Reshuffle: PM bets on new team

James Riley
Editorial Director

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s bigger than expected ministerial reshuffle has delivered a new leadership team to its core innovation programs and reset expectations of what the industry can expect from government.

Of the many changes, the two that will have the greatest impact on the tech and innovation sectors are the appointment of Michaelia Cash into the revolving door industry portfolio – now called Jobs and Innovation – and Michael Keenan’s elevation to Human Services with additional responsibility for digital transformation.

Michael Keenan: Surprise choice to run the PM’s digital transformation effort

These are significant changes and optimists will welcome both as a circuit-breaker to energise each portfolio.

Senator Cash’s promotion gives certainty to the Industry portfolio at a time when a huge number of important strategic policy decisions are piling up on the minister’s desk. The fourth quarter was supposed to be the portfolio’s most active part of the year, but it has drifted silently.

Former Industry minister Arthur Sinodinos’ decision to step aside from the ministry to focus on his health is the right one. He will be missed from the portfolio, and he takes with him a huge amount of respect and goodwill from the industry.

Michael Keenan’s appointment is entirely unexpected and its potential impact is difficult to read. But you can see what the Prime Minister is trying to do.

In Human Services, Mr Keenan is at the head of a sprawling and immensely powerful central delivery agency. His appointment as Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Digital Transformation gives him responsibility for the Digital Transformation Agency.

This is an extraordinary concession. The DTA was moved to Prime Minister & Cabinet to give it the political muscle to get stuff done. But the sometimes tortured progress of the digital transformation effort demonstrates this is not enough. Getting departments on board has been a struggle.

By making Michael Keenan both minister for Human Services and for Digital Transformation, the Prime Minister is seeking to co-opt the powerful mandarins of Human Services – by serving the interests of their own minister they will have to serve the interests of digital transformation.

Whether this will have any impact is entirely unknown. Michael Keenan is not well-known to the tech industry. It is unclear whether he has a specific interest in technology and digital issues, which he will need to be effective, nor whether he has the energy to drive change.

This is a massive punt by the PM, effectively changing pilots mid-flight. Malcolm Turnbull’s digital transformation program has been a grinding, thankless effort almost entirely ignored by mainstream media.

And yet it holds a trifecta of potential; to improve people’s lives, save significant taxpayer money, and to deliver an enormous industry development windfall to Australian tech companies.

Angus Taylor will feel rightly disappointed. He will have wanted to oversee the implementation of the significant changes to ICT procurement, data policy and the digital identity – policies that were developed under his watch.

Mr Taylor has been promoted to a full ministry – Law Enforcement and Cyber Security – under Peter Dutton in the giant new Home Affairs portfolio.

Michaelia Cash will need to hit the ground running in the new year. There is a huge backlog of work to do in the portfolio.

The Innovation and Science Australia 2030 strategy has been sitting on the desk for a month, awaiting a response from government. It was supposed to have been released for public scrutiny this year, but has been put off.

She will also need to address the Ferris, Finkel and Fraser inquiry into the multi-billion dollar R&D tax incentive, which has been waiting for a government response to its six recommendations for more than a year and a half. (Silence on the single most expensive industry support scheme for a year and a half!)

And then there’s the small issue of extending the two-year-old National Innovation and Science Agenda, the Prime Minister’s signature policy. The NISA, which was announced with great fanfare in December 2015, was always meant to be the first iteration of a rolling series of policies. But it has not shifted.

Senator Cash will bring great energy to the portfolio. She is utterly fearless, perhaps to a fault. She has an interest in the shiny startup end of innovation, but the rest is a bit of an unknown.

The breadth of this portfolio is eye-popping. As Minister for Jobs and Innovation, Senator Cash adds the entire Industry portfolio to her existing role as Minister for Employment.

The tech and innovation industry will be hoping that important industry development components of the portfolio are not overwhelmed by the more political contentious workforce and industrial relations parts.

Senator Cash will be assisted in the portfolio by Craig Laundy, who has been promoted to Minister for Small and Family Business, Workplaces and Deregulation, and by the ACT senator Zed Seselja who has become Assistant Minister for Science, Jobs and Innovation.

It is not clear how the portfolio will be carved up. But the science community is unlikely to have been thrilled to see the science portfolio drop out of Cabinet and into a parliamentary secretary role.

If you include Ian Macfarlane, who was Industry Minister when Malcolm Turnbull became Prime Minister, the government has now had five ministers in the portfolio in a little over two years.

They are Ian Macfarlane, Christopher Pyne, Greg Hunt, Arthur Sinodinos and now Michaelia Cash.

Senator Cash will need to work overtime in the New Year just meeting people. Our industry does not know her. And it needs to.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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