Can I thank the National Press Club for hosting me today and thank all of you for coming along.

Let me start by acknowledging the traditional owners of this land, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, and I pay my respects to their elders past and present.

And in doing so, I reaffirm Labor’s longstanding support for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, written into – and protected by – our Constitution.

About two months ago, Anthony Albanese gave me some new responsibilities.

The portfolios amount to a pretty long title – but it really just means focusing on two priorities: jobs, and the future.

So, over these past couple of months I’ve been meeting as many Australians as I can – in their workplaces, their small businesses, their places of learning and going to the heart of our skills sector – our TAFEs.

I have seen the ingenuity we have, the determination and talent of Australians on show in so many places.

With Kate Thwaites I met Lovitt Technologies, a firm making world-leading components for the world’s biggest aerospace companies – employing 80 skilled Australians in suburban Melbourne.

In Newcastle, Tim Ayres, Sharon Claydon and I saw how workers at one of Australia’s last remaining steel manufacturing sites – Molycop – were using cutting-edge innovation to stay competitive.

And it’s not just the technology, Peta Murphy and I spoke to plumbing apprentices at Chisholm TAFE, proud, nervous and excited about leaping into a career on the tools: the value of a trade now no longer something people settle for but rather go for.

But that’s not the full picture of what is happening in our country. I’ve also stood with workers at ExxonMobil in Altona, on the day they were told that after more than 70 years of operation, the oil refinery will be closing. When it does close, there will be just two refineries left in Australia.

What I’ve seen speaks to our potential, but we are not a chance at fulfilling that as a nation if we don’t course correct right now on how we think about jobs, skills and science.

Over the last twelve months the coronavirus has written the story of 2020 and it is rewriting the story of our future. It has been the number one issue, the number one consideration, for all of us.

By and large, Australians feel proud of our success during this pandemic – as they should.

Yes, there have been setbacks here, and yes, there have been tragedies. But compared with much of the world, Australia has done a remarkable job. And people feel the fortune of being an Australian in these times.

But in all my conversations across the country in recent weeks no one, no one has said to me that they want Australia to go back to the way we were.

Scott Morrison likes to talk about Australia’s comeback. But ‘coming back’ cannot mean going back.

Because the way our nation was before COVID is not the way it ought to be after COVID.

For Labor, reconstruction does not mean returning to the pre-COVID world. Recovery from the COVID-19 crisis must be only the first step in our nation’s reconstruction of a better country on a better path.

Australia is being presented with the most significant chance to re-imagine our future that we have had since the end of World War II. And this is a moment that we simply have to grasp.

Because the reality is that Australia’s economy was drifting before we entered this crisis, and we cannot afford to drift out of it.

Let’s remember where Australia was about a year ago. The economy was experiencing lower-than-average growth. We had about two million Australians unemployed or under-employed. That means we had two million Australians looking for work. We were in a productivity paralysis. And Australian workers were facing a trifecta of challenges:

·        An insecure jobs market;
·        Flat wages; and
·        Falling living standards.

Ross Garnaut has called it “the dog days”, where, in his words, “Australia drifted to the back of a slow-moving pack.”

When Australians talk to me about the challenges they face day-to-day – not enough hours at work, no pay rises, higher bills, the sense that they are being stretched to do more and more with less and less – these are actually not complaints. They are just an honest assessment of what’s happening today in our economy.

And really, it’s not even their own circumstances that worries them. It’s what they don’t know about the future, the horizons that they cannot see, which keeps them up at night. Because there is a growing anxiety that parents everywhere across our country now have about the kind of future that is waiting for their kids.

Australia has always had an unwritten contract between the current generation and the next: that we hand on a better deal than we inherited. Whether it is as a parent, or as a political leader – that is our mission.

And so are we confident that our kids will be better off than we are?

This, I believe, is the key question for all of us in positions of influence, as we step out of the COVID crisis and into recovery. And it should be the central contest for the next federal election. Will this generation fulfil our end of the bargain, for the next generation?

