Ex-procurement expert leads grassroots WA innovation quest

Brandon How

After 18 months in the Western Australian Legislative Assembly, parliamentary newcomer Christine Tonkin has made it her mission to listen to the needs of industry, and is expecting to file several reports and policy recommendations to the state government on innovation and manufacturing later this year.

As part of the Labor victory at the start of 2021, Ms Tonkin was elected as the first Labor Legislative Assembly member for Churchlands, which was created in 1996.

Member of the Western Australian Legislative Assembly Christine Tonkin Image: Christine Tonkin MLA

Among the many commitments outlined in her maiden speech to the Legislative Assembly just over a year ago, Ms Tonkin shared her interest in “leveraging technological innovation and local manufacturing” to build green jobs in the state.

This led to her establishing a green jobs working group in the second half of 2021, and through this she was able to connect with members of the innovation landscape in Western Australia, beginning an innovation ecosystem research project in May. Her survey of the innovation ecosystem that will be published in July.

She has also hosted roundtables on the circular economy and cybersecurity. Ms Tonkin will submit roundtable reports and a cybersecurity procurement strategy to Innovation and ICT Minister Stephen Dawson later this year.

Following a 25-year career working in public procurement reform for government and international agencies, such as the United Nations Development Program and the Asian Development Bank, Ms Tonkin returned to Western Australia at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020.

As a part of her innovation project, a roundtable attended by 50 local startups and manufacturers was held and produced several policy proposals to be included in Ms Tonkin’s report. Among the proposals is the formation of two new government procurement bodies to help buy innovation.

“One of the issues that was spoken about, and it’s near and dear to my heart, is based on the principle of ‘don’t give us a grant give us an order’. One of the groups at the roundtable focused on how government can better buy innovation, and the value for money that that represents,” Ms Tonkin said.

“They proposed a two-stage process of buying. A stream they call Initiate WA where relatively low risk, low value orders, could go to. It will be a place for innovators who were capable of delivering something but didn’t have a well-developed corporate history. Then there’s Buy WA, if you prove yourself through Initiate WA then there are more opportunities for you to engage in Buy WA. That was interesting and I think there’s some things we can work with there.”

Ms Tonkin said that government often doesn’t buy innovation because they are not good at taking risk and often prefer to work with companies with long track records.

Also discussed were ways to attract more talent to Western Australia, creating a regulatory sandbox to allow innovators to bypass some requirements or standards, and encourage sustainable innovation.

Ms Tonkin also completed her third workshop with the WA AustCyber Innovation Hub, working on improving the procurement of cybersecurity services both in the public and private sector.

“At the moment, there are some real weaknesses in the way in which cybersecurity is procured both in government and in the private sector. It’s because it’s a fast-moving field, a field where there’s not a lot of understanding of what’s on offer and how it addresses particular needs,” Ms Tonkin said.

“I think it’s because cybersecurity is often understood as an add on…it’s not understood as a requirement in its own right. How you effectively address cyber security, using the cert services of cybersecurity specialists, is not well understood in government. So they tend to revert to simple simple processes that really do not hit the mark.

“This [workshop] is not only about providing a mechanism through which these sorts of services can be more easily procured, but it’s also about educating government agencies and major corporates about what cybersecurity specialist companies can actually deliver.”

WA Premier Mark McGowan with Christine Tonkin Image: Christine Tonkin MLA

Commenting on the $3.8 billion green infrastructure building project announced by the state government last week, Ms Tonkin said that an “enormous amount of it can go to local companies”. When asked if nuclear power should be in the Western Australian mix, she emphatically denied the suggestion. She said it would not make economic sense and would be the most expensive form of power in the state.

Before closing her interview with InnovationAus.com, she expressed the overall enjoyment that representing the community brings her and said she looked forward to the remaining two and half years of her term. Ms Tonkin said she is keen to run for re-election but that she has no ministerial ambition.

“I’m too old. I was 65 on the Monday after the election. I’ve had a career. I’ve climbed the greasy pole, I’ve worked internationally. I’ve lived the dream in my career, and now I’m just finding that I can use those skills as a local member,” Ms Tonkin said.

“They’re really useful skills because I am comfortable about biting off how you procure cyber security services better. I’m not afraid of looking into how you actually encourage innovation and how you work with innovators to diversify our economy.”

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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