Election 2016: Where to now?

James Riley
Editorial Director

With Australia having entered a faux election campaign, the time is ripe for a faux election preview. InnovationAus.com has been out testing the temperature of the ‘innovation electorate’ to find out what the big issues are for industry.

All eyes, of course, are on Treasurer Scott Morrison’s first budget, to be handed down next Tuesday evening.

If everything follows the anticipated path outlined by the commentariat, the Leader of the Opposition will deliver a budget reply later next week, and the Prime Minister will then formally call a double dissolution election for July 2.

The campaigns of both the government and the opposition will be framed by this budget speech. And this has the Australian tech industry, the tech-enabled startup sector, and the broader innovation industries all intensely interested.

Here’s the thing. The polls might be showing that Malcolm Turnbull’s honeymoon is over and that this election will be close, but the tech and innovation sectors, having been unloved so long, are still pretty optimistic. The post-National Innovation and Science Agenda glow is still evident.

The mainstream headlines will be about taxation and spending cuts and deficit reduction.

But the Prime Minister and Scott Morrison have left room in the budget for some additional elements directed at innovation. It seems inconceivable that a government that has so thoroughly hitched its wagon to the innovation/jobs creation narrative can deliver an election-eve budget without dishing out additional love for this central policy plank.

This may come in the form of some additional spending and detail for existing NISA-announced (which for the most part are not due to commence until next financial year anyway). After all, this government is supposed to be all about iteration, right.

It would also be a surprise if an NBN announcement did not fortuitously drop from the sky (this is not a budget issue, but it is most definitely an election issue.)

In the meantime, the industry is already asking ‘what’s next’ of this government.

Australian Venture Capital and Private Equity Association Limited (AVCAL) chief executive Yasser El-Ansary wants to see a more consistent approach to industry consultation and engagement from government.

“We can do a much better job of tapping into the best ideas and working together to solve complex policy problems.”

“I think that innovation policy has been a big winner from both the coalition and the opposition trying to out-position each other over the past year,” Mr El-Ansary said.

“I’d like to see the next phase of their innovation strategy emerge in the election campaign.”

A key question AVCAL is hoping will get addressed is how both sides approach the need for more later stage venture investment in Australia over coming years.

“How we mobilise a larger pool of later stage venture funding has been missing from the discussion about innovation policy in the past year, so I’d like to see us shift our focus to that area in the period ahead,” Mr El-Ansary said.

Freelancer.com chief executive Matt Barrie, for all his acerbic occasional commentary on local startup ecosystem policy, is like most successful entrepreneurs: He is an optimist, a glass-half-full, Type A personality (except on Sydney’s lock-out laws, where he is most definitely glass-very-empty.)

But he is not seeing a lot to get excited about coming out of this budget. Mr Barrie says that the poor state Commonwealth’s current balance sheet will make it difficult for government to do much more in innovation in this budget – so he is not expecting much.

“Turnbull needs to get a mandate within his own party before you will see the nation building that everyone expects,” Mr Barrie told InnovationAus.com.

“I doubt we will see much more in innovation. The country’s P&L will be a mess. They’ll be focused on the expense line,” he said.

The Australian Information Industry Association’s newly-appointed Rob Fitzpatrick says the organisation is focused on stepping up government’s commitment to accelerating the ‘digitisation of the Australian economy.’

Specifically the AIIA is looking at developing and maturing Australia’s digital skills and talent base; driving the business adoption and integration of digital technology; fast-tracking the NBN roll-out; and accelerating the digital transformation of government.

While a lot of energy had been directed towards start-ups as the core of our innovation economy, Mr Fitzpatrick said there’s “real work to be done to instil a culture of innovation – and specifically technology-led innovation – in all businesses, irrespective of size.”

“Only when digitisation reaches critical mass in business and across industries will we optimise opportunities for innovation, competition and growth,” he said.

“Corporate Australia needs to embrace digitisation more comprehensively, and we are yet to systematically understand how to harness the energy and potential employment prospects in the SME sector.”

The AIIA also wants to see more detailed roadmap for the economy: “A more strategic vision of where and how Australia is going to positon itself in a fundamentally different, borderless and increasingly agile and competitive global economy,” Mr Fitzpatrick said.

The organisation will release a formal policy statement once the election is announced.

Interactive Games and Entertainment Association (IGEA) chief executive Ron Curry is looking for greater support for the Australian games development sector in order to better harness the huge international opportunities now on offer in this growing entertainment sector.

“Video games are intrinsically a global medium, and these products are almost always marketed and distributed internationally,” Mr Curry said.

“We have a strong and growing industry here and we would like to see more Australian government initiatives that support interactive games developers to effectively reach large export markets; exports that are weightless, don’t need to be dug up and are an infinite resource.”

And finally to telecommunications, and specifically the National Broadband Network: This is a sleeper issue in 2016.

Competitive Carrier’s Coalition (CCC) executive director David Forman – who is also an industry and policy executive at Macquarie telecom – says the government has allowed competition policy in the sector to slide. And it’s hurting.

“The level of competition and consumer outcomes on fixed line broadband is so far behind international peers it is unsustainable,” Mr Forman said. “This is a foundation of the digital economy, and we cannot expect to be anything other than also-rans if we are so far behind the OECD on cost averages.”

“All policy and regulatory decisions in the communications portfolio need to be guided by the single objective of increasing competition,” he said.

The CCC wants more focus on competition policy and less short-term focus on NBN revenue.

Internet Australia CEO Laurie Patton is stepping up a familiar drum beat for the election. The group quite simply wants a rethink of the NBN technology mix – and specifically wants that rethink to result in more fibre.

Internet Australia is keen to see FTTN abandoned in favour of ‘fibre to the driveway’ (technically known as fibre to the distribution point, or FTTdp). This would see fibre cabling run all the way to a point at or near the boundary to homes and commercial buildings.

From there, existing copper could still be used in the short-term. Such an approach would provide a future-proofed network and avoid the need for a costly re-build in 10 to 15 years’ time when copper is simply no longer fit-for-purpose.

“While supporting FTTPdp as an interim step we remain of the view that a full FTTP network must be the ultimate goal. Anything less than FTTP is an inferior solution,” Mr Patton said.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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