If the opportunity for the reconstruction, for the re-imagination of Australia which COVID presents, is not seized, then for the first time in more than a century, I fear that ours will be the generation that fails this task.

In the 1850s, Australia rode the gold rush wave to prosperity. In the first half of the Twentieth Century we did it on the sheep’s back and at the beginning of this Century we enjoyed the mining boom.

But what will be the 21st Century secret to our success? Where will Australia be in 10, 20, 30 years’ time – when today’s high schoolers, primary schoolers and pre-schoolers are in the jobs market?

In the past, we’ve managed transitions in the economy – and become richer in the process. We’ve had lots of resources, lots of customers, and not a lot of competition.

But it is different now.

Those countries which are the most technologically advanced, and which have economies that are the most complex and the most dependent on human innovation, human intellect and human capital, are also the countries which are the wealthiest. These are the economies which are generating the most secure well-paid jobs.

In short: where lies modernity lies prosperity.

Depending on how you see it, modernity might lie in Seoul or Munich, perhaps Shanghai or Taipei. In another sense it might be Silicon Valley or Tel Aviv. But nowadays no-one is claiming that it is here. And the gap between Australia and the cutting edge of modernity is growing.

While developed countries have seen a shift to economies with a greater emphasis on the provision of services, particularly professional and financial services, what each of the of the places that I have mentioned has in common is that they have fought to hang on to manufacturing. Being in the business of making goods forms a critical part of being a diverse modern economy. And having a diverse modern economy is the key to the generation of well-paid secure jobs.

Manufacturing in a developed world context looks very different to the “dark satanic mills” of the industrial revolution. Manufacturing that competes solely on the basis of price – making low value products which in turn demand low wages – is unlikely to be a recipe for a prosperous Australia. But manufacturing that competes on quality – making the highest value products – is the means by which manufacturing can generate well paid jobs. This is the secret to modern manufacturing. And it demands that our manufacturing and our nation climbs the technological ladder.

This technological change comes with challenge and causes anxiety. A recent estimate suggests that in the next 15 years, 2.7 million Australian jobs are at risk of being lost to automation – about 20 per cent of the current workforce.

But technology also generates new jobs and lots of them. The jobs are there. The rise of technology, AI and automation can create more jobs across the world than they replace.

And while much of the innovation conversation is focused at the high-end of the skill spectrum, if we can grow advanced manufacturing in this country, as others have done, the new jobs won’t just come with white lab coats.

Blue-collar trade jobs are skilled-jobs. They are well-paid jobs. And they are essential jobs for our future.

We needed them in the traditional manufacturing industries, and we will need them for advanced manufacturing. We need to add value right along the supply chain and right along the skills spectrum.

Which, by the way, makes the Liberals’ long-term decimation of TAFE and apprenticeships so exceptionally stupid. They aren’t saving money, they are slashing skills and slaying future jobs.

But here’s the issue. Losing some old jobs in Australia is a near guarantee – it’s the safest bet you could make, we can’t stop it. But gaining the new jobs of the future is not guaranteed. We have to win those jobs. They will not be handed to us.

Others have recognised this – in different parts of the world, at different points in history. In the early 1960s, UK Labour Leader Harold Wilson asked his country to start a new chapter – by harnessing “the white heat of the technological revolution.” In doing so, he reminded them: “There is no more dangerous illusion than the comfortable doctrine that the world owes us a living.

So are we working as hard as Korea, or Singapore, or Japan, to prepare our economy and its future workers – our kids – to earn those future jobs?

Make no mistake – in the race for the jobs of the future, the starter’s gun has been fired. Other countries are off and running.

And in order to compete in and win that race, Australia must have the courage to embrace science and complexity.

