Cue cliches: the more things change the more they stay the same. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s $1.1 billion suite of innovation programs is remarkably similar to the suite of innovation programs implemented in the Hawke/Keating era.

Just as there was 30 years ago, there’s support for initiatives like venture capital, tax breaks for R&D, financial support for research institutions like the CSIRO and universities, stronger business-academia links and more.

The rhetoric hasn’t aged much, either. There’s the same bombast about ideas, creativity, imagination, technology, industry diversification, vision, education, talent and more. There are even the same references to Graeme Clark’s cochlear implant technology.

The programs announced by Turnbull have been tried before in one form or another. The one genuine novelty is political: capitalising on a new generation that hasn’t heard the rhetoric before.

This is a small stuff, though — $1.1 billion sounds like a lot, but it’s over four years. It’s a lot less than the ambitious programs implemented under Bob Hawke’s industry minister John Button.

He was also able to generate further funding from a near full house of Labor state governments intent on promoting themselves as forward-looking (in some cases to their political cost).

The Commonwealth and the states had a host of “industry policy” programs in the 1980s, like technology parks, offsets, defence technology, support for inventors, as well as firm-based productivity programs focused on technology take-up, business planning, quality assurance, quality management, business planning, etc.

Guy Rundle captures the madness of the times in this piece on our vulnerability to cargo culters, the Multi-function Polis (MFP). It makes today’s love affair with high-speed rail look halfway sensible.

So, after all that Commonwealth, state and private money — not to mention effort and talk, and more than 30 years for the seeds to grow — is Australia now an innovation powerhouse?

Not really.

Turnbull obviously thinks there’s a lot more to be done. But he might like to explain what it is about his innovation program that will work when the efforts of the past can at best only be linked to vague outcomes.

Did all those resources make the difference they were supposed to? Would the country have been at least as well off if it had instead spent all that money on other things?

That’s hard to say and may be unknowable. What’s true, though, is that most activities described as “industry policy” are about politics. They’re about marketing — promising dreams and then looking busy, busy, busy. Not all that different from a lot of contemporary cities policy, actually.

Apropos my article on Monday, this is a great opportunity for the mainstream media to evaluate the outcomes of the Hawke/Keating programs and ask if the Turnbull government’s program will do any better at improving the wellbeing of Australians.

The Age might care to test the view it expressed in yesterday’s editorial — that the innovation package is “bold and potentially transformative” — against the real life experience of the past.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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