Joint doorstop interview, Adelaide
Topics: Research Infrastructure Investment Plan; Establishing an Australian Space Agency; NAPLAN; Mayo by-election

Nicolle Flint: Good morning, I’m Nicolle Flint, Federal Member for Boothby, and I’m delighted to have some very special guests here right in the heart of my electorate, at Adelaide University’s – wait for it – Waite Research Centre, this morning. We have Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel; Minister Simon Birmingham, the Minister for Education and Training; and Senator Michaelia Cash, the Minister for Jobs and Innovation. It’s been fantastic taking them around Adelaide University to see the very best science, research and development that’s helping our hard working Australian farmers, whether they’re grape growers or whether they’re grain producers, there’s some fantastic science going on right here in the heart of my electorate of Boothby at the Waite Research Institute.

And I’m going to ask Minister Simon Birmingham to say a few words.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks so much, Nicole, and it’s wonderful to be here at the world class Waite Campus at the University of Adelaide where for decades so much high quality research has made such a difference to agricultural production across Australia. And from that, made us a richer country, a more prosperous nation, and indeed, a contributor towards addressing problems such as food security around the world. And it’s those sorts of dividends that are why we invest in research infrastructure. Because high quality research helps and benefits Australian families, farmers, and businesses. And today the Turnbull Government is outlining our response to the Research Infrastructure Roadmap that the Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel developed for us, which commits to a long-term plan for investment in research infrastructure with $1.9 billion committed that is going to help ensure – whether it is farm technology, high science, high performance computing, investment in areas that underpin jobs as diverse as our tourism industry, to our medical researchers – we are ensuring that those jobs that sustain our strong economic growth continue to be there, today and tomorrow, into the future. That’s delivered by ensuring that we keep the Australian economy at the cutting edge. This is the next step in the Turnbull Government’s National Innovation and Science Agenda, where we’ve already delivered security towards research infrastructure facilities with ongoing operational funding and now we’re committing this extra funding of $1.9 billion to help people invest in the new kit, in the new equipment that will keep our researchers at the cutting edge of global development. We’re thrilled to back the people who are making such a difference to help boost the lives and productivities of Australians, and people the world over.


Michaelia Cash: Thank you very much Simon. And it really is a delight, ladies and gentlemen, to join my ministerial colleague Simon Birmingham, the Member for Boothby Nicolle Flint, and of course, our Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel. And Dr Finkel, again on behalf of the Government, thank you so much for the considered work you did in providing us with the national road map in terms of our investment in national research infrastructure.

When we were elected to government, we said that we would be a government that put in place the right policies to ensure businesses were able to prosper and grow. Because when a business prospers and grows, it creates jobs. We are a job creating government. And the $1.9 billion that we are investing in Australia’s national research infrastructure will ensure that our businesses in Australia remain competitive. This is all about ensuring our businesses have access to cutting edge technology so that they can trial new ideas, they can improve their products, their processes and ultimately grow their businesses. Around 40,000 researchers have access to this infrastructure every single year.

I recently had the opportunity to attend the Pawsey supercomputing facility in Western Australia, where I was able to announce a further investment of $70 million. Pawsey is one of two supercomputers in Australia. Why is investing in Pawsey so important for businesses and researchers in Australia? A very simple example: just imagine a researcher looking at genomics who has about a years worth of data to analyse. That’s a long time to actually get to the solution to your problem. If you input that data into Pawsey, Pawsey will take approximately five hours to analyse your data. That is the benefit of a government investing in what is enabling infrastructure for our researchers, for our scientists, and for our businesses.

So, really fantastic to be here today, with my ministerial and parliamentary colleagues. And, of course, with our chief scientist to commit to the Government’s $1.9 billion dollars investment in our national research infrastructure.

Dr Finkel.

Alan Finkel: Thank you, Minister. Well, we are standing here today in one of the Australian national research facilities, the Australian plant genomics facility. These facilities are places of possibilities. They are part of the virtuous circle of scientific breakthroughs and invention of the next series of instrumentation that will make the next scientific breakthrough possible.

Some of the examples, we’ve just visited the Wine Research Centre, where they’ve got the ability to look at the metabolife, the molecules that make up the aroma and the flavour of the wine at the level of one part per trillion. And that enables the winemakers to do today in just a few years what it took 10,000 years of wine making to achieve until this century. Getting here was a long process, very methodical, it took three years. There was a review done in 2016 led by Philip Clarke. I had the absolute privilege of leading an expert working group in 2016 to develop the National Research Infrastructure Road Map. And then last year, the departments with advice from the Commonwealth Science Council, from Innovation and Science Australia Board, and from a small group of experts that I led, I developed the Research Investment Plan that has led to the recent funding.

