At the end of a marathon election campaign, not much is clear except that the Turnbull government’s innovation agenda and its proposed impact on jobs and growth failed to inspire the Australian public, which was focused on a number of other issues.
From immigration and asylum seekers to the Country Fire Authority pay dispute in Victoria and Labor’s insistence that a returning Coalition government would seek to privatise Medicare, the central topics of debate throughout the election campaign showed that mainstream Australia does not see the relevance of tech and startups.
This concern was put forward by Ed Husic, Labor’s digital innovation and startups spokesman, at the innovation debate a few weeks before the election, where he debated Angus Taylor, Assistant Minister for Cities and Digital Transformation.
Husic said that, despite the amount of funding thrown at the space through the National Innovation and Science Agenda, in particular the $28 million spent to advertise it on bus shelters and billboards around the country, the majority of Australians had not connected with the message. When both sides of government are trying to push innovation as the cornerstone of the country’s economy going forward, this is a huge problem.
“This is about explaining to the broader community what it is we do when we champion innovation, what does it mean? We’re all excited about it, but people in the broader community aren’t; I represent an electorate 40km away from here, and if I went and had this debate in the Mt Druitt library, I don’t think many people would get what we’re talking about,” Husic explained.
“Them not getting what we’re talking about is bad news for all of us. A lot of those people think that what we argue for is a job killer. They think that tech rips away jobs, and where do they go next?”
This lack of understanding is despite the fact that both Assistant Minister for Innovation Wyatt Roy and Innovation Minister Christopher Pyne had earlier this year identified the pushing of the innovation agenda into the mainstream as a key KPI.
“A measure of success is if this becomes a dinner table conversation,” Roy previously told Startup Daily. It would be fair to say that, rather than reaching the dinner table, this conversation was left at the welcome mat.
This thought was also echoed by industry, with CEO of StartupAUS Alex McCauley also warning of the need to ensure mainstream Australia was brought into the conversation when appointed to the role in February, saying at the time that “if you say innovation and ecosystem in the same sentence, people’s eyes glaze over”.
However, despite the failure on both sides to relay the message during the campaign, McCauley believes that, going forward, there is hope that politicians across the board can make the message heard.
“Startups and innovation are a core economic priority supported by both major parties as well as the greens and Nick Xenophon Team. Our expectation is that an ambitious startup agenda will continue to be pursued by all the key players. In a difficult period, this can be an area of strength for this new parliament,” McCauley said.
“It is important we don’t miss this once in a generation opportunity to help our economy transition and take advantage of the vast opportunities technology is bringing.”
Despite broad bipartisan support for major innovation policies, the potential hung Parliament Australia may be saddled with is a concern that could distract from not only the innovation agenda, but as we saw with the Gillard government of a few years ago, almost every decision and policy across the board, making political infighting the central issue.
Stuart Stoyan, CEO of MoneyPlace and cofounder of Fintech Australia, called the election non-result a “debacle” and “the worst possible outcome for startups”.
“For the past nine months we’ve been working with the government on the importance of the innovation agenda, which is now at risk of being lost to political instability and infighting…the startup community is deeply concerned that politicians will take their eye off the ball and focus on internal politics and blame, rather than getting on with it and supporting growth and innovation,” he said.
“Australia needs clear and decisive political leadership. This is important not just for startups but for the broader economy.”
Of course, another issue for the startup community feeding into this is the loss of Roy, one of its biggest champions in government. Conceding his Queensland seat of Longman to Labor’s Susan Lamb, Roy’s loss again highlights the central issue: while the startup community largely welcomed and embraced his support, his electorate failed to understand the role he had been given and the impact of what he was supporting have on them.
McCauley said, “While we don’t have the final figures overall, it is unfortunate to see the potential loss of one of Australia’s great startup champions in Wyatt Roy. As the Assistant Minister for Innovation, Wyatt has made an enormous contribution to the conversation and the bipartisan policy framework around startups in Australia. We are much further forwards in this country because of his efforts and advocacy.”
With so much up in the air at the moment, and a hung Parliament looming, it is key that both sides of government ensure that they put forward strong – and knowledgeable – spokespeople for their innovation policies to make sure that the conversation sees cut through in the mainstream.
Startup Daily spoke to Wyatt Roy about the government’s innovation agenda earlier this year: