Minister of Industry, Science and Technology Karen Andrews has pledged her support for the startup sector in the next government.
However, she denies there was a need for more consultation in the recent passing of controversial laws, and calls on the “nimble” tech industry to react to such changes more quickly.
Speaking to StartupSmart, Andrews notes nothing can be finalised until the new cabinet is confirmed. However, she draws attention to the measures previously implemented by the Coalition government and designed to support startups, under Malcolm Turnbull’s National Innovation and Science Agenda.
Specifically, she points to the early-stage investor tax offset, reforms to the employee share scheme, equity crowdfunding legislation and the Landing Pad program supporting startups looking to export overseas.
However, when it came to some of the issues that have been controversial in the technology sector, such as the passing of the so-called encryption bill late last year, and the bill restricting sharing of ‘abhorrent violent material’, which passed in April, Andrews defends the government’s stance.
Regarding the encryption bill, specifically, she maintains the law was intended to protect Australians.
“One of the first duties of a government is to keep its people safe. The security of its people is the number one issue,” she says.
She’s aware of issues that have been raised “in terms of unintended consequences”, however, and encouraged those with concerns to raise them with the appropriate members of the new cabinet, when it is finalised.
“I would encourage people who wish to pursue that, since we have been returned to government, to, in the first instance, contact the Minister of Home Affairs, because that’s where the legislation lies,” she says.
“But, I would also make the offer that my door is always open to talk to people in the tech sector and the innovation space. I’m happy to talk to them, happy to listen to what they have to say, but my position will always be that our first duty is one of making sure our people are safe.”
“There needs to be balance”
Andrews also challenges the idea the tech sector should have been consulted in more detail before the bill.
“My understanding is that there was as much consultation as was possible,” she says.
Again, she notes from the government’s point of view, when considering matters of national security, there was a “definite need for a speedy response”.
She also suggests the tech sector, of all sectors, should have been able to form consultation responses quickly.
“Quite frankly, when you’re talking about the tech and innovation sector, they’re the ones who have been most nimble, and who are best able to react quickly,” she says.
“I would not want a lengthy consultation process to become the norm in a sector that’s meant to be agile,” she adds.
However, she does note there’s a happy medium to be found here — somewhere between minimal-to-no consultation and the lengthy discussions, such as those surrounding the ongoing R&D tax incentive debate.
“Undoubtedly, there needs to be a balance and I don’t need to have any issue with that,” Andrews explains.
“But, when you’re talking about changes in the tech sector, you’re talking about people who are working in a very disruptive area and who are able to react and respond quickly.”
Andrews would not comment on whether she would personally support amendments to the AA Bill, saying this legislation sits with the Minister for Home Affairs, “so I’m certainly not going to pre-empt anything there”.
However, she encourages those with “legitimate concerns” about the bill to come forward, not only with complaints, but with proposed solutions.
“If you’re going to raise concerns, come back with how you believe it could be fixed,” she says.
Is innovation on the agenda?
Although the new cabinet line-up hasn’t been announced yet, Andrews maintains the incoming government will strive to support startups. However, their role is only part of a wider innovation push.
“I want us to look at the best way to grow industry and to grow jobs, and clearly innovation is part of that,” she says.
“Innovation certainly includes startups, but we want innovation in existing businesses as well — in mature businesses.”
Andrews encouraged the startup sector to “have a close look at how they can use their influence to support and encourage mature businesses to innovate”.
“They’re on the frontline, so they’ve actually got almost a responsibility to work with mature businesses and encourage them and provide assistance as required.”
Startups themselves should “not pigeon-hole themselves just as a startup”, Andrews says.
“I prefer to see startups as young small businesses that are on their way to becoming a medium or a large enterprise.”
While things like employee share scheme reforms, and changes to equity crowdfunding legislation, were tailored to their “unique circumstances”, Andrews says startups shouldn’t be too attached to the title.
“We know a business as it’s starting is quite unique. But I don’t want these businesses to be startups forever. I want them to grow and to expand and to employ more people,” she says.
That said, Andrews does commit to supporting startups going forward, and encourages them to aim high and dream big.
“I very strongly see our entrepreneurs, our innovators, our startups, as the modern-day pioneers, because they’re the ones that are out there each and every day putting themselves financially at risk, taking a whole range of risks with their ideas and innovations, and that’s what Australia is all about,” she says.
“We should be applauding them and supporting them, giving them the hand up as they work their way from starting a business to becoming a larger business, however large that might be,” Andrews adds.
“I’m sure that many of the startups see themselves as a future Atlassian, and I would encourage people to think big.”