Turnbull restores Data61 funding

James Riley
Editorial Director

If you believe the Australian Financial Review’s Phil Coorey, the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is set to restore funding to Australia’s flagship ICT research and commercialisation agency, Data61.

And why wouldn’t you believe Phil Coorey? Apart from being the stand-out in the Canberra Press Gallery, he is close the Mr Turnbull’s office. And the Data61 story seemed very detailed. And very well briefed.

Of course there was no confirmation from the Prime Minister’s Office this morning. But the fact that Mr Turnbull’s travel arrangements for the next several weeks were detailed yesterday is a little bit interesting (as conspiracy theorists like to say.)

Power couple: Mr Turnbull will meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel tomorrow*

Mr Turnbull will meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin tomorrow. This is almost certainly why we are reading about science funding in the Fin today. Mr Turnbull and Mrs Merkel have history. (Phil Coorey is overseas covering the PM’s trip, which I guess is sort of interesting also.)

Data61 was created just months ago through the merger of NICTA (the ICT research agency set up during by the Howard Government in the very early 2000’s) and the digital productivity flagship of Australia’s CSIRO.

As we know, the merger was forced after the Abbott Government withdrew Federal funding for NICTA.

A year ago, Mrs Merkel was given a rock-star’s welcome at a tour of the NICTA headquarters at the Australian Technology Park in Sydney.

The Chancellor, who is a Physicist by training, has been a champion of science and research in Europe and is said to insist on visiting some kind of research facility on her foreign visits.

At that time, NICTA was selected because it was host to the highest profile, most important Germany-Australia research collaboration of the day. NICTA had partnered with the famed Fraunhofer on project called the Future Logistics Living Lab, which was all about using data optimisation tools to improve the logistics sector performance.

With Mrs Merkel in Australia for the G20 meeting – the first visit by a Chancellor in 25 years – a tour of NICTA seemed a no-brainer. Except that NICTA was on life-support, fighting for its life, abandoned by its own government.

Talk about awkward.

The icing on the cake in this story is that Mrs Merkel was to be escorted through the NICTA by the then Industry Minister Ian “Chainsaw” Macfarlane, who had been assigned the task by Prime Minister Abbott’s office – under the previous regime’s ‘anyone but Turnbull’ policy.

Oh, what fun it is to reminisce! Of course, Mr Macfarlane was a well-regarded industry minister, but it is probably fair to say that ICT was not really his thing. And besides, Mr Turnbull (who as Communications Minister shared portfolio responsibility for NICTA with Chainsaw) had been the primary spokesman on all things NICTA-related to that point.

You can read about the Merkel visit here. As it turned out Mr Turnbull fought his way into Mrs Merkel’s touring party for NICTA that day.

Which is just as well.

Restoring funding for Data61 sends a powerful message. It will underline Malcolm Turnbull’s departure from Abbott Government policy in this critical area.

It is important, also, that the Prime Minister has this in his back pocket prior to his meeting with Mrs Merkel. Because accessing research collaborations in Germany (in particular) and Europe (more generally) is critical – these are important entry-points to global innovation supply-chains.

And such collaborations won’t happen if the Turnbull Government does not demonstrate its own long-term funding commitment to research and commercial collaboration.

Whether or not Mr Turnbull’s Innovation Statement – due by the end of the year – also provides some funding restoration to the broader CSIRO remains to be seen.

In the meantime, I do hope that someone writes a historical footnote detailing that crazy day when the German Chancellor rocked up to NICTA headquarters for a look around. It was a schmozzle. But it seemed a very well-orchestrated schmozzle.

Certainly it put pressure on the government of the day over the funding issue.

Tomorrow our Prime Minister, Mr Turnbull, will be able to report the new funding arrangements to his friend Mrs Merkel, accompanied to the meeting – we are guessing – by the President of the Australia-Germany Chamber of Commerce, Mrs Lucy Hughes Turnbull.

*Photo Credit: Getty

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