Malcolm Turnbull and the innovation agenda

James Riley
Editorial Director

For a signature policy that is clearly a source of great pride for former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, the landmark National Innovation and Science Agenda is given surprisingly short shrift in his political autobiography, A Bigger Picture.

This does not mean that Mr Turnbull does not believe that his innovation agenda was somehow underdone. He does not and writes that the so-called ideas boom and the resetting of the economic agenda was a big picture policy achievement of which he is most proud.

The NISA agenda was comprehensive, a set of 24 policy reforms across the breadth of government. The fact that its creation and subsequent implementation does not figure more prominently in its architect’s political memoir is more a reflection that ‘innovation’ was never a priority political debate, notwithstanding the former PM’s own enthusiasm.

Malcolm Turnbull
Malcolm Turnbull on the Australian innovation ecosystem

In fact, after the 2016 election, ‘innovation’ became a political cudgel and Malcolm Turnbull was far less voluble on innovation issues, even if NISA itself and a new enthusiasm for entrepreneurialism took hold across Australia.

The former PM does not directly address turning down the volume on his Ideas Boom following the 2016 election, but he does offer clues.

“My enthusiasm for innovation was often parodied in the press and internal opponents liked reminding me, and everybody else, that ‘innovation’ frightened people,” Mr Turnbull writes. “Yet while it might be comforting to be lied to by politicians and assured that everything will remain the same, that’s like going to the doctor and being told what you want to hear.”

What did not happen after 2016 was a NISA 2.0. It had been the intention of government that the original reforms would be followed by a second round of policies.

The National Innovation and Science Agenda is certainly worth reflecting on today. NISA programs were in large part funded over the four years of the forward estimates, having started in financial year 2016/17.

Many programs’ funding will finish on June 30, and with a delayed budget it is not entirely clear how this big thinking NISA agenda is being replaced.

In budget terms, the original NISA was modest, just $1.1 billion over four years. But it was a landmark set of reforms for this country. Having a Prime Minister pushing the reforms as loudly and as optimistically as Mr Turnbull changed Australia, and certainly changed the way we think about entrepreneurs and technology.

It is hard to remember the ancient history, eons ago really, of the launch of NISA with the Prime Minister, Christopher Pyne as Industry Minister, and two junior ministers – Karen Andrews covering Science and Wyatt Roy covering Innovation.

It is certainly worth remembering that the NISA policies were put together by a taskforce involving nine government departments and 11 ministers. That is a big program. Tax breaks for investors in startups, programs to improve university-business collaborations, the creation of the first deep tech accelerator in CSIRO’s ON, a new deep tech venture capital firm in Main Sequence, and the building of Landing Pads for Aussie entrepreneurs across San Francisco, Tel Aviv, Berlin, Singapore and Shanghai.

Programs were created to encourage kids to study STEM subjects and to learn to code, and formalised efforts were put in place to government data sets were made publicly available, and more money was delivered to Data61 to build Australia’s base of data science capability.

In a many areas the NISA policies were very successful indeed. Certainly in improving access to capital in Australia, but more substantially in driving a cultural shift. It is true that an important line can be seen across the innovation ecosystem that marks a demarcation between pre-NISA and post-NISA.

“Whether it was the NISA or simply the fact that I spoke a lot about innovation, the ‘ideas boom’ I talked about did come to pass,” Mr Turnbull says in his book. “In $2018, a record $1.25 billion was invested in startups, almost 10 times the amount invested in 2013. Venture capital investments reached $3.1 billion in 2018, double the amount in 2017 and up from $230 million in 2013.”

“This rapid growth in the innovation ecosystem enabled a massive growth in overall science investment when you combine the public and private sectors. In short, innovation became both a buzzword and a benchmark for governments and businesses – a theme that continued throughout my government,” he said.

It is a tough time to now turn our attention to what comes next. But the health and economic crisis of COVID-19 has surely put everything back on the table in relation to technology and innovation policy. Certainly, it is time to turn up the volume on public discussion about industry policy.

There is no member of the current Cabinet more enthusiastic than Industry Minister Karen Andrews, and she has seized the moment in relation to the manufacturing sector and shoring up supply chains. We hope attention soon turns to the broader expanse of the technology sector, and that Mr Turnbull’s successor gets more hands on and drives renewed enthusiasm.

NISA made its mark, but momentum is dropping and the future of several programs are either unclear or drifting. CSIRO’s ON accelerator’s funding dries up at the end of June, and the program is effectively shuttered. The future of the Landing Pads is unclear. The government-as-exemplar Digital Transformation Agency is a boondoggle, consumed back into the mainstream, business-as-usual public service, and NISA-inspired efforts to improve access to government contracts for small Australian innovators have proved both miniscule and glacial.

There is an extraordinary opportunity right now. We know Scott Morrison showed great interest as Treasurer in things like open banking, FinTechs and data. It is time for a renewed push on innovation.

Mr Turnbull’s own interest in the sector is undiminished.

“We [Mr Turnbull and wife Lucy] both look forward to supporting and investing in Australian innovation. That lifelong passion is undimmed and the prospects for Australian technology and entrepreneurship are greater than ever.”

Earlier this month, the Turnbull’s participated in two important Australian capital raisings. The first with South Australia-based satellite and internet of things startup Myriota and in the nation’s newest unicorn, SafetyCulture.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

  1. wazza 4 years ago

    …and he created his MTM to ‘replace’ the NBN – with parts of the MTM already failing before it’s even been finished.

  2. Laurie Patton 4 years ago

    Sadly, chapter 18 contains a bizarre account of Turnbull’s involvement with the NBN. But it ignores the most important aspect. The fact that he successfully demolished it at the insistence of Tony Abbott…

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