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Wednesday, 10 May 2006
Page: 14

Senator ALLISON (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (10:43 AM) —Whilst the Democrats broadly support the restructure of the NHMRC provided for in the National Health and Medical Research Council Amendment Bill, we are concerned about the lack of time that was available for receiving submissions. We are concerned about the lack of advice that was available from the outgoing council on the bill and what we expect to be diminished accountability that might result from these changes.

The central purpose of the bill is said to be to introduce new arrangements to clarify accountability and reporting functions for the NHMRC, giving the NHMRC financial and operational autonomy while maintaining its independent statutory responsibility for expert health and medical research advice to the government. These changes follow reviews of the NHMRC over the last three years. However, in some respects, the Democrats argue that these changes will have the opposite effect, or at least could have the opposite effect. The NHMRC CEO currently reports to the minister, to the secretary of the Department of Health and Ageing and to the National Health and Medical Research Council itself. This was of concern to the Vice-Chancellors Committee, which, although supportive of streamlining of reporting, said there was potential for the expert advice provided by the council to the CEO to be ignored or not considered when making recommendations to the minister, particularly concerning funding decisions. The minister, of course, appoints the CEO and should he appoint a CEO who shares the minister’s own conservative views on some issues such as sexual and reproductive health and embryonic stem cell research, for instance, this may well result in a barrier being established to advancing what might be described as more universal and more scientific views of the world and views more representative of the general population. I will be moving amendments to allow for that expert advice from the council to be provided directly to the minister.

In streamlining and reducing the size of the NHMRC, the bill removes the requirement that membership of the council must include an eminent scientist who has knowledge of public health research and medical research issues, a person with expertise in the trade union movement, a person with expertise in the needs of users of social welfare services and a person with expertise in environmental issues. Given the advice that we received during the inquiry into this bill that this expertise is currently found in members who also have expertise in other areas, we cannot see any argument for dropping those requirements. We recommend that those areas of expertise remain and that the legislation be made clear that multiple categories of expertise may be found in individuals on the council. Again, we see no sound argument for removing those expertise requirements, and I will be moving amendments to the bill to require them to be part of the mix.

Whilst we support the specific inclusion of expertise in ethics, particularly in medical research, no argument was advanced by the department in support of the necessity for the new category of persons with specific expertise in ethics relating to research involving humans. The chair of the Australian ethics committee will also be a member of the new council, which is the case at the present time. This means that there could be two members appointed to the NHMRC for their expertise in ethics. With a council which is much reduced in size, that would not appear to be warranted and might suggest that the balance is not appropriate.

We oppose the removal of the need for the federal health minister to consult with state and territory health ministers before appointing the chair of AHEC in favour of the requirement of consulting appropriately. The bill does not contain any definition of what ‘appropriately’ might mean, nor was the department able to provide that to the committee during the hearing. There is no certainty that appropriate consultation has taken effect, if we do not know who might be consulted in such an appropriate consultation and we are not going to know whether any views at all have been taken on board. That undermines the principle that the NHMRC should be at arm’s length from government and a body that has broad acceptability and responds to the national interest, rather than those of the particular federal health minister in question. The Democrats again argue that appointments such as this should be made on merit and that there should be a formal process in place to ensure that this is the case, and I will be moving standard amendments to that effect. Today will be the 32nd time that we have put up our appointments on merit amendments.

The minister is not required to be advised if a member of the council has disclosed an interest. We again consider it the responsibility of the minister to know if a member or members disclose an interest, and we regard that as an accountability measure, not an administrative task, which is said to be the case in the schedule that was prepared by the department for the bill. We agree that it is inappropriate to define particular research priorities for the NHMRC but, like Labor, we would be concerned if the proposed restructure had the effect of diminishing the NHMRC’s capacity to strategically respond to the serious problems of Indigenous health—an area in which significant progress has been made in recent times through the involvement of members with Indigenous expertise who, as I understand it, are working across the current committee structure.

In submissions to the committee, it was also said that there was an expectation or a hope that there would be an increase in research in the medical field for the NHMRC. We note that in the budget last night a substantial increase in research spending was announced. This is very welcome and we do hope that some of that research funding, without suggesting a particular direction, will find its way to research into this important field.