Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull committed before the election to make only minor changes to his ministry. And true to his word, as ministerial reshuffles go, the post-election changes announced yesterday were modest.
But for the innovation sector, the change is a radical and wholesale sweep of all ministerial personnel from the portfolio.
Christopher Pyne has been moved. Assistant Minister for Science Karen Andrews has been moved. And the energetic former Assistant Minister for Innovation Wyatt Roy is gone from the Parliament. Even Josh Frydenberg – the new environment and energy minister – is gone (he previously held the reigns for resources policy within the portfolio (replaced by Matt Canavan).
This is disappointing, for the information technology end of the innovation sector at least. It had been hoping to see some consistency and continuity in the portfolio.
From a policy perspective, the new Turnbull Ministry at face value looks to have de-emphasised the startup end of the broader innovation ecosystem, even if there is every reason to believe that ‘innovation’ still lies at the centre of the government’s economic narrative.
It does seem slightly odd that Mr Pyne should be moved just 10 months into the role.
With the appointment of former environment minister Greg Hunt to run the Industry, Innovation and Science portfolio, the tech industry has a new face – largely unknown to the industry. Ditto for the new assistant minister for the portfolio, Craig Laundy.
It also means that industry policy for what would normally be called the tech and innovation sectors has been spread across an unprecedented number of portfolios.
The Prime Minister has spread key parts of the eco-system across different administrative power structures. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Once the shock of the new subsides, there are reasons to be cheerful.
First and foremost, Arthur Sinodinos is reappointed as Cabinet Secretary. He is a friend to the industry and will provide the steady continuity of thinking that the industry craves.
Angus Taylor retains his role as minister assisting on Digital Transformation and Cities with the Prime Minister’s portfolio. This is a good thing. He keeps responsibility for the Digital Transformation Office (from which big returns will be expected in the next three years) and for open data policy.
Small business gets its own Ministry under Michael McCormack, the Nationals MP from the regional NSW seat of Riverina. The Australian SME market might not be the engine room of innovation in Australia – but it is certainly the engine room of employment – and lifting its game in innovation is critical for the Australian economy.
Mr MrCormack sits in the Treasury portfolio as a junior minister with Kelly O’Dwyer under Scott Morrison. Ms O’Dwyer’s title has been renamed as Minister for Revenue and Financial Services – and she will be a key driver of regulatory policy in the FinTech sector – which should welcome her reappointment.
The Communications and Finance portfolios – the other drivers of tech industry fortunes – remain steady as she goes under Senator Mitch Fifield and Senator Matthias Cormann.
Dan Tehan is appointed as Minister Assisting on Cyber Security. This is a role that the industry has been waiting to hear about since Mr Turnbull launched the Cyber Security policy earlier this year in which Cyber was named as a key industry worthy of special attention.
Mr Tehan is a hard right Liberal from Victoria. He is a foreign policy expert, spent time in the Department of Foreign Affairs and as a Diplomat before entering Parliament, and has been a key player on the powerful Joint Intelligence and Security Committee.
The well-regarded and quietly achieving Education Minister Simon Birmingham keeps his job as another key driver of innovation ecosystem inputs.
Frankly, the biggest unknown in the reshuffle is Greg Hunt. Which is to say he is relatively unknown to our sector. But the reality is that Greg Hunt has been one of the best performing ministers in the Abbott-Turnbull Government prior to the election.
Under Tony Abbott, the environment portfolio was always going to be a tough one. There are legions who might disagree, but Mr Hunt managed to carve out some protection against some of the more vociferous opponents to environment policy.
Start Society founder Peter Cooper says the changes in the Innovation portfolio are disappointing because they amount to a de-emphasis on startup policy. The appointment of a publican as the assistant minister highlights this, he says (Craig Laundy’s family own more than 30 pubs).
But he says Mr Hunt has a good track record on tech in the environment portfolio, and that Mr Laundy brings business experience to the role, rather than that of a career politician.
StartupAus CEO Alex McCauley says there is good reason to welcome Greg Hunt to the Indusry portfolio. Mr Hunt had already delivered the Clean Energy Innovation Fund, a billion dollar renewable energy program with a strong focus on innovation in 2016 as Environment Minister, he said.
“Greg Hunt is one of the Government’s most senior frontbenchers. He is experienced, credible, and capable,” Mr McCauley said.
“He has worked across portfolios and in the private sector, and his appointment to this role is a clear and welcome sign that innovation policy remains right at the top of the Turnbull Government’s economic agenda,” said Mr McCauley.
Meanwhile, StartupAUS will shortly release its most ambitious Crossroads Report to date. “StartupAUS is currently hard at work developing policy options that we believe will help Australia join the elite ranks of global startup ecosystems like those in the US, Israel, the UK, and elsewhere. With two new ministers in the portfolio, and the Labor party also committed to innovation, the 2016 Crossroads Report will present a host of opportunities to develop world-leading innovation policy in the new Parliament,” said Mr McCauley.
Australian Information Industry Association chief executive Rob Fitzpatrick welcomed the new appointments, but said it was “disappointing not to hear any mention of progressing innovation more broadly outside the defence spending.”
“Australia is a stall out nation: a nation with high digital evolution but weak momentum,” Mr Fitzpatrick said, adding that Australia has dropped from 23rd to 27th place for capacity to innovate, according to the 2015 World Economic Forum Network Readiness Index.
“The most urgent thing this government can do is accelerate the transformation of Australia to a digital economy. And the best way to do this is through action,” he said.
“Digital technology is advancing rapidly and we must move fast to set our course or risk being left behind. Australia’s prosperity hinges on our ability to innovate, which in turn will drive jobs, growth and importantly, our global competitiveness. And to innovate, we need the right environment with the right infrastructure in place.”
The AIIA has also called for the Turnbull Government to renew to fast track access to world-class internet connections, including the NBN rollout and 5G wireless technologies.