Labor’s fight to highlight tech plan

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James Riley

The war over who has the best policies to support innovation has yet to be fought tooth and claw by either side in this marathon election campaign, although Labor took a swipe yesterday with a $59 million package to ward off the rust belt about to wrap around vehicle manufacturing.

Before Malcolm Turnbull wrenched the prime ministership from self-confessed technology numbskull Tony Abbott, Labor had much of the tech and innovation credentials on its side, despite having made a cock-up of employee shares for startups during the Rudd/Gillard years.

It was the party of the fibre-heavy NBN, with plenty of tech savvy talent such as Ed Husic, Stephen Conroy and Jason Clare and pioneering digital government advocate Kate Lundy who left the Senate in early 2015.

But the new Prime Minister put the Coalition on the front foot with December’s National Innovation and Science Agenda, following it up with the $230 million cyber security strategy in April, as well as a small business tax cut and a few crumbs for promoting FinTech in the May Budget.

Mr Turnbull has also drummed up the Coalition’s own tech hip crew by promoting people like Wyatt Roy.

While fibre lovers might hate what Malcolm Turnbull did to the NBN, he has at least got Australians talking about the never ending waves of digital disruption we live in and how our economy can respond and make the most of it.

Labor has responded with a set of its own innovation friendly proposals, but you just don’t hear much about them from Bill Shorten or his campaign band.

There’s a new version of the Howard era Innovation and Industry Fund called the Smart Investment Fund that promises $500 million to partner with VCs and fund managers to co-invest in early stage companies with up to 50 per cent of the start-up capital. Another piece is called Start-Up Finance, a proposal to part guarantee small loans from finance institutions to give start-ups cheaper capital.

A new beast called the Australian Angel Investment Scheme promises goodies such as full capital gains tax exemption for equity held in the startup venture for more than three years and upfront 50 per cent tax deductions for an investment up to a maximum of $200,000 per year. Labor defines a startup as having a maximum of $400,000 in assets and 25 employees or less.

There are other measures such as landing pads to help spearhead Aussie tech firms into the US and special visas for startup entrepreneurs and graduates. Labor also promises to lower the minimum level of investment required for entry into the ESVCLP program from $10 million to $5 million.

Then there are education initiatives such as boosting STEM teacher training and STEM degrees, promising to make coding courses available in all schools and establishing a National Coding in Schools Centre where industry can connect with teachers.

So far, when economic transformation and innovation get a guernsey in the campaign discourse, Mr Shorten and Labor have steered the debate into education spending while Mr Turnbull and the Coalition have waved around the promised ten years of company tax cuts, which has become the somewhat grandiose, ‘national economic plan’.

The rhetoric changed slightly on the Labor side yesterday when Bill Shorten pledged $59 million to help local manufacturers in South Australia and Victoria pivot away from the soon to be terminated motor vehicle industry.

There’s $10.5 million promised to local suppliers reliant on auto manufacturing to hook up with international supply chains and develop new products with the rest targeted at helping businesses in the automotive manufacturing areas of Victoria and South Australia diversify into fresh areas.

We have yet to see Labor’s big gun tech policy which will centre around the NBN, everyone’s favourite political football.

Labor communications shadow Jason Clare has taken plenty of pot-shots at the Coalition’s part fibre, part copper, part HFC cable NBN, which has made itself a juicy target by big blowouts in costs and roll out schedules.

What Mr Clare has not done is offer up any alternative, other than saying ‘you’ll get more fibre under Labor’, a statement with luxurious wriggle room and zero detail.

It will be interesting to see how far Mr Clare’s more fibre promise goes. Likely it will centre around the Prime Minister’s much criticised fibre to the node section of the NBN , where Labor could beef up the fibre roll out and contain costs by going to the curb with the new ‘skinny fibre’ technology, but not all the way to the premise, possibly leaving punters with the bill if they wanted a full fibre connection.

The HFC cable could be left in place, possibly with a promise to fiberise it in the future.

When will Labor release its NBN policy? No idea, except to say it’s more likely to come at the business end of the campaign trail to maximise impact and minimise scrutiny.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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