PRIVATE MEMBERS' BUSINESS: Business

Mr HUSIC (Chifley) (10:34): It is very good that we are right here on the floor of the Australian parliament talking about the value of start-ups to both the nation and to the economy. It is a discussion that is long overdue and I welcome it. To give you a sense of how much things have changed, at the start of the year, I had start-ups say to me that if you were a farmer or a miner and you knocked on a minister's door, you would get through quick smart but if you were a start-up or a small enterprise, you had very little chance of getting attention. Now the perspective is completely different. I think it is a good thing that both sides of politics recognise that this is an area that demands, deserves attention and that we should be doing whatever we can to make sure we have an environment where start-ups emerge because these are the enterprises that in the future will create the jobs and the wealth of this nation, and we need a longer term view of how to support them.

We have a lot to be proud about when you look at all the start-ups in this country that have achieved on a global scale, not just on a local scale. I think of Campaign Monitor, I think of ingogo, I think of Invoice2go, I think of Nitro, I think of carsales.com.au, I think of SEEK, I think of Atlassian and I think of Freelancer to name a few. We also have Catch of the Day, REA Group and 99designs. There is a stack of these companies that have emerged in the Australian environment that are doing tremendous things both here and overseas and they should be recognised. The reason I list them here is because they should be recognised on the floor of parliament and thanked for their contributions.

In this place, politicians tend to think that they change the world one page of Hansard at a time when in actual fact a lot of these entrepreneurs are changing the world one app at a time. We need to work out how we get more of them and it is critical. From the Labor perspective, from the federal opposition perspective, we get it. We have been in this space for a number of years consulting with start-ups about what it will take to ensure more of them emerge so that we see more green shoots. From there, the big companies, the big players that will create the jobs emerge. There is a sense of urgency on our part because we know technology is going to churn through jobs. It will have an impact on 13 out of 19 industry sectors in this country and we need to be prepared.

From our discussions we have been thinking about what we need to do to make sure that we can create the jobs of the future. There is a sense of urgency, particularly for Labor representatives, because the people that we represent, by and large, are going to be affected by technology. We need to make sure that we are prepared. Instead of investing valuable energy and resistance, we need to embrace that change and see what we can do to look after those affected and those who are vulnerable on the way through. What we have done is think, 'Well, we have got an economy in transition. We do not necessarily get the same bang for the buck out of resources and the mining boom that we once did. We need to recognise the role of start-ups and champion their economic and employment potential. How do we do it?' It is all about flow. It is about the flow of people, skills and talent. It is about the flow of capital. It is also about the flow of ideas in an environment and in a culture that supports that type of entrepreneurial activity.

From our side of the fence, we have released two waves of policy starting with the budget in reply speech given by the Leader of the Opposition through to recent announcements as well. We have looked at: skills and the flow of talent; coding in schools to make sure we get young people already thinking about computational thinking; building the STEM teacher base; getting STEM graduates to put back into the community by teaching the ones that are coming through; establishing a national coding in schools centre; providing 100,000 STEM award degrees of which many students will have their HECS debt written off on graduation; a start-up year to address the low rate of start-up formation in this country to ensure that university graduates stay on an extra year, build an enterprise and be able to draw off an income-contingent loan from the government. We would get to see more start-ups created and, as I said, address this very low level of start-up formation in this country. These are all great ideas that we have put forward, inspired by the start-up sector, which said it wants to see this happen.

We have also encouraged visa reform with the creation of a start-up entrepreneur visa that would bring people to these shores with ideas and capital to support the local ecosystem, and a graduate entrepreneur's visa to make sure that overseas people who are trained in our universities have an incentive to stay on and build an enterprise here. We have also bound all of this through a proposal on the Labor side to establish a national digital workforce plan that will address the massive skills shortages that are affecting this sector, ensure that we get more women and more mature-age workers into a sector that is crying out for more support and also ensure that our small and medium enterprises get on the digital bandwagon and start changing their businesses as well. Again, we have put that forward.

