Bowen smashes govt tech creds

James Riley
Editorial Director

Labor shadow treasurer Chris Bowen put the boot into the Coalition’s innovation credentials during his budget reply speech, accusing Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of ignoring the country’s future to save his political skin.

Speaking to the National Press Club, Mr Bowen said the budget was more about ‘getting the Prime Minister through the next four sitting weeks’ than securing the country’s future prosperity.

“The Government and Prime Minister used to talk about how ‘it’s never been a more exciting time to be alive’, about innovation, about responding to climate change.

Chris Bowen: Is it still an exciting time to be alive?

“These issues now barely get a mention,” said Mr Bowen

“These issues were apparently important to the Prime Minister back in time but it would seem with his political survival in question, they are now not.”

It was not always so.

The tech and finance savvy Malcolm Turnbull’s flurry of innovation friendly announcements, policies and ‘Welcome to the ideas boom’ ad campaign early in his prime ministership would have had Labor strategists coughing up their lattes.

Before Mr Turnbull, Labor thought it was the tech smart party and the friend of research and innovation. Given the innovation and science track record of self-confessed luddite Tony Abbott during his short stint as PM, Labor would have been right.

Then came the knifing of Mr Abbott and the advent of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull Mark 1.0.

There were rays of light over the innovation landscape with lots of strong talk – and some of the walk – for start-ups along with initiatives to boost fintechs and bridge the divide between research and industry. A strong cyber strategy followed.

Unfortunately for Mr Turnbull and the Coalition, they didn’t realise that not everyone with a half bright idea lives and works within a 2 km radius of the Sydney or Melbourne CBD’s and has access to their flatmate’s angel fund.

What followed was the near-death experience of a one seat majority in the 2016 election, brought on partly by an electorate that saw the Coalition’s obsession with being ‘nimble’, ‘agile’ and about to float on the NYSE at odds with their reality of flat wages growth and job obsolescence.

There have been a number of versions of Mr Turnbull since the 2016 election and while they have rolled left and right politically, all of them have run a mile from the innovation rhetoric that characterised his early days as PM.

Mr Bowen was happy to remind Mr Turnbull of his newfound innovation conservatism. “After living through five minutes of innovation sunshine on the Prime Minister’s watch, there’s very little mention of the importance of innovation for the future of our nation’s living standards

“Gone is the talk about innovation and agility.”

It’s not just the government that has lost interest on innovation policy. Despite Mr Bowen going hard on the innovation theme several times during his budget reply speech, the assembled journos in the National Press Club audience did not ask a single follow up question on Labor’s innovation intentions.

To be fair to the journos, there probably would not have been anything juicy in Mr Bowen’s reply. Labor is in policy formulation mode at the moment and more inclined to needle the government on its lost innovation policy mojo than put up any solid alternative policy this far out from an election.

Labor intends to capitalise further on this major chink in Turnbull’s shtick and is busy honing a narrative that attempts to bring outer urban and regional Australia to the innovation party and win back the mantle of being the innovation progressive party.

The cause has been spurred on through the efforts of its own future savvy young guns such as shadow minister for workforce participation Ed Husic whose sprawling outer Western Sydney electorate offers a handy sounding board for potential policy ideas.

Top Labor brass such as Opposition leader Bill Shorten and shadow treasurer Chris Bowen are now championing innovation inclusion. Their speeches tie innovation and research policy to the Labor ‘fairness’ trigger word.

Part of the fairness line is talking up education and skills training.

“Data suggests between 30 and 40 per cent of the jobs in the financial services industry could be automated or manufacturing could witness automation affecting 50 per cent of jobs currently performed,” said Mr Bowen during his budget reply speech.

“The fact is, the jobs of the future will need a real lift in investment in human capital,” he said.

While Labor by its current rhetoric wants to regain the high ground on everything from innovation policy to the future of work, there comes a time where just bashing the government of the day won’t be enough.

There are serious challenges involved in spreading innovation readiness to Australian businesses, large and small, that lie outside hip, inner city growth centres as well as addressing the scythe that’s will slash through many traditional jobs in the near term. Think about what smart vehicle technology could do to the trucking industry as one example.

Meanwhile there’s plenty of reform work to do around fintechs, open banking standards, the R&D Tax Incentive scheme and host of other innovation issues.

Hopefully the Coalition will reawaken its innovation mojo and if not then equally hopefully, Labor will do its homework well in the lead up to the next election.


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