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Stop the faux bidding war to host Australia's space agency

Opinion

The establishment of an Australian space agency should be a unifying national endeavour, not an unedifying marginal seat pork barrel, writes Labor Senator Kim Carr.

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Senator Rex Patrick has been in politics long enough, as a senator and previously as an adviser, to know when a government is trying to manipulate state rivalries in its own interest.

His comments on where Australia’s new space agency should be located, however, indicate that he has failed to recognise what the Turnbull Government is doing by dangling the agency before the states as a prize to be won.

He ought to know better.

The Government has announced that the head of the agency, Dr Megan Clark, will tour the states and territories to assess the best possible location for the agency’s permanent home.

Under the Government’s plan, the temporary base for the agency in Canberra has been extended from six to 12 months.

A final decision will not be made until next year, after the federal election. There is no guarantee that it will not be the same as Labor’s policy, which I announced in September last year – that the national space agency should be based in the national capital.

But in the meantime, state and territory governments are already trying to outbid each other in presenting themselves as the most desirable location for the agency. Which is just what Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Jobs and Innovation Minister Michaelia Cash hoped would happen.

They have not started this faux bidding war because their aim is to harness Australia’s scientific and industrial resources to build a sovereign national capability in space – they have done it because Australia is on the cusp of an election and they are desperately trying to shore-up marginal seats.

They have form in deploying a marginal seats strategy in the guise of industry policy, of course.

That is the approach they have taken to naval shipbuilding, which is why Senator Patrick should be able to see that it is happening again with the space agency.

Former NASA astronaut Andy Thomas has thrown his support behind South Australia becoming the home of the national space agency. Photo: AAP/Mark Brake

He should be able to see that the Government’s incitement of a bidding war, which is really an exercise in deferred pork-barrelling, is not in the national interest.

But it seems he is so dazzled by the prospect of pork for SA that he has allowed the barrel to roll over him completely, obliterating his usually sound political judgment.

Last week he accused me of being somewhere in outer space when I said that agency should be based in Canberra, with nodes in the states.

But it is Senator Patrick who has stars in his eyes. If he really wanted Australia to seize the opportunity it now has to develop a new national space industry, he would understand that this must be a coordinated national effort.

He has cited SA’s existing aerospace businesses and its history as a launch location as the reason why the agency should be located in his home state, just as the NSW, Victorian and WA governments have all pointed to the clusters of aerospace companies and space science activities in their states, too.

And the Northern Territory Government has reminded any journalist who will listen that a strong case can be made for locating launch facilities as close to the equator as possible.

The truth is that every state and territory will be able to contribute to the national space effort. And that’s why the best place for the agency is in the national capital, to lead that effort.

Perhaps Senator Patrick, as a member of a party that has not built a base outside his home state of South Australia, cannot see this.

Now is the time to put state rivalries aside…

Other senators and MPs, especially those who are members of parties that aspire to govern, do not have the luxury of seeing this through a state-based prism.

That is why, when I spoke last week on Australia’s future in space to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, I said that the task of the new agency is a nation-building undertaking with profound national implications.

That is the approach a Labor government will take to Australia’s emerging space industry and the agency that will lead it.

We want the states to maintain their efforts, but we want all Australians to share in the benefits of a national space industry.

I said that space and the associated technologies and manufacturing may provide us with a way of re-legitimising technological change for the people of this country as a whole.

We would be selling Australia short if we did not take that approach.

Now is not the time for a bidding war on the location of the agency, which can only be counter-productive.

Now is the time to put state rivalries aside, and to work together to build Australia’s future in space.

Senator Kim Carr is the Shadow Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research.

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