Did someone say where’s Wyatt?

The theme of this column was going to be ‘Where’s Wyatt?’ Since his somewhat disappointing performance on the Innovation Special of ABC TV’s Q&A program on March 28 he has barely been seen on the national stage.

Assistant Minister for Innovation Wyatt Roy is the digital age’s Madonna of Australian politics, a man with an instantly recognisable name. But his pursuit of Malcom Turnbull’s innovation agenda – a key part of the PM’s stump speech – has been almost completely absent for the election campaign.

Three weeks is an awfully long time in politics let alone a campaign, but finally on June 10, we found out where Wyatt has been; trapped in his Sunshine Coast electorate where his 6.5 per cent margin has evaporated into thin air.

So worried is the Liberal Party about seats north of Brisbane that Malcolm Turnbull was dispatched by his campaign team to press the flesh with local candidates, including Wyatt. (And BTW, is the now flu ridden PM the ailing Doc Holliday of the piece, who will fall during the July 2 gunfight at the Australian corral?).

Wyatt, in a break from a program that will doubtless see him door- knocking as many houses in his seat as he can visit, until his knuckles are red raw, was over the moon to be in the pub with Mr Turnbull.

Back where he belonged, not in the grind of provincial politics, but on the national stage with no less that his “mate” the Prime Minister.

“Wyatt personifies the 21st century – he’s smart, he’s nimble, he’s agile [and] dealing with one of the most important elements in our national economic plan”, the PM enthused. And, a few happy snaps later, promptly send Wyatt back to knocking on doors.

Was Wyatt’s ‘mate’ reference to Mr Turnbull youthful enthusiasm or a coded warning to his opponents? ‘Mate’ in Australian politics is wonderfully loaded term.

‘Labor mates’ has long been sledge by the other side, and perhaps most memorably Justice Lionel Murphy’s alleged (but denied) question: “What about my little mate” when the High Court Judge alleged referenced favour-seeking in an underworld case (where nothing was ever proved.)

But if Wyatt’s mate, the PM, has a trick up his sleeve that will save his young padwan – and many others – from the devastating experience of an election loss, he’s certainly holding it dangerously close to show time.

Having seen, as a kid barely out of school, for the first time grown men I had known all my life cry on election night 1983 – men committed to the losing party – I can attest to the abject bereavement of the moment when a seat slips from its incumbent’s grasp late on election night.

At election time, politics will always triumph over policy but the reality is, while Wyatt bunkers down for the fight of his short political life, his youthful verve is being missed on the campaign trail where the Prime Minister’s innovation references are being lost in his uncharacteristically colourless delivery.

The single tech announcement of the coalition campaign ahead of last Thursday’s Digital Services policy launch so far was a numerically pathetic $15 million for startup incubators and accelerators.

Compare that to the commitments by Southeast Asia’s latest entrant into the bidding war for the best startups, Thailand. It’s fund has a cool US$540 million.

InnovationAus.com believes hurling money at patchwork startups can cause more harm that good, but played well it can give small tech companies both cachet and a financial boost.

These days the the big money stops at Singapore with its endless government programs and incentives and inedible emerging national Smart Nation brand and about $1 billion pumped into the sector,.

So it’s no wonder increasing numbers of Australian technology companies are heading there – or elsewhere in Asia – to get access to markets far juicer than Australia paltry 24 million people (slightly less than the number of official citizens of both Beijing and Shanghai and not far away from Seoul Bangkok, Jakarta, Manila and Saigon.

In Australia, the land that tech keeps forgetting (or is it the other way around?), jumping from accelerators and incubators into the second and third financing round is perhaps the most critical part of a tech companies development.

This is where Australian companies continue to struggle.

While he’s busy knocking on doors, Wyatt should be thinking about where he has been also been missing in the broader innovation ecosystem.

If his critics are to be believed, he’s been captured by Australia’s growing Team Accelerator” – a veritable brat-pack of white, generally privileged Aussie blokes – and has been avoiding the dull grown-ups who wield the smart money.

And he has avoided the even duller end of innovation, the existing companies with real cash flows who make the sorts of improvements via their own innovation that take them out of Australia without any fuss and glamour and into the Asia market. These are the Toll Holdings, the Linfoxes and the Blackmore’s of the world.

Think about this Wyatt, as you nervously watch each booth come in and your scrutineers message you voter trends: That accelerators, incubators and all those agile startups and bootstrappers are just the glamourous edge of innovation.

Wyatt, we salute you. At InnovationAus.com we wish you all the best. Your fresh young face and digital nativity is a great exemplar message about where Australia should be heading (if only the PM could get that message across like he did just nine months ago).

But when you get over the line, we hope you draw on your own experience of doing the hard yards of vote winning to realise that innovation policy – like most things that require success – is 99 per cent hard yakka.

The glamour of, say, hanging out with billionaires and being squired around Tel Aviv, is just the icing on the cake. It’s not the main game. That’s something your mate Malcolm is learning, too.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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