National Press Club address: Building the economy for the future

Canberra ACT

Thank you Laura [Tingle] for your introduction, and for inviting me to speak at the National Press Club.

I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet – the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people. 

And I pay my respects to elders, past and present, and to any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people here today.  

A few weeks ago, I caught up with Kylie Walker, CEO of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE).

Kylie always has a new and interesting story to tell me about what ATSE’s Fellows are up to.

She told me about how up in Queensland, in the tiny town of Camooweal, a new industry is taking root. 

It’s First Nations owned and led, connecting thousands of years of know-how with the latest in Australian materials science.

For nearly a decade now, the Dugalunji Aboriginal Corporation has been working with University of Queensland researchers, including ATSE Fellow Professor Darren Martin, to turn spinifex grass into new materials, like stronger cement and recycled paper. 

Together, they are working to commercialise spinifex grass for a range of industry applications. 

They’re pushing the limits of what’s possible in materials science. 

Turning microscopic fibres of spinifex grass into materials eight times as strong as steel.

In a tiny town in north-western Queensland, barely 12 kilometres from the Northern Territory border, a more natural and more sustainable basis for carbon fibre products is being cultivated.

I keep thinking about the story Kylie told me.

Because it brings together values and ideas on which my approach to this portfolio is built. 

It is a story that is uniquely Australian, forged from the harshness of our climate and the ingenuity of the people who live here.

Celebrating Australian skills and know-how, wherever they come from: cities and towns, our regions and remote communities. 

Fostering new kinds of partnerships, not just in pursuit of economic benefit but for the benefit of local communities.

Creating new jobs.

Jobs bridging agriculture, science and manufacturing. 

Widening the pipeline of talent in our STEM sector, introducing First Nations communities to materials science and elevating

First Nations knowledge for materials scientists.

And, developed in pursuit of a more sustainable life for everybody. 

But it also left me with a question. 

What else do they need? 

Have we done all that we can to ensure that great Australian science, put to new industrial uses, is set up not just to survive but thrive in this country?

A country that makes things again

We want Australia to be a country that makes things again.

It’s that simple. 

And it’s not out of some rose-tinted nostalgia for the old days of Australian manufacturing. 

Because in reclaiming the idea of a country that make things, there is the potential to reshape what we as a people can achieve, together.

To reinvigorate faith in Australian ideas and know-how.

To remind ourselves that we have all the ingredients we need right here – the people, the capability, the natural resources – to compete with the best in the world to produce new technologies and research.

In communities around Australia, people get why manufacturing matters.

They also know how manufacturing has changed and evolved.

Manufacturing is more than smokestacks, or rows of workers pumping out parts. 

Today, if you want to compete you need sharp manufacturing capability.

And manufacturing spans sectors as diverse as medicine, transport, computing, and clean energy.  

Since taking on this role, I have travelled to all parts of the country. 

And I’ve been energised by what I’ve seen: firms having a go. 

Pioneering new ideas. Defying doubt.

It can be in Western Australia, where Glide Products is using high-grade aluminium to manufacture manual and powered wheelchairs that can easily be recycled. 

It could be here in the ACT, where Goterra are using native insects to break down food and organic waste, creating new proteins and fertilisers.

It could be in Queensland, where Graphene Manufacturing Group is experimenting to develop batteries that charge 70 times faster and have three times the battery life of today’s lithium batteries.

There are Australian companies testing the limits of what’s possible with emerging technologies, paving the way for a greener future. 

Australia’s first quantum computing company, Silicon Quantum Computing, was the first company in the world to manufacture an integrated circuit at the atomic scale.  

QuantX Labs in Adelaide is building the world’s most precise quantum sensors and clocks, for space and defence applications.

In Perth, the Pawsey Centre has announced that their Setonix supercomputer has been named the fourth greenest supercomputer in the world. 

And while the applications these companies create cover everything from quantum tech to modern fertilisers, from biotech to battery manufacturing, they are connected by the same spirit.

A willingness to take risks and to embrace new ideas, fuelled by a faith that new ideas actually have a home here. That they can grow here. 

Where we’re at now

There is, in some corners of this country, an outdated view of manufacturing. 

A sense that manufacturing is something we did once, but don’t do now.

This lack of faith in our ability to make things has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Right now, Australia ranks dead last among OECD countries in manufacturing self-sufficiency. 

We have the smallest manufacturing industry relative to domestic purchases of any OECD country. 

Our consumption of manufacturing output is nearly double our domestic manufacturing output.

And we have slipped in economic complexity from a modest 55 in 1995 to 91st in the world in 2020.

We import the bulk of what we need across sectors. 

