Sep 072016

Of all the contenders in the City of Sydney elections, the Liberal Party’s Christine Forster seems the candidate with the best chance of beating incumbent Clover Moore. For the city’s tech industry and startup communities, the Liberals have made a strong pitch.

At the last council election in 2012, the Liberal Party’s Edward Mandla – who has since defected to the Sydney Matters group – was the second placed candidate with 16% of the popular vote after incumbent Clover Moore’s 51%. With the voting rules changed this year to allow business owners to vote alongside residents, Forster is expected to pick up a substantially bigger proportion of the poll

Like Sydney Matters’ Angela Vithoulkas, Christine Forster sees Brisbane as being the example Sydney should be following in encouraging startups. In her detailed tech policy Forster laid out what is probably the most ambitious agenda of the major candidates.

The Liberal policy paper points out Sydney is home to nearly two thirds of the Australian startup community but doesn’t rate well internationally. She proposes addressing that through establishing a Sydney Emerging Entrerpeneurs Program to provide support and small grants.

Forster promises an incubator offering affordable office space based on ‘The Capital’ in Brisbane setting up a working hub to address the crippling commercial rental costs and establishing global ‘launching pads’ for local entrepreneurs in key overseas centres.

“To help promote Sydney to US companies wanting to establish an outpost to expand into Asia, we will establish an office in San Francisco, and investigate further offices in Guangzhou and Singapore,” Councillor Forster is quoted in the policy’s media release as saying.

Of the standard questions we asked the four major candidates, Cr Forster’s team answered them in bullet points;

What are your policies relating to encouraging tech startups?

  • I will commit to Council providing affordable office space for start-ups
  • I plan to establish an Incubator, similar to The Capital’ in Brisbane
  • I will establish a ‘Sydney Emerging Entrepreneurs Program’ providing practical support and small grants to the city’s best emerging start-ups. (One of these already exists in Brisbane.)
  • Appoint a Digital Director for the City of Sydney
  • Set up a ‘City of Sydney Digi-Challenge’ to help solve local council issues though digital leadership
  • Have clear goals for digital policy achievement benchmarked against globally accepted measures.

What do you see as Sydney’s strengths in this sector?

  • Sydney is Australia’s most visible global city. People and businesses want to come here to live and work.
  • Sydney is home to an educated, technically literate population and three world class universities.
  • Sydney already has a strongly entrepreneurial culture and outstanding local success stories – think of Atlassian and

What are we not doing well at the moment?

  • Lord Mayor Clover Moore doesn’t intuitively see business as part of the community – she treats business as the enemy
  • Council has not embraced new technologies, it is not business-friendly and dealing with it is notoriously bureaucratic, expensive and time-consuming
  • Clover has mishandled opportunities for the community because she doesn’t understand what businesses need. One notable example is Council’s failure to secure an anchor tenant for its Oxford St properties
  • Business contributes around 80% of rates to the City of Sydney but the Council has not been living up to its own KPIs.

What are we doing well?

  • Not a lot. We’re trading on our name and on the fact that Sydney is physically beautiful and well located.

How do you see the City’s relations with state and Federal government affecting current efforts?

  • Any relationship needs to be more collegial than it has been. There are situations where I disagree with tech and innovation policies at the State and Federal levels but where these arise, I prefer to negotiate to achieve a solution. Clover has made much of “taking the fight up” to other levels of government – I don’t believe it’s a fight, it has to be a negotiation.

Currently Victoria and Queensland are doing better at attracting businesses. Should we do anything to counter that and, if so, what?

  • I don’t believe we should think in adversarial terms – I want Australia to attract more business.
  • But that doesn’t mean Sydney has nothing to learn from Brisbane or Melbourne.
  • I want to set up a ‘Revive Oxford St’ taskforce bringing together residents, business, local and state government representatives to build a strategy – at the moment I’m thinking a QVB-style development in which we offer organisations with experience reviving retail precincts an opportunity to tender on how they could sensitively revive this important cultural precinct
  • I want to establish a dedicated office in our sister-city of San Francisco to promote Sydney’s potential as a stepping-stone for tech companies interested in expanding into Asia. The office will provide advice on establishing an office in Sydney.
  • I will also improve Council’s online services. I’ve got costings to show that with 10% of services moving to digital we could cut costs by $5-$10m p.a. That money could then be reallocated to community projects in each of the eight villages.

How can Sydney compete globally against cities like Singapore, Shanghai and even Wellington?

  • By making it easier to do business for a start, but also improving the city’s amenity. One of my policies is a simple but important one – increase the number of bins and make recycling easier in public areas to get rubbish off the streets.
  • Facilitate the establishment of a ‘SydneyOne’ ticket that covers all local arts, culture and tourism destinations. If Singapore and London can do this – and make it available online – so can Sydney.
  • We are also investigating ways of delivering free Wi-Fi in public areas.

How does your tech industry policy fit in with other key Sydney employment sectors like the creative industries, financial services and education?

  • I want it to cease to be a ‘poor relation’. Sydney has a global reputation in finance, the arts and education. Walk through Martin Place and look up; walk through Sydney University or UTS and look around you; go to the Opera House. These activities are so obvious as to be stereotypical. I want people to think of our tech sector in the same way. I want there to be 10 Freelancer.coms, not one.

Christine Forster and the Liberal Party have an ambitious program to place Sydney as global centre and, given the Liberals also hold government at state and Federal level, their platform does hold the promise of improved relations between the city council and other layers of government.

However the state government has been very slow in identifying the tech sector as being important to the regional economy and its focus on property development makes one wonder what the priorities would be if every level of government was dominated by the Liberals – the decision to sell the Australian Technology Park over the protests of the tech community speaks volumes on Macquarie Street’s attitude towards the sector.

At the Federal level, the innovation agenda seems stalled and confused with little likelihood of any reforms to address the causes of Sydney’s high property prices being addressed or further changes to the tax system to encourage investment in new technologies and businesses.

If anything, the declining fortunes of the Liberal Party at a state and Federal level may well damage Forster’s local campaign and detract from her message. The message though does flag an understanding at the local government level of the importance of the tech community to the city.

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