A design of the proposed new building at Federation Square. Supplied: Victorian government.

A story on the Apple store a day makes … Victorian Labor very rattled.

The proposal to plonk down an Apple shop — sorry, a golden pavilioned experience lotus-flower — in Melbourne’s Federation Square was pushed through state cabinet before Christmas, with all the details hidden as commercial-in-confidence.

Premier Daniel Andrews didn’t want to front the announcement at Fed Square, which was done by Johnny “the Butter-Dish” Eren.

But is the Apple store primarily about advancing technology in the state? Or is it just a teensy weensy bit because Minister for Small Business, Innovation and Trade Philip Dalidakis needed a win and Eren was willing to back him up? It’s the factions game again. Both are “Cons”, followers of Steve Conroy (or his Baldrick, Richard Marles). In the current intra-right dust-up, Dalidakis has a foot in both camps. He’s Stephen Conroy’s former chief of staff.

But Dalidakis, now upper house member for Melbourne’s South, had been appointed small business minister in place of Adem Sonyurek, leader of the “Mods” faction, when Somyurek was ousted from cabinet after complaints of bullying. Both minifactions backed him for the ministry. Great things were expected of Dalidakis, mostly by Dalidakis himself.

But things did not go as planned. In 2016, Dalidakis tried and failed to get StartCon, the country’s largest start-up convention, from Sydney to Melbourne. Negotiations went for months, before the move collapsed. Dalidakis said the non-move was due to the conference’s failure to introduce gender equity principles.

This was disputed by Matt Barrie, the CEO of Freelancer.com, the group which runs StartCon, who released a statement accusing Dalidakis’ team of gross incompetence, noting that a simple sponsorship agreement had been replaced by a 26-page grant application:

Our staff across conference calls and emails throughout December 2015 and January 2016 attempted to find a negotiated solution to the documentation. It was of particular surprise to our team that what was a simple sponsorship agreement (which StartCon has executed with dozens of major companies) was replaced with a convoluted ‘grant application’ …  Zero progress was made over months of frequent contact — the Dalidakis team were even incapable of using the ‘track changes’ function in Microsoft Word.

Barrie was particularly incensed at the gender equity excuse, as the StartCon management team was 80% women, and multiple arrangements with women-in-tech groups were in place. Team Dalidakis had damaged the StartCon brand with the slur, Barrie said, and he responded by dumping all the StartCon-Vic Gov correspondence online. Dalidakis’ unit did not respond in kind, presumably because no one there knows how to upload a document.

More incompetence came with the 500 Startups debacle. LaunchVic, the ministerial body seeking new innovation (can you hear the Utopia theme music?) was trying to secure a Melbourne version of the 500 Startups US incubator. But then-head of the incubator, Dave McClure, was accused of serial sexual harassment. It took months for LaunchVic to extract itself, and $3 million had gone down the tubes.

The debacle damaged Dalidakis’ reputation in the sector: a report in InnovationAus noted that there was an industry-wide perception that Dalidakis’ office was creating a network of patronage in the sector:

At best, the minister has a perception problem. And the perception held by many experienced and credentialed leaders in the digital startup ecosystem is that Mr Dalidakis is overseeing a regime of patronage and favouritism.

Much of this was due to Dalidakis’ close relationship with Michael Kapel — once Liberal premier Ted Baillieu’s chief of staff, and latterly the San Francisco-based head of Invest Victoria. As InnovationAus relates, Dalidakis’ tech advisor Andy Lee went to the Invest Victoria New York office. LaunchVic chose as its CEO Kate Cornick — a former colleague of Dalidakis’ in Conroy’s office.

InnovationAus noted that Dalidakis was “well-regarded”, but that “cynicism had set in” in the sector. Perhaps in the government and Labor, too. This was in August last year.

What better answer to cynicism than a shiny new store in December, direct from Apple, just south of San Francisco? The ghastly thing has nothing to do with real innovation of course. It’s a shop which sells the Apple experience, like any other computer store in a mall. But of course it’s not in a mall. It has the whole of Federation Square to advertise it.

When the Greens put through a motion in the upper house to halt the Apple Store’s relentless march, Dalidakis did the speaking for Labor. It was relentless suburban boosterism:

The ability to attract a global flagship store of a company like Apple suggests we are a city that has relevance, a city that has importance …

Yeah, that’ll make us proud. Even as a desperate kludge to escape the image of an incompetently led department, and a blundering approach to the sector, it’s nauseating. Still, it will be appreciated in one quarter: Cupertino, California, where Apple has its massive circular headquarters. Dalidakis spent $200,000 on ministerial travel last year. Don’t be surprised if he and a ministerial team pop up in Cupertino soon, on a lavish tour, to kiss Apple’s shiny ring.

Meanwhile, back home, the campaign against the store goes on. Win or lose, it will rally people against the cankered vision of Labor’s right-wing badfellas. The decision corrodes Labor’s core in a way that people like Philip Dalidakis will never understand. 

He remains the man of the moment, his favours sought by both the “Cons” and the “Mods”, especially now that the Cons have decided to stay out of the new Industrial Left-Centre Unity deal. Which side does he support. “What day is it?” said a source close to state cabinet, when Crikey posed the question.

But if the Apple store proves to be a political disaster, then the man whose department can’t track changes may be in for the big Delete.

Peter Fray

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