James Riley
October 30, 2019

Turnbull centre stage at StartCon

Startups

Turnbull centre stage at StartCon

Malcolm Turnbull: The former Prime Minister to discuss innovation policy at StartCon

It’s not just the political junkies who are hanging out for Malcolm Turnbull’s autobiography A Bigger Picture to land in bookshops next year. Innovation policy wonks and anyone who has ever wondered what ever happened to the Ideas Boom are keen for a look as well.

We might be in for a sneak peak in relation to innovation policy at least, with the former Prime Minister booked to deliver a keynote at StartCon in Sydney in November, a conference that has grown to become Australia’s most important annual forum focused on startups and disruptive technology.

Mr Turnbull’s appearance at StartCon will be highly anticipated, as it takes him into the heartland of a policy area that should have been non-controversial, but instead contributed to the fractious relationships in the post-2016 election Turnbull Government.

After the December 2015 launch of the National Innovation and Science Agenda and the $28 million 'Welcome to the Ideas Boom' advertising campaign that followed, the innovation sector – and startups in particular – were left scratching their heads when innovation policy was put into stealth mode after Turnbull nearly lost in 2016.

It is conventional mainstream wisdom that it was the Ideas Boom and all this talk of innovation and jobs of the future that cost the Coalition seats and very nearly put them on the opposition benches.

The recriminations that followed the election were not pretty, and the brief moment in the sun that the tech sector enjoyed in late 2015 was significantly dimmed.

And here we are in 2019 with a government that has lost its overarching narrative on technology. The funding of many NISA initiatives was over the four years of the forward budgets estimate starting in 2016-17 and will finish at the end of the financial year.

While no doubt there are 2020 budget discussions underway on what comes next, and there have been many significant individual announcements since NISA – the Australian Space Agency for example – the government does not have a whole-of-government policy thread to galvanise public opinion on what’s at stake.

Perhaps with an eye on his legacy as Prime Minister, Mr Turnbull is expected to address some of these issues.

The StartCon organisers say that Mr Turnbull will speak on innovation and opportunity in an environment of rising authoritarian populism, anti-global and protectionist agendas.

And he is expected to address the problems facing Australia’s technology industry, including what Australia needs in order to be a startup capital in the world.

His appearance will include a one-on-one discussion with Freelancer chief executive Matt Barrie on how innovation can be brought back on to the national agenda, and how the economy can be transformed to guarantee prosperity for all Australians into the 21st century.

Big picture policy discussions are not everyone’s cup of tea, but Mr Turnbull’s star turn at StartCon will be closely watched and can hopefully breathe some much needed oxygen into policy discussions.

In a statement regarding his involvement in the conference, the former Prime Minister said that change, unprecedented in scale and pace, was “the tenor of our times.”

“This offers enormous opportunities, and Australia has never been better situated to take advantage of them,” Mr Turnbull said.

“At the heart of all of this is innovation, the key driver of productivity, which is vital if we are to remain a prosperous first world economy with a generous social welfare net.”

“My feeling is that there is now more support in the community for innovation and science, although the rising tide of authoritarian populism with its ‘anti-globalist’ and protectionist agenda represents a real threat,” he said.

“So we cannot take our gains for granted, there will always be voices to oppose innovation, frightened of the new, anxious to hide under the doona in the hope that the 21st century will prove to be a terrible dream.”  

Calling Mr Turnbull the most technology-focused Prime Minister in Australia’s history, Freelancer’s Matt Barrie said “during his term, innovation through technology was at the forefront of government policy for driving forward the Australian economy. Since that time, however, innovation has dropped off the national agenda.”

StartCon is Australia’s largest startup and growth conference. It will be held November 22-23 at the Royal Randwick Racecourse in Sydney.

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