The Turnbull government has just appointed its third innovation minster since December 2015, after the resignation of health minister Sussan Ley prompted a cabinet reshuffle.
Senator Arthur Sinodinos will take over the industry, innovation and science portfolios from Greg Hunt, after Hunt was appointed as the new minister for health and minister for sport last week.
Sinodinos has what some would call a colourful history in politics, switching between top tiers of federal parliament and private sector conglomerates like Goldman Sachs JBWere, and having served as an economic adviser and chief of staff to former Prime Minister John Howard.
“I have been a strong supporter of Australian industry and jobs throughout my public life,” Sinodinos said in a statement.
“Collaboration is a fundamental part of the Turnbull Government’s National Innovation and Science Agenda [NISA] and will be important to my approach to industry policy more generally.
“Industry policies and programs do not operate in a vacuum and should always link with macroeconomic, competition, regulatory, employment, trade, and investment policies.
“I also have a keen appreciation of the importance of innovation and science policies, including the role of national institutions such as CSIRO, in delivering economic growth and development … I believe its workers, entrepreneurs and risk takers who should be at the centre of the economy; not government.”
Sindonis’ statement has fallen under scrutiny by some.
In The Conversation, Jesse Adams Stein says Sinodonis “shrugs off” direct responsibility of government and puts the onus on entrepreneurs to lead the innovation charge.
“In Australian politics, innovation specifically operates as code for economic efficiency and entrepreneurship, and its use naturalises a way of thinking that valorises profit-making over other social, ethical and environmental considerations,” she says.
“With so much emphasis on entrepreneurship, a great deal of positive human activity is easily ignored and left unsupported.”
Meanwhile, others have raised concerns over his past.
Sinodinos is “a trusted operator within the Coalition and a close confidant of the Prime Minister [but he] also has a messy past because of his appearances at ICAC [Independent Commission Against Corruption] over both the NSW Liberal Party laundering donations from property developers and his time at Australian Water Holdings”, Crikey reports.
So what do startups—the companies at the forefront of innovation, creative thinking and bleeding-edge technology—think about the latest ministerial change?
Startup Victoria chief executive Georgia Beattie
“Frequent changes and no clear innovation champion for the government is a challenge, however Sinodinos’ background as John Howard’s chief of staff provides confidence. It is not immediately apparent that innovation is part of his skill, however, he is an experienced businessman and policymaker. [Outgoing innovation minister Greg] Hunt was very active in pursuing relationships and outcomes for innovation and science, I hope that Sinodinos will have the same progressive attitude.
“Initially, it is bad news [for startups]—we just don’t have the time to slow down while Sinodinos is brought up to speed. An example of this slippage is a meeting we had in the diary for next Tuesday with Greg Hunt. We are hosting Brad Feld and David Cohen for a series of events and organised a breakfast with Greg Hunt to share some insights on how to achieve a successful startup ecosystem. We hope that Sinodinos will prioritise this breakfast however we have not heard back from his office.
“I think it’s really important that Sinodinos understands the startup ecosystem and how to play an active role in its growth rather than focus on existing large industries.”
Seed Digital co-founder and director Mike Ebinum
“I think the innovation portfolio needs a bit more consistency in its leadership.
“Regardless of how people might have felt about Mr. Hunt or Mr. Pyne, I think this portfolio deserves to have a clear and consistent vision with leadership to see it out.
“Time will tell if Mr. Sinodinos is the person to provide that.”
Vävven founder and chief executive Jacqueline Haines
“Turnbull’s game of musical chairs displays the lack of the government’s understanding into innovation, however, having said this, I feel the same for the opposition. The term ‘innovation’ is a buzz word used to make the public feel safe.
“But it’s actually so much more; innovation is imperative for Australia to compete on a global front. Yet to do this, the government needs to see it as a long-term strategy and champion it as the intersection of viable, desirable and feasible. This is cathedral building, not an app or an Uber.
“It was positive to see Hunt attempted to move the mantra away from just the startup community, which placed the economic responsibility of the country on entrepreneurs rather than a partnership focus.
“As for Sinodinos, he has noted on a number of occasions ‘high-value’ manufacturing is the big future in Australia. And I agree it could be. But considering our percentage of high tech export as a share of total export has been hovering around 13.5 percent for the past five years, and the base of our current manufacturing industry is being decimated, a base which is needed to innovate off, he will need more than slogans and ribbon-cutting parties.
“The government needs to view innovation for what it is: a long term strategy which requires targeted investment in R&D and science. Innovation will not change the economy overnight, but the real issue is the boat may have already sailed.”
StartupAus chief executive Alex McCauley
“This is a critical time for innovation and startups, and we need to make sure we don’t lose momentum as a result of political change.
“We expect the government to keep moving swiftly towards delivering the second wave of the [NISA] and we look forward to working with minister Sinodinos to drive new sources of economic growth and ensure that its policies deliver the innovation, the investment, and the technology that will secure Australia’s future.”
— Elaine Stead (@ElaineStead) January 17, 2017