And yet, the signs are there that we can take a different path. 

Because despite our tendency to take what we can get from overseas instead of what we build at home, the manufacturing sector is still our seventh largest employer, directly employing nearly 900,000 skilled workers across the country. 

And while the pandemic demonstrated just how vulnerable our supply chains have become to overseas shocks, it has also opened peoples’ eyes to our domestic capabilities. 

What can be done when we need to get it done.

When COVID-19 first hit our shores, we couldn’t get a hold of PPE or masks.

But almost overnight, we watched local companies pivot their own facilities to help plug the gaps. 

They were visible, and essential. 

Dr Jens Goennemann from the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre has observed if we understand manufacturing as a capability that permeates every industry, we can transform Australia from a lucky country into a smart one. 

The pandemic showed us that luck doesn’t last forever.

We need to be smart, too. 

And we’re not the only country to have realised this. Around the world, industry policy is being remade before our eyes to shore up local manufacturing capability.

In the US, President Joe Biden is delivering on Made in America commitments, with more than $100 billion in announced investments in electric vehicles, batteries and critical minerals, as well as nearly $80 billion in semi-conductor manufacturing. 

In our own region, Singapore has unveiled a 10-year plan to boost local manufacturing by 50 per cent.

Now, Australia can be a bystander to these changes or it can be a driver of change.

Working with our partners around the world, we want to see Australia once more at the forefront of technological innovation and advanced manufacturing. 

To make sure Australians benefit from our home-grown ingenuity.

Australia can be a place that makes things. But it won’t just happen because we declare it so.

What has been missing is our preparedness to engage, to invest, to act boldly.

To believe.

To work together - across science, industry, manufacturing, in every sector of the economy - in pursuit of a common, more prosperous future.

Investing in Australian science, and connecting it to industry

For Australia to boost its manufacturing output, we must do three things:

  1. Invest in our human capital 
  2. Strategically invest in Australian ideas 
  3. Invest in our future technological potential.

This portfolio is where all those needs come together. 

They shape actions that this government has prioritised in its first six months, and I want to briefly explain how they fit together.

First, investing in our human capital. 

I’m going to start by taking you back 30 years, to this quote:

In this national task of mobilising our human resources, our scientists and researchers stand at the forefront. Australia must reduce its reliance on imported technology and borrowed research. We must become a leader in the production and export of ideas.

The person who said that was Prime Minister Bob Hawke. And he said it during his election campaign launch in 1990.

The need for this action has spanned decades.

That insight was part of his appeal to the Australian people.

They recognised the truth of it then. And they know it today.

Science enables new discoveries; it is the fuel for transformed industries. It is essential to our economic prosperity and our national well-being.

This government firmly believes in the importance of science for all aspects of life. 

As Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said last week at the PM’s Prizes for Science:

investing in science is investing in our future.

Some of the greatest breakthroughs in science have come from happy accidents, or repeated failures. 

Today, we are benefiting from years of basic research in areas that are now poised for commercialisation. Areas like quantum technologies through to synthetic biology.

It has been a longstanding Labor ambition to increase investment in research & development in this country.

One of my predecessors Kim Carr was a tireless advocate to achieve change, and I am picking up that torch. 

R&D intensity in the OECD has been steadily rising, with the OECD average up to 2.67 per cent in 2020. Countries like Israel, Korea and Belgium have sustained particularly large growth.

In contrast, Australia has been sliding down the ranks. The 2022 WIPO Global Innovation index ranks Australia as the 25th most innovative country overall, dropping from 23rd in 2020.

And yet, our research capacity is high. We’re ranked 5th in the world in human capital and research, in that same index.

We clearly have the science capability. 

Manufacturers are already some of our biggest investors in research and development. 

Currently the manufacturing sector makes up almost 30 per cent of total R&D expenditure through the government’s Research and Development Tax Incentive. 

The science ecosystem is a broad one, spanning the lab bench to the board room to the factory floor. 

We need to support it, and sustain it, from basic research at the lab bench to new industrial uses and technologies. 

To this end, we have kicked off consultation to revitalise Australia’s science priorities. This is being led by the Chief Scientist Dr Cathy Foley and will be delivered by September 2023.

Our refreshed priorities will complement this government’s review of the Australian Research Council and the development of a Universities Accord, led by my friend and colleague Jason Clare, Minister for Education.

As a new government, we were quick out of the blocks to transform the conversation and the culture around skills and knowledge; industry and jobs, that are part of our science and technology pipeline. 

We have a goal of getting to 1.2 million tech-related jobs in Australia by 2030. 

This may sound like a high number, but today there are already more software engineers and developers in Australia than there are hairdressers or solicitors. 

To reach that target, we are working to widen the pipeline of STEM talent from all corners of the community.

The Digital and Tech Skills Compact Working Group, which I established with my colleague Brendan O’Connor, the Minister for Skills and Training, is a collaboration between government, unions and technology employers that will develop a pilot scheme designed to support workers entering the tech industry from all walks of life. 

We are also investing heavily to create more university places and fee-free TAFE places across the board.

And we are taking action to improve the diversity of our STEM workforce, drawing lessons from what’s working and what’s not. 

I have commissioned an independent review of my portfolio’s Diversity in STEM programs, to ensure that the initiatives we have to improve the range of Australians entering are working as intended.

Without properly investing in human capital, we have an impoverished science capability.

And that strengthened science capability is essential to re-invigorating our manufacturing base. 

But for this manufacturing base to be sustained, we must provide more opportunities for Australian businesses to develop and market their products within Australia and overseas.

This is why together with my colleague, the Minister for Finance Katy Gallagher, we are delivering the Buy Australia plan, a significant procurement reform program.

It aims to level the playing field for SMEs, regional and Indigenous-owned businesses, and support the creation of new jobs. 

Putting taxpayer dollars to work to create new work here.

Investing in human capital also means supporting the next wave of Australian entrepreneurs, emerging from our universities, our cities and towns. 

Encouraging Australians to invest in new ideas and new businesses that could be our next big breakthrough.

Imagine a future in which students are able to stay on for a further year at university to participate in startup incubators and accelerators, with the opportunity to translate their ideas into new, vibrant businesses.  

That’s Startup Year, a policy we want to bring to life with Minister Clare. With the support of a modified HECS scheme, up to 2000 new firms could be created and new jobs fostered.

This will help produce the next wave of companies translating science into the jobs and technologies of our future. 

New firms. New jobs. New growth.

Investing in human capital is the first step. It must also be partnered with investment in our industry capital.

The National Reconstruction Fund

Tomorrow, I will introduce the legislation enabling the establishment of the $15 billion National Reconstruction Fund.

This is delivering on a key election commitment. 

The National Reconstruction Fund is one of the largest peacetime investments in our country’s manufacturing capability in living memory.

It will help drive economic development in our regions and outer suburbs, boosting our sovereign capability, diversify the nation’s economy, and importantly, help create secure jobs.

The $15 billion fund will be governed by an independent Board, built on the model that Labor previously championed with the Clean Energy Finance Corporation.

It will be empowered to invest through a combination of loans, guarantees and equity, including with institutional investors, private equity and venture capital. 

It will be administered on the basis that it will achieve a return to cover borrowing costs, and it will have an expected positive underlying cash impact.

Minister Gallagher and I will also establish an NRF Reference Group shortly - made up of leading figures in industry and investment circles. 

This group will help guide the development of the NRF and its investment mandate.

Now, among some in the community there is still this rusted-on sense that when it comes to industry policy, governments should not be “picking winners”. 

That governments should only be considered as investors of last resort, intervening when the market has failed.

This is a diminished view of the role of government. And, a missed opportunity.  

Governments can and should strategically and thoughtfully invest in the industries of the future.

That’s what our friends and allies are doing. In the United States, companies like SpaceX, SolarCity and Tesla have thrived largely thanks to government investment. Together, those three companies received nearly 5 billion US dollars from the US government.

When we hail the growth of industries in other parts of the world as an example of what can be done here, just know that governments do act strategically and methodically to nurture and grow those industries.

And this is what we intend to achieve through the National Reconstruction Fund. 

Strategic investments, in priority areas. For example, in:

  • Value adding in resources.
  • Value-adding in agriculture, forestry and fisheries.
  • Transport.
  • Medical science.
  • Renewables and low emission technologies.
  • Defence capabilities.

And in enabling capabilities across sectors, such as robotics, AI and quantum. These will drive future economic growth.

By investing in Australia we will have mass and we will have momentum. And we’re not going to let it fall away. 

From next week, my department will open broad public consultation to further define the scope of the seven priority areas of the economy for investment, and how the fund will make investment decisions.

The NRF will not be doing everything. It will be doing important things. 

And every company that approaches the NRF will need to be prepared appropriately. 

They will need a business plan. They will need to show how they propose to build solid companies, that generate a return and support the creation of secure, well-paid jobs.

And there will not be a colour-coded spreadsheet in sight.

The NRF is the connective tissue between human capital and technological potential that shapes my portfolio.

It is one mechanism through which we will realise our ambition to better connect science and industry, to ensure Australian-made discoveries can be commercialised and scaled in our nation. 

I don’t want scientists, researchers and innovators thinking their nation turned their back on them, and that the only way to realise their dreams is to head offshore.  

We want more Australian companies to think globally and build locally.

We have missed opportunities in the past. We are determined we do not do that again.

Embracing and building on emerging technologies

Australia was once one of the world’s leaders in the development of a technology that transformed all our lives.

One of the world’s first ever digital computers was built right here in Australia, by Dr Trevor Pearcey and a team of men and women engineers.

We built it. This island nation, far from those other early computing pioneers in the US and UK.

It came out of the predecessor to the CSIRO.

And we put this emerging technology to work, in pursuit of major projects like the Snowy Hydro.

We cannot let opportunities slip through our fingers again.

The NRF dedicates $1 billion to enabling capabilities, including critical technologies, an important plank in my portfolio.

There are three areas we have already identified as critical to our future:  

  • quantum technologies
  • robotics and sensing technologies, and 
  • clean energy generation & storage technologies.

These are already being bolstered by strategies under way within the portfolio.

Quantum technologies will transform communications, sensing, computing and cryptography. They’ll enable new manufacturing possibilities, new drug designs, new possibilities in foundational research. 

Updated market projections released by CSIRO just a few weeks ago have shown that quantum technology is forecast to reach $6 billion and generate more than 19,000 jobs in Australia by 2045. 

It could soon match oil and gas sectors in Australia, in terms of jobs created.

We have a comparative advantage in building and commercialising quantum technologies, developed off the back of decades of research investment in quantum physics. 

We need to ensure we embed quantum capability and value here in Australia, for the benefit of Australians. 

This is why this government is delivering Australia’s first National Quantum Strategy, which will be published in the very near future.  

Another important area is in robotics.

You might not know this, but Australia is a global leader in field robotics - robots that operate in large, unstructured outdoor domains, like aerial, land and underwater robots.

In 2021, robotics companies were estimated to be worth $18 billion in annual revenue to the Australian economy, up from $12 billion in 2018. 

Robotics technologies will be part of our industrial future. And this is why I have also committed to delivering a National Robotics Strategy.

It’s not about replacing workers. It cannot be about replacing workers.

We are not racing against robots, we are racing with them – to industries and jobs of the future. 

Manufacturers are already entwining automation with human skill, to develop secure, well-paying jobs.  

We have also prioritised the development of a National Battery Strategy, which will ensure we take our place in the high-value supply chains in battery manufacturing now and in times ahead.

We don’t want to simply extract some of the world’s most valuable minerals and simply send them offshore.

We can transform those minerals into value and jobs right here. 

If we mine it here, we should make it here.

Our plan is to deliver a domestic battery manufacturing industry that will combine Australian-sourced minerals, Australian know-how and Australian skills to power the clean energy transition here and around the world.

Having coherent, national approaches to the development and uptake of key emerging technologies, are part of ensuring these technologies don’t just deliver economic growth, but safeguard our national wellbeing. 

This investment in our technological potential ensures we always have one eye on the future of our industries, not just the short-term. 


Around this country we have Australians defying doubt. 

The scientists and researchers, entrepreneurs and small business owners.

From the newest of startups to the most established of manufacturers, they are dreaming big and taking risks.

What has been missing, this past decade, has been faith in the power and strength of Australian ideas.

Here. In government. 

From the National Reconstruction Fund to our Buy Australian procurement plan, from investing in skills, and helping scale up new technologies like quantum and robotics:

From our very early days of government, we are planning for the years ahead. 

Our government is laying the foundation for Australia’s future prosperity and wellbeing: a nation that makes things here and trades them with the world. 

The decisions we are making today are all in pursuit of a vibrant future for science, industry and manufacturing in Australia. 

A future that involves Australians from all walks of life.

That celebrates skills and know-how from wherever they appear. 

A future in which the spark of an idea, cultivated through thousands of years of First Nations knowledge and refined through the lens of materials science, can become a new business that is changing lives and communities. 

A future in which new ideas are nourished and sustained, becoming sources of heat and light for others.

Some people might think my portfolio is about getting the wheels and gears turning together - science, industry, manufacturing.

But I see in it something of the nation’s character. 

Our smarts. Our ingenuity.

Our defiant refusal to “know our place”, preferring to act and confound the doubters.

We come up with big ideas. Now as a country we must cultivate the courage to follow them through.

We must make these investments in our human capital, in these big ideas, and in our technological potential, work together. 

The Albanese Government has faith in Australian know-how; faith in our people; faith in our ability to build things here. 

The NRF tomorrow is a down payment on that faith, with many more in the years to come.

Thank you.