It seems to be one of our best-kept national secrets. Did you know that Australia was once at the global forefront in the invention of the computer?
In 1949, a visionary named Trevor Pearcey – working in the forerunner of today’s CSIRO – successfully started running programs on the fourth computer ever built, and the first outside the US and Britain. And it seems it was the first computer to play music.
Pearcey didn’t have a lot to work with. He arrived in Australia from Britain in 1945, and soon declared that “we should build a computer”. But he and his team, which included women in key jobs, “faced extreme equipment shortages, the result of World War II, so they constructed many of the components they needed themselves”, says Industry Minister, Ed Husic.
“They taught themselves new engineering techniques. They scrounged for parts. With creativity, good spirits, persistence, they created a digital computer on par with or exceeding the computers being produced by the US and UK.”
So why haven’t you heard of Pearcey and his computer? One big reason is that Australia completely blew it. His computer project was shut down in 1954. It “withered from lack of internal interest and supportive imagination”, Pearcey said. Computers just weren’t seen as way of the future.
“We let it all go offshore,” Husic tells me. Pearcey also had a dream as early as 1948 to build a network which ultimately was realised. Today it’s known as the internet. Australia was at the cutting edge but let its edge turn dull.
Husic has a vision for redeeming our national failure: “If we can crack quantum computing, we can turn back one of the great shames.” Quantum computing is a technology of staggering potential; Australian scientists and researchers, once again, are at the cutting edge.
Quantum has great promise for inventing new antibiotics, new fertilisers, for transforming logistics, for lightning-fast decryption of enemy data and communications, among many other things.
Michelle Simmons of UNSW is internationally recognised as a path-breaking researcher and some 20 Australian companies are developing the technology.
But: “Michelle has found it really hard to get backing,” says Husic. “It would be really awful if we lost one of the great minds because we lack faith in our own people, and they have to go overseas.”
Another quiet tech breakthrough happened in parliament this week: Husic succeeded in getting his National Reconstruction Fund through the Senate and into law.
This was a Labor election commitment – a $15 billion capital fund designed to do for manufacturing and tech what the Clean Energy Finance Corporation did for renewable energy. That is, catalyse billions more in private capital to invest jointly in seven priority areas, including $1 billion for critical technologies, a category embracing quantum technologies. Albanese says it will restore Australia as “a country that makes things”.
Why was it a “quiet success”? It was in the news, but it was not a topline news story this week. Public awareness of the fund is low.
Partly that’s because it was overshadowed by another major legislative achievement. This week the government won Senate approval of a centrepiece of its climate change plan – the parliament has now made law Albanese’s “safeguard mechanism”. So far, the government has not suffered the loss of any of its major legislative initiatives; its Housing Australia Future Fund is snagged in Senate negotiations but has not been defeated and remains in play.
Neither has the government suffered any internal crisis or serious outbreak of indiscipline. Overall, the Albanese government to date is the most purposeful and unified of any since Hawke in 1983. It’s a government of grown-ups.
James Walter, a political scientist who co-authored a two-volume study of the Australian prime ministership since 1949, judges that “Albanese’s government has come into office and started more smoothly than any since Hawke. There are two big things that help.
“One is having a clear sense of what they are doing, having a program,” says the Monash University professor emeritus. “The other thing is having a prime minister with a good understanding that the job is one that can only be done by multiple people, engaging productively.” As opposed to a leader who tries to centralise power in their own office.
What about the most successful Liberal prime minister of the modern era, John Howard? His early days were marked by a lack of purpose and roiled by the sackings and resignations of a brace of his ministers. “It was a rocky start and people worried he might lose the next election, but he managed to consolidate,” Walter points out.
A key Labor insider, Don Farrell, a political linchpin of the Albanese government, offers this explanation for its early cohesiveness – Labor learnt a searing lesson from its traumas of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years: “In the same way that, when Bob Hawke came in in 1983 and had learnt the lessons of the dysfunction of the Whitlam government, all those of us lucky enough to be re-elected realised that we cannot afford to have a repetition of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years,” he tells me. “There’s a determination not to let that happen again.”
Farrell was one of the agents of disruption, one of the “faceless men” who organised the coup against Kevin Rudd in 2010. Today he’s an agent of stabilisation. As a force in the Labor right faction, he helped maintain caucus calm during the most anxious days of Albanese’s term as opposition leader. Today, Farrell is Albanese’s minister for trade and tourism as well as special minister of state and deputy leader of the government in the Senate.
He says the distinguishing feature of the government is “the way in which Anthony runs his cabinet”, of which Farrell is a member. “He says to his ministers, ‘I’m going to give you this portfolio, you go and implement government policy and you will only hear from me if you make a mistake’.
“That means ministers have confidence to deal with their portfolios and he can manage the government overall and not second-guess his ministers. He conducts his cabinet in an extremely consultative manner. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but you can never say ‘I didn’t get a chance to put my case’. I think that results in better decisions.”
But Labor hasn’t had such a high legislative success rate entirely of its own accord. Don Farrell agrees that “you’ve got to give the Greens credit” for negotiating constructively in the Senate.
The Greens under Adam Bandt have transformed from being a party of protest to a party of problem-solving, from being an angry teenager to being a responsible adult. Bandt’s aim is to make the Greens into a party of government, something that the Greens have achieved decisively in Germany.
And the Coalition? It’s now adopted the attitude of the truculent teen, arms crossed and angry, saying “no” reflexively to almost everything. Including saying “no” to the National Reconstruction Fund, the emissions safeguards, even the government’s $1.5 billion plan to give households some relief on power prices.
This style of denial politics is a handy way for Peter Dutton to achieve unity in his party room, but it has limited value in the medium run. Because it plays to the party’s “base” but not to the electorate at large.
The teal independents took six traditional Liberal heartland seats last year. The Liberals’ current stance will only entrench the teals. Surveying the Liberals’ loss in last weekend’s NSW election, the former treasurer, Matt Kean, says that there are lessons for his federal colleagues: “On election night John Howard said we got the balance right, and that’s demonstrated by the fact that we held onto all the seats under teal challenge,” Kean, a leading moderate, tells me.
The NSW Liberal government was far more progressive than the Morrison government on climate change and women’s rights, and it showed in the results. The Climate 200 founder and independent teal funder, Simon Holmes a Court, tweeted that Kean’s climate policies “certainly made it harder for indie campaigns to engage pro-climate voters (& donors).”
In the traditional Liberal stronghold of the federal seat of Warringah, for instance, the teal Zali Steggall won a primary vote of 45 per cent last year while the Liberals’ Catherine Deves scored only 33 per cent. Teals win. But in the state seat of Manly, which overlaps Warringah, the Liberals’ James Griffith held his seat with 46 per cent of the primary vote against the teal hopeful Joeline Hackman with 27 per cent. Libs win.
Kean also points out that the NSW Liberals didn’t succumb to the assault from the right – One Nation’s share of the vote gained by only 0.7 per cent in the lower house and remained under 2 per cent. Concludes Kean: “So it can be done – we fended off the teals, we fended off One Nation, what we couldn’t fend off was a resurgent Labor after 12 years in government.”
Don Farrell says that Albanese’s “crowning achievement so far is to understand the centre of Australian politics because that’s ultimately where Australian governments win – not on the right, not on the left, they win in the centre.”
That computes. It should hardly be a national secret.
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