Tech gets mugged by political reality


James Riley
Editorial Director

Friday’s opening keynote at Startcon was a trip down memory lane. All that fresh air and optimism and Malcolm on stage, you would be forgiven for thinking it was December 2015, at the start of that brief window when everyone was given permission to talk loudly and enthusiastically about tech and innovation.

It was the launch of the National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA) four years ago on December 7 that opened a mainstream discussion about a different path for Australian industry in a way that had not happened previously.

The NISA was then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s first major economic policy announcement since taking office in September 2015.

The plan was unveiled at a media lock-up in Canberra to the most senior mainstream political and economics reporters in the country and carried all the weight this kind of handling implies.

Ah yes, good times.

Well, reality snapped back hard seven months later at the 2016 election. Mr Turnbull came within a bee’s proverbial of losing government. Innovation minister Wyatt Roy lost his seat and an Arthur Sinodinos post-election analysis put a significant the blame for the near-death experience on the Ideas Boom.

Which was obviously the great shame. For the next two years, populist conservatives then painted Malcolm Turnbull head to toe in the word ‘innovation’ (always with a side note lamenting 14 seats lost). He got mugged by political reality.

The brief optimism about tech and innovation and startups and entrepreneurs was gone. Even though the NISA policies chugged on in the background, the debate and discussion about seizing opportunity retreated.

As the National Innovation and Science Agenda nears its fourth anniversary, and as funding for many of its programs comes to an end (NISA was funded from 2016-17 over the four years), it is past time for an assessment.

The NISA was a modest commitment. $1.1 billion over four years was not a big bet relative to the size of the budget. It was as much about cultural change across the economy as anything.

It targeted four areas. First, it aimed to back entrepreneurs, improve access to financing, and better commercialise public research. Secondly, it aimed to increase collaboration between industry and researchers, and to target effort on specific national challenges

Thirdly, it aimed to develop and attract world’s best talent. And finally, the government was to become a best practice exemplar of innovation and agility.
Of the 24 specific initiatives, some worked and some were underwhelming in the extreme.

But any honest assessment of what the industry looked like four years ago and what it looks like today would have conclude that overall the NISA has been hugely successful.

The primary disappointment was that there was not a NISA 2.0 follow-on package two years into the programs in order shutter or tweak the initiatives that were flat-lining. But it is certainly true that some things worked, and some didn’t.

Overall, however NISA had a significantly positive impact. The NISA policy launch will be seen as the point historical point of change.

The innovation agenda had an impact because it was the Prime Minister who was driving its creation and launch. The post-2016 political mugging meant the personal spruiking went quiet, but that’s an acquiescence to political reality.

It is the momentum built during that brief 2016 that has sustained many in this innovation ecosystem. Until we find another Prime Minister who can lead comfortably and enthusiastically in this policy area, it will struggle.

“Even more than the particular measures [in NISA] is that we started talking at a government level about the importance of innovation. And there were plenty of people who encouraged me not to do that,” Mr Turnbull told the StartCon event in Sydney on Friday.

“There are plenty of people in the political environment who believe that the way to lead is to trade on people’s fear of change,” he said.

“And they said; ‘if you talk about innovation, people will think that means [change is coming] and someone with a computer is going to take their job.

“Well, that’s a political reality. There are people who will exploit that fear of change in every environment. And this rise of populism and the rise of protectionism around the world is a feature of that.

“But believe me, that in denying change, denying the importance of innovation is like denying climate change. It’s denying reality.”

Maybe there is another political mugging on the horizon. Much has been made about Mr Turnbull’s comments about innovation policy not being Scott Morrison’s “comfort zone”.

This may or may not be the case. As Treasurer, Mr Morrison was a primary driver of the Consumer Data Right and other data policy and seemed pretty comfortable arguing it merits.

But it is certainly true that as Prime Minister Mr Morrison is an incrementalist.
That’s not going to cut it on industry policy in relation to global shifts in technology and its whole-of-economy impact, any more than it will work with the political realities of climate change.

There has always been a case for a NISA 2.0, as a cross-economy policy program to steer resources toward new value creation and new industries. This had always been the intention of the initial NISA program.

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