Is tech back on the political agenda?

James Riley
Editorial Director

It’s a pretty rare day in parliament these days when you hear consecutive, detailed speeches about innovation policy, but that’s what happened last week. Can innovation and the technology industry really be back on the political agenda?

Well, the answer to that remains quite obviously ‘no’. And yet for the briefest of moments last week we were reminded – to use the Turnbull turn of phrase – what an exciting time it is to be alive. It felt like the National Innovation and Science Agenda was still fresh in the air.

In the weirdest of ways, the door might be opening for a new national conversation about innovation policy because – of all things – the bushfires. Scott Morrison’s three-word slogan “technology not taxes” presents a realm of possibility.

The commitment to a budget surplus notwithstanding, the bushfires response has opened up some political headroom.

Scott Morrison: Is innovation policy making a comeback?

The debate last week was via the passage of the Intellectual Property Laws Amendment (Productivity Commission Response Part 2 and Other Measures) Bill 2019. These were the changes to the patent system in Australia, and specifically changes that scuppered an ineffective two-tiered patent system in Australia.

The bill had already been through the lower house once. In the Senate, the government had agreed to a couple of Labor-proposed amendments that provided some measures that better protected SMEs to the changes in the bill.

The fact that government agreed to amendments at all was jarringly collegiate during this era of hyper-partisanship. Maybe there is some good will in the area of innovation policy that both sides are well aware is critical to Australia’s future – from business investment in R&D, to STEM skills, AI adoption and public-private research collaborations, the issues are well known.

With amendments having been made in the Senate, the bill came back to the lower house for what is essentially a procedural box-ticking exercise (and yes, the changes to the patent system were passed and now await Royal Assent.)

Labor last week took the opportunity however, to use what would normally be a wave-through vote to instead debate innovation policy. Broad innovation policy quite literally does not get discussed in our Parliament very often.

‘Innovation’ has been on the nose since the 2016 election and 18 months into the top job, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has shown little interest in reviving it – until now.

The Opposition is well aware that the original programs set out under the National Innovation and Science Agenda had a four-year horizon over the forward estimates. That’s 2016/17 to 2019/20. While some programs had had funding quietly extended, the government never announced a second tranche of initiatives as had been expected.

And so Labor is pressing the innovation issue in the Parliament to push it up and onto the policy radar. I am not saying this is a mainstream issue right now, and the speeches in the house last week were ignored by mainstream media.

But I am saying it is possible that this could again become a mainstream conversation. There are a lot of places a “technology not taxes” discussion can go.

Shadow innovation minister Clare O’Neil told the Parliament the changes to the patent laws “actually relates to one of the most pivotal discussions that we have in this chamber, and that is: how do we create a high-skill, high-wage economy for Australians for this generation and the next? This is a really urgent question.”

Ms O’Neil said the government had been too timid in the area of innovation and technology since the Turnbull era, and “we just can’t take that approach any longer. Something about this has to change.”

“The Chinese government’s latest venture capital fund is expected to invest more than $30 billion in AI and related technologies. In fact, one Chinese state alone will devote $5 billion into AI technologies and businesses,” she said.

“Stanford has recommended that the US government invest $120 billion in various AI initiatives over the next decade, France is committing $2.4 billion over five years and the South Korean government is committing $2.7 billion over that period.

“In Australia, the Morrison government has committed to $29.9 million over four years – that is million, not billion.

“Anyone can see what’s going to happen if nothing changes and that is we’re going to get steamrolled in this new economy.”

Industry Minister Karen Andrews said the government was committed to “to making sure that Australia is an innovative nation.”

She said it was not just a matter for government, but that business had a huge role to play.

“What is clear is that business investment in research and development has declined; it’s not where it needs to be,” Mrs Andrews said.

“We are calling on businesses to look at what they are doing with research and development and look at opportunities to expand, to work closely with our science agencies, including CSIRO, and also to work with our universities,” she said.

“What we do need to make sure of so that Australia becomes an innovative nation is that industry and researchers are working very closely together.”

“Both the education minister, Dan Tehan, [and I] are committed to making sure that we are engaging with our researchers and our research organisations and that we are doing all that we can to promote engagement between industry and researchers. We already have in place many programs that do support that engagement.”

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