Wednesday, 24th June 2020
Vision Statement 7: Address to the National Press Club, 24 June 2020
One day, when the pandemic is over we might get back into the habit of carrying cash around in our wallets – although cash is likely to be used substantially less than before the pandemic.
Those plastic banknotes are a double boon: they’re harder to forge than the old paper ones, and they can survive a washing machine.
This practical bit of genius is an Australian invention, one of many to have emerged out of the CSIRO, that great powerhouse of turning imagination and curiosity into reality.
Fittingly, one of those banknotes bears the face of David Unaipon — preacher, proud Indigenous Australian, inventor and scientific thinker.
He revolutionised sheep-shearing.
He foresaw the development of laser.
Decades before the first chopper took to the sky, he developed a concept of a helicopter based on the aerodynamics of the boomerang.
If we dedicated all our banknotes to our inventors and our discoverers, there’s substantial competition.
Nobel laureate and molecular biologist Elizabeth Blackburn.
2018 Australian of the Year and quantum physicist Michelle Simmons.
Howard Florey, who carried out the first clinical tests of penicillin.
Fiona Wood, who invented spray-on skin and transformed burns treatment.
Graeme Clarke, who gave hearing back to so many with the multi-channel cochlear implant.
What unites them all is curiosity, and a vision of a better way of doing things.
Today I want to talk about how that spirit can take us forward.
For years, science has been taking a pounding in that perversity we call the culture wars. A pandemic has snapped us back to reality.
COVID-19 has reunited us with our respect for science. And with that has come an understanding that science is what can take us from lockdown to unlocking our potential.
And as we get better at converting that hunger for knowledge into dollars, science will be the core of our future economic growth, our new industries and the jobs they will create.
What we have is nothing short of a chance to create a better Australia, and it is powered by science.
Contrary to some commentary, we have a high level of trust in science.
When it comes to agreeing with the claim that science benefits us, a study by Gallup puts Australia among the top five nations.
Australians are resourceful, and famously ingenious. We have a proud record of invention.
To the Australian breakthroughs I have already mentioned, add cervical cancer vaccines; gene shears; the Hendra virus vaccine; the black box flight recorder; Aerogard; wine bottle screw caps.
And yet, paradoxically, we do not celebrate these achievements. We keep adding to its pages, but science is not a story we are good at telling.
In Western Australia, construction will soon begin on a major section of the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope.
Along with its companion section in South Africa, it will let us scan the sky 10,000 times faster than we have ever been able to before.
Each of the two super computers which will process data from the SKA will be among the largest in the world.
The SKA will be used by astrobiologists to search for amino acids by identifying their spectral signatures. Amino acids are the basis of life.
Locating these biomarkers will give us our best chance of finding life elsewhere in the universe.
We will not know what that life is or whether it is intelligent. And we will be looking at light that was emitted thousands of years ago. Yet if it happens this will be one of the most profound moments in human history.
And it would happen right here. But … have you ever heard about it?
We just don’t have that culture of excitement about science that you’ll find in countries like the US, Germany or China.
We need to lift the standard of the national conversation.
Respect for science should be a given, but many scientists are exhausted from being derided by quacks and conspiracists. And some of those are in Parliament.
There is no shortage of politicians who tell us they don’t believe in the science of climate change.
But science is not an act of faith.
Climate change is no more a matter of belief than the coronavirus is. It’s about heeding the evidence – and it is overwhelming.
We cannot allow opinion to trump truth.
It ranges all the way from Liberal Senator Gerard Rennick, who thinks the Bureau of Meteorology is part of a global conspiracy …
… to Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack, who viewed discussing the role of climate change in our catastrophic bushfire season as:
“the ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital city greenies”.
Mention the Enlightenment to these people and they reach for the dimmer switch.
It is embarrassing, but not surprising. When it comes to listening to science, this Government has been conveniently ignorant.
It would be easy to attribute this to mere incompetence. But that would be wrong. This is no accident.
In its very first budget in 2014, this Government stripped $110 million out of scientific funding and hollowed out the CSIRO, one of the bodies we are now counting on for a COVID-19 vaccine.
Funding for our only dedicated bushfire research centre runs out in June and it won’t be renewed.
For this Government, Back in Black means turning off the lights.
The pandemic has been a wake-up call.
