Press conference announcing $60 million for Questacon

Increased funding for Questacon; Future Made in Australia Office; Welfare payments; R&D Tax Incentive.

ED HUSIC, MINISTER FOR INDUSTRY AND SCIENCE: Hi, everyone. Thank you for joining us today. It is a pleasure to be here. We're on Ngunnawal and Ngambri land, and I pay respects to Elders past and present. For what's an important announcement, it's terrific to be here with Alicia Payne, who is a very strong advocate, not just for national institutions, but I also welcome her very thorough support in terms of the investment in science, in thinking ahead about the future of the economy and our community, having ideas drive better outcomes. 

Really important to have someone like Alicia in the government being able to champion that and for us to be here as well with the Minister for Finance who has done a lot of focus on how we can support our longer term, crucial investment in national institutions, which Katy will speak about shortly. And also pleasure to be here with Jo White, the director of Questacon, who I'd like to invite up after we finish to talk about the investment further in terms of what we're making today. 

Because Questacon is a big deal, it's not just a monument to grateful parents working out how do we entertain their kids when they come down to Canberra. It attracts 500,000 visitors a year, of which 150,000 are school students. It is not just about a place for play. What Questacon does is it sparks an interest curiosity and potentially creates a pathway for future science and tech talent in this country. It is really important that we have somewhere, a national institution like Questacon, where we invest in it to modernise it, to make sure the building is fit for purpose. Questacon was kicked off by another Labor Government in 1988. We are deeply committed to this as a national institution, but importantly, being able to encourage that interest in science and technology really important. We want a modern building, with modern exhibits that can provide an experience for young Australians to be able to, as I said, spark that interest. 

Now, the issue for us when coming into government, is that a number of national institutions, including Questacon, weren't getting the level of support required for their longer-term future and growth. We were determined as a new government to be able to correct that. I was certainly determined as a Minister for Science to ensure we had an investment in an institution like this, that it remains state of the art and it will remain a focal point in educating young Australians to become, as I said, that next generation of talent that's so much required and needed for our future growth. 

So, to be able to have both, this has been a two-stage investment. What we are announcing today in terms of the budget is $60 million to be able to invest directly in the building. But it's also built on the investment we made in our first budget in October last year, where we provided for an additional amount of support to provide for outreach. 150,000 students make it here every year roughly, but there are about 70,000 we reach through the exhibits done through Questacon's outreach, which is critical. And so, to be able to have the kids that come here, but also in different parts of the country an ability to excite and inspire people from different corners of the community, to be able to think about positively a future in science and technology, really important. So, this is a serious investment by the Albanese government in terms of being able to inspire and support the development of the next generation of talent. But importantly, too, it's a commitment that we have to our national institutions. And I'd like to invite Katy Gallagher to be able to speak further on that.

SENATOR THE HON KATY GALLAGHER, MINISTER FOR FINANCE: Thanks very much. Really, it's great to be part of such a positive announcement and I do stand here as one of the representatives of Canberra, being a local with Alicia and I'm sure our children feel very fortunate for it to be in our hometown, and I saw firsthand as a parent how this place inspired imagination and interest from my children in science and technology. 

So you know Questacon is an important part of our city. But this is an area that has been neglected, along with other national institutions in Canberra. So the investment in the fund today is to ensure its long term sustainability so it's to me much needed to ensure the safety for children that come here, due to what was left unattended to by the former Government, but also to give some sustainability going forward so we can retain qualified staff who want to work here. 

So this is a really important investment and it builds on the investment that we made over half a billion dollars going into other national institutions in this place. This was one of those legacy items that I've been talking about in recent days where you know, under-funding, under-investments swept under the carpet ignored and we've uncovered that and we believe in honest transparent budgeting. And to do so means dealing with some of these pressures and being upfront about them and that means you know in the Budget you will see money for these national institutions. 

And you'll see over $5 billion going to addressing some of these challenges, financial pressures that we're seeing across the board. So that's an important message but the message today is one of thanks. Thanks to Ed, who's been such a strong advocate, Alicia Payne, you know, making sure that like me that she is advocating on behalf of, you know, places like this, that that's so important to her electorate as well. And, you know, I think at the end of the day, this cleans up the mess, but it's got a very important positive message about the role we see. Jo, do you want to say something?

JO WHITE, DIRECTOR OF QUESTACON: Very, very good morning everyone, what an honour and a privilege to lead this institution. Cabinet make budget decisions so very much the focus today is on the government. And I would like to say this; we're very welcome to see this, as this is highly significant in addressing issues of our future.

