Federal

Dec 8, 2015

Infinite boom 4EVA! (Or, why Turnbull’s innovation plan sux)

Malcolm Turnbull wants us all to believe in the vibe of his frankly insubstantial innovation strategy.

Helen Razer — Writer and broadcaster

Helen Razer

Writer and broadcaster

There’s never been a more disquieting time to be Australian. Well, not, at least, for those of us who doubt the prospect of “a boom that can continue forever”. But with yesterday’s National Innovation and Science Agenda announcement, this promise of eternally renewable hope was made by the Prime Minister. Informed in equal part by an iPad product launch and a weekend self-empowerment workshop for the terminally naive, Turnbull’s delivery would be of urgent concern if it were actually made during a boom -- not before a promised one that will last, like a 14 year-old’s love for One Direction, 4EVA. The language of hubris has long been seen by many analysts as a bubble indicator. In a local flat context, it’s seen by some STEM and business organisations as cause for optimism. Science & Technology Australia called the package, if not its gift-wrapping, a “game changer”. The Group of Eight (Go8) university coalition called it a “constructive pathway forward­” toward that new academic goal of “productivity stimulus”. The Go8 also called this a time of “infinite opportunities” and then elected to take out paid media advertising to endorse the plan that promises infinite boom. One Direction 4LYF! Oddly, language from the start-up community was much less purple. The Australian Private Equity and Venture Capital Association Limited (AVCAL) welcomed elements of the package but flagged the need for late-stage expansion capital. “The Innovation Statement has not addressed this in any substantial way,” said AVCAL. So, Turnbull’s “free to fail” message is playing better in more established, more state-funded industries than it is with those who actually take risk. It’s an odd time when AVCAL is the organisation urging for “better policies to improve STEM education” and educators are spending advertising dollars to echo Malcolm’s message. Universities sing the hymn of infinite boom and entrepreneurs warn of bust if universities remain underfunded. This is a topsy-turvy time, and Turnbull is its master of inversion. “There’s never been a more exciting time to be Australian” is only true if we think the greatest increase in wealth inequality and the greatest loss in social equity in 40 years is “exciting”. A commitment to online innovation is only real if we think maintenance of slow, expensive copper is innovative. A pledge to entice more women into STEM education can only be believed if “creating more awareness” is seen as a practical act. For a PM that wants to “cut red tape” by means of visa boosts and tax cuts, he’s certainly fond of binding women up in the new empowerment bureaucracy. When Turnbull was questioned by Leigh Sales last night on his actual costed plan to move more women into STEM education, he said “it’s all to do with programs and awareness” and “creating more awareness, showing role models”. Unlike the ALP’s plan to teach coding and programming from the primary school level, Malcolm’s STEM education policy is less about annoying costed details than it is about the vibe. “There is money,” he told Sales. “But one of the big shifts we need to make is a cultural one.” Perhaps Turnbull genuinely believes that the language of hope, confidence and inspiration -- both in his appeals to the Australian people and by teachers in the classroom -- will produce a hard economic result. Then again, perhaps Joe Hockey believed that the language of remonstration (“the age of entitlement is over”) would have the same effect. Either way, the approach remains the same. Whether you are telling people that they need to feel more empowered or less entitled, you’re still selling the same unviable message of neoliberal economics. To wit: if the economy is in boom or in bust, we can always blame a bad public attitude. It’s worth noting that the language of Silicon Valley is used even more enthusiastically by neoliberal politicians than it is by people with direct experience of Silicon Valley. Turnbull comes on like a naughties TechCrunch dust-devil demanding agility from the people. AVCAL stays still for a minute asks for more conservative gearing, better education and safeguards against the “failure” which Turnbull, master of inversion, has refigured as an indicator of success. Perhaps Silicon Valley has wind of something that Turnbull is yet to sniff: there’s more talk of bust in San Francisco that there is of infinite boom. But, perhaps entrepreneurs just believe more in the ability of the state to gear the economy than in their own exciting, innovative agility. Turnbull, just like Hockey, is all for shifting the responsibility of boom and bust to us.

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