It is interesting to me that the government was having a debate on marriage equality on the morning of the day Labor for Innovation was held up. It is remarkable that this far into the millennium, the Australian government still has such a hard time meeting the most simple needs of their constituents – let’s treat people like people. The great majority of Australians support marriage equality which is and should be an unalienable right – and yet, the government seems to be behind its own paces to make same-sex partnerships legal.
Something similar is afoot with this partnership with #StartupAus.
A few weeks ago I wrote a review on FashHack that featured the reluctant alliance of fashion and tech. It was a glowing example of how sometimes arranged marriages actually can work. In contrast, the Labor for Innovation event held at Google painted a picture of how perfectly matched couples are not always what they seem.
The pairing of Labor and #StartupAus reminded me of those couples at parties who hold hands at the buffet but somehow can’t make it work at home. Like in most unlikely marriages, the fault is not in the pair – in this case Labor and #StartupAus – but in the underlying cultural divide between them. It’s not a sign of a bad relationship per se, but of one that takes more work than is apparent.
But let’s start at the beginning. Labor for Innovation is a relatively new initiative. It is lead by Jason Clare MP and a group of startup empresarios who formed the panel for the evening. To Labor for Innovation’s credit, the panel lineup was very impressive – Jason Clare MP, Shadow Minister for Communications, Peter Bradd, CEO StartupAUS, Niki Scevak, Founder of Startmate and Managing Partner at Blackbird Ventures, Ned Moorfield, Co-Founder of GoCatch, Rebekah Campbell, Co-Convenor of Labor for Innovation and Co-founder of Posse, and lastly Alan Noble, Director of Engineering at Google, who was being introduced as I walked into the imposing Google HQ, the chosen venue for this third Labor for Innovation event.
If Alan Noble is the patron saint of startups, Google HQ is his cathedral. Gleaming over the harbour, Google HQ shines bright as a beacon of hope, though not necessarily of pilgrimage, is both the perfect setting for this panel as it is the most ironic venue to hold it. Why? Because Google is both the aspirational goal of so many startup founders and the antithesis of their plight. The problems that Labor for Innovation is apparently trying to solve are not about Google; they are about the startups that are actually starting up.
Reinforcing good ideas or echo chamber?
The biggest issue with events like Labor for Innovation is not the lack of good intentions – clearly both the Labor Party and #StartupAus are aligning in purpose and direction. In fact, all the panelists agreed that Australia needs to focus on STEM education (I would add the A for “arts”, but that’s a different debate), that we need a more specialised immigration system for startup workers and investors, that our talent pool is dwindling and that we face a risk-averse capital market that makes getting started very difficult for everyday people. All of these valid points and were incredibly well articulated by the panelists.
Peter Bradd from #StartupAus was particularly emphatic about the migration of talent to the US, namely Silicon Valley, which is a great point of contention in the local ecosystem. However, we have heard all of these issues over and over again. The problem is not that we cannot identify these issues but that we seem nowhere closer to any practical solutions than the last time Labor for Innovation convened.
#JDFI: Can our government really do it?
It is painfully apparent that even though this is the third iteration of Labor for Innovation, nothing really has been done since the first. The panel was very eager to let us know about what their ideas are, but we have not seen any action or even plans come out of these sessions. My concern here is not that these conversations are not useful, because they are, but that they stop when the events are over. There is no speed to action or testable MVPs that come out of these dialogues. But why is that?
The currency for #StartupAus is speed and empirical data; for the government, it’s popular election votes. It is hard to form a partnership where your ROIs are so misaligned. It’s the equivalent of having Mark Zuckerberg running Facebook while he’s competing for Miss America – incongruent and even a bit silly. But does that mean that #StartupAus and the government will never see eye to eye? Not really. But we have a lot of work to do.
The main issue here is that the government cannot #JDFI. For the uninitiated, this stands for “Just Fucking Do It!” Government cannot do anything in isolation. There is always an opposition party to play devil’s advocate and take initiatives down.
They have to justify any type of spending over ROI or market growth. Risk has to be calculated to a T to avoid public embarrassment and upsetting constituents. Any success has to fall into current political cycle in order to be reaped as a success for the sitting government, making it impossible to take real long term gambles.
Also, any investment done needs to be open and transparent and look squeaky clean to the public, or it will be taken apart in the media. How can we expect any government to truly participate in innovation in conditions like these?
What do we do next?
For all the points made above, I do believe that Labor for Innovation is a fantastic forum that allows for these conversations to happen. We can now attend events and ask specific questions about our industry and make our voices heard. It is ultimately the only real platform for average people to ask questions and participate in the dialogue. And, if it is not a full solution, it is definitely an admirable start.
The next step would be to create a #StartupAus taskforce around one initiative so that we can attach a verb to Labor for Innovation other than “listening” and “hearing.” Literally, let’s pick one: visas, talent, curriculum, education … and let’s start iterating! We have talked about these issues long enough. It is time for us and the government to stand together and start experimenting towards a better future.