Oh no, startups are now Australia's political battleground

The Labor opposition has joined Turnbull's coalition government in making innovation an election issue -- but why does it have to be about 'startups'?
Written by Stilgherrian , Contributor

Innovation in the face of massive digital disruption is one of the most serious economic and political issues Australia faces. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said so when announcing his ministry on Sunday. New assistant minister for innovation Wyatt Roy said so on ABC TV's Lateline on Tuesday.

We've already heard the words "innovation", "agile", "nimble", "disruptive", and -- inevitably -- "startups" more times than is healthy.

And now today, the Labor party launched its Getting Australia Started proposal to assist startups.

It's great rhetoric, but what's actually happening at a practical level?

Misha Zelinsky, national vice president of the Australian Workers Union (AWU), summed it up perfectly at the Labor for Innovation forum on The Future of Work in a 'Gig Economy' in Sydney on Wednesday night -- although to quote him out of context like this is completely unfair.

The 'gig economy', by the way, is the current sounds-good-but-not-really buzzphrase to describe what happens to work when your job is something that lasts for ten minutes, thanks to people's working lives being managed through hired-for-the-moment-then-dumped apps such as Airtasker, Uber, Sidekicker, and Freelancer.com, just to name those operations represented at the event.

"I haven't got any answers," Zelinsky said. And neither does anyone else.

That's unfair to Zelinsky because he was speaking in the context of an audience question about skills development. Making sure that Australia has a well-trained workforce is already a problem for full-time employees working for regular companies. What happens when people are working a thousand micro-jobs? Will they ever earn enough money to cover the cost of ongoing training?

Regarding that specific question, Zelinsky didn't have any answers. But at least he knew the questions, and the AWU does have an idea of how it'll fit into this new world.

"It's about expanding the value proposition for workers, going beyond just enterprise bargaining, and saying 'What can we provide to a union member in our whole-of life experience?'," Zelinsky told ZDNet. That includes training, wealth management, and "general advice" for members and their families.

"The beauty now is everyone's connected... We've got to have the conversation with them, and reach out to them... The tools are great, we've just got to find a way to use them, and we are," he said.

If only politicians were moving as quickly.

As I could tell from the audience at Wednesday's meeting, this digital disruption thing isn't an academic question. It's happening right now. It isn't new either. It's been happening for years. So what actual, concrete policy-development items are on the agenda between now and Christmas?

After all, the four companies represented on Wednesday, plus everyone else trying to turn their startup idea into a few billion dollars of market cap, will be working hard to make sure that laws and policies end up being what they want. They're businesspeople, and they'd be fools to do anything else.

Labor seems to have answered my question with today's announcement.

Labor had already started that process with the launch of a discussion paper on the sharing economy in March. They've received more than 500 submissions to that paper, around 50 of them as detailed, written submissions and the rest as online survey responses.

According to a spokesperson for shadow assistant treasurer Dr Andrew Leigh, Labor's response had been planned to be released "before the end of the year". Plans may change, of course, as the party adapts to fighting a government led by Malcolm Turnbull rather than Tony Abbott.

Nevertheless, Labor has an actual proposal on the table.

Your turn, Turnbull.

Australia's last few federal elections have been fought on the battlegrounds of Western Sydney, something that according to Fairfax Community News journalist Elisha Pearce is little more than a "marketing construct".

"They can just say capital-W Western Sydney, which isn't a thing, and it means something, and then they can just move on to the next thing 'cos they've ticked off their little marketing slogan," Pearce told the 9pm Edict's Public House Forum (NSFW).

But as former ZDNet senior journalist Josh Taylor tweeted today: "Start-ups are the new Western Sydney for the two major parties, it seems." Yes, that's exactly what it seems.

Now, Australia certainly needs to lift its game. According to OECD figures from 2013, Australian organisations are the fourth-worst of the OECD nations when it comes to collaborating on innovation.

Innovation is important. Vital, even. But so far the discussion is being dominated by the pop culture of disruption.

With an election next year, my fear is that this will all warp into some weird battle between political parties flopping out their slogans to see whose scales get biggest the fastest.

Concrete policies and proposals, please. Rational discussion, please. And above all, please, a conversation about innovation and the future that isn't solely about the kind of high-risk fast-growth business models run by youthful technophiles that venture capitalists prefer?

Oh, who am I kidding?

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