Debate a question of philosophy

James Riley
Editorial Director

The Labor Party doesn’t understand innovation because it is not in their DNA. The Coalition doesn’t understand innovation because they don’t understand people.

That, in a nutshell, is how the two protagonists in the Election Debate summarise the key differences between their parties’ approach to innovation policy.

When the debate was over, we asked both Angus Taylor and Ed Husic to characterise the philosophical underpinnings of their approach to innovation in Australia.

Ed Husic and Angus Taylor: Displayed both vigorous agreement and important differences

“The Labor Party is the party of unionists,” Angus Taylor, Assistant Minister for Digital Transformation and Cities, told “They just don’t have innovation in their bones like we do. You’ve got to have people driving innovation who have been there.”

In the debate itself, Mr Taylor had characterised his side of politics as containing many such people, with himself and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull as prime examples. “But at the same time we know that we are best to leave the execution to the private sector – the government’s role is to ensure they have the right environment.”

Labor’s Ed Husic, shadow Parliamentary Secretary with responsibilities for digital innovation and startups, sees things a bit differently. “The biggest philosophical difference is that Labor focusses on people.

“We understand that innovation is about getting a lot of people involved, because it touches on so many of their lives. We are not prescriptive – we don’t tell people what they should do. We say innovation needs to be guided by local experience and local expertise.”

Both agree that innovation policy should not be about picking winners, but that it should primarily be about government setting the right policies. They just disagree on exactly what those policies should be.

When you examine those policies in light of their explanations of their philosophical approaches, some of the reasons for the differences in their policies become a little more apparent. The Coalition focus is on helping business succeed, the Labor approach is on ensuring that business success translates to improving society as a whole.

This is of course a reasonable summary of the key difference between the trickle down philosophy generally favoured by conservatives like Australia’s Coalition with the social equity philosophy generally favoured by social democratic movements like the Australian Labor Party.

You can see it in the differing approaches to the NBN, you can see it the Coalition’s technology precinct approach versus Labor’s mooted regional innovation fund, you can see it in tax and education policy.

Laissez-faire versus the guiding hand. This is the Great Divide in philosophy that drives politics around the world, and in its extreme forms – when it becomes akin to religion – it is the cause of many of the world’s conflicts.

But on the ground, in innovation policy in sunny Australia in 2016, these fundamental differences of philosophies still allow for much common ground. The debate was marked by as much agreement as disagreement.

Ed Husic said in his opening remarks that he did not see it as a traditional debate in terms of a winner and a loser, but rather about changing the paradigm (where have we heard that before?) of what such a debate should be.

And so it was. It was all very gentlemanly. Both participants are intelligent and articulate and across their briefs. Ed Husic, still in his 30s, impresses virtually all who meet him with his passion and his sincerity

He represents the seat of Chifley in western Sydney. Angus Taylor, 50 this year, entered politics when he replaced conservative warhorse Alby Schultz in the rural NSW electorate of Hume at the last election.

Mr Husic has a standard ALP apparatchik background – political staffer and union official. Mr Taylor is a former Rhodes scholar and McKinsey management consultant. Very different backgrounds, reflecting their different world views, but their careers have now intersected.

Their respect for each other was obvious at the debate. They are both rising stars in their parties, and Australia is fortunate to have two such impressive individuals driving innovation policy on the two sides of politics.

As moderator, local startup success story Local Measure’s CEO Jonathan Barouch said we could not have imagined this debate in Australia only 12 months ago (meaning under Tony Abbott).

The elevation of Malcolm Turnbull to the Prime Ministership, and the release six months ago of his Innovation Statement, has transformed the way the industry thinks about itself.

“I have a great passion for growth and prosperity,” said Angus Taylor in his opening remarks. “We need to ensure technology does not just make the rich even richer,” said Ed Husic in his.

Few would disagree with either statement. There may be a natural divide in the human race when it comes to political philosophy, but informed debate and – dare we say it – common sense can go a long way towards bridging that gap.

It is to our great fortune that we saw that on display at today’s debate.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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