Frustration, innovation, inspiration, frustration – a contemporary Australian political cycle

By Patrick O'Beirne

Within my 20 years of political observation, I’ve rarely been inspired. Probably more frustrated.

Frustrated with the Australian public’s insistence to focus on the personality of politicians rather than their policies. Flabbergasted when elected representatives eat each other alive after the knifing’s done. Flummoxed by the regulatory blockage our balances of power have caused. And furious at media’s 24-hour news cycle that gives rise to the ordinary opinions of everyday commentators and asks political representatives to spend more time in-studio than in office.

All up, it leads you to be rather underwhelmed with our political leadership and distanced from any major movement.

That all changed in December last year when Malcolm Turnbull launched his National Science and Innovation Agenda (NISA). Usually a political fence-sitter on social media, I felt moved to advocate:

Turnbull Twitter

Finally, an aspirational future-looking focus for our country that committed to transitioning our economy from its heavy reliance on hard industry (mining and manufacturing) by embracing the ever-so-promising soft industry (ICT, education and services).

At last, a platform to help propel knowledge-based sectors, stimulate start-ups and walk the talk of digital disruption.

Designed to encourage an ‘innovation culture’ in Australian business, it started engaging young people, inspiring entrepreneurs of the future and promoting risk with new enterprise.

Malcolm’s pitch to the nation actually got Australians talking. The hashtag #ideasboom was huge (sure some of contributions took the P155, but we are Australia, eh). Prominent positive media ensued and a long list of advocates lined up to join in the chorus.

The innovation agenda managed to wrap-up some very strong future-focussed themes, addressing economic culture and capital, collaboration, talent and skills and listed more than 20 initiatives each with a plan for action.

Search #ideasboom today and you find a story about the CSIRO closing its climate labs.

Twitter pic CSIRO

If NISA was to germinate innovation, our own program to deliver Project Loon-like initiatives seems to have popped. And caretaker conventions can’t be blamed for the sudden lack of conversation and leadership.

Where’s the innovation narrative gone? Why isn’t it a part of the election campaign? Women leading Australia’s digital future sure as hell isn’t a dull and boring topic, as many have complained of the election race so far.

If government is a mere enabler or (maybe) exemplar for an innovation culture, what’s Australian business doing for its lift-off?

Our Prime Minister took a stage last December that arguably should have been occupied earlier by Australian businesses – large and small. For too many years the opportunity was lost to change our national culture through investment in research and development and trigger an inspiring transition into an innovation-led economy.

The stage is now vacant, the song is over and the #ideasboom seems bust. And again I find myself frustrated.

Here’s hoping our prime ministerial candidates can find an innovation voice again and give Australia’s future economic focus the shot-in-the-arm it needs.

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