As a key feature within our special coverage of “Innovation in Western Australia”, the Editor of Business Innovation Magazine, Lloyd Conrade, spoke by telephone with the Western Australian Minister for Innovation and ICT, the Hon. Dave Kelly MLA about the State Government’s perspectives on innovation.

Minister Kelly was previously engaged for around 20 years in the union movement, and was elected to the State Parliament in March 2013. He was re-elected and appointed to a diverse range of ministerial portfolios (Water; Fisheries; Forestry; Innovation and ICT; and Science) when the WA Labor Party won the most recent State election in March 2017.


Transcript

[Recorded: November 2017]
Lloyd Conrade:We have on the line with us today a Minister of the State Government of Western Australia. He holds a diverse range of ministerial portfolios within the Western Australian Government. He is the Minister for Water, the Minister for Fisheries, the Minister for Forestry. He is also the Minister for Science. And the primary reason we are talking with him today: he is the Minister for Innovation and Information and Communication Technology.  The man I speak of is the Hon. Dave Kelly MLA.

Minister Kelly, thank-you very much for taking the time to join with us today in your very busy schedule. And welcome to Business Innovation Magazine.

Dave Kelly:It’s great to be with you, Lloyd.

Lloyd Conrade:Minister Kelly, one view that some people have is that governments shouldn’t intervene in markets and industries. It’s the “laissez-faire” approach — that governments should adopt an entirely non-interventionist approach as far as possible: basically, just sit back, let markets run themselves, let industries run themselves.  Two of the somewhat-connected portfolios that you have are as the Minister for Science and the Minister for Innovation and ICT. Focussing particularly on innovation, the fact that there is a Minister and a Department for Innovation in Western Australia certainly doesn’t seem to suggest a totally laissez-faire approach.  So what does the Government of Western Australia view as its role in relation to Innovation within the State of Western Australia?

Dave Kelly:It’s a good question, Lloyd. Certainly, we think there is a role for government in these areas. You know, around the world you can let your economy run but it doesn’t always mean that your citizens are going to get the benefits that they want. I think actually most people want governments to have a say in how their economy grows and how it shapes. So, we see that in this particular aspect, certainly so far as innovation, there is a role for us to play.

Traditionally, our economy is seen as being one primarily based around agriculture and mining. Now, mining in particular is a boom-and-bust type of industry. The community wants us to see what we can do to diversify the economy. Now, that does involve the government for example making sure that we’ve got a workforce which is able to take up new opportunities.

STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] is a very important part of ensuring that we’ve got a workforce that can take some of the new opportunities that are there. I mean, the mining industry, for example: there’s opportunities around robotics and automation that we’re actually really good at and we’re some of the world leaders. And if we’re going to take what we know from mining and those areas and apply it to other industries and potentially new ventures, there’s a role for government in that. So, no, we don’t think that it’s —
I mean, the government can’t run around telling industry what to do but there is a role for us to play. Most definitely.

Lloyd Conrade:For a very large proportion of Western Australia’s history as a State within the Commonwealth of Australia, Western Australia has been dominated by primary industries, as you pointed out: wool, wheat amongst other grains, mining, including gold mining for a lot of its history, and, certainly in recent times, iron ore.  The State has been coming out of a recent boom period in mining investment. And many people perceive a need to diversify beyond the dominance of mining. Where do you see innovation taking Western Australia? In what industries do you think innovation will provide future benefits for the State? Are there certain industries that are obvious candidates where Western Australia has inherent advantages or where Western Australia could develop particular advantages or particular strengths?

Dave Kelly:Yeah, again, that’s a very good question. Certainly, there are areas where we do well already and we could build on it. Cyber security is one of those areas. Joondalup — E.C.U. [Edith Cowan University] at Joondalup is actually a world leader in cyber security. Now, that’s one of the fastest growing industries around the world. There’s currently actually a shortage of people who have got the skills to meet the demand in that area.  So, that’s something that we already do well in, which a lot of people in Western Australia would know. But we already do well in it, so we want to work with E.C.U. and the Commonwealth [Commonwealth Government of Australia] to see how we can develop that industry in Western Australia.

We already have a long history in astronomy, for example. The SKA [Square Kilometre Array] is one of the biggest scientific projects in human history; it’s being built here — part of it is being built here in Western Australia. Now, to deliver that project, the government funded along with other project partners the Pawsey Supercomputer. Now, because of the presence of the Pawsey Supercomputer, we’ve got an opportunity to use that facility to grow a range of other industries. Carnegie, the company that’s doing so well around wave energy and wave technology — they employ over 100 people here in Western Australia. They couldn’t have done that without the Pawsey Supercomputer.

So, there are a range of opportunities that we have here in Western Australia around those new technologies and as a government we want to promote them. We are geographically located in the same timezone as a large portion of our Asian neighbours to the north. That gives us a great opportunity for people to see us as a place to do business in Asia in a way that cities on the east coast of Australia can’t. So, yeah, we have opportunities to diversify as a government, and that’s what we want to do.