The Government has begrudgingly shelved ideology in favour of expertise.
We all came together.
The values that are seeing us through this crisis are the values that will let us flourish when it is behind us.
We’re not there yet. COVID-19 is still ravaging many countries and the spectre of a second wave keeps us grounded.
Australia has been fortunate. Some of it has been the lottery of geographical isolation and low population density.
But it is also thanks to our high level of scientific and medical expertise – and crucially, the fact that it was listened to and acted on.
It has also been a victory of the Australian people. It is testament to our instincts to pull together and co-operate.
And to respect actual experts rather than the instant experts, who spring up on Facebook like mushrooms and thrive on the same fuel.
As the race to develop a vaccine goes on, earlier scientific achievements have helped life to continue.
Not least is WiFi, which grew partly out of the CSIRO’s work in radio astronomy. WiFi has played a major role in flattening the curve.
It let us work from home. It safeguarded our physical and mental health. It helped us to stay connected with each other, even as we were physically separated.
It let us shop and access medical services from the safety of home.
The pandemic has accelerated our thinking about how the internet can loosen the binds of habit and improve how we work and live.
Imagine a faster, more reliable NBN.
It would allow us to spread out, taking pressure off big cities, giving regional towns a fresh boost, and improving our quality of life.
The use of smart infrastructure has consistently produced double digit benefit-cost ratios and should be an essential component of new infrastructure.
We can be proud of what we have achieved so far.
Compared with so many other countries, especially where the response has been more political than scientific, we are relatively better off.
We can begin picturing what a post-pandemic Australia can look like.
Labor is doing what we always do: looking to the future with clear eyes, open minds and optimism.
Consider two Labor leaders, who faced another of our nation’s turning points. With the world in conflict around them, John Curtin and Ben Chifley spoke not just of Victory in War but of Victory in Peace.
Curtin didn’t live to see the peace, but Chifley worked his guts out for that second victory.
Among his priorities were enlarging the CSIRO and establishing the Australian National University.
As Chifley said:“Scientific research is a necessity for the maintenance of our standard of living and even for our survival.”
The pandemic has brought that truth even more sharply into focus.
As we contemplate the road ahead, we must not assume we’ve had our “pandemic moment”.
We’ve been warned COVID-19 might not even be the “big one” we face in our lifetime.
Now is not the time for complacency. For one thing, should we be the only OECD nation without the equivalent of a Centre for Disease Control and Prevention?
A properly resourced, independent Australian CDC would ensure a standing focus on pandemic preparedness, such as regular drills and exercises.
The last one was Exercise Sustain in 2008 under the Rudd Government.
A CDC could provide governments with consistent, rapid advice, and coordinate medical research across the public and private sectors, as well as manage the National Medical Stockpile.
We should also consider the health architecture of our region. Perhaps one way of revitalising APEC is to have an APEC CDC providing advice to member economies.
Then there’s the World Health Organisation, which has come in for much criticism, some justified.
We must ensure criticism of the WHO is constructive and not just the latest volley in the culture wars about “negative globalism”. The WHO should be strengthened and made more transparent and accountable, not sidelined.
After all, it was the WHO that persuaded the Soviet Union and the US to work together – at the height of the Cold War – to eradicate smallpox.
It’s this level of ambition that is needed to improve the global response to the pandemic - including on the crucial task of discovering and distributing a vaccine.
Even as we flatten the curve of the coronavirus, the curve of climate change is waiting for us.
Returning to our pre-pandemic approach is not an option.
Consider this Government’s rejection of fire experts who were predicting exactly what was coming, and begging to be heard before the recent catastrophic bushfire season.
There was no listening. There was no respect. But there was fire.
Meanwhile, droughts are growing worse and temperature records are being broken in such an unrelenting procession.
But we don’t have to be passive. Guided by science, we can fight climate change and create jobs at the same time.
We can have a future as a renewable energy superpower, with all the environmental and economic benefits.
With our rich lithium reserves we are edging closer to the development of a battery-manufacturing industry.
Brisbane-based company, Tritium, has developed the world’s fastest charging stations and is fuelling the shift to electric vehicles in Europe and the USA.
Among the energy opportunities that science is bringing within our reach, Chief Scientist Alan Finkel sees a hydrogen export industry that in ten years could be worth $1.7 billion.
