The government’s planned cuts to research and development will hamper Australia’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, while tax incentives for R&D should be paid out early, Labor leader Anthony Albanese says.
In a headland speech on science and innovation at the National Press Club on Wednesday, Mr Albanese called for a science and tech-led rebound from the current economic crisis, through an increased effort with commercialisation and R&D.
He called on the Coalition to scrap its planned cuts to the R&D tax incentive, to develop a plan to increase the number of STEM workers in the country, and to double down on investment in artificial intelligence.
The pandemic could be used as an opportunity for a reset of science and technology policies.
“For years, science has been taking a pounding in that perversity we call the culture wars. A pandemic has snapped us back to reality. COVID-19 has reunited us with our respect for science. And with that has come an understanding that science is what can take us from lockdown to unlocking our potential,” Mr Albanese said.
“And as we get better at converting that hunger for knowledge into dollars, science will be the core of our future economic growth, our new industries and the jobs they will create,” he said.
“What we have is nothing short of a chance to create a better Australia, and it is powered by science. There are so many opportunities – but as Labor understands instinctively, you can only get the policy settings right when you listen to and respect the science.”
The idea of technology being a key driver for economic growth in Australia has “gone missing” recently, Mr Albanese said, but COVID-19 has shown that it has to be a priority.
“The pandemic has shown up our economy as being short on resilience. We are making ourselves vulnerable to a decline in living standards. And when the next crisis severs global supply lines, we will be exposed.
“This is our chance to start turning things around. The future belongs to those countries that innovate, adapt and adjust. When it comes to repairing and building that economy, technology and innovation will be key to boosting productivity, growing local manufacturing and achieving self-reliance.”
While total R&D investment has fallen below 2 per cent of Australia’s GDP, the federal government is still planning to make changes to the R&D tax incentive (RDTI) amounting to a $1.8 billion cut to the scheme. The RDTI is a primary mechanism through which the government stimulates research and development in the private sector.
Labor will oppose these changes, which are currently the subject of a delayed senate inquiry and backing calls for the next round of refunds through the scheme to be paid early to assist with the coronavirus recovery.
“Unless we invest in R&D, we will only be able to read the story of our proud manufacturing history, when we should be writing the next chapter,” he said.
The government must urgently develop a “comprehensive plan to create a supply of STEM workers”, something that has been undermined by job losses at the CSIRO and the planned cuts to the RDTI, Mr Albanese said.
Labor also called for policies to encourage the superannuation industry to invest in infrastructure, technology and research and development.
The government should also be investing far more heavily in artificial intelligence, with Mr Albanese calling on the Coalition to adopt Labor’s election commitment of a National Centre of AI Excellence.
“This centre needs to be established now. It would help chart the likely national investment required in this area by bringing together those with a stake in the effect of AI’s application in our economy,” he said.