Senate debates

Monday, 11 September 2023

Matters of Public Importance

Space Industry

4:27 pm

Photo of Andrew McLachlanAndrew McLachlan (SA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Fawcett has submitted a proposal under standing order 75 today:

Pursuant to standing order 75, I propose that the following matter of public importance be submitted to the Senate for discussion:

"Labor's decision to keep Australian taxpayers and the United States in the dark about the axing of the $1.2 billion National Space Mission for Earth Observation program demonstrates yet another failure of transparency and that they do not comprehend the important role our space industry plays in Australia's scientific, economic and diplomatic future".

Is the proposal supported?

More than the number of senators required by the standing orders having risen in their places—

With the concurrence of the Senate, the clerks will set the clock in line with the informal arrangements made by the whips.

4:28 pm

Photo of David FawcettDavid Fawcett (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

CETT () (): I rise to address this matter of public importance because the decision made by the Albanese government to cut the funding for this program is significant in three areas which I will address: firstly, the substantive impact on Australia's space industry; secondly, the secondary impacts for areas such as defence; and, thirdly, the diplomatic impact of the decision, made without transparency, that has affected not only Australia and our defence capabilities but also our allies.

To the substantive effect: the $1.2 billion National Space Mission for Earth Observation was an important program. The reason it was supported by the former coalition government was that we saw the benefit of having a sovereign satellite capability that would stretch over the next two decades. Defence, the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology saw the benefits in terms of security—particularly maritime security—weather observation, climate change, water quality assessment and environmental monitoring, as well as looking at things like disaster preparation. Importantly, what it meant was that Australia would have the funding and the investment in our own industry to be able to design and build four satellites so that we would have not only that ability to not only design the satellite payload, the satellite bus, the launch vehicle and the launch system but also the ability to tile that together and launch and operate these satellites. Not only would that serve those domestic purposes but it would also mean that we would not be a free-rider in the world of satellites and strategic data services but a contributor to our own uses and to those of our allies, including the United States.

Cutting this program has built upon a pattern of behaviour by the Albanese government. In March I spoke about the fact that in their national reconstruction fund bill, space was one area they overlooked—in contrast to the coalition, who in our national manufacturing priorities made space one of the primary areas. We invested in a whole range of areas such as international space investment, the Space Infrastructure Fund, the Moon to Mars mission and Australia's first national space mission. The CEO of the Space Industry Association of Australia, James Brown, has said that the National Space Mission for Earth Observation was 'the most strategic and significant space public policy in 40 years'. ASPI's Malcolm Davis has highlighted that this decision is political, it's a short-term money grab and it ignores the long-term benefits to the economy, to defence and to our national interest.

The remarks attributed to the minister's office say there's nothing to see here. They say 'there were no commercial contracts entered into'. Importantly, and this is emblematic of what it means for the space industry, the CEO of the Space Industry Association of Australia has highlighted that as a result of this cancellation, investments that were planned for Australia's space sector already being cancelled. So there will be no more commercial arrangements entered into if this is the way the Albanese government proceeds.

Going to defence, we see in the media recently that a number of nations are creating capabilities to disable satellites, which means that in a conflict where we may need our own industry to be able to launch satellites with both ISR and communications packages, we will no longer have a pathway to enable them to do that in a timely manner, because this program has been cut. Lastly, on the diplomatic side, by not being transparent with the US and, importantly, by cutting this program, we've actually severed a relationship with one of our strategic partners. I notice in the speaking points were the key messages that were uncovered only through freedom of information: key message 23, subparagraph (c), from the Albanese government said 'we appreciate this likely poses challenges for Congress on appropriations and complicates your planning'. Congress, at this exact moment, is debating whether or not they pass legislation to support Australia with things like the AUKUS agreement. Given how important AUKUS is, memo to Minister Albanese: you and your decisions are not helping.