The Government has accepted as a national government that it is its role to lead in the development of these national capabilities. And ministers, you’ve made a great investment, you’ve made an investment that is for the long-term. Two years ago, through the National Innovation and Science Agenda, the Government committed about $200 million per year for 10-years to keep these kinds of facilities going. And now, with the most recent budget, a further average of $200 million a year for the next 12-years. And that is on top of the funding going to supercomputers and astronomy.

So, I can say as chief scientist of Australia and as the deputy chair of Innovation and Science Australia, that I do get to speak to a lot of researchers and academics, and I can report that the research community is very pleased to see this long-term commitment. These are the kinds of facilities that attract international researchers to come and set up in our country. They’re the facilities that help our universities to rise in the global rankings, the research intensive rankings. And they are the facilities that lead to the research outputs that underpin the next generation of manufacturing, that underpins jobs, prosperity, and health in our country.

So, I can say in all my capacities, that I truly welcome the Government’s announcement in the most recent budget. And thank you ministers.

Michaelia Cash: Thank you, Alan.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Alan. Questions.

Question: Senator Cash, we’re here obviously talking about science and innovation. And one might argue at the peak of that is the establishment of South Australia’s first space agency. How big a role will South Australia play in that agency and could we see it based here?

Michaelia Cash: Well, you are correct. Yesterday we did announce the establishment under the Turnbull Government of Australia’s first Australian space agency. This is the creation of a new industry in Australia. It has the capacity to increase jobs by around 20,000 out to 2030. Currently the Australian space industry is worth about $3 to $4 billion a year. The expert reference group led by the new chair or the new head of the Australian Space Agency, Dr Megan Clark, a preeminent scientist within Australia, they estimate that we could probably increase that production to around $12 billion per year. The Government has been absolutely delighted with the enthusiasm and the interest shown by many of the states; South Australia, Western Australia, the Northern Territory, New South Wales, to name but a few, the ACT. I have commissioned Megan Clark to now within a six-month period collaborate with the states, and for the states to outline to Megan what unique capability they have and why they have the capacity to host the Australian Space Agency. Megan will, within a six month period, report back to the Government on the most strategic location for the Australian Space Agency. This is about acknowledging what we do best, and we need to be incredibly strategic about this. And that’s why we’ve given me Megan six-months to talk to the states and to work proactively with them.

Question: So, can we expect an announcement with six-months?

Michaelia Cash: At the end of the year, yes.

Question: From what you’ve seen of South Australia, though, do we have a strong case?

Michaelia Cash: Look, I think both South Australia and Western Australia and the Northern Territory already do a lot of work within the domestic and international space industry. So again it’s about Megan talking to the states, working with industry, working with the researches, working with academia, because this very much needs to be an industry-focused body. This is about creating a new industry in Australia, increasing our productivity and creating more jobs. So each state will be able to put on the table, states may wish to enter into partnerships together. But every single state has the opportunity to talk with our Dr Clark and she will provide us at the end of the year with her report on the most strategic location for the Australian Space Agency.

Question: Senator Birmingham, we have NAPLAN starting today and four states want it either scrapped or overhauled, what do you make of that?

Simon Birmingham: Well, let me- firstly, just on the Space Agency, say that I think that wherever the location of the headquarters is, we can be confident that South Australia with the defence industry scale here, with the history of the Woomera Rocket Range will be central to any national space agency. But so too will WA in terms of the work of the Square Kilometre Array, and technology and bases that exists there, and we have to realise that it will be a truly national undertaking, we’re looking forward to it.

In terms of NAPLAN, can I say as we stand here in our world-class research facility, that you don’t get world-class researchers without them first having the fundamental basics of literacy and numeracy as part of their educational journey. Then they get a rich knowledge base in their areas of subject expertise, and then of course they develop the collaborative skills that are necessary to be outstanding researchers. NAPLAN is just one part of the educational journey, but it’s a part that parents value to ensure they understand their children are developing basic literacy and numeracy skills. It’s important for policy makers and researchers to track where our education system is heading and to make sure that we can identify those who are getting the best possible outcomes.

I know there’s controversy that comes from some quarters. I would say to those who seek to cause trouble about NAPLAN to take a step back, and to treat it like any other school day. This is just one assessment undertaken four times in the life of a child during their 12-13 years of schooling. It is not the be all and end all of anything, but it is an important benchmark and measure to help ensure we get those fundamentals of literacy and numeracy right.

Question: So it’s here for the long term then?

Simon Birmingham: NAPLAN is absolutely here for the long-term to keep the focus on basic literacy and numeracy skills. I’ve made it very clear that if we can improve NAPLAN and if indeed ultimately the type of formative assessment tool that David Gonski and his panel of educators spoke about can evolve into something even better than NAPLAN. Well, that’s great down the track. But for now, NAPLAN is an important resource in terms of keeping a fixed eye on the progress of students around their literacy and numeracy skills.

Question: So just how hard will you be lobbying your colleague behind you to try and get South Australia’s share of this National Space Agency, and do you think this is where it should be based?

