20 August 2010

Australia Votes — But Not on Innovation

After a lacklustre and largely negative election campaign infected by meaningless catch-crys, such as "moving foward" and "turn the boats around", we Australians have the privilege of executing our democratic responsibilties tomorrow by voting in the federal election.

Innovation policy has played no noticeable part in this campaign.  For anybody wondering where the major parties stand on this issue, Australian Innovation has published statements by Prime Minister Julia Gillard, and opposition leader Tony Abbott.

Whether measured on actual substance, or sheer verbosity, on these statements the government would appear to have the edge.  However, neither is particularly inspiring.  Are we surpised that Labor's policy is more focussed on public sector research, education and social opportunity, or that the conservatives are not in the business of "picking winners", but rather would have the market do as it will?  No, we are not.


One thing that can be said for the Labor government is that it has the track record in this area.  It was under the Hawke/Keating Labor government, with the stewardship of Barry Jones, that Australia underwent major patent reform with the repeal of the outdated 1952 Act in favour of the Patents Act 1990.  The same government devised and introduced the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) program, which has had largely bipartisan support ever since.  While there is plenty more to be done, these were outward-looking reforms which sought to improve Australia's standing and competitiveness internationally.  The current government has taken innovation seriously, commissioning the Cutler review of the national innovation system and a separate review of the CRC program, and formulating policy in response (see Innovation Policy Agenda to 2020).  Our impression is, however, that some of the momentum has been lost in the wake of the GFC and other distractions (including this election).

The Howard government gave us the Innovation Patent, and the 12-month grace period (about which we wrote yesterday).  It is difficult to see these as other than inward-looking tinkering at the edges of innovation policy.    Both were intended to assist small Australian companies, by providing a "low cost" mechanism to protect incremental inventions, and by saving inexperienced users of the patent system from their own disclosures.  Since most other countries lack similar provisions, they are of little assistance to Australian companies wishing to expand into overseas markets.  Under Howard we also got the Australia-United States Free Trade Agreement, with associated IP law amendments primarily required to appease our American friends.


Perhaps the only innovation-related issue that has received any air time during the campaign is broadband.

Labor has the more ambitious (and expensive) broadband policy, which comprises a major national infrastructure project to replace aging copper with optical fibre.  The Liberals' policy, on the other hand, is to cancel the National Broadband Network project, and proceed instead with a mix of existing technologies, and additional broadband wireless capacity.  This will buy Australia some broadband capacity, but is hardly an investment in the nation's future.  Tony Abbott has admitted that he is no "tech-head", and that he therefore does not really understand the policy details.

We would characterise Labor's policy as investment, and the Liberals' as shopping.  In the long term we would expect improved telecommunications infrastructure to have a positive impact on innovation.  However, we would not expect any differences in innovation outcomes over the term of the next government.


On innovation policy overall we would mark Labor a B+, and the Liberals a C-.  But this is based largely on historical effort, not any clear policy direction, and it is hardly a ringing endorsment of either.


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