After a mere five months, Christian Porter has stood down from his role as Minister for Industry, Science and Technology, paving the way for Australia’s sixth minister for this portfolio in five years.
While Angus Taylor has stepped up as acting minister, alongside his existing role as Minister for Energy, we’re now facing yet another reshuffle, and yet another leader for Australia’s tech sector.
Porter’s appointment back in March was not exactly met with universal praise, and judging by the reactions when he took on the job, there will be few sad to see him go.
But the news still begs the question as to why we’re seeing such high turnover in this portfolio in particular. And, in the past five years, has the department actually achieved?
Five months of hard graft?
Sifting through the press releases of Porter’s short tenure, there are a few announcements of grant funding — the culmination of processes long underway before Porter came into the role.
We’ve also seen board appointments announced, ‘intentions’ laid for new projects, consultations opened up and equal support for coal and mining as climate protection and ocean clean-up initiatives.
Whether or not he was working hard behind the scenes on things yet to come to fruition, perhaps we will never know.
Alan Jones, founder of M8 Ventures and Aussie industry expert, notes that this year’s budget also saw Porter’s department scrap the incubator support grant, making it considerably harder to set up a new incubator or accelerator program in Australia.
“That counts as doing something, but it’s a backward step, not forward,” Jones says.
Either way, all of this constitutes background work that likely required little input from Porter himself. His labor counterpart Ed Husic has even accused him of doing “the bare minimum” for his portfolio, not even speaking on pieces of legislation in his portfolio.
A five-year itch
Even over the past five years, it’s hard to pinpoint any truly significant policy change around innovation.
There was a grand debate around proposed changes to the R&D tax incentive scheme, one that went back and forth, through multiple consultation phases, only to be scrapped in the 2020 federal budget.
Work is also ongoing to update legislation around employee share schemes, a move that would ultimately improve the environment for startups. But progress has been slow, and there’s no indication of when these changes might actually materialise.
Then there was the controversial Assistance and Access Bill, passed with little consultation in late 2018, to the dismay and anger of the tech community. Despite much debate and promises to re-visit the bill, nothing has changed since.
A string of changes to skilled work visas turned out to be largely a flow (even without the prolonged border closures courtesy of COVID-19) and “knee-jerk” legislation penalising any tech company hosting ‘abhorrent violent material’ that would ultimately make life yet harder for them, without necessarily achieving the desired effect.
Overall, “I don’t think anything’s been achieved in the past five years, has it?”, Jones asks.
“The important issues remain unchanged: we continue to spend less per capita of GDP on R&D each year, gradually dropping down the list of nations investing in R&D,” he adds.
“We continue to offer less in the way incentives to early-stage investors and fund managers than our major trading partners.
“Where government grant funds are available, they may sound significant when announced but they are always underspent with the remainder going back to government.
“They always require matching industry funding so they don’t solve the underlying problem that there is too little industry funding, and the investment available is later stage and too conservative.”
Over the past few years, the tech and startup sector has picked up the pace in an incredible way. In 2021, nine-figure capital raises and multi-billion dollar valuations are becoming the norm — but policy isn’t necessarily keeping up.
“Our government has spent more in the past five years on car parks in marginal electorates than on effective measures to transform us into an innovation economy,” Jones adds.
It begs the question: is the revolving door of the nation’s tech and industry leadership delaying the actual policy changes needed for Australia to live up to its potential in this sector?
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