Eltham, Ben: for a new thing, innovation has been around for a while

Eltham, Ben

Malcolm “Boom Boom” Turnbull is an old ideas man‘, New Matilda, 10 December 2015

Anyone older than 40 should be able to remember at least three ‘innovation statements’ by Australian governments. They may also have a shelf of books by gurus like Peter Drucker, Charles Handy and Tom Peters. If you Google ‘Adam Smith’ and ‘innovation’ you get 27 million results. But innovation, of its nature, has to sound new every time it comes around. And it gets lapped up by some of us.

This article by Ben Eltham puts the latest outburst of innovation in historical context going back to the ancient Greeks, via King Edward VI (who didn’t like innovators but didn’t live long enough to burn any at the stake), the economist JA Schumpeter, and other old innovators. Eltham suggests and implies that the prime minister’s ability to preach to us about innovation ‘and largely get away with it’ is a function of our forgetting previous runs at this concept and our failure to go properly into the innovation conundrum – we are lousy at commercialisation, we regularly cut back spending on research and we have politicians and bureaucrats who lack interest* – and why, despite the rhetoric, the structure of our economy is still built around sectors which are not particularly innovative (banking, mining, rent-seeking and supermarkets).

The latest innovation statement is here, in yellow and black. The price tag, $1.1 billion, is much less than recent cutbacks in the CSIRO and elsewhere; as the man says, ‘boom, boom!’ The statement confirms the transformation of a one-liner (‘There’s never been a more exciting time to be Australian’) into a policy. There may be more to come; it’ll be new again.

David Tyler on the Australian Independent Media Network has a piece along similar lines, titled ‘Turnbull’s Innovation – a rebranding of the same old pocketful of promises‘. John Quiggin in Inside Story looks at the statement particularly from the perspective of the education sector.

David Stephens

* The standard reaction of Treasury and Finance bureaucrats in Canberra was ‘we are not in the business of backing winners’, a statement which was open to all sorts of interpretations and which glossed over the fact that many economies in competition with Australia (for example, Singapore) were backing new enterprises as hard as they could.

Update 22 December 2015: John Menadue in Pearls and Irritations also finds familiar tropes in the innovation statement.

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