On the issue of the flow of capital we have recommended, for example, the $500 million smart investment fund that would partner with VCs and licensed fund managers. We want to work with industry on start-up finance, which will be a partial guarantee scheme to improve access to finance for microbusinesses. We have also recommended an innovation investment partnership—in fact, we kicked it off in parliament two weeks ago—bringing together superannuation funds that represent the fourth largest pool of national savings on the planet to try to work out a way to build investment bridges between them, venture capital and early stage innovation to see the emergence of more companies. We did that here because we think innovation should start now; it should not wait for an election to happen. Culture is the most important piece. We need to have as a nation an ability to celebrate entrepreneurism, dilute the stigma around failure and be more accepting of a heightened focus by government and business in this area.

Politicians can play a huge role right here. I will go back to that miner or farmer example I mentioned earlier, where start-ups felt they were being ignored. They were also saying to us, 'It's great that both sides of politics are talking about start-ups, but how come you talk about it in different rooms? You're not working as one.' There is a hunger within the start-up community to see both sides of politics working actively together. They do not want to see one idea torn down by the other side, and vice versa. That is why Labor has said that we are prepared to work with the government on this agenda. We prioritise it on the national list of things that need to be tackled in this country in terms of supporting the economy, jobs and the future. We are prepared and we have demonstrated our preparedness, for example, to work with the government on employee share option reform. We have extended to the government a commitment to work in a bipartisan way on equity crowd-funding. The test is that we are prepared to do it because—as I said—innovation does not wait for a federal election. This is a long-term agenda and we need to start working on it now.

Obviously, we wait with interest—as do others—for the innovation statement that is being prepared with the government. We have extended our commitment to work cooperatively with the government on it. We are also interested to see in this statement if the government are prepared to work with us. If we are supposed to be leaving by the kerbside the old politics, and if we are supposed to be able to work together, I would make this modest recommendation to the government: if they want to innovate in this statement, demonstrate in the statement the list of things we have put forward as a result of our consultations with the start-up sector. We extend this invitation to the government: in the innovation statement, when you list your ideas, also list what you are prepared to work with the opposition on—be it on visa reform, be it on bringing in a start-up year, be it on working together on a national digital workforce plan, or be it on issues of finding ways to get super and VC working together. We are happy to do this, but it does take commitment from both sides. If it is just a statement that represents all that the government wants to do and then demands that the opposition basically fall into line on it, that is not what is expected by the start-up sector. The start-up sector expects us to come up with ideas that we can work with one another on to advance the national interest. It will be interesting to see what happens on that front.

I do have to say this, if I may in one element reflect on something that I am concerned about: I previously had very fruitful discussions with the former Minister for Small Business, Bruce Billson, on equity crowd-funding. We had a number of meetings and we were prepared to work collaboratively on that. We have not heard that from the new minister. I wrote to her—the Assistant Treasurer—last week, extending a commitment to work with them on equity crowd-funding because there are concerns that exist in the start-up community about some of the proposals that have been floated that would, for instance, see equity crowd-funding limited only to public companies. If companies are listed already, they have gone through the process of getting their equity that way. This is for start-ups. Start-ups need to be able to get money, and they need to be able to do it in a way where they are not constrained by the restrictions imposed by corporations law. Again, we as the opposition are very concerned about these proposals and we wait with interest to see whether the government are serious—if they are talking about bipartisanship—about meeting with us, briefing us on their thinking and being able to work together on this matter. It is important.

This is too important a platform—the whole area of early-stage innovation, the creation of new businesses and new enterprises, the creation of jobs into the future, the training up of young people in this country and opening up opportunity. This cannot be a victim of the old politics; it demands a new approach. We hope this parliament will be able to usher in that new approach.

Debate adjourned.

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Ed Husic MP
Federal Labor Member for Chifley


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