The Coalition has done enough

James Riley
Editorial Director

This eight week campaign has seen the technology and innovation policy debated more often and in more detail than any previous Federal election. This of course is a good thing.

There is a recognition across the major parties that post- mining boom Australia must look to developing new industries, new ideas, new skills and new sources of revenue if the economy is to successfully transition from its reliance on commodity resources.

The result has been intelligent industry development policy on a number of fronts, with commitments from both the Government and opposition on improving STEM education outcomes, better support for startups, new trade initiatives to assist new exporters, and targeted incentives for higher-risk investors.

Across the major parties there are well developed policy positions for innovation. This is not so much a result of bipartisan support, but rather that “innovation” – whatever that means – is now so deeply woven into the Australia’s business-political narrative that it is impossible today NOT to have positions on this issues.

This is itself something to be celebrated. Technology and innovation has never – never – been such a strong theme in a Federal Election campaign. So, you know, hooray for us!

For today, we look upon our cup as it over-floweth. Our industry – the home grown Australian tech and innovation sector – has made great progress with policy-makers since the 2013 election. views the world through the lens of innovation policy. It is admittedly a narrow view of the world.

But the campaign is all done bar the shouting. And from where we are sitting, and looking through this innovation lens, the Turnbull Government has a credible track record and a credible plan, and deserves to be re-elected on Saturday.

This would not have been the case had Tony Abbott remained as Prime Minister. The innovation sector – and the information industry in particular – had struggled for oxygen under the Abbott-led Coalition government.

But much has changed. Malcolm Turnbull has re-energised the policy agenda since becoming Prime Minister last September. On innovation policy, this government has ideas and purpose.

Much has been written about the National Innovation and Science Agenda, the breath of fresh air that asked Australians to dare to think big, and to take risks. The NISA certainly had its limitations, but as a Year One platform from a new Prime Minister, it has served well.

It is worth remembering a couple of other of Mr Turnbull’s early policy moves. Within weeks of becoming PM, the government had restarted the process to join the Open Government Partnership, a little-known international group aimed at better governance that had been initiated under the previous Labor government, but quietly shelved by Mr Abbott.

The digital government policy-makers and agency staff – including the Digital Transformation Office – were moved from Mr Turnbull’s former Communications portfolio and into the Prime Minister & Cabinet (giving the efforts the full political weight of the Prime Minister’s department.) This includes its digital transformation agenda, and Open Data policy – a lynch-pin for better private sector interaction.

This is not a vanity project (although it certainly seems one of the PM’s passion project.) It is absolutely central to this government’s program.

Digital government is a yawn, of course. Mainstream media has no interest. But this is where the Commonwealth will start to see savings in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The early wins are modest.

But once government starts shuttering data centres and modernising its service delivery, it will see billions removed from its Business As Usual technology costings in its forward estimates. And anyway, the value digital transformation in government is less about the cost savings and more about the efficacy of service improvements.

Government as an “exemplar” – literally showing the way for the rest of the economy – on digital transformation issues sounds like a joke. (Turnbull mentioned this ‘exemplar’ line in his first press conference as PM-elect.) Anyone who has dealt with Centrelink in the past decade will tell you this. But that is the objective, and it is being driven through the most powerful political office in the land.

This is the cultural change that everyone wants to talk about, but few people actually come to grips with. There is momentum building. After a slow start, it is building (and you will see some of this in the next month, during the Australian Public Service’ “Innovation Month”.)

The private sector sneers when government tries to hussle. But the reality is the Australian corporate sector has been terrible at this stuff too.

It would be unfair to say that Labor has not also been across these efforts. There seems bipartisan support for the DTO (to the point where it has barely been required to front Estimates hearings.)

The National Innovation and Science Agenda is not a blueprint for the future in our sector. It is not an end-point. It is a start. It set out some important markers. And while it was received with euphoria by an attention starved industry, it was only ever sold by its architects as a beginning.

NISA was not without its critics. There are policy gaps (not least in its engagement of Australian SMEs). But it has been a powerful instrument of cultural change across the rest of the economy.

Frankly, as a community Australians are talking openly now about a new kind of ambition. The conversations in our industry are broader, and have more energy than a year ago.

There is one stand-out problem in the government narrative. This is of course the National Broadband Network – ironically a construct of the Prime Minister when he was Communications Minister.

This is not a small thing. The Coalition campaign successfully ‘managed’ the NBN’s shocking short-comings. It will not be so lucky next time around, should the Turnbull Government be re-elected.

If Mr Turnbull is re-elected on Saturday, he has exactly three years to get things right. And the current NBN trajectory will not get him there.

And here’s one more thing.

The energy in the policy debate is coming from the startup sector, those annoyingly disruptive pointy-heads who have been so loud in pressing for change.

I have been a critic of StartupAus, a lobby group founded on the corporate strength of Google as an advocate for the Australian startup community. My criticism has rested on the fact that it has no members.

But I will give StartupAus its due credit. Just as Local Measure CEO Jonathan Barouch said as the moderator at the innovation election debate (between Angus Taylor and Ed Husic) hosted by and the University of Technology Sydney, the current level of energy and discussion about innovation in Australia would not have happened without the significant advocacy muscle of StartupAus.

It has had an enormous and positive influence, not just on startup policy but on broader issues of corporate innovation as well.

The innovation policy agenda is not just about startups, of course. But StartupAus, and all of the industry luminaries who climbed on board when that organisation was originally formed, have played a critical role in getting the current innovation dialogue underway.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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