4:33 pm

Photo of Tim AyresTim Ayres (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Trade) Share this | | Hansard source

We see week 2 of the sitting fortnight hasn't been much better than week 1 for the coalition and their process of thinking about what it is that they bring forward as matters of public importance. It will be incremental, I assume, but you can only hope that there will be improvement over time.

Photo of Matt O'SullivanMatt O'Sullivan (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It only gets worse for you, mate.

Photo of Tim AyresTim Ayres (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Trade) Share this | | Hansard source

We'll see whether it gets worse or it gets better, won't we? It couldn't get worse in terms of the performance of those opposite in terms of what they focus on as matters of public importance. It couldn't get worse.

Photo of Claire ChandlerClaire Chandler (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

Through the chair, please, Senator Ayres.

Photo of Tim AyresTim Ayres (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Trade) Share this | | Hansard source

There were a number of difficult decisions that the incoming Albanese government had to take to deal with the legacy of record debt and deficit left by the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison governments—a trillion dollars in debt and nothing to show for it, much of that accumulated in a series of reckless spending decisions prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a trillion dollars of debt over a decade.

We as a government have been up-front and transparent both about the global economic outlook and the headwinds that Australia confronts, and indeed the decision not to proceed with certain programs, including the National Space Mission for Earth Observation program. The industry minister has been absolutely transparent about all of this—all of it. The Albanese government ensured that the United States knew that the program wouldn't proceed ahead of the announcement. In fact, that's what the documents released to the coalition demonstrate—the steps that were undertaken in an adult way, in a procedurally correct way, to make sure not only that the appropriate government officials were notified at the appropriate time but also that partners in Australia who were engaged in these programs were notified, and it was done in a programmatically specific kind of way, a way that was entirely appropriate.

The carry-on from the Liberal Party about this is utterly extraordinary. The coalition characterised this as 'keeping Australian taxpayers and the United States in the dark'. Senator Fawcett just said that it 'severed the relationship'! What an extraordinarily preposterous thing to say, at a moment when the relationship between Australia and the United States is remarkably complex and deep. It is a relationship founded, in fact, by the Labor Party in government. The idea that you would say such a silly thing in the hope of getting a few column inches in one of our national newspapers just shows how cavalier your approach is—how cavalier your friends, Madam Acting Deputy President Chandler, over there in the Liberal Party, are to the national interest. This sort of smug sense of entitlement that you can say anything you want to try to damage the national interest is utterly consistent with your approach to transparency over the time. You say the wildest possible things.

And there's a history here around transparency. The former energy minister—or one of the former energy ministers—Angus Taylor hid electricity price rises from Australian voters on the eve of the May election in an utterly disgraceful way. Mr Morrison's office selectively leaked his private text messages to the French president, no less, ahead of the dumping of a defence contract, in the most nakedly partisan, disgraceful effort. It's never been properly accounted for. And who could forget Mr Morrison's secret ministries? We won't be lectured about accountability and transparency, and we certainly won't be lectured about the national interest, by that lot. (Time expired)

4:38 pm

Photo of David ShoebridgeDavid Shoebridge (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Investing in science is important, and the Greens think it's important for more than just a wedge between the opposition and the government. It's important as a significant policy outcome. So, while I'm supporting this matter of public importance motion today regarding the National Space Mission for Earth Observation program, I note significant concerns about the attempt to play 'gotcha' politics with science investment and funding. Cutting space programs for budget repair, which is the Albanese government's approach, doesn't make sense in the context of a financial black hole, which is also supported by the Albanese government, that is the $300 billion to $400 billion, and growing, stage 3 tax cuts, or the $368 billion, and growing, budget black hole for some nuclear submarines that are never likely to turn up.

