Less than a year after entering the Victorian Parliament as a newbie MP, Philip Dalidakis finds himself with a seat in cabinet as the State’s freshly-minted Small Business and Innovation Minister.
There’s no such thing as luck in politics. But when opportunity collides with excellent preparation, fortuitous things follow. And so it was, when former Innovation Minister Adem Somyurek stood down somewhat unexpectedly in late July, Mr Dalidakis found himself being promoted.
Mr Dalidakis’ pre-politics background is slightly unusual for a Labor MP – with lengthy experience in the private sector – including as head of an industry group – in addition to time in government.
He is known to many in the industry, who have dealings with the Commonwealth, from his time as Stephen Conroy’s deputy chief of staff during the Gillard Government. Mr Dalidakis had oversight of NBN issues, as well as the Communications portfolio’s cyber security and cyber safety issues.
He had also spent time as a senior adviser in the previous Bracks-Brumby Labor government in Victoria, primarily on the operation of energy markets.
Mr Dalidakis was CEO of the Victorian Association of Forest Industries, and has spent time in the property industry. His formal training includes bachelors’ degrees in Business and the Arts, and a Masters’ in Commerce.
Premier Daniel Andrews’ government came to office on November 29. Eight months later Mr Dalidakis had a seat at the big table.
So where to from here? The innovation agenda is highly competitive across all the states. Victoria has something of a lock on medical research and the medical device sectors, but it has a fight on its hands to find a way to dominate in the ICT industry.
The much anticipated $60 million Startup Initiative Fund is expected to be formally launched in the coming weeks. Outlined in the state’s budget last May, few details have yet emerged (presumably as the new Minister was allowed time to find his new office and get his feet under the desk).
Mr Dalidakis says its final details will emerge shortly – but is expected to include a range of subsidies for incubators and accelerators in Victoria.
It surely won’t surprise anyone to learn that Mr Dalidakis is bitter about the “dismantling” of the original fibre to the home National Broadband Network in favour of the Coalition’s multi-technology mix. He calls it Tony Abbott’s “act of vandalism.”
Which should make Mr Dalidakis’ first formal discussions with Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull an interesting exchange (they are scheduled to talk in the next several week.) He also has a call with his federal Small Business counterpart Bruce Billson, as well as Trade Minister Andrew Robb.
I spoke to Philip Dalidakis about his priorities for the portfolio, and whether there is any life in the reconstituted NBN.
So you joined Stephen Conroy’s office at a time when the NBN roll-out was front-and-centre on the agenda, but from a forestry industry association. How did that happen?
Philip Dalidakis: Stephen Conroy approached me to go and work for him in Canberra again after the 2010 Victorian state election, and I thought that the opportunity to work on what was then the most wonderful and amazing project in Australian history, being the NBN, was too great an opportunity to pass up.
So I had a few conversations with my wife – we had two young children at the time – and she was supportive. I then spent 18 months in Canberra until my wife and I had our third child. And three young children under six was too much, so that’s when I left Senator Conroy’s office, and set up my own company for two and a half years before I entered Victorian parliament.
When you were with the senator, you were working on the NBN; that was you’re primary role?
Philip Dalidakis: The range of areas of responsibility that I had was oversight of the NBN, cybersecurity and effectively cyber-terrorism, although cyberterrorism was a discrete policy in the Attorney General’s office, but certainly cybersecurity and cyber safety policy. I was also dealing with the crossbenches, which back then was an integral part of the success of the government program.
You were elected to the Victoria Parliament at the last election. So this is kind of meteoric, right?
Philip Dalidakis: November 29 last year, the electorate of southern metropolitan region. Effectively within eight months I was appointed to Cabinet. Sometimes you don’t get to choose the time, the time chooses you, and you have to be ready to step up and take the reins when you can.
I’m 39 years of age, but with my private sector and public policy background, I like to think that I’ve got a good broad range of experiences that will hold me in good stead, and help me to drive the Government’s agenda forward.
You bring an interesting background to the portfolio. Youth has got to help with this, but what, specifically, is the vision?
Philip Dalidakis: In relation to ICT, we lead the country. But it’s not enough for us to simply lead, we want to lead with a vision. When I see that Israel exports $6 billion a year on cyber security alone, I think there’s a great opportunity for us to create that opportunity for Melbourne and Victoria.
