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Malcolm Turnbull must reboot innovation policy

One Saturday, just over a year ago, Blue Chilli’s Sydney offices — a loft-like space over three floors near the Queen Victoria Building — were crowded with entrepreneurs and the start-up community putting together new ideas for the government’s innovation policy.

Public servants from Canberra had got up at 4am to make the flight to the Sydney offices of the start-up incubator, to meet with the jeans-wearing entrepreneurial community for the first ever government policy “hackathon”.

The then assistant innovation minister Wyatt Roy, who had met Blue Chilli founder Sebastien Eckersley-Maslin during a visit to Boston hosted by Microsoft to study that city’s policies to encourage start-ups, was there for the day, as were a mixture of businesspeople, including Brisbane entrepreneur and Shark Tank judge Steve Baxter, scientists, educators and investors.

There was a heady sense that Australia was set for a brave new world with the government preparing to roll out a series of initiatives that had the potential to make the country a “start-up nation” like Israel, encouraging some of the entrepreneurialism of Silicon Valley.

Scribbles on post-it notes and butcher paper came together at the end of the day in a series of policy recommendations collated by advocacy group StartUpAUS, which fed into the innovation statement of December 2015.

Much has changed since then.

Not only has Roy gone, but after the election, the very word “innovation” appears to have developed so much political baggage that its chief proponent, Malcolm Turnbull, who made his fortune out of investing in the internet before many people had ever heard of it, no longer champions it the way he did a year ago.

The fresh start and the innovation language of 2015 has given way to the mind-numbing “jobs and growth” mantra.

A report released this month by StartupAUS notes that the December 2015 Innovation statement announced some positive steps forward, but says “Australia still has a lot of catching up to do”.

Australia, it noted, was ranked only 19th in the Global Innovation Index published by a group including business school INSEAD, America’s Cornell University and industry consultants AT Kearney.

It has also fallen from 21st to 22nd in the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Competitiveness Report.

The report points out that while the innovation statement did introduce polices which have since been slowly rolled out, many other countries are pushing ahead with a much more aggressive pro-innovation strategy.

These include the Chinese government’s $8.3bn seed-stage National Venture Capital Fund which directly supports many of the country’s 2000 start-up incubators. And South Korea’s $4bn creative economy initiative which includes converting more than 1000 public libraries to innovation centres.

While acknowledging the initiatives in the innovation statement, the report outlines 14 new recommendations to encourage the start-up ecosystem in Australia. One of those is a relaxation of 457 visas to allow more skilled IT workers to come into the country. Yet political pressure has seen the government recently introduce tighter controls on their administration.\r\n\r\nSteve Baxter, who is very much at the coal face of innovation having founded the Brisbane-based River City Labs, argues that “things are changing for the better” in Australia. He says the government has to be given credit for the initiatives it has rolled out this year to encourage more innovation, including tax incentives and other programs to help start-ups.

“We all need to give it a chance to work,” he said. “If we want success in this space, then we need patience as well.”

What is less apparent, as the word innovation has become less politically palatable in Australia, is the grassroots growth in entrepreneurialism among some of Australia’s smartest young people.

It can get pretty depressing looking at Australia from the top down, including politicians and business leaders with their constant refrain about the need for more “reform”. But take a visit to the growing number of co-working spaces, start-up hubs and accelerators, and you get a different view of the country.

There has been a big increase in the number of these work spaces — with names such as River City Labs, Fishburners, Stone and Chalk, Tank Stream Labs, WeWork, Queens Collective and Inspire9. More are planned for our major city cities, meeting a demand from 20 and 30-somethings wanting to start their own businesses and give their idea a go, rather than work for a big company.

Eckersley-Maslin points out that when his company recently called for women entrepreneurs to become part of Blue Chilli’s new She Starts program, it got a staggering 800-plus applications in only a few weeks for only 10 slots. This compares with 140 applications when it did a call out for would be entrepreneurs (of both sexes) to join its start-up program a year ago.

The enthusiasm for the She Starts program highlights a deep well of potential female entrepreneurs in Australia in a world that is still largely male dominated. But, as Eckersley-Maslin says, it also reflects a broader groundswell of enthusiasm among tech savvy young Australians to follow up their own ideas and founding their own businesses.

And while the federal government has cooled on promoting its innovation agenda, he points out that state governments — particularly Queensland, NSW and Victoria — are rolling out their own pro-innovation policies.

Turnbull is wrong to drop the public advocacy for the innovation agenda. Rename it or repackage it, but Australia’s future should not be about pandering to fear but recognising some of the country’s best talent quietly working away to do things which could produce jobs of the future.