Under Scott Morrison’s Coalition our nation’s relationship to technology has become fraught. When the Coalition Government goaded the car industry off-shore we lost our most complex manufacturing. Indeed in the last eight years we have seen as much de-industrialisation in Australia as in any period in our nation’s history.

Australia has lost sovereign industrial capability.

And to turn this around we must change our society in two key ways. First we need to be much better at turning science into jobs. And second we need to encourage our kids to study STEM subjects at school.

It is critical that Australia dramatically improves our capacity to commercialise our public research and make our economy more complex.

The Country Complexity Index produced every year by Harvard University, compares how we measure up in a world where high-value, highly-complex production generally means higher growth and higher wages.

Japan is ranked 1st. South Korea is 3rd. Singapore, 5th. China makes the top 20. Malaysia makes the top 30. But where does Australia rank?

We are ranked 87th in the world… sandwiched between Uganda and Burkina Faso… And we’re getting worse. It’s a number, which if we do not change, will describe a radically poorer future for our grandchildren.

When, at the Liberal Party’s urging, car manufacturing left Australia, there was a sense of nostalgia among us – a sense that we were waving goodbye to a piece of our past. But what we need to understand is that we were also waving goodbye to our future.

Because instead of climbing up the technology ladder, we were tumbling down it.

The Ford factory, in my hometown of Geelong – was much more than an old-fashioned assembly line. There were PhDs in that building. Researchers, designers, engineers, IT experts and every kind of trade skill you can think of. White-and-blue collar workers, the whole spectrum of skills, up and down the supply chain. And the Coalition just severed the chord. Surrendered an industry, sent away the jobs, sold out our future.

Once it’s gone, it is very hard to make it come back. And if Australia loses the refining sector and the petro-chemical and plastics industry with it – all high-tech manufacturing – we will be doing the same again.

By contrast since 2007, countries like Israel have grown their high-tech manufacturing from seven per cent to 23 per cent of their manufactured exports. Over the same period, our high tech exports as a percentage of GDP declined to 1.27 per cent.

New industries need new ideas.

As Professor Deborah Terry explained here a few weeks ago, the Global Innovation Index ranks Australia 13thfor innovation inputs, but 31st for innovation outputs.

We are punching at our weight when it comes to discovery, but we are relative laggards when it comes to turning discovery into dollars – into industry and jobs.

In recent years, we’ve been placed at the bottom of the OECD when it comes to the proportion of Australian businesses collaborating and innovating with universities – behind Chile and Latvia.

Australia must start turning science into jobs, and we must start by recognising science as an economic pillar, not just a high school project.

Indeed the single biggest micro-economic reform challenge facing our country today is to properly commercialise science: to do so thoughtfully and with a clear-eyed understanding that science means jobs and not just for scientists.

The starting point in this is to diagnose the problem and to make fixing it a political priority. To rebuild advanced manufacturing in this country, government must lead a national mission to play to our national strengths and to grow the industries of the future with new technology.

Research and Development funding continues to trend down – now below 1.8 per cent of our GDP. Compare this to South Korea, or Israel, who have kept increasing their R&D spends – and both are now close to five per cent of their GDP. Who is better placed to turn ideas into innovation, innovation into industry, industry into jobs – them, or us?

Australia needs public policy to support the skills, research and innovation that will build manufacturing capability. We need to reinvigorate research – and the commercialisation of public research.

While Labor will have more to say about the solutions as we move toward the next election a good place to start is Cicada Innovations.

Cicada is Australia’s top deep tech incubator, supporting more than 40 Australian tech firms. It is owned jointly by the University of Sydney, The University of New South Wales, the University of Technology Sydney and the Australia National University. A couple of weeks ago I visited their inner Sydney home with Ed Husic.

In one location they provide a base for new companies seeking to commercialise deep tech. But it is far more than just providing space. They help with early stage finance. They provide access to the research facilities of the universities involved along with their post-graduate students. They also provide mentoring and advice and allow the interaction of their companies to weave the magic of scientific collaboration.

