Innovation representatives for the two main parties took part in a bake-off on their policy commitments leading into the July 2 election, and on which party takes innovation the most seriously.
Appearing in a debate at the National Press Club, the Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science Christopher Pyne went head-to-head with Labor’s industry and innovation spokesperson Senator Kim Carr.
Both parties are pushing innovation policy as a vehicle for economic growth and future prosperity.
“Innovation is the fuel for jobs and growth that we need,” Pyne said.
“The Turnbull Coalition team have put innovation at the centre of our election policy, and I think that shows you our level of commitment to it.
“When was the last time there was an election where science and innovation was the number one point in one of the party’s economic plans?
“I think that’s an enormous achievement and shows [Prime Minister] Malcolm Turnbull’s very genuine commitment to innovation, science, the ideas boom, as opposed to past elections where these parts of the economy have hardly ever gained a mention.”
Carr, meanwhile, saw innovation as a way to “make a better Australia [and to] contribute to how we make a better world – a prosperous, fair and decent world in which everyone has a chance of a fulfilling life.”
However, he believed greater effort had to be put into easing community fear and selling innovation as the way to achieve economic prosperity, as not everyone was on-board with it.
“There is a deep concern within this country about what’s occurring within the economy,” Carr said.
“We’ve not had a real wage increase for some time, and we’ve had numbers of people that are very anxious about their futures.
“So this talk about agility, innovation and the new economy in some quarters is actually quite worrying for people.
“There’s been far too little attention paid to bringing the community with us in terms of changing the culture in regard to innovative businesses. This is a pattern expressed around the world.
“In terms of innovation policy we’ve got to have a much sharper focus on the fact that less than 50 percent of our businesses are actually innovative-active, and the fact that so many of our people are so anxious about the change that’s coming.”
Pyne said the Coalition was prepared to listen as it put its innovation policies into action.
“Neither Malcolm Turnbull nor I will ever say our agenda is perfect or that the job is done,” he said.
“As [our $1.1 billion national innovation and science] agenda continues to roll out, I know plenty of people have advice for us and that means we can tweak elements of it to increase the impact of the changes.”
Both Pyne and Carr agreed generally that innovation needed to have a broad-brush impact across sectors, though they differed in where their parties would typically focus efforts on extending innovation’s reach.
“The innovation that really interests me is what occurs in businesses all over Australia,” Pyne said.
Carr meanwhile said he believed all industries had to be ready to embrace transformation and disruption.
Both sides made the point that innovation policy could and should not just address a small section of the economy such as start-ups. Turnbull has previously indicated on several occasions that start-ups do not have a monopoly on innovation.
A bit of fire
With under a fortnight remaining before the federal election, the debate did produce its share of fiery accusations and artfully-avoided answers to questions.
Pyne sought political leverage from the Coalition’s handling of the NBN (“It is clearly only the Coalition that can be trusted to deliver the NBN on time and on budget”) and from CSIRO funding (“We’ve committed a record $3.3 billion of funding to the CSIRO in the budget. In fact the CSIRO budget is receiving more money under the Coalition than was in the forward estimates under the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government.”)
Carr sought to undermine the Coalition’s innovation stance.
“Since Malcolm Turnbull became Prime Minister in September last year, the word innovation is now back in vogue,” Carr said.
“The word innovation was banned up until October of last year. We did not even have a science minister in this government for much of this last parliament.
“What the Government presents as innovation policy is just a host of measures, many of which are business-as-usual matters. The commitment to innovation is very, very thin.”
Carr posited that Labor “takes innovation far more seriously” and that the party – if elected – would put its money where its mouth is.
“Smooth talking clichés are not going to do it here,” Carr said. “We need to invest.”