Lloyd Conrade:Minister, on the topic of research and development, how extensive is research and development activity in Western Australia? How easy is it for research and development activity to then transition to specific innovations and then on to viable business entities? How active is the University sector as regards research and development? And does the State Government of Western Australia play a role in facilitating?

Dave Kelly:I suppose I say two things. We’ve got some of the world’s best universities here in Western Australia and they do do incredible research. And there are some great partnerships that are taking the economy forward. The Pawsey Supercomputer is an example of that. But I think it’s fair to say that we could do better with some of the institutions that we’ve got and try to work together rather than necessarily compete with one another. It’s been put to me that we don’t get as much of the research dollar from the Federal Government [of Australia] that we might here in Western Australia. Part of that is, I suppose, an in-built bias from the Federal Government to deliver resources to institutions on the east coast. So, I think if we did better and if there was some better coordination, we might be more successful in getting some of that research dollars spent here in Western Australia. So, we’ve got great universities. There are incredible examples of what’s been achieved in the research area. But we think we can do better.

So, the second thing that I want to say is that we’ve committed to what we call the New Industries Fund. It’ll be about $16 million allocated to try and assist new and emerging industries to create jobs here in Western Australia. And a significant part of that money will be directed towards helping companies with good ideas, helping them to be able to commercialise and grow their business. Because that is a challenge: how do you convert a good idea here in Western Australia not only to a new business but to a new business that employs people here in WA. So, we hope — well, we’ll be directing money of that New Industries Fund to that issue of assisting new businesses commercialise their good ideas.

Lloyd Conrade:Which sort of leads me into my next question: What programmes, incentives, or forms of assistance does the Western Australian Government provide to help businesses in innovating and in assisting in the commercialisation of innovative ideas —  we’re talking startup businesses, as well as established businesses, and also for businesses outside of the State, whether it be other States in Australia or overseas,  that might wish to move to Western Australia or to set up operations within the State?

Dave Kelly:Well, as far as attracting new businesses here I think we can do more. To get back to one of your earlier questions, we can do more to promote Western Australia as a place to do business. It’s really a smart State to do business. We’re geographically located to assist people to do business in Asia and get over that view that we’re just a mining State or a State based on agriculture. And, I think, that’s about the way the State promotes itself. I’m not necessarily too keen on giving companies subsidies to set up here in Western Australia because ultimately that distorts the economy. Because if you only attract industries on the basis of subsidies, potentially the Government is always then on the hook to be funding what should be sustainable industries. So, I think it’s more about the way you promote the State, the benefits that it has: geographically well-located, a well educated workforce, a stable economic and political environment —  all those things do go well to promote Western Australia as a good place to do business.

For new businesses starting up, as I said, our STEM strategies that we’re putting together is very important because obviously if people are going to be able to grow smart businesses here in Western Australia they need to know that they’ve got a workforce that can meet their needs. Startups do need assistance in how to commercialise their business. I mean there’s basic small business advice that’s always been available through agencies such as the Small Business Development Corporation. But we see the New Industries Fund as an opportunity to really give that, I suppose, business smarts, that new actualisation skills to new businesses that’s possibly not currently there.

Lloyd Conrade:Minister, I’ve noticed that Government Departments in Western Australia seem to be going through a bit of a transition themselves at present. Perhaps they’re at the start of some kind of transition period! There seems to be an increasing level of interaction between at least some Government Departments and the broader business community, especially in relation to encouraging innovation and startup businesses, and in particular in helping to create solutions to the needs of government departments. Would you like to expand upon some of the developments that are happening in this space?

Dave Kelly:When we came to government, we wanted to make sure that the public sector is as efficient as possible. We didn’t take a view that what has always been there should continue to be there. So we instigated a Service Priority Review. That’s basically running an eye over almost all the public sector to see how we can achieve greater efficiencies. We’ve already reduced the number of departments significantly. We had more agencies and departments than any other State in Australia. So that was stage one. But stage two is really that we’re awaiting the outcome of the Service Priority Review. Part of the criteria there is looking at how the public sector can best interact with the digital economy. Are there opportunities for others to provide services more efficiently using digital platforms? So we do see that that’s an opportunity, mindful of course that not everyone has access to the digital economy. And we’ve got to make sure that while we take advantage of those efficiencies, we still make sure that services are acceptable to everybody. So, look, there’s a lot of opportunities in that space. And we await the Service Priority Review’s report some time before the end of the year.

Lloyd Conrade:Minister Kelly, we appreciate your time today. Thank-you very much. And thank-you for your willingness to enlighten our audience on innovation from the perspectives of the Western Australian Government.

Dave Kelly:Thank-you very much, Lloyd.