Australia needs a technology industry policy debate

Bipartisan startup love is no way to foster anything, never mind innovation

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Comment Neither of Australia's parties of government has a useful policy or plan for the technology portfolios beyond an attachment to buzzwords and a wish to emulate Silicon Valley.

Here's how to identify policy cluelessness: anyone naming Uber as a significant employer. It's not now, it will not be in the future, and yet both of Australia's major political parties - the ruling Liberals and opposition Labor - ALP believe it is and want its model emulated somehow.

I say this because I've just heard representatives of both parties speak at the Tech Leaders forum outside Sydney.

It's not surprising that Fiona Cash, speaking for the government, might side with the venture capital community and love the Uber economy, but the opposition's Jason Clare could have reflected before he performed the “startups are the engines of job creation” genuflection.

Both parties also subscribe to the delusion that startups in general are the solution to unemployment, which is both daft and dangerous.

Startups are a near-zero employer in the economy as a whole and aren't designed to be any different. Yes, I heard you mutter “Atlassian”, which is a decade-old mature and profitable company. It's a startup for publicity purposes only and even then the publicity comes from startup-land: Atlassian itself likes to point out it is older than Facebook.

The only meaningful difference between government and opposition at the moment is in their NBN policy, and that doesn't matter. Labor's Jason Clare can say as he pleases, he can't reverse the current government's purchase of the hybrid fibre coax networks, or the copper telephony network, or the deployment of fibre-to-the-node nodes.

That lack of difference is why Clare can't land a punch on the government, even though its "agile" prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, training-wheeled communications minister Mitch Fifield and "fixer"/industry minister Chris Pyne provide a target-rich environment.

The current state of bipartisanship leaves too many things unexamined, namely:

  • Nobody's interested in questioning the narrative that VCs need subsidies;
  • The tech sector's educational priorities don't get enough scrutiny or debate;
  • Tech means real estate. Both sides of politics believe Australia needs to replicate Silicon Valley somehow, arguing only about where the hectares of glass and steel should be, not whether Silicon Valley is worth emulating.

I certainly would not want tech policy to fall into the name-calling tribal acrimony of the NBN debate, but Australia will not find itself with good policy after no debate at all. ®

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