Wed, 05 Jun 2024 - 11:17

Consideration In Detail - Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2024-2025

This budget was a missed opportunity for Australia's highly regarded world-renowned scientific and research sectors. I must express my regret that the Minister for Industry and Science has not bothered to grace us with his presence, which shows a degree of contempt for this important form of parliamentary scrutiny and accountability. It is a contempt that has been replicated by many of his ministerial colleagues and is entirely at odds with the rhetoric that we saw from Mr Albanese, the current Prime Minister, when he was Leader of the Opposition. Perhaps the minister doesn't want to be here to defend the deal that he has done to boost funding for a range of American venture capital firms and the Canberra bureaucracy at the expense of funding for basic scientific research activity. We know that $466.67 million has been allocated to the American incorporated company PsiQuantum following a deal cloaked in secrecy and lacking in transparency, and we know that a further $27.7 million has been allocated for Canberra bureaucrats to oversee this controversial deal, deploying of course their considerable commercial expertise and investment experience. What can possibly go wrong?

The Albanese Labor government has chosen to bet a very large amount of money on one particular company, pursuing one particular technology path within the broad field of quantum, a field in which people who have been working for 20 or 30 years cannot say with certainty which of the many paths being explored is likely to achieve a successful outcome most rapidly. On any view, it will be at least several years and very possibly longer before the technology being developed by PsiQuantum is proven to work, if it can be proven to do so at all. We have seen the Albanese Labor government following a questionable process which has failed to meet normal standards of transparency and contestability. Those who were invited to participate felt that they were doing so in an exercise that had been reverse engineered, with terms of reference that made it look as if PsiQuantum was always going to be the winner.

It is troubling that so much funding has gone to an American incorporated and based quantum computing company, with a large ownership stake in the company being held by venture capitalists, including American venture capitalists, rather than any of the outstanding Australian based quantum computing companies and researchers. It would be a particular tragedy if this decision made by the Albanese Labor government to allocate, alongside the Queensland government, almost a billion dollars of taxpayers money to this particular American company ended up making it more difficult for other Australian based quantum computing companies to compete for and attract global investment because of a perception that their own government, having surveyed the field, does not believe in them and considers that their work is inferior to the work of this American based company.

At the same time that so much money has been sprayed in the direction of this American based company we are seeing money and resources for onshore scientific activity here in Australia being cut back. Labor has axed funding in the space sector by terminating the $1.2 billion National Space Mission for Earth Observation. At a time when, in the broad, the Public Service is increasing materially, CSIRO is having its staffing cut by 146 people and its funding cut by $14 million in 2024-25. That is at odds with much of the rhetoric we have heard from the minister about support for science. We have seen strong criticism of this government's priorities in relation to artificial intelligence. For example, Simon Bush of the Australian Information Industry Association said, in relation to the vital field of artificial intelligence, that Australia is now going backwards when other countries are going forwards.

My questions for the minister in relation to the PsiQuantum investment include: How much of the funding is a loan, how much is equity and how much is grants? What's the interest rate on the loan? How much of the funding will be sent overseas? Will the Australian government receive an ownership stake in the company? Will there be rights to the intellectual property that's developed? When will the deal be finalised? When will the computer be built? How much of the computer will be manufactured overseas? What will happen if the technology remains unproven? And was the minister aware of PsiQuantum's links to Chinese academics before approving the funding?