Innovation – the real story

Despite all the talk about innovation and agility Australia only has two really innovative industries – agriculture and tax dodging.

The second is well recognised – well not necessarily by conservative governments – while the second is often overlooked even by the National Party politicians who supposedly represent rural areas and agricultural interests.

Now the University of Adelaide is planning to appoint a Chair of Food Innovation. The Chair idea flowed from the South Australian Food Innovation Centre championed by Richard Fewster, the former Royal Agricultural and Horticultural Society (the Show in other words) President and Chair of the Food Innovation Centre Working Group. Richard is also a former blog colleague who is one of Australia’s leading experts in rural, remote and agricultural communications.

The Adelaide Uni Chair will work collaboratively with the Centre which aims to “maximise future opportunities for South Australia’s food and beverage industry by supporting innovation and encouraging commercialisation of new ideas and products. It will help to create local jobs, grow South Australia’s export earnings and lead Australia in the development of robust and enduring export markets for…premium food and wine products.”

What is striking is the recognition by South Australia that economies work best when they play to their strengths. Agriculture – with lots of support from the CSIRO and R&D corporations – has been an exemplar of this. Unfortunately this reality is often not perceived by the public because the media, the National Party and others continually project the image of an industry populated by struggling family farmers who have worked the land, alongside laconic labourers, for generations.

The laconic labourers these days are often refugees or former refugees and the farms are often very large vertically integrated operations or combinations of a series of family farms which operate cooperatively to maximise efficiency and productivity. Farming industries around the world – partly due to the tyranny of distance and partly due to a long history of being ripped off by intermediaries – were early adopters of, and innovators in, not only farming technology but also communication technologies.

The Newfoundland fishing industry ended the rip off by initially building roads, which allowed them to bypass the middle men who sailed along the coast, and then with telephone networks which allowed them to deal direct with markets such as Boston. Go to a rice farm in Vietnam today and the farmer will have a mobile phone on which he checks prices at various markets before deciding where to send them and at what price.

South Australia has had hard times for a long time. The colony probably had the very first experience of the economic devastation austerity could create in 1841 when London rejected the Governor’s public works programs. Iola Mathews’ family memoir, Chequered Lives, recounts the story through the impact on her family. Poor land use choices in the 19th and early 20th century put people on marginal land which they were forced to leave. A heavy dependency on manufacturing industry in the 20th century ended when the Abbott Government drove the last of the automotive industry out of the State and the country.

Now of course the State (and some marginal seats) is going to be saved by French submarines even if the story about them is a bit different in Australian English than in French where DCNS, the bid winners, say the ‘steel bashing’ will take place in Adelaide while the sophisticated stuff will take place in Cherbourg and other French towns. Needless to say the Turnbull Government asserts a different reality. As DCNS has been around since 1631 and the Turnbull Government for less than a year it’s not hard to guess which is likely to know more about the subject.

Now no one expects agriculture to ‘save’ South Australia and we ought never under-estimate the importance of manufacturing to economies – even in the days of service industry growth. Ha-Joon Chang, the Cambridge economist, contributed a piece to the Financial Times (November 17 2015) which started off by confessing to his chocolate addiction and segued into stereotypes about the Swiss economy as one which “produces few things other than chocolate bars and luxury watches but is one of the world’s richest economies thanks to its strong service industries such as banking and tourism.”

“Switzerland is actually the most industrialised economy in the world, with the highest rate of manufacturing output per person,” he said. He then points out that the second most industrialised nation is another country seen as post-industrial – Singapore. His conclusion: “Thus, contrary to what the discourse of post-industrialism believes, the ability to manufacture goods remains the most important determinant of a country’s living standards.” He contrasts them both with the UK where, before 2008, there was an illusion of service-based prosperity (confined to the south east of the country mainly) followed post-2008 by a feeble recovery and another housing boom. He predicts that at some point the UK will face “the sort of sick post- Christmas feeling that we chocoholics are so familiar with.” He could also have pointed out that in terms of innovation the UK is probably the world leader in tax dodging and ways of hiding corruptly obtained assets.

But while agriculture might not ‘save’ South Australia it has important lessons for the rest of the country. Elizabeth Webster, Director Centre for Transformative Innovation at Swinburne University wrote in The Conversation (11 April 2016), about innovation and focussed on Australia’s most successful innovative industries – “wheat, wool, beef, lamb and cotton.” She argues that we have a lot to learn from the success of Australian primary industries in terms of co-operative innovation and investment and how the R&D Corporation could be applied to other industries. While she doesn’t mention it, the Hawke-Keating Government did exactly this and tried to promote industry leaders rather than rent-seekers.

Sadly the National Party still see their role as facilitators of rent-seeking (whether it be for farmers or miners) and instant solutions to problems always seem to rest on concessional loans which do nothing for the structural problems and even less for farming indebtedness. The blog thinks it might be worth Barnaby Joyce, and a few others, enrolling in some courses at the new University of Adelaide clean and green food industry centre. After the election Barnaby might have the time.