Innovation is essential to both the future success of Australian business and the continued prosperity of Australia in the global economy. We know it. You more than likely know it too. But do our politicians know it, let alone understand it? A federal election has just been held: Australia has voted and the decision has been made.

Amid all the electioneering, the topic of innovation barely rated a mention amongst chatter about carbon pricing and mining taxes, the NBN and boats. And now, the first moves of the new federal government have been to bury responsibility in cabinet for science and innovation somewhere in the chasm between the education and industry portfolios, abolish the Clean Energy Fund, and sack the incumbent head of the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research. Does technology and innovation feature in the new political paradigm at all?

In 2008, the Australian government commissioned a review of the national innovation system1. The report identified that Australia was falling behind in encouraging and leveraging innovation, and that policy needed to reflect a long term view and respond with sound investments in innovation strategy. We have seen some of the recommendations of the report come to fruition in the IP context relatively recently:

  • the inventive step requirement in patent law has been considerably raised to align more closely with international trading partners,
  • a specific infringement exclusion now exists for experimental use of an invention,
  • inventions must now be well defined in a patent application so as to disclose the best method of working the invention at the time of filing.

All of this serves to provide a patent right that is internationally more robust, as well as reducing uncertainty for subsequent innovators. Further upgrades to innovation policy have been manifested in the R&D tax incentive program which has been changed from a concession that was largely inaccessible to those who needed it most, to a much more usable and functional system2. These are but some of the positives that have been driven by government innovation policy over the past few years.

However, debate in Australian politics and economics has in the recent past been coloured by the fact that Australia has been riding the economic high of a resources boom. There is little doubt that this boom has provided Australia with one of the largest income boosts in its short history and has helped the country weather the Global Financial Crisis comparatively well. It has become clear that the boom is coming to an end though, and the outlook is gloomy unless Australia can in future depend on renewed growth in other sectors of the economy. Whether you believe this or not, in an election year, it’s reasonable to query whether Australian policy makers have adequately prepared the nation for the downturn and if they have policies to help the nation transition away from heavy reliance on mining.

Both sides of politics agree that in the past, Australia has had ‘too many of its eggs in one basket’. Despite this, innovation policy has not featured heavily in debate, or in published policy documents3. Where it has featured, announcements have been tempered by the expectation that funding for existing innovation programs will be largely scrapped or at least reduced. This expectation is being fulfilled already.

If Australia is in a transition from a position of economic strength to one of less certainty, relying less on mining and primary resources, then fostering real innovation will be critical. Changes in IP policy are good, but if there is no considered government policy around science and innovation, then these upgrades in the IP system are meaningless and will only serve technology importers rather than Australian scientific and innovative corporate institutions. Australia’s reliance on importation of technology seems set to increase. This can’t be a good thing. The future for thoughtful government driven innovation policy is, unfortunately, less than certain.