In total it has helped more than 300 companies to raise more than $450 million, file more than 500 patents and trademarks, launch more than 700 deep tech innovations globally, and in the process helped create hundreds of jobs.

Cicada shows that there are examples of clever commercialisation of science happening in Australia. Our policy goal must be to find ways of ensuring that this best practice becomes the everyday practice in Australia. And that is exactly what Labor will do.

While commercialising science is critical, this will only be possible if we are developing the scientists of the future. And that means we have to do better at encouraging our kids and young adults to pursue studies in STEM.

The more Australians studying these fields, the better chance Australia has of catching the high-skill, high-tech jobs wave.

Dr Cathy Foley, Australia’s new Chief Scientist, spoke about this here last week – calling STEM skills “currency in the new economy”.

As Chief Scientist, she is making the education of children one of her foundational goals. This is terrific news. Because right now, we are coming up short.

On the sheer numbers, and on performance, we are failing our kids, and so failing their future. In the last decade, the proportion of Year 12 students studying a maths subjects has gone down, not up.  Only half of our high school students are studying a science subject in their final year of school. Less than a third are studying an ICT subject.

This year, a sample of Australian 15-year-olds will be tested in maths, science and reading to see how we compare to the rest of the world. The last OECD evaluation was in 2018 – and that showed, once again, our steady slide down the ladder. 12th in maths. 24th in science. We were beaten by China, Singapore, Japan, South Korea – to name a few.

They are beating our kids in education today, and if we are not careful these countries will beat our kids to the jobs of tomorrow.

When these rankings are released, we all talk about them for a few days, tut-tut over them, and then we move on. Can you imagine what would happen if Australia finished 24th at the Olympics? When we finished 10th in Rio, we actually seemed to lose our minds a bit. There were media reports calling it a “horror show”. One went as far to suggest that, quote, “a sense of despondency has engulfed Australia.”

Why are we not similarly upset about our performance in maths and science?

We need to raise the bar for our students – and raise the rate of STEM graduates.

I think it’s time we re-started the conversation about how much we are really valuing maths and science in our high school curricula. We know these skills are a compulsory part of the future economy. But learning these subjects is not.

English is compulsory through to year 12 but we let our kids quit maths and science. Let me be clear: Shakespeare matters. But Australia’s reality is that the future economy will need more engineers and coders than poets and playwrights.

At the heart of all of this is an even deeper issue: the place of science in Australian society and culture.

Last week I visited the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex at Tidbinbilla. Run by the CSIRO, it is funded by and forms part of NASA’s deep space network along with a facility outside Madrid in Spain and another at Goldstone in California. The network tracks and communicates with more than 30 spacecraft that are at a distance from the earth of the moon and well beyond. This includes the recently arrived Mars 2020 Perseverance rover.

About 90 people work at Tidbinbilla, half of them tradies.

In the control room I watched an operator communicate with Voyager 2. Along with Voyager 1, these spacecraft that were launched in 1977, are two of the furthest human-made objects from earth. Voyager 2 is travelling at about 15 kilometres per second and is now in interstellar space about 19 billion kilometres from Earth located beyond the heliosphere – the environment in space created by the sun. It still has instruments that work and is continuing to provide critical information about the nature of interstellar space.

It takes 17.5 light hours for a message to transmit from earth to Voyager 2 and the only radio telescope which has contact with Voyager 2 is the largest of the dishes at Tidbinbilla. And there I was watching 17.5 hour old data coming from Voyager 2 appear on the screen right in front of me.

All of this is happening now, just 40 minutes’ drive from here and who knows about it?

In Murchison, Western Australia, part of the largest radio telescope in the world is being built. About 130,000 low frequency antennas there will form part of an array of telescopes primarily located in Australia and in the Karoo, South Africa. Together they form the Square Kilometre Array telescope known as the SKA.

