Government has lost its way on the innovation policy and is now saddled with a minister who has given up on launching a new wave of policy reform, federal Labor has charged.
In her first interview since taking on the new role of Minister for Jobs and Innovation late last year, Senator Michaelia Cash told the Australian Financial Review this week that she would oversee a switch in innovation policy away from significant waves of policies and towards “business as usual” decisions.
“[The 2015 National Innovation and Science Agenda] was a great opportunity to start the discussion about what the future of Australia looked like and we’ve implemented the majority of initiatives now. NISA was about a cultural change in Australia in terms of literally the way we do business…underpinning it is a way of thinking, a culture and an attitude,” Senator Cash told the AFR.
“It’s visionary and it’s not afraid of risk. There is more work to be done, but I see it as building on momentum.”
NISA was always meant to be just the beginning, and further rounds of policies and initiatives have been promised to the startup and tech sectors for multiple years.
Following the release of NISA in late 2015, then-innovation minister Greg Hunt stated that NISA 2.0 was on its way in 2016, but it never materialised.
A year after that in March 2017, former innovation minister Arthur Sinodinos confirmed that two further waves of innovation policies were planned.
“There will be a series of initiatives, whether you want to call them NISA 2 and then NISA 3. It is a bit like a ripple effect from the first NISA, so yes, there would be specific measures coming up, I am hoping, in the near future building on the foundations from NISA 1,” Senator Sinodinos sold a Senate Estimates hearing.
Despite continual promises and confirmations from multiple innovation ministers that the second and third wave of NISA initiatives were on their way, these now seem unlikely to be unveiled.
Shadow minister for the digital economy Ed Husic saying the government is waving a white flag, having given up on innovation.
“That interview should’ve been written on a white flag. It pretty much signals that this government has given up, as everyone has suspected for a while,” Mr Husic told InnovationAus.com.
“There’s no sense that there’s a long-term vision that’ll drive decision-making on what to do and how to fund it.”
“They should retitle the minister to the minister for facades. It’s all about front and no form, and no longer-term thinking about what’s needed to gear the economy for change.”
There have now been four innovation ministers in the two years of the Turnbull government, and shadow innovation minister Kim Carr said this has put its innovation policy in jeopardy.
“The AFR piece exposes the fundamental problem with the current revolving door of innovation ministers: another minister, another ‘new’ direction for innovation policy,” Senator Carr said.
“As expected, Minister Cash, now the fifth innovation minister, has a new plan,” he said.
“A plan to do nothing, for ‘business as usual’. How this represents a ‘new direction’ or differentiates her from her predecessors is a mystery. The chaos and dysfunction of this do-nothing government is destroying Australia’s innovation system. Australians deserve better.”
Senator Cash was appointed to lead the new Jobs and Innovation portfolio as part of the cabinet reshuffle late last year. Mr Husic said this new role was good on paper, but needs a more committed leader.
“This was a clear cut case of a skills mismatch. You’ve got a person in Michaelia Cash who’s utterly obsessed with union bashing and equates that to the jobs component of the portfolio, and is completely disinterested or will not devote the requisite attention to the innovation piece,” Mr Husic said.
“Notionally this portfolio is perfect, particularly in terms of resuscitating the focus on innovation by connecting it with jobs, but as evidenced in that interview, you’re not going to get that.”
It had been hoped that this year would see another large wave of innovation policies and reforms to address many of the key concerns outlined in the StartupAus Crossroads report late last year.
StartupAus had been planning to lobby the government on visa reforms, investor tax incentives and copyright laws, among others.
But Senator Cash’s comments indicate the government would be unwilling to announce any large-scale reforms or policies in the innovation space. It is still yet to respond to the Three Fs inquiry into the R&D tax incentive, a primary concern of the industry at the moment.
The innovation minister said the government would look to provide clarity on R&D tax in its response to Innovation and Science Australia’s recent 2030 report.
“The government understands what businesses ultimately want is certainty. We’re considering the ISA strategic plan and recommendations in relation to R&D…and as soon as we’ve concluded deliberations we will make an announcement,” Senator Cash told the AFR.
Senator Carr said the government has been all talk and no action on innovation since Malcolm Turnbull took over as Prime Minister.
“This is a government that believes innovation happens just by talking about it. By Cash’s own admission, NISA’s greatest achievement was that it started ‘the discussion about what the future of Australia looked like’. And that’s it?” he said.
“The ‘Ideas Boom’ innovation rhetoric was shown to be nothing but shallow election policy. The ANAO audit revealed severe flaws and shortcomings in the policies and evidence underpinning the NISA. And the government’s space policy was announced with no funding commitments, no details of operation and no cabinet backing.
“When will the government learn – the innovation system is not built on words and gestures. The Turnbull government has done nothing but stick its head in the sand and hope that its problems disappear before the next Newspoll.”
With a Labor-led Senate inquiry into the future work currently taking place, Senator Cash said that creating the jobs of the future will be one of her key concerns.
“Through this new portfolio, one of my roles is to help companies harness these ideas and create jobs for Australia and for Australians. All the evidence shows innovation actually creates jobs,” she told the AFR.
But Mr Husic said not enough is being done to address community concerns and to plug the skills gap that the Australian tech sector is facing.
“You can’t talk about the digital economy without recognising the number one challenge of skills and investment in human capital,” Mr Husic said.
This is a minister who has known about this issue for years, who has launched reports into the future of work and has done absolutely nothing within her portfolio to advance the case,” he said.
Should it win the next federal election, Labor’s innovation policy would focus on the skills and human capital issue, he said.
“You’ll particularly expect a sharp, concentrated focus on skills, across portfolios. There’s a recognition that this is the biggest project on the table: skilling up Australia to meet the needs now and in the longer-term,” Mr Husic said.
In the interview, Senator Cash did signal that a major focus of her tenure would be improving gender diversity in STEM.
“I’ve made it very clear one of the my key focuses is going to be increasing the number of women in STEM…and ensuring the STEM workforce reflects the full diversity of Australian society,” she said.