The competition between states and territories to host the Australian space agency is heating up, despite concerns the rivalries may undermine the agency’s national mission.
The federal government recently revealed the details of the space agency, which will be operational from July. The federal budget allocated $26 million over four years for the establishment of the body and a further $15 million for investment in space ventures.
The government didn’t decide where the agency should be permanently based though, with inaugural boss Megan Clark to tour the states and territories, and make a decision by the end of the year.
The space agency will be temporarily housed within the industry department in Canberra until a formal decision is made.
The announcement sparked intense lobbying efforts from state governments to host the agency, and revealed rifts within the local sector over the agency’s functions and overarching aims.
The key split is between those arguing the headquarters should be based in a major metropolis, such as Sydney or Melbourne, so it is surrounded by business and public servants; those that believe it should be closer to potential launch sites in Western Australia or South Australia; and those pushing for a mix of these approaches, with a headquarter in Canberra and regional nodes around the country.
A number of states are in the midst of putting together formal applications to host the agency’s headquarters, with Western Australia and South Australia getting out of the blocks quickly.
South Australian premier Steven Marshall has already met with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, defence minister Marise Payne and innovation minister Michaelia Cash to spruik the state’s space capabilities.
“I have made it very clear that the state government wants to make South Australia the undisputed champion of the space industry, and we are positioning ourselves to have the operations of the national space agency located in our state,” Mr Marshall said.
Western Australia has also begun its campaign, with a number of National members arguing the agency should be based in the north-west central region of the state.
“Given Western Australia has cemented itself as a geographical hot spot for space industry-related projects, I’m pushing for the ASA to have its headquarters established in our state. This is an opportunity to put party politics aside and join together for the benefit of WA,” Nationals WA senate candidate Nick Fardell said.
New South Wales has recruited Australian astronaut Paul Scully-Power to lead the state’s push to host the agency, which it will directly link with Sydney’s new Aerotropolis around the new Badgerys Creek airport.
ACT chief minister Andrew Barr has said that it makes sense to leave the agency in Canberra, saying this is the “natural home”.
“Clearly the ACT is not going to win a bidding war against jurisdictions that have budgets that are 15 or 20 times larger than us but we have capability in areas they never have and so that will be our advantage,” Mr Barr said.
Victoria and Queensland are also understood to be currently putting together a formal pitch to host the Australian space agency.
Senator Cash recently wrote an op-ed on the space agency, specifically mentioning the South Australian bid.
“It has been very encouraging to see South Australia and other states and territories expressing strong interest in the space agency. Dr Clark will be talking to all of them about their capabilities and I recently met with Premier Steven Marshall in Adelaide to be advised of what South Australia could bring to the table,” Senator Cash wrote.
“I look forward to seeing what South Australia and other states and territories can offer to help build our national space industry. The space industry is everywhere, and expanding faster than ever before.”
But shadow innovation minister Kim Carr has raised concerns with the increasing competition between states to host the agency’s headquarters.
“Labor is concerned that the Liberals will use the establishment of a space agency as an excuse to engage in marginal seat pork barrelling, pitting states against each other as possible hosts, rather than seeking their collaboration in the national interest,” Senator Carr said.
“The development of an Australian space industry is a national endeavour. It requires the active participation of companies, universities, workers and scientists across the nation. Any suggestion that one state should talk the lead over another could sabotage the agency at its birth.”
Labor’s policy on the matter calls for “state-based nodes as required”. This is a common argument among the space sector, with arguments that the space agency should have a central base in a major city, and nodes across the company that are closer to potential launch sites.
These potential launch sites are mostly in Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory, and it would make sense to have a space agency base close to these sites.
Saber Astronautics director Jason Held said this “all-of-Australia” approach is the only way that the agency will be effective in growing the national sector as a whole.
“Most states argue loudly to host the agency because they want the federal dollars all to themselves. A centralised approach serves very narrow innovation paths and ‘golden handshake’ deals for a small pie of funds disenfranchises the rest of the nation,” Dr Held told InnovationAus.com.
“Instead, let’s have an all-of-Australia national growth strategy where every state hosts a hub with opportunities to participate by small business, opportunities for investment at the local level, for each actor in each state. You will see far greater participation from talent which will pay off in the next four years.”
But with only $26 million over four years provided by the government to establish the agency, many others in the sector believe there are not enough funds on offer to go with the decentralised approach to the body, with multiple bases around the country.
“It’s not going to be viable to have something in ever state in the first year, that would turn all funds into overhead and we need to look at the big picture of what’s best for Australia to be sustainable,” Australian space pioneer Andrea Boyd told InnovationAus.com.
Instead, Ms Boyd said the space agency should have a headquarters in Canberra along with an engineering, research and technology hub in Adelaide. Other states would then have to later pitch to host an office, and put money on the table.
“Both South Australia and ACT are ready for this right now and have a well planned Memorandum of Understanding in place to support each other and the federal agency. Other states could follow the German model and propose a centre there later, funded 90 percent by state in the first year to be incorporated into the federal agency after that,” she said.
“States should have a building, with a purpose, ready to propose if they would like to host a new space agency hub.”
Even with the low level of funding, Dr Held argued that the “all-of-Australia” approach is necessary.
“Even if we had $1 million instead I wouldn’t want to centralise. It makes no sense at all. There are some people, friends of mine, who claim that an Australian strategy will spread the money too thin. But this isn’t true because this isn’t a project-based agency, it’s not a mini-NASA. The mission is not to go to the moon, it is instead about building businesses that can go to the moon,” he said.
“A single location means that only companies and researchers from that single location can benefit. Any other talent would have to move – it’ll be the biggest poach-a-thon in Australian history.”