By Tanya Plibersek

25 November 2020





Acknowledgments omitted.
It was the science fiction writer, Arthur C. Clarke, who observed that ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’.
Thinking back, that must have been true when people saw the first spark of electric light.
Or when they first heard their loved ones down a telephone line.
Or when they saw the early pilots soar into the air like birds.
The magic of technology has certainly felt real in my lifetime.
Even ten years ago, the integration of technology and our lives would have seemed astonishing.
Most of us now own a device that, at any moment, can access the sum total of human knowledge.
Things that once took years to collect.
Every Beethoven symphony. Every one of Shakespeare’s sonnets.
Every episode of The Bachelor...
It’s all there, if we want it – right in our pocket.
We can often take this for granted, living with it every day, but it truly is remarkable.
And it gives those responsible for these changes enormous power.
It gives you all enormous power.
In opening this conference, I want to talk a bit about what you can do with this influence – and how you can use your amazing skills for the greatest good.
Because you all have a vital mission as engineers, developers and scientists.
In my mind at least, the mission is not to produce technology for the sake of technology; or innovation for the sake of innovation.
It’s not just finding ways to connect your toothbrush to the internet.
Or making selfies more flattering.
Your real mission is to use technology to improve human life and society.
To help solve the problems we need to solve – and to free people from the burdens weighing them down.
It’s a lofty mission, but history is full of inventions that really have made life better for ordinary people.
Take the S-bend pipe, for instance, which made modern sanitation possible in the 19th century; or the domestic washing machine in the 20th century.
These were simple ideas, but they hit the sweet spot of innovation.
They were efficient; they were profitable; and they were liberating.
Now, I know that you’re all working with slightly more advanced technology than the S-bend pipe or the washing machine.
But the basic goals are still the same.
And there’s no shortage of contemporary problems that need your skills and attention.
The longer I’m in this job, the more I realise that our political problems and our scientific problems can only be solved together.
This has never been clearer than with COVID-19 this year.
More than anything, the shape of the next twelve months depends on the success of our vaccine researchers.
So too our quest for cheaper, cleaner, more efficient energy – which relies on invention at every level.
We need technology that harnesses the sun and the wind and the tides.
We need batteries that store huge amounts of power.
And we need the skills to commercialise these products.
To turn them from good ideas into profitable exports.
To create good jobs and sustainable communities out of our invention.
I know that there’s been a lot of debate about technology and jobs.
But the truth is, the best progress is about enhancing human capacity.
And when it succeeds, it only increases the demand for local products – which then increases the demand for local workers.
It’s the government’s job to encourage this link.
To harness technology in pursuit of good jobs and successful business.
Thankfully, much of this is happening already in our economy – often in spite of government.
Clean energy is already cheaper than the alternative – and already creating jobs around the country.
But I know that there’s a lot more that governments can do to make our technology sector more internationally competitive.
To make your jobs easier.
We can guarantee every Australian school its fair funding, so they can hire more specialist science and maths teachers.
We can support our university science and engineering departments – not reduce their teaching budgets like Scott Morrison did last month.
We can guarantee long-term certainty to our researchers – not make them dependent on yearly deals in the budget.
Most importantly, the Federal Government can actually back in science with consistency and credibility.
Not just when it’s convenient; not just when we need a vaccine.
But supporting science in all its forms, every day.
When our leaders allow scepticism to fester – when they allow backbenchers to post conspiracy theories about hydroxychloroquine – they undermine public confidence in science.
And that damages us all.
Thank you again for inviting me to open today’s conference.
I hope you all make the most of it.
We really are relying on you.