news The House of Representatives erupted in an unusual display of bipartisanship yesterday, with both Liberal and Labor MP waxing lyrical about the virtues of technology startups and how the tech startup community must be further supported in order to secure Australia’s future as an innovative nation.
Liberal MP David Coleman moved a motion in the House of Representatives yesterday morning, asking that the House of Representatives recognise the importance of startups in driving innovation in the Australian economy as well as industries and jobs; welcoming what he said was “close engagement” between the Government and the startup community through events such as Wyatt Roy’s policy hackathon, and encourage the Government to further build upon the ‘innovation agenda’ by implementing additional policies to create a “vibrant startup environment in Australia”.
Coleman — a former new media executive who has worked for McKinsey, LookSmart, dStore, PBL Media and the Nine Network — said that the great disruptive innovations of society usually came from startups.
However, he stated that for Australia to best take advantage of disruption, there was a need in Australian society to better embrace concepts inherent in startup culture, such as risk, as well as for the Government to better support innovation.
“The biggest issue we face is the need to change our culture towards one which better embraces risk,” he said. “If you were to describe Australia’s business culture in one word, that word would probably be ‘pragmatic’. There is nothing wrong with pragmatism, but ‘pragmatic’ is not the first word you would generally associate with great entrepreneurs.”
“As a nation, we do not take ourselves too seriously and we are not given to grand boasts or outlandish pronouncements—and that is a good thing. But sometimes start-ups need to embrace radical or seemingly overthe-top goals in order to crash through the existing orthodoxy. So we need to develop a culture where it is okay to say, ‘We are going to be the best software company in the world’—because if you cannot say it out loud you are unlikely to pursue it as a goal.”
Coleman said other areas that must be addressed included access to capital, as well as technical skills and regulations regarding company directors.
“We need to become a nation not just of technology consumers but of technology creators,” he said. “We are great at embracing the latest devices but less great at inventing them. We want our brightest kids thinking about software, engineering, and IT more generally.”
“It is noteworthy that, although there has been a strong demand for these skills in the workplace for some years, the local education system has not produced enough sufficiently skilled employees to meet all these needs. This suggests that there has been some market failure in this area and that government should take a long view in implementing policies to encourage greater take-up of these courses.”
“As a nation we need to build a culture that celebrates the radical idea, the big concept, the heroic failure. We should embrace policies that push our economy more down the start-up path. We all know that the jobs of tomorrow will come from industries not yet created. And we know that those new industries are likely to be created by start-ups somewhere in the world. Our goal should be for those industries to be created right here, with our expertise exported to the world. The opportunities are immense. We should seize them.”
In response to Coleman’s motion, Labor’s Ed Husic — recently appointed as Shadow Parliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Opposition, assisting with Digital Innovation and Startups — said that a discussion within the Parliament about startups was “long overdue”.
“To give you a sense of how much things have changed, at the start of the year, I had start-ups say to me that if you were a farmer or a miner and you knocked on a minister’s door, you would get through quick smart but if you were a start-up or a small enterprise, you had very little chance of getting attention,” he said.
“Now the perspective is completely different. I think it is a good thing that both sides of politics recognise that this is an area that demands, deserves attention and that we should be doing whatever we can to make sure we have an environment where start-ups emerge because these are the enterprises that in the future will create the jobs and the wealth of this nation, and we need a longer term view of how to support them.”
Husic name-checked a number of successful Australian companies — Campaign Monitor, Ingogo, Invoice2go, Nitro, Carsales, SEEK, Atlassian, Freelancer, Catch of the Day, REA Group and 99designs.
“There is a stack of these companies that have emerged in the Australian environment that are doing tremendous things both here and overseas and they should be recognised. The reason I list them here is because they should be recognised on the floor of parliament and thanked for their contributions,” he said.
Husic highlighted the fact that Labor had recently released a number of policies targeting this area, in areas such as encouraging technology skills development, VISA reform to encourage entrepreneurs to come to Australia, access to capital and more.
However, the Labor MP warned the Coalition Government that it must take a bipartisan approach to the issue and include the Opposition in the discussion around its upcoming Innovation statement (due for release in December) if it wants to see successful policy in this area.
“If it is just a statement that represents all that the government wants to do and then demands that the opposition basically fall into line on it, that is not what is expected by the start-up sector. The start-up sector expects us to come up with ideas that we can work with one another on to advance the national interest,” he said.
One element that Husic is concerned by is the Government’s plans to introduce legislation around crowdfunding. The Labor MP said he had had some “fruitful” discussions with former small business minister Bruce Billson on the issue, but that Billson’s replacement Kelly O’Dwyer. Husic is concerned that the new equity crowdfunding rules will only apply to public companies and not private ones, locking a large segment of industry out of accessing the new platform.
“This is too important a platform—the whole area of early-stage innovation, the creation of new businesses and new enterprises, the creation of jobs into the future, the training up of young people in this country and opening up opportunity,” said Husic. “This cannot be a victim of the old politics; it demands a new approach. We hope this parliament will be able to usher in that new approach.”
It’s great — and somewhat surreal — to see Federal Parliament finally start to appreciate the value of technology companies to Australia’s economy. In reality, every company in Australia has to have a sharp focus on technology at the moment — no matter which sector — because of the rapid pace of change we’re seeing.
I welcome the bipartisanship shown on this issue so far — and hope that when it eventually breaks down, as it inevitably will, that things don’t get too heated between the tech-focused MPs on both sides of politics. Keeping things uncontroversial is a good way to get things through the Parliament.
I note also that this issue largely remains one for the major parties at the moment. The crossbenchers — particularly the Greens — so far remain largely absent from commenting on Australia’s rapidly developing technology startup scene.