There are so many opportunities — but as Labor understands instinctively, you can only get the policy settings right when you listen to and respect the science.
That’s why we’ve always supported renewable energy.
It’s cheap, it’s clean and it’s the future.
Even the Government now admits as much in their Technology Roadmap.
There are elements of the Roadmap such as using domestic nuclear power that Labor remains opposed to.
But Labor welcomes the newfound acceptance that renewables and other clean technologies are not only key to addressing climate change, but also key to more investment and more jobs.
But a Technology Roadmap isn’t an energy policy.
It doesn’t tell us how to get there, just where we are going.
We need an energy policy that will support the investment required to deliver on the Technology Roadmap’s promise.
Labor knows this. Business knows this. Investors and energy market agencies know this.
Energy policy paralysis and uncertainty has been a major contributor to the decline in business investment.
It has resulted in higher costs for business.
Removing this handbrake must be an important part of facilitating the economic recovery that is needed.
When the Morrison Government abandoned the National Energy Guarantee, they turned their back for a time on the prospect of an enduring bipartisan energy policy.
Today, with the importance of scientific advice being front and centre, and a need to invest and create jobs, it’s beyond time that Australia had an energy policy in the national interest.
That is why I have written to the Prime Minister and suggested we meet and agree on an energy investment framework that will deliver the modernisation of our energy system.
Like industry and the experts, Labor is open-minded about the specific investment framework to be adopted.
We can work with a National Energy Guarantee, a Clean Energy Target, an Emissions Intensity Scheme or other models which deliver the essential component of providing investment certainty.
It must be flexible, and it must be enduring.
An enduring energy policy is one that can adjust to different emission targets.
It should be possible to agree on a policy framework that can deliver confidence to investors even though there is disagreement over Labor’s net zero emissions by 2050 target.
Labor is willing to support carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies being able to generate carbon offsets, as long as the usual quality safeguards are met.
We would also support the Government if it reinstates the CCS flagships program established by Labor and abolished by the Abbott Government – or a new funding vehicle.
The Chief Scientist, the IPCC and the IEA all advise that CCS must be part of the solution to reach net zero emissions.
But we won’t agree that renewable energy agencies like ARENA and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation should have their funds for renewables raided in order to invest in carbon capture technology.
If we are to advance the Technology Roadmap, then ARENA must be supported with further funding.
When the science is clear politicians should act.
Action on climate change that provides investment certainty will create jobs, lower energy costs and reduce emissions.
For Labor, the road ahead has always been clear.
At the Economic Summit that followed the Hawke Government’s election, the communique singled out new technology as a key driver of economic growth.
It’s a vision that has gone missing in more recent years.
The pandemic has shown up our economy as being short on resilience.
The cautionary tale of Australia’s car industry is emblematic. This Government withdrew co-investment funding and dared them to leave – an invitation car-makers took up.
This act of self-harm knocked us down the technological pole and further narrowed an economic base that is now too reliant on services and the export of raw materials.
We are making ourselves vulnerable to a decline in living standards.
And when the next crisis severs global supply lines, we will be exposed.
But this is our chance to start turning things around. The future belongs to those countries that innovate, adapt and adjust.
When it comes to repairing and building that economy, technology and innovation will be key to boosting productivity, growing local manufacturing, and achieving self-reliance.
Encouragingly, some of our home-grown firms are already at the forefront of science and technology.
Biotech firm CSL – a product of the Hawke/Keating micro-economic reforms of the 1980s – is now Australia’s largest company by market capitalisation and is working with the University of Queensland to develop a COVID-19 vaccine.
Earlier this month, software giant Atlassian played a major role in the SpaceX rocket launch that took two US astronauts to the International Space Station.
Our resource and agricultural producers are at the helm of the development, design and application of artificial intelligence, drone technologies and genetics.
And our building and construction sector continues to advance with new products, including environmentally sustainable materials and software that improves design, project management and ultimately, our urban environments.
We must strengthen our capacity to create. We must become serious about high-tech manufacturing.
While the responsibility doesn’t rest solely with them, our public institutions including the CSIRO and universities are responsible either directly or indirectly for many of the innovations that we take for granted.
But the Morrison Government plans to cut the Research and Development Tax Incentive which is designed to encourage innovation and growth.
