Election campaigns are a time when nations pause to consider their futures, considering the priorities and policy directions that will shape their coming years.
For engineers in Australia, the two years dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted the significance of sovereign capability to the country’s future. Whichever party takes government after next month’s vote, this issue is one Engineers Australia has identified as a priority.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, Australia needs to revisit its understanding of sovereign capability, expanding its purview beyond the realm of defence and seeing it through a broader economic and social lens.
Promise and unrealised potential
Engineers Australia Chief Engineer Jane MacMaster FIEAust CPEng told create that while some of the current government’s progress on sovereign capability has shown promise, other aspects — particularly in renewable energy — have been disappointing.
“I think we would’ve liked to have seen a more widespread support for engineering skills across the board,” she said.
“To build sovereign capability that we can sustain, we need to think it through. We need to take the long-term approach and build that pipeline of capability, otherwise it’s not going to be sustained.”
That requires thinking through the full pipeline. One example MacMaster gave relates to gender equality: rather than encouraging girls and women to simply be involved in manufacturing, future governments should be looking to increase gender equality in all areas of STEM.
“We can’t just snap our fingers and make it happen. We’ve actually got to design some initiatives that will work to encourage women to choose maths and science and engineering or a technology qualification, and then become interested in manufacturing,” she said.
“It’s not something that we can wave a magic wand at a particular point in a supply chain and hope that will happen, it takes a rigorous thought-through well-designed approach to build a sovereign capability in anything that can be sustained.”
Engineers Australia sees opportunity in batteries and solar panels as a future export industry, supporting tax incentives for Australia-owned and operated manufacturers.
“There’s a lot more innovation to do in the battery side of things,” MacMaster said.
“Are we devoting enough time, attention and money to that? Importantly, there are the ecosystems around that — the tax incentives and other regulatory constraints … we need to be competitive in a global market for us to thrive domestically as well.”
Another proposal made by Engineers Australia would see efforts to streamline and centralise government grants for research and development, the creation of additional innovation hubs, and the implementation of a globally competitive tax regime for investing in start-ups.
“To be competitive and to build sovereign capability, we need to build future exports; the domestic market’s not going to be big enough if we want to remain competitive,” MacMaster said.
“The other one is obviously infrastructure. There’s a priority put on that by governments at all levels.”
Investing in infrastructure
Engineers Australia has highlighted the potential in addressing Australia’s infrastructure deficit by requiring transnational corporations who receive government contracts to partner with smaller domestic firms.
“I think it’s the big transport mega-projects that we find in infrastructure,” MacMaster said.
“But it absolutely also goes to energy and electricity infrastructure: how we integrate renewables into the grid, our capacity. Can we keep up with the planned installation rate? How are we going to get all our solar panels? Where are the batteries coming from? Where’s the innovation we know we need?”
For MacMaster, even a focus on manufacturing requires more careful consideration.
“It’s all very well to say manufacturing, but manufacturing in what? What does that actually mean?,” she said.
“Is it manufacturing across the board? Is it defence manufacturing? Is it renewable energy manufacturing? Is it technology and IT components? What actually is it? Then we need to ask, well, what skills do we need to do that and what technology do we need to do that?”
She believes the country would benefit from someone within government willing to take ownership of the question of sovereign capability.
“Where we struggle is who can act … who can actually make a difference, and that’s where the process falls down,” she said.
“What we’re missing is someone to really own this, to really see that it’s a real problem, and to take ownership and really champion this with the decision-makers.”