going to build this industry, smart people in the private sector will do that. For right now, forget Canberra. You have no friends there. Build success.

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