ED HUSIC: And before we get to questions, I just also just wanted to echo the comments. Not just about the team, I want to thank them and honestly, for the care and devotion that they extend to the younger generation coming through, but there's also a very big cohort of volunteers that helps out and all of them on behalf of the government I want to extend our deep gratitude for the time that they dedicate free of charge to help young people into the future. Now, with that, thanks, and a very heartfelt thanks. And more than happy to answer any questions. 

JOURNALIST: Minister Husic, just on the Future Made in Australia Office, what metrics will you use measure the success of using procurement for industry support? 

ED HUSIC: Katy and I are both very focused on reforming procurement. Obviously procurement, if you looked at the three years prior to when we made the announcement, roughly 160 to 180 billion spent over three years on buying services - goods and services, for government. And if we get it right we can provide a huge bonus in meeting the needs of government but using Australian industry to do so. One of the reasons we set up the Future Made in Australia Office, which is teamed up with both people from Finance and the Department of Industry, Science and Resources, was to start thinking through how we could coordinate that and open up procurement pathways to engage. 

We’re working through the development of those metrics as well. Clearly, the biggest metric is more Australian industry involvement. We do think about that on a range of different areas. You’ve heard it, for example, in terms of the announcement we made around the investment in AUKUS in trying to open up pathways for Australian industry to be engaged in the defence of the nation. We think from a civil perspective there’s a lot that can be done with respect to that across portfolios. So we’re talking to portfolio ministers and involving them in some of that consideration of work. 

I do think it’s important that we we can get value for money by using Australian industry that have got products that are used by other governments and other firms from overseas. They’ve signalled their faith and support in the capability of Australian industry and we want to be able to demonstrate likewise. 

JOURNALIST: Are you able to indicate what the timeline might be before we start seeing results? 

ED HUSIC: Well, as you know, I’ve been very impatient as a minister to get a lot of things done and made declarations that haven’t worked out in the time frame, being very frank with you all. So what I might do is learn from experience and say to you that we’ll release those time frames in due course. But what is unwavering is my impatience. I’m very keen to see very good outcomes for Australian industry, to be able to meet and obviously satisfy taxpayers. Taxpayers want to know that we’re getting value for money. Tick. But I think taxpayers also have a keen sense that it makes good sense to be able to, if we’re buying goods and services, to try to get them locally. It’s why we’ve got a whole, very active agenda, as you’ve seen, founded off the National Reconstruction Fund, the work that we’re lining up to be able to make sure the lessons of the pandemic are learned, that the things that we need, that are critical to us, we want to be able to do more of that onshore and to be able to satisfy what we need as a country. We’re working through it. 

JOURNALIST: So, in the press release it says that this money will in part go to critical property upgrades to maintain business safety.’ What does that sort of mean? Is it new stairs or new windows or are the upgrades at the front?

ED HUSIC: Look, I might actually defer to Jo, if that’s okay, and you can talk through some of that. 

JOURNALIST: Yeah, what are the actual details of the maintenance?

JO WHITE: We’ve got a very detailed building services review and we’ve got over 90 items that we need to upgrade. It’s a very beautiful building. 35 years old and they’re used for life and there’s other areas we need to work on in terms of accessibility, in different parts of the Canberra site there’s parts of the roof that are leaking. We also have a number of our digital assets that support our organisation, for example. They’re very aged. So those upgrades from paper-based form or reviewing on a paper-based form are on that 90 upgrades review.

JOURNALIST: On safety, that was mentioned in this section that the children that are visiting parts of the building that are currently closed or need upgrades? 

JO WHITE: No, safety is our number one priority. We have had short-term funding which we’ve been using to address the most significant safety issues. That funding runs out at the end of the year. So this is a very welcome investment in terms of our long-term asset program. So it’s safety first and you can know that it’s not unsafe to go in parts of the building. 

JOURNALIST: And what about entry fees? Can you use this funding as an opportunity to freeze or reduce them, keep them the same going forward? 

JO WHITE: I know Minister Husic is very keen to ensure that the admission fees are not increased an option to address some of those issues, thinking about cost of living pressures. So this means that at this particular point in time it will keep the same. 

JOURNALIST: And what about the division of this chunk of money that you’ve been getting? How much has been given to outreach and how much will go to the building itself and repairs? 

JO WHITE: The full details of what’s going to be released will come out in the May budget next week. Happy to take more questions divisions of spending in more detail then. It does give us ongoing funding for our national programs which is fantastic.