Why don't we engage in budget repair by cutting the nuclear submarine program, or by cutting the $45 billion Hunter frigates program—and not cutting it just by reducing the number of frigates but actually reducing the money that we're sending to the UK arms manufacturer? Why don't we cut the subsidies for planet-killing fossil fuels instead of attacking science and the space industry? You can bet, though, that if defence thought there was an advantage to this program then it would have quietly had the funding doubled rather than cut in the way that's happened under the Albanese government. We know that to be a serious player in space requires long-term investment to build local capacity and with it the skilled jobs, the industries and the infrastructure to succeed. Instead of doing that, cutting the Australian space force program shows a government that is literally willing to fund war and climate disaster while it withdraws critical investment in space and science.

When we do space programs properly, we get information and answers that relate to some of the biggest problems we have on the planet. But then you need to listen to those answers and act on that information. Much of the information we should be responding to that we've received through Australian and other space programs is about the imminent and catastrophic impacts of climate change. The opposition arguing to fund science won't do any good if they won't listen to the answers that that science tells us, which is to keep coal and gas in the ground. We already use much of the data from Earth-observing satellites to comprehensively understand what's going on with our planet and what's going wrong with our planet—the water, land and atmosphere generally as well as the challenges by extreme weather and other disasters. So yes to holding on to these kinds of critical investments. Yes to this science, which is supported by the National Academy of Sciences. But let's not just do the science—let's then listen to it.

4:41 pm

Photo of Linda ReynoldsLinda Reynolds (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I too rise to speak on Senator Fawcett's motion on the National Space Mission for Earth Observation program, and I endorse everything that he said. Hiding the truth is just as bad as telling the truth to your friends and allies, and it is the surest way to lose their trust in our relationship, particularly in relationships that are as important as AUKUS. In addition to endorsing Senator Fawcett's comments, I also want to pick up Senator Ayres's points. He admitted that this was a cost-cutting measure, but it's somewhat incongruous, because in question time we had the finance minister saying what a fabulous surplus they're going to have. The two statements do not add up.

But, as a previous defence minister, I want to also add that this decision will not only impact our defence-to-defence relationship at AUKUS but also result in the degradation of defence space capability. In 2020, as the minister at the time, in the Defence Strategic Update I introduced a standalone space capability domain as a standalone defence operational domain. This is now critical and fundamental to defence operations, particularly to ADF's joint force, which relies on access to space systems and space situational awareness. The simple fact is that our potential adversaries are significantly increasing their offensive space capabilities in a range of areas, and no single nation, not even the United States, can tackle these threats on their own. Interoperability and every single nation, in terms of our friends and allies—we all have to do our own share of the heavy lifting. While this is a civilian space capability, those who have worked in this sector for some time know that, with our allies, the most successful defence and civilian space capability programs are those that operate together.

This program that the Labor Party have surreptitiously cut for budgeting purposes, as Senator Ayres has now admitted, will have a significant implication on defence as well. One of the things that the war in Ukraine has proven is how irregular warfare tactics work in the modern era. Part of that involves Russia operating in the grey zone in space when it comes to their tactics to block an impact on satellite systems of not just Ukraine but also their allies. So we are now well and truly in an era of irregular warfare in space, and we and our allies must adapt to this. As I've said, that not only requires defence capabilities. It also requires, increasingly, defence to work with civilian space capabilities.

To develop the right countermeasures, the threats must be identified and we must have redundancies in our defence systems in case they are taken out. Amongst the grey-zone space threats we now confront are cyberattacks against space services, attacks on commercial space capabilities during conflict, and the conduct of proximity operations. That may potentially be to coerce those you're in direct conflict with, as in the case of Ukraine. Alternatively, some of our potential adversaries could do that to us to intimidate us—something short of war. Cyberattacks against the United States satellite firm Viasat ahead of the Russian invasion of Ukraine are an example of that. So cyberspace is a soft underbelly of our global space networks. Far from cutting the services for which we have gone into joint arrangements with the United States, we should continue to increase them.

Coming back to defence, as the minister I ensured that the Morrison government significantly increased investment in Defence space capabilities, including a plan for a network of satellites to provide an independent and sovereign communications network. But, as I said, for Defence the civilian satellite networks are also incredibly important. I also implemented an enhanced space control program and investment in space situational awareness, including sensors and tracking systems, and I also ensured that Defence worked more closely with the space industry here in Australia and overseas and with other relevant government agencies including, most importantly, the Australian Space Agency. Again, we stumped up an extra $7 billion for these space capabilities for Defence. Not only have Labor axed space as a priority in their National Reconstruction Fund, whereas it had been a priority under the Modern Manufacturing Initiative, which was an initiative of ours; they are now— (Time expired)

4:46 pm

Photo of Malcolm RobertsMalcolm Roberts (Queensland, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party) Share this | | Hansard source

As a servant to the many different people who make up our one Queensland community, I thank Senator Fawcett for his matter of public importance, which One Nation supports. The Albanese government's decision to terminate the National Space Mission for Earth Observation, NSMEO, will cost jobs in North Queensland. Abbot Point is a perfect location for a space facility. It's close to the equator and offers consistent beautiful Queensland weather, providing for a reliable launch. A North Queensland space industry and launch facility would be able to capitalise on the Abbot Point steel park, already gazetted and just waiting for the Iron Boomerang steel mills. An Australian Academy of Science report from 2022 called for:

… investment in a home-grown Earth observation satellite program, which would design, build, launch and operate the satellites and the sensors on-board used to collect a wide range of data types.

The program providing Australia with its own remote sensing capabilities, with all the jobs and expertise this would involve, was designed to reduce sovereign risk. Remote sensing is the mapping of Australia from space, providing, firstly, an emergency capability to track bushfires, floods and the usual extreme weather events; and, secondly, routine commercial mapping that would have grown Australia's productive capacity. Did the Albanese government not know what remote sensing was or the importance of having this capacity under public control rather than relying on a patchwork of private and foreign government suppliers? It's not as if we can save the money. We still need this capability somehow.

The cancellation of the NSMEO follows the axing last month of the Australian spaceports program, which would have seen government funding assist in the establishment of launch facilities on Australian soil. The effect of these decisions, taken together, is to decimate the Australian space industry at a time when the industry was moving into a commercial phase. This decision is damaging regional Australia, damaging our national productive capacity, damaging our national security and reducing opportunities for career choices for our children.

4:48 pm

Photo of Andrew BraggAndrew Bragg (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Of course, this is an important matter of public importance because it is an opportunity for us to showcase that the government only gets out of bed each day if it is for a vested interest, and typically these vested interests are the fellow travellers that are engaged in the Labor Party's preselections and fundraising for public office. Chiefly, these are known as the trade union movement and the industry super fund movement. Any other part of the private economy, particularly a small or disruptive business, is on its own, pretty much, with this government, because the government really only responds to the policy agenda as it's been drafted for it by its favourite fellow travellers. This is no exception.

At the last couple of Senate estimates I've had the opportunity to inquire about why the government has commissioned extensive reviews and has then decided to make cuts to the nation's space program. Mr Husic has made the judgement call that space is not important to this government and he has decided to cut various programs. Of course in the freedom-of-information documents that have been canvassed by the opposition it is clear that this is not an action the government is proud of. The government doesn't want the public to know—particularly, I suspect, people who live in the great state of South Australia—that the judgement has been made to axe many of the large programs. Therefore, the resulting private investment that would have accompanied public investment in the space program is not going to materialise. The consequence of that is that there will be fewer jobs and fewer opportunities in Australia, particularly, I'd hazard a guess, in the great state of South Australia. That is the consequence of these actions. South Australia has always needed all the help it can get; it is a great state, but it is a state that hasn't always had the largest private sector. Therefore, it is in desperate need of more of this type of investment.