Simon Birmingham: I know that South Australia will be central to any outcome for the National Space Agency, because of our rich history at the Woomera Rocket Range and the investment in defence technologies which is so synergistic with a space agency and its development. But you could make the same arguments about the technology platforms that are available to states like WA, which is why we must all acknowledge this is a national undertaking, of which I’m sure South Australia will be central and as South Australian, I’ll argue our case but I also recognise that we won’t be able to do it alone, nor would any other state. We have to make sure we leverage the expertise and skills of every state in Australia.

Question: Just on NAPLAN we were at a school this morning, and they did have some glitches with the browser. Are you aware of any other schools having some issues today with the first online test?

Simon Birmingham: We’ll be getting feedback about how NAPLAN Online is progressing, but NAPLAN Online is an outstanding opportunity to ensure that teachers and schools, parents, get the results from NAPLAN faster and that they get a much more detailed analysis of student achievement. So NAPLAN Online is worth investing in. I’m thrilled that so many states have supported hundreds of schools across Australia to participate in NAPLAN Online because that will take a useful test and make it even more beneficial for teachers, schools and parents in how they respond to the outcomes of it.

Question: But are you aware of any glitches at other schools?

Simon Birmingham: I’ve not had problems raised with me so far, but I would of course be receiving updates throughout the week about how the NAPLAN Online trial is going. And I am very pleased that all of the early evidence in terms of the pre-trial work that we’ve undertaken show that the platforms responded soundly. But importantly that students also found it an assessment tool, a test, that was more engaging and responded to their answers and therefore gives a richer platform in terms of the analysis of student achievement that’s available.

Question: Senator, just on another matter. Do you now see Mayo is there and ripe for the picking with Georgina Downer’s pre-selection?

Simon Birmingham: Mayo will be a very tough battle for the Liberal Party to win, because winning by-election whilst in government is something that essentially is unheard of in Australia, that it’s only once back in 1920 that a government of the day has snatched a by-election from an opposition. In this case, we’re talking about an independent MP, but Georgina Downer is an exceptional candidate and she will be a high quality local MP if elected and a passionate, powerful future leader for South Australia, if she’s elected. We’ll be urging the people of Mayo to focus on the big picture issues about how they can be part and backing the Turnbull Government’s strong economic plan that’s delivering the record jobs growth, Michaelia Cash spoke about that’s allowing us to now bring the budget back to balance earlier than previously forecast, whilst also delivering tax relief.

People can see our plan is delivering, and Georgina will be an important part if we can get her elected on building on that for the future, and will give South Australia an additional high, powerful voice in Canberra.

Question: Do you think though that there’s the potential that the Downer dynasty might count against her rather than for her for that reason?

Simon Birmingham: I’m confident that voters in Mayo will judge Georgina Downer on her merits as a smart, capable young woman who has represented Australia at our embassy in Tokyo, as a serving foreign affairs official, who is a skilled and qualified lawyer, who is policy advocate, and who – if elected – would give the people of Mayo and South Australia an additional, powerful voice inside the Turnbull Government.

Question: Can I ask both senators on another matter, do you agree with Coalition, well some quotes, that Jane Prentice’s non-pre-selection was a bloody disgrace?

Simon Birmingham: Jane is a friend and I feel for Jane, but the Liberal Party also has a very democratic process where hundreds of local party members are invited to cast a ballot to have their say. That gives us high quality candidates, such as Michaelia in the Senate, such as Nicole Flint who went through exactly that type of plebiscite process and became our candidate in Boothby. Ultimately, we are all only there at the good grace and will and support of our party members, and each of us has to put ourselves forward at regular intervals to secure that support again. Jane’s done a great job over several terms in Parliament. I am sorry that she’ll be leaving us, but we have opportunities now to elect new great MPs into Coalition team like Georgina Downer, and that’s what we’ll be focused on.
Question: Can I ask Senator Cash the same thing.

Michaelia Cash: Look, absolutely, and I agree with the comment made by Senator Birmingham. Jane has been a fantastic member of Parliament, but like every member of Parliament, we face a preselection. Preselections for the Liberal Party are done on a state by state basis. She has faced a preselection and the LNP in Queensland have determined that another candidate should represent the LNP at the next election.

Question: Not a bloody disgrace?

Michaelia Cash: As I said, fantastic candidate, but ultimately, pre-selections are a tough process. We all face them, and this was a decision of the LNP in Queensland at the end of the day.

Question: Are any of you concerned about Anne Ruston’s future with preselection here?

Simon Birmingham: Not at all. South Australia has on the current cycle three outstanding Liberal senators in Anne Ruston and David Fawcett and Lucy Gichuhi, and I hope and expect that all three will be pre-selected again. They’ll have my full support. I’m sure they’ve got the full support of the team. They give us strong representation in this Senate, and are part of a strong Liberal team, and I know they’ll all be working exceptionally hard and to help get Georgina Downer elected in Mayo.

Michaelia Cash: Thank you very much.