JOURNALIST: Can I ask the Finance Minister on another topic: job seekers are concerned that the government poured cold water on the Economic Inclusion Advisory Committee’s call for a substantial increase to JobSeeker. Now accepting that it can’t all be fixed in one go, will Labor begin the poverty reduction task in this budget? 

KATY GALLAGHER: Well, I don’t necessarily agree with your assessment on the Economic Inclusion Advisory Committee’s report. There were 37 recommendations. I think the point we made was that we couldn’t do all of them, in one budget and, that we would have a significant response to that report that we’ve been saying that for some time.

I’ve also been saying there will be a very significant cost of living package in this budget and that that will be targeted to the most vulnerable Australians. I think that’s what you would expect from a Labor government. But the full details of the extent of that cost of living package and what’s in it will be released as part of the budget. You just have to wait a little while longer – just over a week. 

JOURNALIST: Minister, what about infrastructure projects? Are you looking at reviewing some of those as a way to increase jobseeker? 

KATY GALLAGHER: Well, no, those two issues are not linked. I mean, the Minister for Infrastructure has announced her review today, of the makeup of the infrastructure investment pipeline. That’s a $120 billion program over 10 years. And we’ve made a commitment that that investment remains but that there will be a significant piece of work done now to look at the projects that fall within that pipeline. 

We absolutely want to work with the states and territories on that. But, we know that, you know, certainty about infrastructure and making sure those projects are seen over the longer term is really important. But it’s another one of those areas where we’re cleaning up the mess, where we’ve got, oversubscription, a number of projects that are in there that, might not have had the necessary underpinning work done before they were loaded into the program, and the Minister is going through that in a very methodical way to ensure that it’s the pipeline that we need. 

JOURNALIST: Is the government considering temporarily increasing rental assistance? 

KATY GALLAGHER: Well, we’ve got a cost of living package that will be announced as part of the budget. The details of that will be available budget night. 

JOURNALIST: Minister, on the Future Made in Australia Office again, it was stood up to in the last budget using existing department funding. Given some of the issues we’ve seen at the NDIA and Services Aus with their procurement practices and the findings of the Watt review, do you think that the office is going to need additional funding, to beef it up, perhaps, give it some regulatory heft?

KATY GALLAGHER: Well, I think if you look at across the public service, we’re doing a big piece of work about how we’re responding, again, to the legacy pressures of, reducing the capability of the public service. So there’s a broader public service rebuild story going on. The Department of Finance is part of that. So we always look at the resources, where they’re allocated. At the moment we have a lot of resources in Finance poured into the budget, as you would expect. But working on the Future Made in Australia, we’re working with industry, Ed and myself are working very closely together to maximise the resources we have available to deliver the outcomes that both Ed and I and our impatience are after. 

There’ll be more to be done. As Ed said, we’re working, you don’t read about this in the press but, we’re working with ministers, having meetings with each minister that has a responsibility under our Buy Australian Plan. We’ve had roundtables, we’ve engaged with industry. Ed does that all the time. I’m working across the public service. 

There’s a huge amount of work going in because we’re making sure we’re getting it right to put in place the changes we want to see. We’d think that, if taxpayers are spending a dollar, we want to make sure we’re getting $3 for that, if it’s actually investing in local companies and providing security for them, meets taxpayer obligations, that’s a good outcome. 

JOURNALIST: Can I ask about Ngurra, which is the National Resting Place for Indigenous remains? Is there going to be some money for that? There’s only a couple of hundred – what’s happening with that? Are you going to fund it in the budget? Like, where is it up to? 

KATY GALLAGHER: Yeah, so there’s a fair bit of work going into that. There’s obviously money that was previously allocated, so that remains. I think there’s more consultations to be had about what the project finalised looks like, and that’s an ongoing piece of work. I’ve had some discussions with elders in the last little while about views on that. So there isn’t a unanimous view on that at the moment. But, you know, we are committed to resolving that and making sure we get the project rolling. 

JOURNALIST: Is that a finance issue?

KATY GALLAGHER: The money is in the budget. 

JOURNALIST: Minister, on another Canberra matter. Do you support federal government funding for a new Canberra stadium? 

KATY GALLAGHER: Well, Canberra certainly needs a new stadium. I don’t think there’s any secret about that. I’ve had a couple of meetings in the last few weeks with the Chief Minister about, actually not just on sport but on a range of matters. But I think there’s a real opportunity here for the ACT government and the Commonwealth government to work together to deliver good outcomes, whether it be across infrastructure or programs, and we’ll continue to do that. 

