INNOVATION IS GOOD, BUT COALITION’S NOT GREAT AT IT

With the dust settling on the Coalition's Innovation Statement, let me make this point: it's a good thing that the issue of innovation has vaulted into the political arena.

The role of innovation in the future prosperity of Australia is something Labor has long recognised - it's why Labor has announced three waves on this area of policy since May's Budget.

Having both major political parties focus and compete in the ideas marketplace reflects a growing bipartisan recognition and regard for the valuablerole innovation can play in our economy and nation. This is a positive development thatcan only be good for Australia. In other parts of the world - the example of the US stands out to me - it's not uncommon to have Democrats and Republicans championing the cause of innovating and the industries this can spawn.

If they can do it, so can we. Crucially, wedon't have time to lose because we are in a global brains race - and in a global market for services - where our competitors have stolen the march on us.

Over the course of the last two years, Labor's focus has been on the ways innovation can accelerate economic activity - and we've developed a policy platform to encourage this.

It's an approach that attacks the impediments weighing down our startup sector, because without this we're not going to be able to reap the full economic dividend that can be generated via a stronger embrace of innovation. Impediments such as serious skill shortages; hindrances to capital flow; regulatory roadblocks; and weak collaboration linkages between our universities and industry.

Taking this into account, Federal Labor has released nearly 20 different policies to help build a stronger Australian start-up ecosystem.

The ideas we've put on the table call for taxation reform to attract new angel investors. We've pushed for visa reform to lure talent and capital from overseas. We've championed broadening the national innovation effort by involving regional Australia, establishing "landing pads" in key overseas markets and inviting startups to help supply government via changes to procurement processes.

The good news is there's ample common ground here - with the Coalition outlining similar approaches in roughly a dozen areas previously announced by Labor. They've also announced some other good ideas, for example the establishment of the Cyber Security Growth Centre and the push to support the development of quantum computing.

Having sketched out the common ground, there are some stark differences.

For instance, the Coalition hasn't spelt out a rescue plan to resuscitate funding for research and innovation. The simple reality is yesterday's Innovation Statement only puts back $1 billion from the $3 billion taken out by the Coalition in its last two budgets.  Over this time we witnessed cut after cut to the CSIRO, ANSTO, CRCs, DSTO and research grants.  It abolished Commercialisation Australia and wound up the Innovation Investment Fund.

These cuts can't just be measured by the size of a price tag - try calculating the huge opportunities lost because we couldn't fund the development of ideas that might have generated longer term national economic benefit. Without addressing this, the Coalition is seriously compromised.

On the issue of skills we do need a long term focus on talent development - one that reaches back to primary schooling.

The absence in this Innovation Statement of a serious commitment to teaching coding and computational thinking at primary level - as our competitors are doing - is another fundamental shortcoming. Much of the hype and movement around coding skills in this statement has the feel of an "optional extra" when it comes to building skills. Most importantly, there is no plan for how to ensure we have teachers with the STEM skills to develop the workforce of the future.

While we're committed to championing innovation and collaborating with the Government on it, we can't simply gloss over those areas we feel are significant shortcomings. That's because we need to lock in the proper policy settings and then stick to them.

Furthermore, our true commitment to innovation can't be measured when interest and enthusiasm in the issue is riding high - we'll really be tested on this when the interest wanes, when the temptation emerges for sneaky budget savings and quick cuts.

And we certainly can't tolerate a situation where - as Business Council President Catherine Livingstone points out - "we seem to have gone from the word innovation being banned to suddenly being compulsory, regardless of context".

Innovation can't be condemned to becoming a catchphrase of the day - it needs to be embedded into policy thinking and respected by serious action and funding.

Ed Husic is Shadow Parliamentary Secretary to the Opposition Leader Assisting with Digital Innovation and Startups

This opinion piece was first published in the Australian Financial Review on Tuesday, 8 December 2015

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Ed Husic MP
Federal Labor Member for Chifley


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