Election 2020: Where the political parties stand on innovation

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Peter Griffin

An opportunity to showcase their plans to foster the knowledge economy sees few big new ideas but unity around the need for an innovation-driven recovery.

As the first major event focusing on innovation and what the various political parties have in store for start-ups, research & development and the tech sector, it didn’t get off to an auspicious start.

For starters, the Green Party innovation spokesperson, Gareth Hughes, was stuck in Dunedin, fog-bound. The Maori Party’s Tākuta Ferris, candidate for Te Tai Tonga, didn’t turn up. Research, science and innovation minister Megan Woods had to leave early for another function and National’s Parmjeet Parmar had no new policies to discuss – they’ll be released in the coming weeks.

But with just five weeks now until the election and the impacts of Covid-19 front of mind for everyone, the various political candidates, ACT and TOP included, squeezed onto a red couch at Wellington’s start-up hub, Creative HQ, to at least talk about innovation.

A few themes emerged – the need to clear the way to free up the researchers in our public institutions and universities to do their best work, supporting companies to do more R&D and gain access to capital, developing a highly-skilled workforce and using data to inform decision making.

Here’s how the participating parties tackled the innovator’s dilemma…

The Green Party – clean, green and data-driven

Stuck in Dunedin, Gareth Hughes, who retires from Parliament at the election, didn’t so much phone in his speech as email it to BusinessDesk editor and emcee for the event, Pattrick Smellie to read out.

Hughes has always been thoughtful on innovation and while never got the opportunity to shine in his own right, clearly has been influential in formulating Green policy, particularly when it comes to the party’s focus on renewable energy and cleantech.

His speech notes talked of reducing cost-barriers to innovation and investing more in public research and development, though there were no costings provided around that. The Greens, he noted, would launch a $100 million “green investment fund”, which would presumably be focused on investing in green tech innovation and be in addition to the $250 million clean energy fund the party has already pledged to create, which would allow local communities to draw from for renewable energy projects.

Innovation investment would be aimed at encouraging environmental sustainability and social policy was front of mind, with the Greens keen to invest in providing affordable internet connectivity and devices to those that cannot afford them.

Finally, Hughes wanted a greater commitment to open data and more responsible use of data, talking up the role of Data Ventures, a division of Statistics NZ, as a trusted data broker fostering collaboration between government and the private sector.

Bottom line: Innovation with a skew towards environmental sustainability, which is exactly what you would expect from the Greens and which has the potential to influence Labour’s overall approach to innovation if the Greens have a strong showing in Election 2020.

Policy documents: The Green Party Clean Energy Plan

The Opportunities Party – break our property addiction

TOP Party founder Gareth Morgan is long gone from politics, but his main policy remains – a capital gains tax to lessen the incentive to invest in property so that more Kiwis are inclined to invest in innovative ideas and businesses.

It is a compelling argument, but one that was cut short quickly by the Labour-led coalition early in its first term when it abandoned the idea of introducing a capital gains tax. The universal basic income concept also remains. 

TOP has always had an evidence-based approach to policy development and that continues under the guidance of economist and TOP leader Geoff Simmons. But it was TOP candidate and Wellington start-up founder and mechatronics engineer, Mathew Pottinger, who fronted to articulate the party’s approach to innovation.

It includes a greater focus on innovation in the biotechnology space, which TOP suggests New Zealand is underperforming in, despite our strength in agriculture. We are “not a powerhouse,” said Pottinger. TOP has a policy specifically on gene editing technology and advocates an overhaul of regulations to allow more research and field trials of genetic technologies.

“TOP’s policy is to change the regulations and speed up the approval process for Kiwi scientists to use gene editing,” the party asserts.

“We want to see applications with clear environmental, social, and economic benefits approved for release, not shoved on the back burner.”

Elsewhere, it wants to fund polytechs to deliver fast responses to solve company problems, set national priorities to shape our research focus and set up a government-backed innovation fund, so that regular Kiwis can invest in homegrown innovations. 

Bottom line: TOP is languishing in the polls so has very little chance of getting an MP into parliament. But innovation policy is a strong point of the party, with pragmatic suggestions that will hopefully influence the thinking of those destined to form the next government.

Policy documents: TOP innovation policy, TOP gene editing policy

ACT Party – leave it to the private sector

ACT candidate Grae O’Sullivan, the party’s candidate for Remutaka and a software test analyst from Wellington, had a relaxed tone as he repeated ACT’s lower taxation, low intervention mantra. The public sector, he advised, is ill-equipped to steer innovation efforts, which should be led by the private sector.

