Tuesday, 08 December 2015 18:04

Innovation: Turnbull will have to see it through Featured

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COMMENT When companies see taxpayers' money on offer, when they hear speeches liberally laced with words like "innovation", "agile", and "seamless", they do everything but burst into song in public.

This probably accounts for the overwhelming positive response to the announcement by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Monday, that $1.1 billion would be provided as an economic reform package to spur innovation.

My colleague, Peter Dinham, has already enumerated in a wonderfully clear manner how the money is to be divvied up, so let me not repeat anything.

In the congratulatory morass, a great many things tend to be forgotten. If everything that Turnbull has proposed comes to pass, then glory, hallelujah.

But people seem to have forgotten that this is not Coalition policy; it is Turnbull's policy. Standing next to the prime minister during the announcement was Christopher Pyne, the minister for industry and innovation. This is the same Pyne who was trying to put university education out of the reach of a good proportion of the population when he was serving as education minister under Tony Abbott.

There is sufficient opposition to Turnbull to make him tread with care; if the leadership ballot had been conducted within the entire Coalition, Abbott would probably still be there chanting "stop the boats", because few, if any, Nationals, would have voted for Turnbull.

Given this, unless Turnbull is around for the next two terms at least, the policies announced on Monday will not be worth the paper on which they are written. The return of some backward-looking pollie at the head of government will mean that much of what Turnbull announced will be reversed. Many Abbott supporters are already describing Turnbull as "Rudd on steroids" because of the spending he has undertaken. These are the folk who cannot see the difference between a household budget and a country's budget.

The two words that have been emerging from Turnbull's mouth practically every hour since he became prime minister are "innovation" and "agile". But how long will it take for Australia to culturally change in order to follow his way?

Last month, the head of Sungevity, one of the bigger solar companies in the US, an Australian named Danny Kennedy, was bemoaning the lost opportunities in his home country. Kennedy, who was featured on the ABC's Foreign Correspondent program, was quoted as saying: ""No doubt dumb Aussie policies and politics have squandered a world-leading advantage that Australia had technologically with PV (photovoltaic solar cells) and in market development."

And he added: "It is not too late though, as this is a marathon not a sprint. They have to stop playing silly buggers and create certainty for investors, businesses and talent to get behind the market there."

Kennedy employs 1000 people in California, a state where the renewables sector grew by leaps and bounds when a Republican, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was governor. No ideology there, of the sort that exists in Australia.

The solar industry has another sad tale to tell, that of Australian scientist Shi Zhengrong, who set up the Wuxi Suntech Power Corporation in China in 2000, on the invitation of officials from the province of Jiangsu. Within five years, he had become one of the richest men in China. Today the market value of Suntech is close to US$6 billion, making it the second-largest manufacturer of solar panels in the world.

These are major Australian success stories. Pity they didn't take place in Australia.

One also has to ask about Turnbull: if he could not see the business potential of fast broadband — and by that I mean fibre to the home — then how can he even begin to talk about innovation? Out in California there are companies which design solar panels for houses after viewing the houses on the internet, through applications like Google Maps. They supply these designs as far afield as Africa.

Meanwhile, there are students in rural Australia who do not have enough bandwidth to even do their online courses. The very word innovation means a new way of doing things and with fast broadband there are a great many ideas that can come to fruition.

But while people in seemingly affluent suburbs struggle to see a YouTube video without buffering, there is really no hope for Australia in this field. The country will be overtaken by everyone else.

Back in the late 1990s, when John Howard was in charge, he steered clear of any attempt to set up a fast broadband network because he was scared of the reaction from media barons Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Packer. A fast internet service would have threatened the Foxtel pay TV service and Howard wanted the media onside because the only thing he was interested in, was staying in power. Most of the excess cash that Australia earned from its mineral boom — something in the region of $450 billion — was spent on middle-class welfare (remember the baby bonus?).

No Liberal or Coalition government has done anything even remotely resembling innovative in Australia's history. Turnbull will have to fight a great many battles within if he hopes to succeed with his grand plan.

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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