Senator for Victoria


Speech: Regional Australia ideal for start-ups, innovation

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Speech: Regional Australia ideal for start-ups, innovation

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Senator McKENZIE (Victoria) (18:32): I am incredibly pleased with our government's enlightened approach to innovation and look forward to contributing to facilitate a variety of policy directions for technology and regional Australia.

Contrary to the belief that politicians are using the recent focus on innovation in government to define themselves as a relevant and advanced species, for a long time the Nationals and, indeed, I have been calling for coding in schools and investment in our world-leading quantum computation technology at UNSW, which is absolutely fantastic. I am so excited by the work of Michelle Simmons. If we can commercialise that and stay ahead of the pack, there will be some exciting 21st and 22nd century industries built right here in Australia and, indeed, supporting our tech start-up industries.

I had a great visit out to Fishburners a couple of weeks ago. It is with great pleasure that I will be judging the food tech hackathon—HackFood—on 8 November 2015 at the start-up hub Fishburners, in Sydney. The challenges that will be addressed include, for instance, challenge No. 5, agribusiness. Agribusiness is a $230 billion industry—larger than mining. There has been little innovation in the digital space to solve the considerable problems agribusiness faces. Unpredictable weather, export market changes and distribution and logistical challenges are just some of the issues relying on manual or labour-intensive processes. How can we introduce 21st century reinventions of antiquated solutions within this sector? That is challenge No. 5 for the hackathon. I would like to call on all of those creative and high-tech individuals out there who want to contribute to the economic sustainability of regional Australia going forward: get involved in the hackathon on 8 November. I look forward to judging that.

Google Australia commissioned Pricewaterhouse to write up a start-up economy study, which found that high-growth technology companies constitute four per cent of our GDP and will create 540,000 jobs by 2033. I really want to make the call now that I want to see a proportion of those jobs out in regional Australia. I want to see those high-tech start-up companies dealing with some of the challenges that we face in regional Australia.

The Crossroads 2015 report by StartupAUS, released in April 2015, proposes a number of principles underlying their action plan. They include: creating a national innovation agency, increasing the numbers of entrepreneurs, improving the quantity and quality of entrepreneurship education and increasing the number of people with ICT skills. Even at Fishburners we cannot get enough coders. We are bringing them in on 457 visas as fast as we can type the visa applications. We have to get those skills into our own education system and realise that these guys are earning a lot of money very quickly. Other principles in the report include: improving access to start-up expertise, increasing the availability of early-stage capital to start-ups, addressing the legal and regulatory impediments and increasing collaboration and international connectedness.

I want those principles, as I said before, to be implemented in regional Australia, in the agricultural industry, and to ensure that all of Australia benefits from our new focus. The growing and modernising Asian middle class means that demand for our agricultural product is going to increase exponentially. We need transformative technology, both on-farm and off-farm, and, through logistics and distribution, to ensure that we reap the benefit of that growing middle class. Australia is shoring up its status as the food bowl of Asia and the South Pacific. This will only by improved by entering into ChAFTA and the TPP agreements, as we have spoken about in question time in this place all week.

What we want is the provision of high-quality products, grown and nurtured with the best and latest science in mind. Increased innovation will not only improve efficiency but rejuvenate regional industries, strengthen regional communities and attract more people, who will come to know what we all know—that to live and work in the regions is a fantastic thing and that a regional community is an excellent alternative to settle in. Not only is agricultural innovation vital in our regions; knowledge-intensive tech innovation is also vital.

The Coalition announced that it will team up with start-up incubator BlueChilli to organise a one-day hackathon to generate ideas about how the government can support start-ups and turn Australia's tech sector into an economic powerhouse. I have a few of my own principles that I would like to pitch to the government on the topic of what Australia's innovation should seek to champion.

