Doorstop Interview, Adelaide
Topics: Establishment of an Australian national space agency

Simon Birmingham: Thank you very much for coming today. It’s a real thrill for Adelaide and Australia to be hosting the International Astronautical Congress, and I am particularly thrilled to be here representing the Prime Minister and the Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, Arthur Sinodinos, at this opening of the Congress.

Today, the Turnbull Government has announced that we will commit to establish an Australian national space agency to help drive Australia’s role in the international space sector. The space industry has changed dramatically over recent decades. No longer is it purely the domain of national governments pursuing government programs, but of course, space industry is thoroughly commercial, an industry undertaking in so many ways, upon which so much of our communications, technology, infrastructure depends.

We see now billions of dollars invested in space around the world, and in fact, over the last couple of decades, the growth rate in terms of investment in space industries has been three times that of the global economic growth rate. However, Australia’s share of that hasn’t kept up, and in fact, our share – in terms of global space industries – stands markedly below Australia’s global share of global economic activity.

The opportunity is there, if we can simply lift Australia’s share of the global space industry to our normal economic share, for us to generate billions of dollars of additional economic impact around Australia. That means more jobs, more opportunities. It builds on the Turnbull Government’s $100 million Advanced Manufacturing Program. It builds on the Turnbull Government’s multibillion dollar investment in high technology defence industries. It is absolutely complementary to all we’re doing, and pleasingly, as a South Australian senator, it is so complementary to all we’re doing to invest in this state, and so complementary, absolutely, to the natural geographical capabilities of this state, which will no doubt be at the forefront of any benefits in terms of space investment.

I’m pleased to note today, as well, to welcome the Labor Party to the table in terms of space activity. Of course, it is some months ago now that the Turnbull Government announced a national working group to develop Australia’s capabilities in terms of the space sector. We have taken the leadership in this area. We are now, having received more than 200 submissions, more than 400 different engagements as part of the consultation process, clear advice that Australia needs a central coordinating agency to help take the next steps. We’re committing to have that agency.

Over the coming months, up until March next year, Dr Megan Clark, the chair of the working group and her panel will continue to develop the strategy and the plan that will underpin the work of the agency and the design of the agency. But this is an opportunity for Australia to take a big step forward in what is a globally exciting sector that I hope would inspire many thousands of young Australians to study the sciences, to pursue opportunities for jobs that will exist definitely in the future.

Journalist: So Senator, what sort of funding are we looking at? Because you’re talking big dollars, so this must be – in terms of a global operation it’s big dollars; what’s Australia willing to put forward?

Simon Birmingham: Well, the global investment and expenditure in space is already big dollars. Our challenge and the work of this agency will be to help ensure Australia captures more of that; we become a country that gets more investment, more dollars from more space companies here in Australia. Now, in terms of the design and the budget and framework for the national space agency; as I said, we will take the advice from Dr Clark and her review panel, and then, of course, will respond next year in the Budget context.

Journalist: But are we talking hundreds of millions or billions?

Simon Birmingham: Mike, I don’t want to get ahead of that, but you shouldn’t confuse the structure and work of an agency designed to attract investment with, of course, the hundreds of billions of dollars of investment that is already out there. This is about making sure that Australia uses our researchers, our investment capability, our entrepreneurial capability to attract more of that investment to Australia, to build bigger industries here in Australia that will themselves then drive and sustain further investment. It’s not about some 1960s view of saying we’re going to put man on the moon and that it’s all a government-funded project. This is about recognising the space industry has changed, and we should be a part of that new dynamic.

Journalist: But it’s not going to cost nothing, Senator, so …

Simon Birmingham: No, it won’t cost …

Journalist: But give us a rough idea. It can’t be [indistinct].

Simon Birmingham: I’m not going to pre-empt next year’s Budget, and I’m not going to pre-empt the work of Dr Clark and her review panel. We’ve got firm advice that, across the board, people see a need for coordination. We’re going to deliver that through a new national space agency, but we will also go through the proper processes of continuing that consultation that Dr Clark has started as part of the expert panel, and we’ll get their recommendations and act from there.