And that innovation – which would bolster industries, create jobs and improve quality of life – can take so many forms, from improving our manufacturing capability …
… to accelerating the evolution of transport from electric vehicles to freight data hubs to intelligent transport systems.
But our R&D investment has fallen below 2 per cent of GDP – below countries like South Korea, Israel, Sweden, Denmark, and Singapore.
Unless we invest in R&D we will only be able to read the story of our proud manufacturing history, when we should be writing the next chapter.
If only we could persuade the Government that R&D was the name of a sports club in a marginal electorate.
The Reserve Bank Governor says we need to be building bridges across to our recovery. But with these cuts, the Government is burning them.
Our ranking on the Harvard University Economic Complexity Index, which measures the ability to produce unique products, has fallen from 55th in 1995 to 87th in 2017.
The Government needs a comprehensive plan to create a supply of STEM workers, which is undermined by contracting out at the CSIRO and cuts to R&D tax incentives.
The best-practice countries are the ones that drive innovation more directly, focusing their national research efforts into areas of comparative advantage or “national missions”.
This was the essential point of the Ferris Review into innovation, which was commissioned by Malcolm Turnbull but now lies dormant.
Perhaps the best-known model of how government can leverage research and innovation, comes from the US and its long-standing Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA.
DARPA’s success is remarkable given its size and budget, having assisted in developing innovations that our modern economy depends on such as the internet, GPS and drone aerial technology.
We also need a more sophisticated manufacturing plan than just responding to crises.
We could do much better at commercialising research, thereby building industries and jobs at home and then selling the product they produce to the world.
Our failure reduces revenue and Intellectual Property, affecting investment, entrepreneurship and technological growth.
Labor has backed calls from the tech sector for the R&D tax incentive refunds to be paid early.
As part of our desire to partner with the private sector, a future Labor Government would encourage the superannuation industry to invest in infrastructure, technology and R&D in a way that is consistent with members’ interests.
It would pay for all of us well into the future.
This Government is content to come up with road map after road map, but never put any fuel in the car.
Take artificial intelligence.
In 2018 alone, AI contributed an estimated $US2 trillion to the global economy. Within a decade it is forecasted to reach nearly $US16 trillion.
As PWC puts it, this would make it “the biggest commercial opportunity in today’s fast changing economy.”
In the 2018 Budget, the Government announced it was allocating $30 million over four years to support the development of AI.
Singapore is devoting five times that amount.
At the last election Labor championed the establishment of a National Centre of AI Excellence.
It would help chart the likely national investment required in this area by bringing together those with a stake in the effect of AI’s application in our economy.
This Centre needs to be established now.
We have the talent and the brain power in this country, but not the ability to hang on to it.
In contrast to the UK, which has boosted spending on PhD candidates working on AI, it is not something Australia has prioritised.
The demise starts early. The number of Australian school students studying science has been dwindling for decades, our international results are falling and there are not enough jobs waiting for them at the other end.
Fewer than 10 per cent of Australian university graduates complete an engineering degree, compared to 20 per cent in Germany and Korea.
Only 16 per cent of Australians qualified in STEM are women.
Last week’s Higher Education announcement will leave more young Australians locked out of university and higher costs for those who gain admission.
The new funding arrangements will actually be a disincentive for universities to enrol STEM students, as Julie Bishop has pointed out.
But I see cause for some optimism. Take the all-girls robotic team from Blacktown Girls High in Michelle Rowland’s western Sydney electorate of Greenway.
They’re winning prizes and international recognition. Those young women are inspiring. The challenge now is to not lose them to institutions overseas.
In conclusion, Labor understands intrinsically the core role of science in improving lives, strengthening the economy and, ultimately, lifting us up as a nation and making us bigger as a people.
We need facts and expertise. We can’t surrender our fate to gut feeling.
We don’t have to become that cliché of every disaster movie that starts with a politician ignoring a scientist.
The bushfires have reminded us of what happens if we walk away from science.
A virus has shown us the path back.
What we see in science are some of the greatest peaks of human endeavour.
The hunger to know. To understand. To advance.
And within those we see the sources of new industries, new jobs, a new economy, a new resilience.
To brighten the future, we need only look to the core ingredients we’ve relied on before.
Investing in science is investing in our future.
Australia can have a better future. Let’s create it together.
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Phone: 02 9564 3588
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