Expect much moaning and whinging from Federal Labor over the Coalition’s innovation efforts, but little in the way of actual policy until after the Opposition has a big, long think.
Speaking at a Tech Leaders forum at Leura in NSW’s Blue Mountains on Sunday, Opposition shadow for the digital economy Ed Husic was very much in whinge mode as he lectured a crew of tech journos and IT vendors on the shortfalls in Coalition innovation policy and government reform of Commonwealth digital practices.
But the boot was once on the other foot. Malcolm Turnbull caused plenty of problems for Labor on the innovation front when Mr Turnbull knifed the technically illiterate Tony Abbott and snatched the top job in September 2015.
Then in December the new Prime Minister launched his signature Innovation Statement that was almost universally applauded by the tech sector.
“The high watermark was December 2015,” said Mr Husic of the Coalition’s foray into innovation policy reform.
The Coalition had good policy momentum for a while, with a flurry of startup friendly legislation, and a campaign promoting a so-called ‘Ideas Boom.’ Fresh-faced then MP Wyatt Roy was running around the country and the globe as Mr Turnbull’s innovation deputy, talking up an entrepreneurially driven tech revolution.
But while the NISA and its follow up was well received by the tech venture capital industry and the start-up hot spots of inner city Sydney and Melbourne, the rest of the country either feared the ‘I’ word as a job killer or just wasn’t listening.
Labor saw this chink and Mr Husic went for it, arguing during an election campaign debate event hosted by InnovationAus.com – where Mr Husic faced off with the Coalition’s Angus Taylor – that people in his electorate around the western Sydney suburb of Blacktown feared innovation talk as a job killer.
He said that what was needed was a massive widening of the benefits of truly innovative thinking and practices to include outer urban and rural areas.
The voting public seemed to agree, somewhat. In the July election, Mr Roy lost his seat and Mr Turnbull came within a whisker of losing the Coalition’s majority.
Since then the Coalition has toned down its ‘Ideas Boom’ rhetoric.
“And then the plunge,” said Mr Husic. “Very little talk. Little apparent celebration of action.”
“The Turnbull Government figured it had won the sector over. And the $28m advertising campaign – heralding the Ideas Boom, with tactfully positioned posters on the outside of public toilets – would bringing the public on board.”
“Wrong. Since the July election, I pointed out that the Turnbull Government’s enthusiasm to the national innovation effort was flagging.”
“Coalition backbenchers complained how they couldn’t explain what innovation meant to their constituents.”
Mr Husic went as far as giving former Prime Minister and now backbench noise maker Tony Abbott a back handed compliment.
“We had a former Prime Minister congratulating his successor in November last year in bizarre terms, saying publicly: “it’s good we’re no longer talking about innovation and agility…”
“Well, I never thought I’d say this: Thanks, Tony. You’ve proved my point,” Mr Husic said.
The Opposition innovation shadow then went into headland speech overdrive.
“The inability of this Government to explain why innovation is important to the nation is the single biggest threat to the nation’s future economic security.
“If we’re not talking about being a smarter nation, we’re not going to do the things that make us a smarter nation.
“I’m genuinely worried we’ll resigned ourselves to grabbing someone else’s idea, captured in something sitting on an app store shelf, conceived by someone overseas.
“This isn’t digital protectionism – its digital ambition,”
But with probably more than two years to go to the next election that’s as far as the innovation policy ambitions of the Opposition go, at the moment.
Its proposed policy settings remain as they were in July last year and Mr Husic concedes that it will be some time before there is anything fresh.
“We are going to put more and more focus on this area and try to resuscitate the whole discussion around innovation in Australia
“Don’t discard the importance of that in the broader community discussion of what we need to do
However, actual policies that would get a run into the likely next election in 2019 are some time away.
“The autopilot for us is we have a whole bunch of policies that we have taken and they have got to go through a review process and then we will make announcements down the track.”
Mr Husic added that the track is quite long with no major innovation policy announcements expected this year.
“It’s just too early in the cycle,” he said.