I mean, the priority for Canberra from my point of view in the last few budgets – and I would ask you people to go back and have a look at investments in Canberra. We’ve been dealing with these legacy issues, makes those investments, $600 million there. The national security precinct, very, very significant project up with the ASIO building in terms of jobs and investment in Canberra there and rebuilding the public service. 

It is our big employer in town. The extra investments we’re making there are with the city. So they’ve been my priorities, but we will continue to work with the ACT government on other opportunities. And I note the stadium is part of that, but there’s a whole range of other issues they’ve raised as well. 

JOURNALIST: So the stadium isn’t a priority right now in this budget? 

KATY GALLAGHER: No, I wouldn’t say that. I would say, Catherine, the Minister for Infrastructure, needs to – she’ll be working on infrastructure projects with the ACT government. What I’m saying is my priority has been dealing with some of the very, very big issues facing this town, which was the eroding of the public service, making sure we’re getting the investments in the public service and the buildings we need and dealing with some of the issues with these current facilities and services that weren’t being addressed. 

Now, when you package all that up, that is billions and billions of investment in this city. And that has been my priority. Infrastructure projects, Catherine King will be working with Andrew Barr on. I’m aware of the pressures around sport, the stadium, a whole range of issues around the AIS as well and we will constructively engage with the ACT government on that to deliver a good outcome. I’m very confident we will get there in the end. 

JOURNALIST: Just another on housing, what do you make of the Greens touting victory for their housing campaign? They’re saying they’ve just committed to a rent freeze.

KATY GALLAGHER: Well, I think the biggest and best thing the Greens and the Liberal Party could do would be to support the Housing Australia Future Fund. It’s currently stuck in the Senate - $10 billion of investment that we want to unlock so that we can make investments in social and affordable housing. At the moment the Greens are refusing to allow that bill to progress, and that should be the priority. 

On the issue of rent and rent rights and the issues dealt with by national cabinet, I think there’s obviously been engagement at state and territory level around, you know, how they manage some of that. It’s appropriate that the Commonwealth be part of those discussions more broadly. But I think there’s an open acknowledgement that those issues rest at the state and territory level where they can be and should be dealt with. 

JOURNALIST: Just a couple more on the budget, if I may – at the 2019 election Labor were promising tying federal hospital funding to the provision of abortion services. Why have you walked away from that?

KATY GALLAGHER: I’m not aware of that, sorry. I’m not across that. You know, I think that’s probably a matter for the Health Minister. I know the National Health and Hospital Agreement is under review at the moment, and there’ll be negotiations running alongside that. But we - the current hospital agreement is in place, it hasn’t been revised. But there will be negotiations ongoing in the next year or so. But it’s probably on the detail of the Health Minister. 

JOURNALIST: Minister, just on the R&D tax incentives, so the Department of Industry put out its science, research and innovation budget tables last Friday. The estimates for the non-refundable portion of that scheme are different to the tax expenditure and insights statement that was put out earlier this year. So, I was just wondering, why is it so difficult to sort of budget for it and how – yeah, could you shed some more light on how that’ll be done? 

ED HUSIC: Yeah, there’s a bit of that. Look, there’s definitely complexity in that that I won’t necessarily belabour the entire press conference with. I’m happy to go through that. Obviously, we try to get the balance right with the way the incentive operates and work with Treasury on that. So I’m happy to answer that further and I’ll get you some more detail in respect to that. Publishing those tables is whole tray of paper so I’ll have to come back to you on. 

What I would say is we certainly recognise the value of the incentive. The RDTI, most people, most businesses when I go out and I’m talking to them about it, they say, “Ed, one thing we want you to do with it is nothing.” They’re quite happy with it. It’s been a very important issue that’s been supported across Labor and Liberal governments to be able to drive, in particular, business engagement in R&D. 

We do have a challenge long term about lifting R&D in this country to comparable investment by other countries in the OECD. We’re 1.8 per cent of GDP at the moment; the OECD is tracking at 3. We want to be able to see future growth in the economy and we want to see commercialisation of those ideas and the uptake in broader industry. We’re going to have to do better. 

So we’ve started a process – you saw the update of the national science priorities in the science statement. We need to look longer term at investment. I think your publication has noted and keeps close track on the various components of R&D being spent, particularly the business expenditure side of it as well. We’ve got to find ways – it can’t all be driven out of government. So longer-term RDTI does play a role there but how do we get people to focus on that? A lot of it is driven at the moment either by government or universities. How do we broaden that out? That’s a big longer-term challenge that we need to address.