How Malcolm Turnbull’s innovation agenda failed to take flight

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Innovation Minister Christopher Pyne and PM Malcolm Turnbull don mixed reality goggles at Saab in Adelaide on the campaign trail. Photo: Andrew Meares Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull launches the National Innovation and Science Agenda in December. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Former assistant innovation minister Wyatt Roy (right) – pictured with Malcolm and Lucy Turnbull – lost his seat Queensland seat. Photo: Andrew Meares

When Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull launched his government’s “innovation agenda” in December, it was with the kind of zeal he typically reserves for matters of technology, transport and transformation.

“There has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian business,” we were told, a variation on a theme he introduced when challenging for the Liberal leadership last September. “There have never been more opportunities on the horizon for Australians.”

The policy suite, including incentives for start-ups, research and collaboration, might have been worthy and necessary, but as a key plank in the Coalition’s re-election pitch, there is growing consensus it was a failure. The view inside and outside party ranks is that the PM’s excitement was not shared by voters, particularly in marginal suburban and regional seats.

Perhaps the disaffection was best summed up by Liberal MP Andrew Hastie, who was first elected to the seat of Canning in Western Australian just days after Turnbull seized the prime ministership. “Canning isn’t going to be the next Silicon Valley,” he complained to his local newspaper the Mandurah Mail after the campaign. “A lot of what we were campaigning on nationally just wasn’t resonating with everyday Australians.”

Wyatt Roy, the assistant minister for innovation, who lost his Queensland seat, was in many ways the personification of the innovation agenda: youthful, agile, savvy. But he wasn’t convinced the strategy worked, either. He told the ABC’s 730 program the Coalition had lost “the ground game”, having failed to demonstrate to families why its economic agenda would enable their children and grandchildren to “grow up in a better world”.

Instead, Mr Turnbull spent much of his campaign time appearing at places of industry: advanced manufacturing centres, start-up hubs, steelworks.

“How awesome is this?” he began one enthusiastic press conference at a shipyard in Perth. It became a common refrain as the PM toured innovative workplaces across the country. And the motif went beyond technology and job creation. The Brexit vote showed the need for agility, the PM said. We were innovating in the NBN and city livability. Turnbull even described the Larrakia people’s negotiation of their native title claim as “innovative”.

Free-market think tanks, broadly supportive of the Coalition’s economic agenda, recoiled from this communications strategy.

“It turned into a cliche in the end,” says Darcy Allen, a research fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs, who is writing a PhD on innovation economics. “The case for innovation should explain what innovation actually achieves for people – I didn’t really see that throughout the campaign.”

Allen says the link between innovation and the PM’s ubiquitous catchphrase “jobs and growth” was opaque at best. “People don’t respond to how innovation occurs,” he explains. “That’s not important to people. People actually have to feel what the change is – lower cost of technology, higher living standards. I would have been selling how technology drives down costs, which is a serious concern to many people.”

Industry, Innovation and Science Minister Christopher Pyne is understood to be livid about the criticism being propelled by some colleagues. He tells Fairfax Media the Coalition’s win at the ballot box is an endorsement of its entire economic plan, and “research clearly outlines the innovation agenda was well received by Australians who recognised its importance in our economic future”. Anyone suggesting innovation should have been jettisoned from the forefront of the campaign is “out of touch”, he says.

Within the PM’s office, there is recognition that the message did not resonate in key parts of western Sydney, Tasmania and other regions. But there is also a view that the focus on innovation “worked” in so far as it was comfortable ground for the PM – it played to his strengths and he was clearly in his element on that topic.

A source close to the PM says the Coalition chose to take the high road when it came to its innovation pitch: laying bare the economic challenges facing Australia, but presenting a solution at the same time, to avoid scaring people.

It may have accidentally done the exact opposite. “People are always edgy about change,” says one Liberal MP. He observes that while policy wonks, politicians and journalists are largely at ease with free trade, foreign investment and economic change, the same cannot be said for most voters. “The arguments for those are taken for granted in Canberra. But in the community there’s a lot of angst about those things,” the MP says.

Where does that leave the ideas boom? Still in full swing, at least on paper. Grants are starting to flow, tax incentives for investors began on July 1 and government-funded “Landing Pads” for Australian entrepreneurs are opening in key overseas areas. Next week we will know if Pyne keeps the innovation portfolio and who, if anyone, will be his assistant minister. In any case, it is certain to remain a key plank in the Turnbull economic plan.

As Pyne tells Fairfax Media: “This is a long-term policy in which the government is trying to achieve a cultural change in thinking. This doesn’t happen overnight and it doesn’t instantly happen in nine months.”

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