‘Highly disruptive’: Turnbull’s exit

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James Riley

A new Prime Minister and a significantly different Cabinet would be “highly disruptive” to the government’s tech and innovation-focused agenda and could delay important reforms currently in the works, StartupAus chief executive Alex McCauley said.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s first Ministry brings with it major changes for the technology sector in Australia, and for the digital transformation of government.

‘Innovation’ as a portfolio has been entirely erase, with Queensland MP Karen Andrews taking on the role of Minister for Industry, Science and Technology. Deputy leader Josh Frydenberg is Australia’s new Treasurer, while Kelly O’Dwyer will be overseeing Jobs and Michaelia Cash was demoted to the Small and Family Business portfolio, although she remains inside Cabinet.

While there was some relief in the tech sector that Mr Morrison prevailed over Peter Dutton in the leadership contest on Friday, the turmoil is an unwanted distraction from implementing a cohesive and consistent policy approach to technology and innovation, Mr McCauley said.

“This is a highly disruptive thing that’s happened, it’s disruptive for policy-making as well as for implementing policy. This is a big disruption to the agenda as it was set out by the previous prime minister,” Mr McCauley told InnovationAus.com.

“Things that aren’t finalised won’t necessarily come off and things that have been finalised that are in train but maybe not rock sold will be in question

“There’s always that uncertainty around changing leadership and teams – that’s the real cost of the transition. There is a cost to this nation in instability and disruption.”

AirTree Ventures founder Craig Blair said technology and innovation policy is worse off now than it was just a week ago.

“We need a degree of care and longevity to our planning. It’s particularly difficult because a lot of the issues that are going to surface from disruption and technology are very long-term issues,” Mr Blair told InnovationAus.com.

“The merry-go-round of ministers is making it very difficult to deal with any long-term policy submission.”

“The government is now appealing to the voices in electorates that are worried about jobs, worried about immigration, and worried about innovation affecting their jobs. There’s a real danger that they pull back from some commitments they’ve already made.”

With the Opposition having already adopted a consistent approach to the portfolio for a number of years, the Morrison government may have its work cut out for it in the upcoming election campaign, Mr McCauley said.

“The challenge that Morrison and his new team will face is that the Labor Party and Ed Husic in particular have been talking about this for a bunch of years in a pretty consistent way. They’ve got some good ideas out there that they will be taking to the election, along with hopefully some new ideas,” he said.

“Mr Morrison and his new team have got some hard work to do to identify where they want to take the country and the economy, and try to convince people that technology and modernisation is critical for the future.”

While the Prime Minister had proven himself as tech-literate while he was Treasurer – with a particular focus on FinTech – FinTech Australia chair Stuart Stoyan is hopeful that as Prime Minister he would continue to deliver on that policy agenda.

“It’s great to have somebody who has been championing important legislative change, from equity crowdfunding to open banking and comprehensive credit reporting,” Mr Stoyan told InnovationAus.com.

“It’s incredibly important for competition in the financial services sector, and with the treasurer now as prime minister that means it will continue to be a focus,” he said.

“We have a prime minister now who has been very supportive of FinTechs and startups as being absolutely critical to improvements in productivity in financial services. He has been not just a genuine supporter of FinTech, but has an understanding of how FinTech is absolutely critical to improvements in productivity in financial services.”

Mr Stoyan has served on Mr Morrison’s FinTech advisory panel, established to provide sector input on government policies and legislation.

The reshuffle saw all mention of innovation erased from the government’s ministry, with former jobs and innovation minister Michaelia Cash replaced by new industry, science and technology minister Karen Andrews.

But Mr McCauley said the real focus should be on the government’s intended policy direction.

“Innovation is out, but tech is in. I want to focus on the policy rather than the ministerial portfolio titles, and we’ll have to wait and see on that. The proof will be in the pudding in terms of the new direction,” he said.

Regularly changing the minister responsible makes it difficult to form a coherent vision on tech policy, angel investor and M8 Ventures partner Alan Jones said told InnovationAus.com.

“One of the hallmarks of tech disruption has been an acceleration in the rate of change, and nowhere more so than in who represents the tech industry in federal government,” Mr Jones said.

“In the Turnbull administration we have had no fewer than two assistant ministers and four ministers in three years. After a while I think they stopped issuing them with new business cards; they just gave them a rubber stamp with the new title on it.”

It’s important that Australia’s new leader quickly establishes a clear long-term vision for the government’s tech and innovation-focused policies, Mr McCauley said.

“The biggest thing we need from the new prime minister is a sense of vision around where this country is going to have to go economically and how he’d like to see us get there. That’s been missing from Australian politics for a while,” he said.

“I’d love to see both sides really have a bold vision for the future of the Australian economy that included the development of some fantastic globally-focused tech companies from Australia.”

Top of the wish-list for the startup sector are further improvements to the R&D tax incentive.

“We seem to have missed the pointed that the R&D tax incentive should be used to encourage innovation from startups, not just big biochemical companies. That needs a renewed focus from Treasurer Frydenberg,” Mr Stoyan said.

The tech sector will also miss Malcolm Turnbull, Mr Blair said.

“We were fortunate to have a prime minister who had a fair bit of exposure to innovation and was interested in that personally. Losing that is not great,” he said.

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