Shadow treasurer Chris Bowen has promised Labor will make a “sustained commitment” to innovation in a speech at Sydney fintech hub Stone & Chalk today.
He accused the government of failing to properly explain the benefits of innovation to the wider public and failing to follow through with policies in the area.
“Not that long ago, there was a long list of politicians lining up to make the case that innovation is vital for Australia’s future. About this time last year, every politician and their cavoodle were singing the praises of an agile, innovative economy,” Bowen told the audience of tech start-ups earlier today.
“It was an exciting time to be alive. We were agile. We were nimble. And then. We weren’t. As quickly as the talk flared, it fizzed. It’s like we lived through five minutes of innovation sunshine.”
The federal government unveiled its $1.1 billion ‘National Innovation and Science Agenda’ in December 2015, which included a range of investments in the Australian research sector and reforms designed to boost startups.
The Department of Industry, Innovation and Science was established in the same year, and has since been headed by four different ministers, the present one being cabinet secretary Senator Arthur Sinodinos.
Innovation was not often mentioned during last year’s election campaign, with some commentators saying the general public saw it not as an opportunity but as a threat to their jobs and employers.
Late last year former prime minister Tony Abbott said: "It is good we're no longer talking about innovation and agility because that frankly loses people. We have to talk about the issues that they understand.”
Bowen said this failure of communication came at a price.
“The sad reality is: there is a cost to the Government’s inability to explain the benefits of innovation and their lack of policy focus on the issue since the election. Their inability to explain why innovation is important to our economic future is, in itself, an economic problem,” he said.
Bowen argued that “properly calibrated” innovation could help lift living standards and that Labor would work to address the “legitimate concerns” the public had about technology.
“The world is changing quickly with forecasts of the increasingly rapid uptake of automated processes and the potential threat to jobs. This change is what draws us within Labor back to the priority of driving innovation, creating a smarter nation – and, importantly, being prepared for the change that is coming,” he said.
Labour will be developing further policy in this area before the next election, Bowen said. Work in the area had begun with Bill Shorten announcing on Wednesday that the party would introduce a SMART visa: targeting Science, Medical, Academic, Research and Technology skills. Last month the government announced it would replace the 457 temporary visa class, well used within the technology industry,with a new Temporary Skill Shortage (TSS) visa.
Policies would prioritise diversity, inclusion and fairness, Bowen explained, and cover existing and new firms, manufacturing and services. Rural and regional Australia would be as much as a focus as the cities.
“We will not vacate the field. It is not and never will be a passing fad for us. It’s too important,” he said. “We don’t come at this with short term politics in mind, but the long term best interests of the nation.”