The freedom-of-information documents show that the government is too embarrassed to tell our partners in the United States that these judgements have been made, and there have been deliberate attempts to try to conceal this information revealed by the freedom-of-information process. I canvassed this in the space industry and there is great uncertainty now as to whether there can be extensive private investment in the Australian space sector, because of the ongoing uncertainty with the endless reviews. The government not only hit the ground reviewing but they basically cancelled all the initiatives that had already been established by the former government. That has meant the country doesn't have the sort of certainty we need for the promotion of private investment. It also means we're now letting down our allies. As Senator Fawcett and others have noted, this is a very unfortunate time for us to be letting our allies down, particularly when we are negotiating and engaging in a transfer of technology which is needed to power submarines and which could be used for other purposes in the future.

This is a very difficult moment in our region's history, perhaps it is the most dangerous since the Second World War. We have been able to negotiate with friendly governments and with our allies the transfer of very sensitive, but very important, technologies. We don't want to be a fairweather friend and we don't want to be a jurisdiction which is unreliable; we want to be a jurisdiction which sticks to the commitments we make. Everyone knows there is great strategic advantage for the country and for our allies in properly understanding the opportunity of space. This is why we have been committed to this great endeavour for some time, and it's why it is so regrettable that endless reviews have been part of the government's approach and also that there have been these indiscriminate cuts. As I said before, the freedom-of-information documents make it very clear that the national government is embarrassed about that.

4:53 pm

Photo of Slade BrockmanSlade Brockman (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I too rise to speak on this matter of public importance. I congratulate Senator Fawcett for bringing this matter to the attention of the Senate and to the attention of the Australian people, because this is a very important matter. Why is earth observation important? Others have talked about the environmental benefits of earth observation but for my home state of Western Australia—also the home state of my colleagues in the chamber, Senator Dean Smith and Senator O'Sullivan—earth observation is key to the economic development of Western Australia. It's key to the mining industry, in understanding what resources are where, and it's key to the agriculture industry in terms of predicting weather patterns, weather events, bushfire risk and the like. So it is absolutely key to the economic future of our home state of Western Australia, and that is why the National Space Mission for Earth Observation program, which was announced in the March 2022 budget and allocated funding, was so important. It was something that was embraced by our key ally, the United States. I think what is most disturbing and what really needs highlighting is the fact that this government, the Labor government, has treated that alliance with such disrespect.

I want to quote from the FOI-ed emails directly. This is from an adviser in Minister Husic's office, issuing a direction from, apparently, the Prime Minister 's office and Minister Husic to this effect:

DC Post—

Washington, DC post—

to notify US system under strict embargo. Only those who need to know. Note that it was an express preference from the Minister and PMO that US be notified no earlier than Wednesday AU time …

Think about that for a moment. 'It was an express preference from the minister and PMO that the US be notified no earlier than Wednesday AU time.'

Later in that same email it goes on to say, 'MO Husic to brief'—MO is ministerial office, so Husic's ministerial office—'caucus colleagues and select media.' When was that? It was on Wednesday. So the minister and the Prime Minister 's office are directing post to keep the US in the dark so, apparently, the minister can brief caucus colleagues and select media outlets. Does that sound like the way to handle your key geopolitical, geostrategic relationship? You are keeping the US in the dark so the minister has time to brief his caucus colleagues and media outlets. Is that really the way any government would be expected to handle such a sensitive and important matter as space industry development. And it was a commitment made by the Australian government. That should never be forgotten. We should not walk away from our commitments in such a cavalier fashion.

The post in Washington was clearly disturbed by the government's action when they send back an email a bit later on and they use these words—remember, these are diplomats, and in my experience diplomats always choose their words very carefully. How did the diplomats respond? They said: 'Our strong feeling is that we need to brief the NSpC this evening.' For those listening, what is the NSpC? It's the National Space Council, a policy body of the White House. So the diplomatic mission is coming back after being told to keep this quiet to give the minister time to brief caucus and select media outlets. Meanwhile, our diplomatic mission in Washington is saying, 'No, we should be telling the National Space Council this evening.' This is an inappropriate use of power.

Photo of Claire ChandlerClaire Chandler (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

The time for discussion has expired.