The SKA will illuminate the heavens in an unprecedented way. It will give us the best view of the origins of the universe. It will likely be able to detect planets in the universe with biomarkers in their atmosphere. And when it does, quite possibly at the end of this decade, we will have the first proof of life beyond earth. This will be a profound moment in human existence.

To operate, it will require two new supercomputers, each more powerful than the current most powerful supercomputer in the world. One of those will be based at the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre in Perth.

It has been called “one of the largest scientific endeavours in history.” The world’s smartest people are working on it – and that includes plenty of Australians. Indeed this is happening here in Australia.

And who knows about the Square Kilometre Array project? And who among you have reported on it or on the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex?

This is our Apollo. And barely anyone has heard of it.

I would be happy for you to ignore everything else I’ve said today… if you were to do one thing and tell your readers, your viewers and your listeners all about the wonderment of the SKA.

Because when I take a step back it seems to me that if all this astonishing science can be happening in Australia and yet be largely unreported by you and undiscussed by us in Parliament House why would we expect our kids to be excited by science? Why would we expect our companies to invest in science? And why would we imagine that we will suddenly start to commercialise science?

To reimagine the place of science in Australia, Australia must change its cultural relationship to science. And that begins with a very different conversation about science which Labor intends to lead. And at its heart is seeing science as an economic pillar.

Tackling Australia’s need to turn science into jobs speaks in a couple of ways to a broader narrative that Labor will also pursue through to the next election.

The COVID pandemic, for all its difficulties and disruptions, has reminded Australians that we are all in this together. No one can buy their way out of COVID. When someone falls it effects the whole society and all of us need to help them get back on their feet. And in the midst of this, the role of government in leading the country on a path of reconstruction is paramount. The role of government has been central to Australia surviving the pandemic. Government will be pivotal in making the decisions and providing the support to rebuild Australian industry including through turning science into jobs.

Using the power of government to improve the realities of people’s lives and build our nation is at the core of the Labor project.

Scientific discovery and the benefits for humanity that come from it, is rooted in risk, aspiration and opportunity. And this is central to Labor under Anthony Albanese.

Australians aren’t asking for a free ride. They aren’t even asking for life to be easier. They don’t mind working hard. Every day, in every corner of this country, decent, diligent people are fulfilling their end of the bargain. Doing all they can to build a better future for their kids. They just want to know that all their hard work and sacrifice will count for something. That their government is working just as hard as they are to help achieve this.

Hard work should be rewarded. And government needs to nurture an environment where Australians can pursue opportunity. That applies to those who seek to commercialise the latest technology. It also applies to the families of middle Australia who want the opportunity to invest and build their hard-earned wealth for the benefit of themselves and their kids.

Our values haven’t changed, but our values must now apply to a new vision for a new world. And I do believe this is fundamentally a mission for the modern Labor party. To provide security and certainty for Australian families, and opportunity for their future.

Mr Morrison has a script, of sorts, that he gives the Australian people. It’s almost a fairy-tale. That there’s nothing to worry about. That everything will be okay. That we are coming back from the COVID crisis, and that’s all that matters.

But if our only goal is to climb out of the COVID hole, we will soon realise we are just sitting on sinking sand. The Morrison fairy-tale will quickly evaporate when Australia wakes up in a world for which it is unprepared. And we will be leaving the next generation to count the cost.

So what is Australia’s future? As a forgotten country? At the bottom of the globe and the bottom of the ladder? With a lost generation who don’t have the skills to succeed in the new economy, because the generation before them squandered the chance to plan for it?

Or will we fulfil our end of the bargain? Will we join the race for the jobs of the future? Will we raise the bar for our kids, rebuild our industries and reimagine science and skills for a modern economy?

Australian Labor has made our choice.

We choose to plan for the future. To prepare our economy. To provide the opportunity for our kids to take their place in a new world. To help Australian families make good on that promise, and to hand on a better deal to the next generation.

Because Labor chooses to be on your side.


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