Journalist: What would the agency look like? Would we have one base, say in Canberra or Adelaide, or would we have bases right across the country?

Simon Birmingham: Well, outreach will be essential for success of an agency like this, because of course there are different capabilities spread right across Australia: Square Kilometre Array work over in the west, of course the Woomera rocket range and its capabilities here in SA, of course the work around Tidbinbilla outside the ACT. There are enormous capabilities that already exist, and of course many, many more that can be leveraged.

Journalist: Senator, will [indistinct] a specific base for the agency?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we’ve seen various proposals put forward. I note that the ACT Government and the South Australian Government argue for a head office in Canberra and a node in Adelaide. That’s one proposition, but we’ll make sure that we go through all of those different options with Dr Clark and her review panel. I think where it is based is less important than recognising that it will have to have broad outreach and engagement to succeed, and that there are capabilities right across this vast continent of ours that can be utilised and will be utilised.

Journalist: When will it be up and running?

Simon Birmingham: Well, the report can come back from Dr Clark in March next year. We’ll respond in the Budget context, I imagine, next year, and hopefully we can see progress next year in terms of its operations.

Journalist: Will you just automatically take the recommendations, or is there space for you to, say, lobby for a bigger role for South Australia?

Simon Birmingham: Well, let’s see what the recommendations are. As a South Australia senator, I’m always passionate about lobbying for my state, but as Minister for Education and responsibility for the Australian Research Council, I’m always keen as well to expand research capabilities, the innovative capabilities right across the country, and the Government will make sure the national interest comes first. But South Australia, fortunately, thanks to our geographic capabilities here, will be central to any decision that is taken. We can be confident of that.

Journalist: What’s the role of science in this? Could you be working on missions to send up astronauts, rockets, those sorts of things?

Simon Birmingham: There’s a big role for science, there’s a big role for commerce and industry, and we want to make sure Australia plays its part in both of those. The scientific pursuit in space is in many ways never-ending, but of course the commercial opportunities have expanded dramatically, as I say, across defence, across communications, across transportation, a range of different sectors now with vast private sector commercial investment that far outweighs the investment, for example, of the United States Government in terms of space. So if we actually look at it, this is very much a private sector-driven undertaking in so many spaces, and that is why we want to make sure that Australia is at the forefront of seizing those opportunities and creating jobs and investment here.

Journalist: [Indistinct]. Will the review committee of the Federal Government be consulting with those on what this might look like?

Simon Birmingham: I have no doubt that they will be.

Journalist: Senator, why has it taken us so long to get to this point [indistinct]. We even know our brother across the ditch, New Zealand, have an agency and we are still so late to the table. Why has it taken us so long as a country?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Australia is a great sporting nation; I’m quite sure that we can start from where we are and exceed and excel and get ahead of others. Look, the point today is that we have a positive announcement in the creation of this agency. It’s a step in a process the Turnbull Government had already started. We announced the establishment, the working group, the review in terms of Australia’s space capabilities back in July. That work is already underway. This is another step in that process. Next year we’ll have a comprehensive strategy and approach that will really underpin Australia’s investment for the future.

Journalist: And sorry if I’m incorrect, but the review in July didn’t mention an agency.

Simon Birmingham: The Government made sure that it was part of the requirement, for the panel to have a look at the need for an agency around coordination, around how it is we design the building of capability in Australia, the attraction of investment to Australia, and a clear message that’s come back in submissions and input to date is absolutely the need for such an agency.

Journalist: Would it be fair to say this is not NASA, this is just an investment office?

Simon Birmingham: Well, look, I wouldn’t want to talk it down, but it’s not NASA. It will be an Australian space agency with Australian interests, seeking to generate and drive investment in Australia, the search for scientific capability in Australia, and ensure that across the different paradigms of space we can be at the forefront as a nation in seizing those opportunities. Thanks everybody.