The ultimate aim: an Australia with more independent capacities
22 Apr 2014|

Southwestern Australia (NASA, International Space Station, 04/01/13)  The sun is about to set in this scene showing parts of southwestern Australia, which was photographed by one of the Expedition 35 crew members aboard the International Space Station on April 1, 2013. Several of the orbital outpost's solar array panels are seen in the foreground.

Michael Fullilove’s address to the National Press Club urging a ‘larger Australia’ engages directly with the vital question of Australia’s future. A subsequent query by his colleague Sam Roggeveen—‘What should Australia aim to achieve with this increased power and influence?’—goes to the nub of the issue and deserves exploration.

The most fitting answer is that a larger Australia would enable an increasingly independent and sovereign nation. Dependence on the United Kingdom and the United States has marked Australia’s evolution to nationhood. But is such dependence on external powers necessarily an element of a future Australia? Shouldn’t a larger Australia aim at achieving a greater capacity for independent action in both domestic and international affairs?

If we accept that Australia should and could aim for greater independence in both domestic and international affairs, we might start by exploring the ways in which this vision can be realised.

Let’s examine a few of the key issues. First is population size. Our present population density of 3 persons per square kilometre (as compared to the US at 32, France 118 and Germany 262) is the lowest globally. This continent could support 60–80 million people (PDF), and this greater human capital would underpin a larger economy, a wealthier nation, and—perhaps more importantly—the economies of scale that would permit those communication and transport facilities (national broadband, super highways and high-speed railways) that the current population couldn’t sustain.

Still, Australia needs not merely a larger economy but a higher one. The recent closure of the car industry’s basic manufacturing facilities sounds a clarion call for Australia to push its economy further up the technology chain.

Developing and growing high-technology skills and industries requires the establishment of a range of major high-tech education-industrial bases. Across the globe, strong states—the US, Russia, China, Japan, India, France and Germany—are marked by a number of major high-tech industrial capacities that underpin their capacity for independent action. In particular, they all possess aerospace, IT and nuclear industries. Perhaps through an initial concentration on those three spheres Australia could gradually—over decades, or perhaps centuries—attain a domestic capacity that would allow greater options for our future.

The aerospace industry might be a fruitful initial foray into the sphere of high technologies precisely because of our existing links to the US. Australia hosts a range of tracking stations that provide the US a southern hemisphere base for space research, satellite communication and the monitoring of global communications and missile use. Yet Australia remains a junior partner in those nominally joint activities. Such dependence, where we have no need to pursue our own capacities in these fields, needs to be addressed in any pursuit of a larger Australia.

We could urge the US to join us in funding a major Australian academy aimed at developing domestic skills in aerospace theory and practice. That would eventually aid Australia in establishing aerospace and space industries, and would have intellectual and industrial spin-offs in many areas of the Australian economy. Further funding for such an enterprise could involve inserting a condition in all future aerospace procurement documents that requires successful tenderers to contribute a stipulated volume of skills or funding to that academy.

A similar pattern could be pursued in respect of an IT teaching–research–industry complex, that could be modelled upon Stanford–Palo Alto–Silicon Valley in California, where academic and industrial IT expertise comes together. While accepting there’s only so much that government planning and execution can achieve in such spheres, the creation of such an academy would provide Australia with the tools necessary to enhance virtually all aspects of social existence. A recent Ditchley Park conference underlined how important IT capacities will be as a key driver of future growth.

Then there’s the nuclear industry. While the export of uranium and the development of a nuclear industry have long been contentious issues in Australia, a larger Australia would need to make use of its ready access to uranium to develop a nuclear industry that could provide for its needs. Australia holds over 30%of the world’s uranium resources. While the ANSTO researches and applies small-scale uses of nuclear technology, the larger opportunities are still being discussed. The 2006 Switkowski report and its recommendations have gone nowhere. By providing the country with a generous supply of electricity, and reducing the many problems of fossil fuels, the nuclear option could provide the energy baseload for a larger Australia.

To ensure Australia has the skills and capacities to utilise its nuclear resources fully and safely, we would need to develop a research-educational-industrial complex engaging with everything from nuclear physics to power generation, including medical applications, materials engineering and the plethora of other uses of nuclear science. The funding of such a complex could be met in part from government funding, in part through income from the uranium industry, and subsequently through commercial applications of technology.

This proposed troika of research and industrial centres will be key to creating a richer, more powerful and more high-tech Australia. They’ll allow Australia to move into what Brynjolfsson and McAfee term the Second Machine Age.

Two points are worth reiterating in conclusion. First, without these industries and the skills that flow from them, Australia will remain limited in its capacity to pursue its own domestic and foreign policy agendas. The other point is that the greater independence of a larger Australia can’t be achieved quickly. Population growth is naturally incremental and it’ll take decades or centuries to realise the necessary industrial capacities. What’s key is recognition of the direction that Australia must travel if it’s to achieve an increased capacity for independent action and self-determination. A larger Australia with a higher economy is very much a part of this agenda.

Geoff Wade is a visiting fellow at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University. Image courtesy of Flickr user NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.