Sinodinos takes some time out

James Riley
Editorial Director

Just hours after unveiling a strategic review of the Australian Government’s digital economy policies, Industry Minister Arthur Sinodinos has announced he will take leave of absence from the Parliament to deal with an undisclosed medical issue.

Senator Sinodinos issued a statement late Tuesday to say he had sought and had been granted a period of leave by the Prime Minister to address the issue. He said he would return to full duties later this year as soon as practicable.

The statement said the Minister for Employment Michaelia Cash would be acting in Senator Sinodinos role as Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science in the interim.

Arthur Sinodinos: Observed that ‘revolutions in Australia come very slowly …’

Earlier in the day, Senator Sinodinos had released a consultation paper as the first step toward developing a Digital Economy Strategy to be released by government early in 2018.

The digital strategy would outline how the nation can work together to seize the benefits of digital transformation and secure Australian jobs into the future.

“I believe we can also become a world leader in digital innovation which could boost the Australian economy by $140 billion to $250 billion over the next eight years,” Senator Sinodinos said.

The Senator told an AFR Innovation Summit in Sydney that the thing that keeps him up at night worrying as a minister was the issue of the digital economy.

“In this portfolio, I really want to nail the digital economy … because there is no doubt in my mind that we have more to do,” he said.

The digital economy strategy had to include emerging issues related to the industrial internet and smart cities infrastructure, which the senator is addressing with Assistant Minister Angus Taylor. Cyber security was also a core area of focus, he said.

The Digital Economy Strategy would explore topics including digital infrastructure, digital business capability, and building digital skills and inclusion.

Senator Sinodinos also told the AFR Innovation Summit that the government would embrace the disruptive trends for their opportunities and would resist protectionist reflex.

The consultation on the digital economy was part of the process toward “bringing people with us”, but restating that “this portfolio is not about protection anymore, it’s about going forward.”

In broadening the discussion to future of work issues, Senator Sinodinos said the government does not “want this to be a new frontier for warfare over industrial relations.”

“I want us to work in a way that goes to the grain of market forces, which facilitates disruption, but in a way which helps to look after people,” he said.

“I don’t want it to be an excuse for further re-regulation of the labour market. Yes, we have got to look after people, but in a way which is consistent with the grain of market forces so we maximize the benefits of the change.”

He also underlined the Turnbull Government’s continuing softly, softly approach to discussing innovation issues.

While acknowledging that “Industry policy is no longer about protection, it’s not about shielding people from the forces of digital transformation or the work of the future,” Senator Sinodinos conceded the Turnbull Government’s early public enthusiasm for innovation had hurt it at the 2016 election.

The government is still struggling to articulate its message in relation to challenges and opportunities of disruption.

The senator describes himself as “an economic rationalist and a technological optimist,” and yet concedes that government shies away from big picture discussion involving innovation, preferring the language of niche specifics in individual innovation projects.

But you can’t reasonably argue the case for the hard decisions about jobs and skills and retraining and displacements with pseudo-soothing words like “I want to make sure every Australian is reassured we are going to take them on the journey,” as the senator did.

Labor’s shadow minister for the digital economy Ed Husic told the conference that “going quiet” on addressing big picture community concerns about disruption.

Getting industries prepared for technology change required cross-silo conversations.

“This is why talking about being a smarter nation matters – it gets a wide range of people thinking about what’s coming and acting,” Mr Husic said in a keynote address.

“As opposed to what we face now: missed opportunity and a hastily patched response – where the cost of this is shouldered by employees and smaller players. There has to be a better way.”

He says that while people laugh when you mimic Malcolm Turnbull’s well-known line about there ‘never being a more exciting time to be alive, “the joke is actually on us.”

Avoiding the conversation and dropping talk of the Ideas Boom and the National Innovation and Science Agenda was hurting us.

“When former Prime Minister Tony Abbott said it was good we are no longer talking about being agile and innovative, he was being a short sighted vandal – spooking a Prime Minister that should know better,” Mr Husic said.

At least a part of the credit for the current boom in venture capital in Australia could be sheeted the higher national conversation about the future.

“A lot of that growth occurred when the political domain partly led the talk about the value of investing in enterprises to help build the economy and jobs of the future,” Mr Husic said. “It justified risk. Why did we retreat?”

Meanwhile, Labor has lampooned the unveiling of a consultation process that will lead to a Digital Economy Strategy next year.

“Make no mistake, having the major political parties focus on the evolution of our digital economy – along with preparing for the future of work – is hugely important,” Mr Husic said.

“But this government seems addicted to the notion that reports equal action. It says it will release a strategy in the New Year, but you have to wonder if this will be managed by a new, later to be announced taskforce, that will report on the report,” he said.

“Australia needs to build the national digital economy, make its growth an economic priority, and back this up with action – across government and the private sector.”

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