Cyber security sits more broadly within the ICT sector, but the ongoing computerisation of everything we do as a society brings with it a significant threat, and also significant opportunities for providing defence capabilities. This is defence not in terms of armed conflict, but defence in terms of attack from criminal gangs and foreign governments and [others]
So I would like to see Victoria grow the ICT sector even more than be have previously; and I would like to see Victoria regarded as a leader in this area.
We need to create the support infrastructure here if they want them to stay. We have created a $60 million Startup Initiative fund that I will be launching within the next four to six weeks. It is specifically to assist businesses and ecosystems that encourage entrepreneurship.
Supporting the incubators and accelerators, as I see it, is pivotal.
That $60 million, is that going to be used as seed money within the incubators and accelerators or is it something else?
Philip Dalidakis: That money will have a variety of purposes, one of them being to support accelerators and incubators. There will be other purposes that I will have more to say, and when we get closer to making that announcement.
There’s a lot of competition in this space, the NSW government is obviously throwing a fair bit at the startup sector, and it kind of enjoys a natural home for FinTech companies…
Philip Dalidakis: In relation to fintech, there’s no doubt that Sydney sees itself as ahead of the game. But the ICT sector is not homogenous and it’s not just FinTech. And innovation is not just about ICT.
Victoria is the clear leader in medical technologies in Australia. We have also created a $200 million Future Industries fund that established that will offer grants to firms and companies that specialise in hybrid sectors. We have identified six key industry sectors for this, including medical technology and pharmaceuticals, new energy technology, cyber and defence, transport and construction technologies.
The medical technologies is an interesting example. Victoria under the leadership of Steve Bracks and John Brumby invested heavily within the biotech and med tech sectors. So in 2015, we’re seeing the benefit of that investment from 10 years ago.
So what we are trying to establish an ecosystem and a pathway and investments that helps to generate a culture of entrepreneurship, within our SME community, and which keeps our best innovators and their ideas here in Victoria.
What about your relationship with the Commonwealth? If we talk about these ecosystems, we need access to skills, access to capital, access to markets, and a lot of those depend on federal policy. So who are you talking to in the Federal Government and how well do you get along with them?
Philip Dalidakis: I have got calls to come with Malcolm Turnbull and Bruce Billson, obviously my Federal colleagues in the tech innovation and the small business areas. I’m getting a call together with Andrew Robb this afternoon to speak with him about the China-Australia FTA and the TPP.
The importance of ICT from a skills perspective is critical and it’s crucial for that incubation process, because if you don’t have people with the skills, then you don’t have people who can do the work.
Just so that you’re aware, Victoria has the highest number of ICT enrolments and graduates across the country. We have 34 per cent of the national total, where NSW has 29 per cent and only 18 per cent in Queensland. So we have a wonderful higher education system in Victoria that naturally supports the industry.
Before we finish, if there is anything else you want to discuss (and you are going to say the NBN)?
Philip Dalidakis: I would have thought you’d be interested in my views on the NBN. [The previous Labor Government in Canberra] had a policy that was ensuring every Australian had access to high-quality broadband. Most people will agree that broadband is an essential service, no different now to electricity, gas and water.
To have a service that was ubiquitous in terms of performance, in terms of its price, whether you lived in Coogee or in Melbourne or elsewhere, people had access to the same level of service. That is no longer the case, and it now a matter of the haves and haves not.
What Tony Abbot has done, is reprehensible. It’s one of the greatest areas of public policy vandalism that I have ever seen.
And one last thing: The federal government is very good about claiming that they are following the New Zealand model in lots of areas. But let me remind you that John Key became Prime Minister, one of the first things that he did was to stop Helen Clark’s rollout of a fibre-to-the-node network. He stopped it.
It was 70 per cent complete, and he said “we’re going to build fibre-to-the-home instead.” You do it once, you do it properly, and you do it with fibre. For me, given that I’ve got the innovation portfolio, I am genuinely disappointed at the lack of leadership under Tony Abbott that the Federal Government has provided [on broadband].
Alright, well, it sounds like you’re going to have an interesting conversation with Malcolm Turnbull when you speak to him.
Philip Dalidakis: Well, I like Malcolm and I cannot imagine for the life of me that he genuinely believed that a fibre-to-the-node technology mix was the right thing to do. I’m sure that Bill Morrow is doing the best that he can at the NBN Co, but when you’re given a scrambled egg and you’re asked to un-scramble it, it’s not so easy.