Firstly, it should invest $25 million—it is a paltry amount—over five years to the Centre for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology so that they can get to the quantum computer construction and commercialisation stage as soon as possible. I have been advocating for this project for a long period of time. It is very exciting, and I call on the government for that $25 million. It is a paltry amount given our overall budget.
Reliable high-speed internet to our region is vital if regional Australia is going to be able to participate in and use the technological innovations that we need to increase our productivity.

We need to have coding taught in all schools—beginning from primary school, not year 9. I know there are some coding clubs which are exponentially increasing the number of kids who are getting involved and starting coding. There is a huge skills shortage out there.

Tech-pitching policy and management ideas about agricultural issues is something I also want to see addressed; that is, more apps that farmers can use and be consulted in the creation of, as well as start-ups basing themselves in regional areas. We know that if you are sitting together it is like an incubator—you feed off each other.

On that last point, the regions can work to attract the physical footprints of start-ups and innovators for the following reasons: it is cheap to live where we live out in the regions. Not only is it beautiful, not only are you healthier, but we have cheap office space and lifestyles that are conducive to creative innovation.

Senator Canavan: And friendly people.

Senator McKENZIE: Friendly people, Senator Canavan? Absolutely! And you can vote for the Nationals at every election!

Inland geographical location makes for a sensible defence positioning of many valuable technological minds and resources. However, from a current Australian tech perspective, we are not moving fast enough or growing fast enough. If you are a business owner, you will know that dealing with fast growth is one of the most challenging aspects of business success. Without it, you might look offshore, sell off or wind down. We cannot allow intellectual capital to leave our shores.

Speaking of growing pains, a metro based start-up company is desperately needing to expand but cannot physically do so as there is a sparse supply of suitable real estate options in the Sydney CBD. I would hate to see a situation arise in Australia that could have been prevented if the space, rents and overheads were right and affordable. Regional Australia can host and develop these start-up hubs and other research centres, particularly those that are working on agricultural and environmental issues that are fundamental to our economic future.

Professor Moretti of the Department of Economics at the University of California, Berkeley, observed that start-ups draw more knowledge-intensive businesses into the area that they have set up shop in, and in turn also draw other talented workers. Further, Professor Moretti observed that, for each tech or start-up job that is created, five additional jobs emerge in other sectors. That will be a real boost for our regional cities if they can attract the initial investment.
The interplay between start-ups and agriculture is now like the over-used adage—disrupt or be disrupted.

Australian agriculture needs to work with booming tech start-up productions and facilitate the start-ups and scientific research to benefit farmers and regional centres. I was at Dairy Australia's dinner last night, and the key message all night was that that industry's future growth and productivity is going to come from innovation and from investing significant dollars in research and development. That is exactly what they are doing, and I commend the dairy industry for their significant work in that area.

One other important aspect of the innovation dialogue is the sharing of knowledge and teaching of innovative techniques so they are brought into practice by relevant industries. Here I go to agricultural science and the dearth of graduates we have in that area but also to point out that you do not have to study agricultural science to contribute to that particular industry. We would love to see some ICT graduates applying their knowledge to our space, and I think that is where we are going to get the real addition.

I am very excited to hear the agricultural pitches made in this area. Our national culture needs to encourage start-up development for practical outcomes such as food production and animal care, not just dating apps. So, to all those Tinderellas and Tinderfellas out there, I say: 'Instead of worrying about where your next date is coming from, why don't you start working out how we are going to get our fabulous clean, green product out into the export markets of the world a lot more easily. Help solve some of the significant environmental, social and production challenges for regional Australia in our industry.'

I could go on with some fabulous examples like drones or the use of genetics. The grains industry is using GPS-guided vehicles et cetera. There is some really cool stuff going on in ag that I would encourage Australians to get involved in. The conditions to support tech industries are present in our regions, and we only need one to start the pool. The more attention that is given to ongoing work, new farm machinery, flora and fauna breeding programs and smart logistic solutions the more likely it is that our regional industries can contribute and develop as world-class enterprises.

© Senator Bridget McKenzie 2014 | Authorised by Senator Bridget McKenzie, National Party of Australia, Bendigo Victoria 3550
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