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Canberra culture is killing local procurement: Turnbull

Joseph Brookes
Senior Reporter

Australia’s innovation sector is stronger than ever but isn’t being matched by an appetite to innovate within government, according to former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who on Friday said a “fear of failure” is restricting ambition.

Mr Turnbull said a “gotcha” culture in Canberra had created an unnecessarily conservative mindset that is permeating to policy and procurement decisions.

“In some respects, the least innovative parts of the country are in government. And it’s because of fear of failure,” Mr Turnbull said during a discussion at The Tax Institute’s Tax Summit conference on Friday.

“Public servants would rather spend hundreds of millions of dollars if not billions of dollars with large international companies than take a risk on an Australian company.”

Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull

Mr Turnbull contrasted Canberra and Washington’s approach to procurement saying Australia’s much larger ally has a more innovative approach.

“Interestingly, in the national security sector, the procurement culture in Washington is much more innovative than it is in Canberra. Now that doesn’t make sense really, does it? Because obviously Canberra is much smaller than Washington,” he said.

“You think small always means agile and, you know, more responsive, and so forth, and big means clunky and slow. So it’s [actually] a cultural thing.”

Mr Turnbull said the Australian Government struggles to not only accept that some innovation ventures will fail, but also to openly declare the failures will be part of a bigger process.

Political pressure to “guarantee” the success of a policy or initiative means ministers too often take the conservative option, he said.

“What you have to do is have the confidence to say, ‘well look, it’s the best idea we’ve got,’” Mr Turnbull said.

Since leaving politics Mr Turnbull and his wife have returned to the venture capital business, backing several Australian technology startups.

He said the local innovation sector is in good shape, crediting his signature National Innovation and Science Agenda for having “fired it up” since 2015.

Mr Turnbull said his promotion of NISA was “in some ways as important as the measures” of the billion-dollar program, partly because of a fear of innovation in Australia.

“Innovation is scary for some. A lot of people hear the word innovation and they think that means ‘some kid with an iPad is going to take my job’. On the other hand, if you’re not prepared to innovate you just get left behind,” Mr Turnbull said.

“So it’s a very competitive world, it’s a very exciting time and there are enormous opportunities here [in Australia].”

InnovationAus.com conducted an exclusive survey of the experience of Australian SMEs selling to government. You can find the results of the survey here.

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