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Wednesday, 12 November 2008
Page: 6751

Senator HURLEY (4:00 PM) —I present the report of the Senate Standing Committee on Economics Lost in Space? Setting a new direction for Australia’s space science and industry sector, together with the Hansard record of proceedings and documents presented to the committee.

Ordered that the report be printed.

Senator HURLEY —by leave—I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

I wish to thank former Senators Stott Despoja and Chapman for their support in instigating this inquiry. It was indeed at their initiative that this inquiry began and I, as the representative of the Labor Party, was pleased to join in that. I would also like to thank committee members and participating members for their work on the report and the secretariat for their tireless work throughout the inquiry, when a great number of other reports were also in train.

There were many contributors and witnesses who provided evidence to the inquiry who were thoughtful, knowledgeable and passionate about this area. I would particularly like to thank organisations we visited during the inquiry: the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex, the ANU Advanced Instrument Technology Centre, Electro Optic Systems Space Research Centre and Optus International Earth Station.

The inquiry was referred to the Senate Standing Committee on Economics on 19 March 2008. An interim report was released on 23 June 2008, and an extension of time was granted until 12 November. There were three main areas to explore: Australia’s capabilities in space science, industry and education, including existing activity and areas in which there is little or no activity but which are within the capacity of the country to build; arguments for and against expanded Australian activity in space science and industry; and realistic policy options that facilitate effective solutions to cross-sector technological and organisational challenges, opportunity capture and development imperatives that align with the national need, considering existing world-class capability.

In this inquiry we first had to look at what was in the space science sector, and in that regard I would particularly like to thank CSIRO for their extensive briefing on this subject. There was some very interesting evidence from a number of their experts in various areas in the space science and technology field. We heard that it involves a number of disciplines including manufacturing, high-temperature materials, advanced chemistry, information processing, telecommunications, computing and data processing, robotics, nanotechnology and general areas like project management and finance and legal services.

There were a number of areas, and the committee found it would be useful to divide these up into several main areas—apparently the space community do this as well. They were: looking down, looking out and going up. The ‘looking down’ area was for satellites in outer space looking down onto the Earth. We discovered that there is quite a lot of expertise in Australia already in this area from the data that is collected from earth observations. That is in areas like weather forecasting; monitoring global climate change; communication links; GPS, which was an interesting area and one that is being used increasingly in fields such as the finance industry; mobile phone networks; navigation signals, which we are very familiar with; and also agriculture, mining and defence capabilities.

‘Looking out’ was for looking out from the Earth. We looked at many areas in astronomy, including an area that Senator Bishop referred to in a speech today—that is, the Square Kilometre Array, which Australia is bidding for. During our tour we also had a look at many of the tracking facilities that are here in Australia and are well valued in world terms.

Finally we looked at ‘going up’, which concerned launching rockets, both large ones and the smaller suborbital launches. We heard about the previous work that had been done at Woomera in that regard.

There were a number of very significant areas that we had to look at, but one of the principal issues we wanted to determine was whether Australia needed a space policy and a space agency. Australia at the moment has a very decentralised approach to space policy, and there are many government agencies currently involved in space work, such as the Department of Defence, including the Defence Science and Technology Organisation; the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research; the CSIRO; the Department of Climate Change; the Bureau of Meteorology; and the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, including the Australian Antarctic Division, Geoscience Australia and the Office of Spatial Data Management. So I think there was a wider scope than many of us had realised. All of those departments have a very significant involvement with space science and research.

We heard that the Government Space Forum meets twice a year and involves many of those agencies but does not then connect with industry and academic work being done in the field. That gave the committee some concern. There was also the recurring theme coming through the evidence that Australia does not have a well-articulated space policy and that this is stunting growth of the sector as well as causing Australia to miss out on opportunities for collaboration internationally. The committee felt that that was a great shame because it was clear and very obvious from evidence that Australia has great capacities in the space industry. We have very talented people, we have a very innovative industry and we have a lot of private industry involved in the space sector as well. Indeed, we heard from the Australian Space Industry Chamber of Commerce that they have a list of over 300 private companies involved in the area.

The decentralised policy that we have now was not always the case. There was a space board set up in response to the 1985 Madigan report. That gained significant support from the government including the establishment of the Australian Space Council in 1994. But following an inquiry, despite recommendation for further support, funding was removed in 1996 and that board was disbanded. There have been various attempts and discussion since then about the wisdom of that move.

In 2005 former Senator Grant Chapman convened a Space Policy Advisory Group, which prepared a report calling for a national space policy assigned to a specific agency, and the committee built on a lot of that work. The committee did take into account in its report concern from many witnesses that there should not be similar ups and downs with insufficient support that is then withdrawn and leaves the industry back where it was. We did take that into account and tried to introduce a measured approach, a modular approach, that would allow us to see if there was enough support to gradually build up a space agency. The Australian Space Industry Chamber of Commerce said:

Nations are recognising that an investment in space can be a catalyst to stimulating innovation across the spectrum of existing and emerging high technology industries.

We did hear through the inquiry that there are many opportunities of collaborating with international agencies, including the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. They are similar countries with similar requirements and they are very keen to get involved with Australia in developing that industry.

The recommendations give a path for Australia to start to bring together not only government agencies but also private industry and those working in the academic areas to see if there is a platform for developing a coordinated space policy and a coordinated space agency. We saw it as a very clear and high priority for Australia at this time to build upon that capacity we have in this exciting and interesting area.

I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.