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Space sector review off to rocky start

The federal government's newly announced review of Australia's space industry capability is off to a rocky start with the communications satellite sector feeling snubbed and the South Australian government threatening to go it alone and launch its own space agency.

Minister for industry, innovation and science Arthur Sinodinos announced the eight-month review, which will be led by an expert review group chaired by former CSIRO CEO Dr Megan Clark.

The review came as a surprise to industry body Communications Alliance, which has a satellite services working group comprises 17 industry players active in the space sector including Telstra, Optus, NBN and global operators Inmarsat, Intelsat and SES.

Communications Alliance CEO John Stanton, who also chairs the SSWG, told CommsDay the expert review group appeared to be “remarkably light on industry participants.” “The SSWG was surprised not to have been consulted in advance of the announcement of this review, nor to be invited to be part of the expert group. Nonetheless we will do our best to bring genuine industry expertise to bear and contribute positively to the review,” Stanton said.

According to Stanton, a review is worthwhile and overdue. However, he also noted that the Australian government has done relatively little to foster the space sector for many years. In particular, he pointed to the Satellite Utilisation Policy released by the government in 2013, which took a relatively “hands-off” approach to the sector.

“That policy statement decided to create a Space Advisory Council to generate advice and activity. Four years later that body has never held a meeting,” he noted.

Senator Sinodinos said the government wants to ensure the right framework and mix of incentives are in place to assist Australia’s growing space industry sector to participate in the global market.

“The review will consult widely and examine Australia’s current capability and areas of comparative advantage, as well as our regional and international collaboration within the sector. Importantly, it will also consider how the space industry sector aligns with other sectors and government priorities,” the minister said.

According to the terms of reference for the review, it will build on the existing Satellite Utilisation Policy and the findings from the recently completed review of the Space Activities Act.

The terms of reference state that the review will specifically address the following:
IDENTIFYING AUSTRALIA’S CURRENT INDUSTRY CAPABILITY and areas of comparative advantage for Australia to develop, TECHNOLOGIES AND PRACTICES THAT PROMOTE INNOVATION in both the downstream (users of space technologies) and upstream (providers of space technologies) elements of space activities, particularly in areas of niche capability and competitive advantage, AUSTRALIA’S LEVEL OF REGIONAL ENGAGEMENT and international collaboration, including identifying critical future and existing partnerships, IDENTIFYING CAPABILITY GAPS to support the global competitiveness of Australian firms in the civil space sector, STRATEGIES TO PROMOTE AUSTRALIAN FIRMS engaged in the civil space sector, both domestically and internationally,
RISKS AND OPPORTUNITIES, including ongoing access to space data and associated infrastructure essential to our national interests, ALIGNMENT WITH OTHER SECTORS and Australian Government priorities, including Defence and cyber security, and meeting Australia’s international obligations,
THE MOST EFFECTIVE INSTITUTIONAL ARRANGEMENTS to support the strategic direction of Australia’s space industry

Despite the detailed terms of reference the review does not specifically address the need for a national space agency, which has been called for by the Space Industry Association of Australia and a number of other experts including Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research director Andrew Dempster.

Dempster told CommsDay that while the review announcement was “relatively positive,” it avoided the question of a national space agency. “I would have preferred the announcement of an agency but as long as there's commitment to deal with some ofthe issues, it's progress.

Given that the minister is talking about it, we're better off than we have been, historically,” he said. More critical was South Australian minister for defence industries Martin HamiltonSmith, who has previously threatened to set up a space agency in conjunction with other state governments.

As previously reported in CommsDay, Hamilton-Smith has proposed Adelaide as the operational base for a national space agency and has stated that he will move ahead with the idea if the federal government does not act soon.

Following the announcement of the review, Hamilton-Smith said the government was taking too long to act and told local media InDaily that he would soon propose a new body to the South Australian cabinet.

“Today’s announcement that a review would be commissioned to report in March next year suggests nothing will happen until after the 2018 Budget in late 2018,” he said. “I just think it’s far too little, too late. We need something far more direct, more proactive and far more engaging before September.”

September is the date for the International Astronautical Congress, a major space industry event that will be held in Adelaide. The minister has previously called for plans for the space agency to be presented at the IAC event. The federal government's space review will commence from July 2017 with a first meeting of the expert group, and is expected to be completed by end March 2018. Geoff Long, Commsday