Turnbull's scattergun nimbling of Australia is no grand vision

Australia's new National Innovation & Science Agenda isn't so much a grand vision as a grab-bag of random ideas, but maybe that's OK.
Written by Stilgherrian , Contributor

If you browse the website for PM Malcolm Turnbull's first grand policy statement, his so-called Innovation Statement, at innovation.gov.au, you might well get the impression that it was all just a little bit rushed. And if you're looking for a coherent vision for Australia's future, you won't find one.

"Welcome to the ideas boom," the site proclaims. "There's never been a more exciting time to be Australian," it says, repeating one of Turnbull's favourite catchphrases.

There's the inevitable words "innovation" and "agile", and the seemingly compulsory tech-industry jargon verbs "embrace" and "harness". But beyond that, what you have is a set of 29 policy ideas, each presented in its own fact sheet. The titles of some fact sheets are different from their webpage version. Some users reported font rendering problems. The fact sheets aren't linked off the webpage version of the policy idea they describe. And there wasn't even a way to download the whole agenda in one piece until people complained.

Once you dig into those 29 ideas, it's hard to find anything that leaps out as a single bold move. No, it's more of a grab-bag of ideas, all lumped together under the innovation heading.

Perhaps the most coherent aspect is a series of ideas that, taken together, add up to some significant tax breaks for investors in startups. Combine that with proposals for bankruptcy law reform, intangible asset depreciation, reforms to employee share schemes, and rules which make it easier for businesses to carry over losses, and it's starting to look like the venture capital types have got their wishlist.

But as respected journalist Laura Tingle pointed out in a question during the PM's press conference, ad hoc tax breaks like this carry a political risk: they might open an avenue for what might most politely be called tax minimisation, and voters might well see it as the government covering businesses' losses in their gamble on high-risk investments.

It's also curious that these specific startup-friendly proposals are on the table now, when there's supposed to be a comprehensive taxation review in the pipeline.

"We obviously have a highly-developed concept of the type of businesses we're talking about, but we will develop the final definition collaboratively with the industry, and in particular with the advice of Innovation and Science Australia," Turnbull replied.

"It's important to make sure you get that right, because often the devil is in the detail."

Innovation and Science Australia is a newly-formed independent advisory board helping set government policy.

Moving away from business law reform, the rest of the agenda seems to be a collection of relatively small-ticket items, camouflaged by some impressive-sounding but largely pre-existing ideas, or some obvious no-brainers. How often can the government re-announce funding the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), for example? And who wouldn't invest further in the highly successful quantum computing project at the University of New South Wales?

While it's good to see longer-timeframe funding for scientific projects confirmed, it's a little concerning to see the success of such projects measured by their ability to score grants and industry investment.

One intriguing idea is the Cyber Security Growth Centre, set to receive $30 million funding through to 2019-20. Its mission will be to "grow and strengthen Australia's cybersecurity industry", though that money would only buy you about 30 information security professionals or senior public servants. How much grow-and-strengthen that gets you is an unknown question.

I have but scratched the surface of the National Innovation & Science Agenda [PDF] in this column. While the 29 ideas total just 29 pages of text, they've just been supplemented by a National Innovation and Science Agenda Report. More will doubtless emerge.

But I will pick up on one of Turnbull's comments about risk, which was the second half of his response to Tingle's question.

"I want to pick up on something you said about 'There are risks for government'. You know something? There are risks for everybody, and we've got to be prepared to take risks. And that is why one of the aspects of the political paradigm I'm seeing to change is the old politics where politicians felt that they had to guarantee that every policy would work, they had to sort of water everything down so there was no element of risk. Let me tell you, I'm not guaranteeing that all of these policies will be as successful as we hope they will be," Turnbull said.

"Actually I'm very confident about it, because we're worked very hard on it. We've had a great team, we've had a lot of good collaboration. But you know, if some of these policies are not as successful as we like, we will change them, and we will learn from them, because that is what a 21st century government has got to be. It has got to be as agile as the startup businesses it seeks to inspire."

Turnbull saw his predecessor Tony Abbott dumped before the end of his first term as PM because he was seen to be failing. He saw his Labor opponents dump Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard likewise.

Perhaps his message about being tolerant of risk and perceived failure is directed as much at his own party members as us citizens.

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