Prime Minister Scott Morrison declined a COVID-19 Commission recommendation to lead the innovation policies that would drive Australian industry’s economic recovery from the pandemic, according to the government adviser involved.
Andrew Liveris, an Australian businessman who advised the Obama and Trump administrations on manufacturing and innovation, was called in by the Prime Minister last year to develop an economic recovery strategy, acting as a special adviser to the COVID-19 Commission.
Mr Liveris developed what became known as the Modern Manufacturing Initiative (MMI), a $1.3 billion federal program offers large grants to manufacturers working in one of six national priority areas. Each area also has a long term technology roadmap designed to develop sovereign capability and a sustainable manufacturing industry.
The initiative has been led by the Coalition’s industry minister, a position which has already changed twice since Karen Andrews launched the MMI one year ago, including the latest switch which saw the industry and innovation portfolio split across two ministers.
Mr Morrison has controversially retained control of final approvals for most of the MMI grants and was part of the scheme’s announcement alongside then-industry minister Karen Andrews.
When the embattled Christian Porter took over the portfolio earlier this year, MMI announcements were made via written statements. The government has blocked attempts to release departmental briefing documents about the fund’s administration.
“We recommended in the manufacturing initiative, as part of the COVID Commission, that the ownership of [of innovation policy] should be at prime ministerial level,” Mr Liveris told InnovationAus.
“It is everywhere else — in Israel and Ireland and the UK. There is an innovation minister or Industry Minister equivalent but the Prime Minister takes accountability for it, and chairs the Innovation Council and owns it.”
The recommendation was not taken by the Prime Minister, Mr Liveris said, because in Australia the “the Cabinet runs the country and the Prime Minister steps back and orchestrates”.
The Prime Minister’s office did not respond to questions about the recommendation or leading innovation policy.
Mr Liveris said he understood the decision of Scott Morrison not to take the advice last year but believes the opportunity of the pandemic recovery and Australia’s need to diversify its economy warrants a reconsideration.
“I understand [not taking the recommendation] but if you’re talking about health supply chains, Defence supply chains, food supply chains, I think that’s a prime ministerial imperative,” Mr Liveris said.
“And I think, therefore, we can’t rely on imports of those goods from other countries. We’ve got to rebuild our supply chains. I think that should be a prime ministerial responsibility.”
An industry and innovation minister should still play a major role, Mr Liveris said, but the country’s leader should be at the forefront of an innovation led recovery to add more commitment and accountability.
“The whole nation should know it belongs to the Prime Minister. And that’s where I think maybe we just need to step it up and just do it that way,” he told InnovationAus.
On Wednesday at the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce Innovation Summit, Mr Liveris reiterated his calls for national leadership on innovation policy and expanded on his desired approach.
Under his favoured model, the Prime Minister would also be the chief innovation minister and chair an “Innovation Council” authority similar to an economic development board made up of senior public and private sector leaders to drive a top down approach to policy.
“I’d make it 12 to 15 [members] in size so it’s not too unwieldy, and then that would be in the statutory authority. The group that would then steer the country’s five-year plan for innovation.”
Keeping innovation policy at arm’s length from the government of the day would allow longer term focus on targeted areas of strength, with results reported annually, Mr Liveris said during an AICC panel.
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