ACT claims innovation agency Callaghan Innovation has “not been successful” in stimulating innovation and aspects of its responsibilities should be farmed out to the private sector. It advocates a focus on developing high-tech skills. ACT’s immigration policy, is the “most liberal of all the parties,” claimed O’Sullivan. The party wanted New Zealand to attract the best talent from around the world. 

But it would also make it easier for businesses to fire people, extending the existing three month trial period to 12 months. ACT wanted services to be included in any future trade deals to give software companies greater access to overseas markets and encouraged government departments, where they did play a role, to take more risks.

Bottom line: ACT’s ‘small is beautiful’ approach to government continues and will appeal to business people frustrated at dealing with bureaucracy. But it’s innovation policy lacks depth – the exact role government would play on an ongoing basis is poorly defined. Still, O’Sullivan got the audience thinking with his parting words – we will generate up to $140 billion in public debt in the process of recovering from Covid-19. We need to get innovative to reduce the debt pile as soon as possible.  

Policy documents: ACT’s small and medium business growth policy  

The National Party – all about the innovation cycle

National considers itself to be the party of small business and its Business Start policies, announced last week, are very much aimed at small business owners trying to navigate the post-Covid landscape.

For instance, under a National-led government, you would be able to withdraw up to $20,000 from your KiwiSaver account to get your business going. That would appeal to a lot of start-up founders looking for some capital to give their idea life. 

But National is, by and large, vague on the role innovation should play in stimulating the economy, other than to suggest that, yes we need to be innovative. In Wellington last night, list member Parmjeet Parmar said we need to look at the “innovation lifecycle”, which starts with education and skills. She wants to stop Massey University’s plan to withdraw science lectures from its Albany campus, instead delivering them as distance learning modules from Palmerston North. 

She urged a review of Crown research institutes, three of which, she noted are “under financial stress”. National had lobbied the government to make the Covid-19 wage subsidies available to pre-revenue start-ups, which eventually became government policy. Parmar criticised the government for deferring a national research and innovation strategy which she suggested now looked as though it would be delivered following the election.

But National has put no research and innovation strategy of its own on the table. It may appear in the run-up to the election. But there is precious little so far for National to hang its innovation hat on, with its main focus elsewhere on Covid-19 business recovery and infrastructure projects.

Parmar does have a biological sciences background and that saw her talk knowledgeably about gene editing and, like TOP, advocating a review of regulations to allow genetics scientists to “take their work to the next stage”.

Bottom line: The previous National government campaigned to build an ultrafast broadband network, formed Callaghan Innovation and increased public R&D spending. But there’s nothing like that on the table to bolster its innovation credentials yet. Without strong advocates for innovation, like Steven Joyce and John Key himself, from the last National government, innovation may take a backseat this election.

Policy documents: Coming soon – A Greener, Smarter Future

Labour Party – tweaks to deal with Covid-19

Megan Woods has had her hands full as the minister responsible for housing, which has seen her research, science and innovation portfolio very much take a back seat. At Creative HQ in Wellington last night, she had no new innovation policies to announce, just a continuation of the work the Labour-led government had already kicked off.

At the heart of that is the 15% R&D tax incentive scheme, which has been running for over two years now. There was no update on how it has influenced business R&D, though Labour seems committed to the programme, which has largely replaced Callaghan Innovation’s grants scheme. 

Woods said that publicly-funded innovation “needs to be linked to purpose”, hinting perhaps at the lack of a cohesive strategy for the government’s innovation spend, but failing to address how it could be better formulated. 

She talked up the importance of the $150 million R&D loan scheme claiming there had been “incredible take-up” of the loans designed to allow businesses to continue their R&D project as they faced an uncertain cash flow position.

Woods talked up the potential of the government’s $300 million Elevate Fund to boost start-ups’ ability to secure capital to fund their innovations and suggested the government needed “better procurement rules” and coordination from the Government Chief Digital Officer to make sure technologies and innovations can be more easily applied across the whole of government.

That got agreement from her political rivals, but she diverged from them on the issue of genetic modification. Her view was that New Zealand wasn’t ready for a conversation on loosening regulation around gene editing. It suggests there will be no shift on GM, which disappointed many in the room, who see it as one of the key enabling technologies alongside artificial intelligence, robotics.

Bottom line: The incumbent government seems to have a ‘steady as she goes’ approach to innovation, which may suit the current economic climate, though there are big question marks over Labour’s ability to bring about the change to the sector many see as necessary to put us on the path to recovery.

Policy documents: Labour’s Policy Platform

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Peter Griffin

Peter Griffin has been a journalist for over 20 years, covering the latest trends in technology and science for leading NZ media. He has also founded Science Media Centre and established Australasia's largest science blogging platform, Sciblogs.co.nz.

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