Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen has called out the Turnbull government for failing to live up to the promise of its “innovation agenda” just days out from the 2017 federal budget.
Speaking at Sydney fintech hub Stone & Chalk on Friday, Bowen argued innovation policy should look beyond just metropolitan startups and facilitate job creation beyond a “two kilometre radius of the Sydney and Melbourne CBDs”.
Before an audience that included shadow minister for the digital economy Ed Husic, Google Australia chief executive Jason Pellegrino, Stone & Chalk chief executive Alex Scandurra and Unions NSW secretary Mark Morey, Bowen said innovation policies should be inclusive; manufacturing and service-based businesses shouldn’t be excluded, and neither should “existing firms” and “rural and regional Australia”.
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“It’s not just about ‘accelerators’ and ‘entrepreneurs’,” Bowen said.
“Innovation isn’t just about new apps.”
Bowen’s comments come within a month of Atlassian co-founder Mike Cannon-Brookes also questioning what happened to the “ideas boom”.
“Let’s just say the dreams that a lot of people had a year ago have not been realised, if anything we appear to have gone in the opposite direction in terms of a national dialogue, which I think is sad,” Cannon-Brookes said during an Australian Financial Review summit.
Bowen said the federal government’s innovation agenda must be underpinned by “inclusion” and building a “strong middle class” if it wants to avoid replicating the “broken growth model” of the US.
“For example, Techfugees brought people together to develop creative tech solutions to help refugees settle and build productive lives in their new home,” he says.
“One Techfugee high achiever is the firm Refugee Talent: a digital platform connecting skilled refugees with companies offering short- and long-term job opportunities. Some of their clients include the Australian Tax Office, Deloitte and the ABC.”
Bowen also commended the local startup community for its “sharper regional focus”.
“It’s evidenced through initiatives like Silicon Paddock through to what we’re seeing at Runway Geelong,” he said.
Diffusing fear about jobs and automation
Bowen believes the federal government is falling short in addressing concerns in the wider community about new technologies endangering jobs.
“Under a Labor Government the Productivity Commission would report regularly on how trade reforms, together with new developments in technology and automation benefit people, businesses and communities,” he said.
Bowen cited figures by Sydney research group Faethm on the “positive and negative impact of technologies on work over time” , which reveal that 30-40% of jobs in the financial services sector, 50% of manufacturing jobs and 60% of fast food jobs will be automated.
To address this, Bowen reiterated innovation policies the Labor government called for in the last election including a Regional Innovation Fund “to kickstart initiatives to expand the role of Australia’s regions in contributing to the national innovation effort”, and the Labor Party’s proposal for a “Startup Year”.
“[This] would have encouraged the entry of around 2000 graduate-led enterprises a year supporting ongoing regionally-led innovation,” he said.
“This plan also included the commitment to establishing 20 new accelerators partnering with a regional university or TAFE, local governments and a local business chamber.”
Bowen also reprised the establishment of a “$500 million Smart Investment Fund” and an “Innovation Investment Partnership”, which he said would “identify and bust barriers holding back superannuation fund investment in Australian-based venture capital funds and early-stage enterprises”.
“[We need] an innovation effort made up of people of all backgrounds, all regions — and sharing the economic uplift instead of dividing a small number of winners extracting their gains from the many who think they’ve been exploited in the process,” he said.
Bowen’s comments echo sentiments shared by Opposition Leader Bill Shorten earlier this week, when he pledged to create a “SMART” visa program to attract world leaders in tech and research to Australia.
However, StartupSmart confirmed with Chris Bowen’s office that the Shadow Treasurer did not unveil any new Labor policies at the Stone & Chalk event today.
Scandurra: Government should prioritise tax reform
While Bowen and Shorten have spoken this week about attracting talent and building inclusive startup communities, Stone & Chalk chief executive Alex Scandurra told StartupSmart startup founders are looking to policymakers for financial reforms too.
According to Scandurra, the federal government’s priority when it comes to innovation should be on “tax reform” for startups.
He believes the federal government should look at it from a “corporate tax perspective” if it really wants to “attract the best startups and entrepreneurs in Australia”.
“There needs to be a lot more tax reform around incentivising investors into the startup space,” he says.
“As well as tax reforms for founders of startups that are taking a huge amount of risk in launching a startup [and] are subject to capital gains tax like everybody else.”
Scandurra also believes the policy debate should focus on driving innovation through “open data” and “government as a customer”. It’s about “the way in which data can be used in a secure and responsible way to unlock a lot of opportunities to reduce the cost to serve,” he says.
“Think about [how] government, entrepreneurs, startups, third parties, SMEs could easily leverage government data,” Scandurra says.
“[Another] big area is government as a customer … if you look at government — that is federal, state, local — they are by far the biggest spenders in the Australian economy.
“If you think about even a percentage of that being allocated toward Australian startups, scale-ups and SMEs, that’s [huge].”
Scandurra, who says Stone & Chalk is “completely apolitical” and will work with anyone willing to “drive the right policies for Australia”, thinks it’s also crucial to increase awareness and education about the creation of innovation.
“It’s great to see how we can broaden the topic of innovation so it resonates more with SMEs and people in rural areas to be something that is job-creating for everybody,” he says.
“It’s not something that should be seen as just a scary topic.”