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Has innovation horse bolted?

INNOVATION remains a key theme in WA business circles this week with a series of key initiatives led by the WA Government and some of our most prestigious research organisations.

The State Government announced nine $50,000 grants to WA businesses, while four research institutes launched the Biomedical R&D Alliance.

Whether or not you agree with public sector involvement in such areas, spending on research has a dual purpose, both of which are important to the State’s economy.

Firstly, it encourages home-grown innovation which could create a self-sustaining business.

Secondly, any funding helps keep brains in WA, helping build a talent pool at a time when big prices are being paid for scientists offshore.

But there is an argument that all this is too little too late — that the innovation horse has largely bolted.

It is all part of the signals we have sent out for years, combined with sustained falls in the Australian dollar, that discourage innovation.

The latter case is of course obvious. An ailing $A simply means that scientists are in a similar position to anyone with an exportable product.

When someone can get double or triple the value from their labour for simply exporting their skills it is very hard to hold them back. All the lifestyle Perth has to offer is, for many, easy to beat when immediate pay and the potential future monetary rewards are available.

But what of the longer-term issues? During its past two terms, the Howard Government has reined in R&D tax deductions. The Liberals also changed tertiary education to emphasise money making courses.

At the moment, Australia is churning out lots of lawyers, business graduates and managers. Let’s hope there is something for them to do. If the current trends continue, they will all need to go overseas to work with our expatriate scientists in Australia’s talent diaspora.

On top of this there is another more ominous barrier to scientific achievement than pure economics and bureacratic decision making. It is culture, or at least the way we have been marketing ourselves to the outside world.

It is ironic that one of our most successful creations, the image of Crocodile Dundee may be our ultimate undoing.

For the second time this year, I have heard the imagery used by our tourism industry cited as the nemesis of Australian innovation.

The first was let slip by David Combe, a former national Labor political figure who later went on to head the immensely successful operations of Southcorp’s international marketing business.

Mr Combe, a director of WA’s Evans & Tate, blames the marketing campaign featuring comedian Paul Hogan in the 1980s for irrepairable damage to Australia’s reputation as a business destination.

The laid-back, put another shrimp on the barbie style may have brought tourists but where were the business executives?

Now I note Australia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Penny Wensley, offered the same opinion in a recently published interview.

Ms Wensley said she had to work constantly to convince the rest of the world that Australia was a developed nation, advanced in technological, education, value systems and science.

“We are dogged by images that are so simplistic and stereotypes; Paul Hogan, the outback, the crocodiles and so on,” she was reported as saying.

The biggest irony of all this is that the world’s perception of Australia as a technological backwater has been blamed for the falling $A which has made it so much easier for the rest of the world to poach our most talented people.

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