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Wednesday, 1 November 2000
Page: 21842


Ms HOARE (1:34 PM) —I am pleased to be able to speak in this debate on the Australian Research Council Bill 2000 and I am more than pleased to join the eminent group of speakers we have had from this side. I have been pleased to hear the valuable contributions made by all of those speakers. Interestingly, there has been a long list of speakers on research and development and investment in knowledge in our country from this side of the House, yet there were only two names from the other side of the House. I do not know whether this reflects commitment—or non-commitment—from the government in relation to investment in knowledge, or whether it just reflects perhaps the embarrassment of the backbenchers in the government about their government's non-commitment and non-dedication to investment in research and development and investment in knowledge.

It is also good to have this debate in the national parliament this week when science does meet parliament. I had the pleasure of meeting quite a few of our eminent scientists last night at a reception and met another couple this morning. We discussed, amongst other things, issues ranging from the level of government investment in research and development and in our higher education institutions to other issues regarding genetically modified organisms—or genetic engineering—the promotion of crops which are going to be able to resist viral strains, which will make our agricultural industry a lot more viable, to a whole range of other issues. It also shows that the funding of R&D and government investment in knowledge is high on the political and community agendathat it is something that we are not going to be able to get away from, and certainly not something that this government is going to be able to get away from.

Some may believe that, by introducing this bill into the parliament, the coalition government is taking heed of Labor's comment on and commitment to the knowledge nation as has just been outlined by our leader. Nothing could be further from the truth, and I will take some time shortly to substantiate that comment. This legislation has been introduced following the discussion paper `New Knowledge and New Opportunities', which was released in June last year, and following the government's white paper `Knowledge and innovation: a policy statement on research and research training', released in December 1999—as the member for Lalor pointed out—just prior to Christmas by one of Santa's elves.

The white paper's proposals regarding the Australian Research Council included, as outlined in the Bill's Digest, an enhanced role in the provision of strategic advice to government regarding research in the university sector, increased responsibility for the administration of research funding programs to which funds will be appropriated under the new act, a reformed governance and organisation structure reflecting the need to link university research with the innovation system, an enhanced capacity to identify and respond to emerging areas of research excellence, and an accountability framework emphasising transparency and performance. However, in reality these recommendations are tempered by the changed relationship between the council and the minister, and the reduced accountability by the minister. Under this proposed legislation, the minister will actually have new powers to disregard or vary the council's advice regarding funding of research proposals. The council will not be able to initiate advice to the minister; it will only be able to respond to his or her request. The minister will no longer be able to table directions to the Australian Research Council.

As has also been stated by many speakers before me, this legislation does not provide any new funding for research and development; it does not provide any new funding for innovation; it does not provide any new funding for investment into our higher education institutions; and it does not provide any new funding at all for the future generations of this country. In the outline of this legislation in the explanatory memorandum, the first sentence reads:

The Australian Research Council Bill 2000 will implement a number of initiatives announced in the Government's 1999 policy statement Knowledge and Innovation: A policy statement on research and research training.

But if you turn over the page in that explanatory memorandum, under `Financial Impact', the final five words say that there is no financial impact. That just emphasises the statements that I have made that this bill provides no new funding for innovation.

The government would like to have the public believe that it has good intentions, but one need look only at the history of this government in relation to investment in knowledge—this has been mentioned before and I wish to reiterate it because I think it is something that needs to be emphasised time and time again in the community—and look at the list of speakers on this bill from the government side to see its non-commitment. The record of this government since its election in 1996 highlights its non-commitment to investing in our future.

Since 1996, a billion dollars in government funding has been taken from our universities. Funding for higher education has fallen to 0.8 per cent of GDP, the lowest ever since Commonwealth funding of higher education commenced over 25 years ago. The average level of investment has been 1.15 per cent of GDP. If it had remained at that level, an additional $2.08 billion of Commonwealth investment in higher education would be available. Australia has experienced the second largest drop in funding for higher education amongst OECD nations. The spending downturn has been largely caused by a collapse in business expenditure on research and development, which is the result of the government's reduction in research and development tax concessions.

R&D funding peaked in 1996-97 at $4.27 billion and fell for the first time during the following two years. Commonwealth investment in R&D has fallen by almost one sixth, from 0.77 per cent of GDP in 1995-96 to 0.64 per cent in 1999-2000. Since the reduction of the R&D tax concession from 150 per cent to 120 per cent in 1996, business expenditure on R&D has declined from 0.86 per cent of GDP in 1995-96 to 0.67 per cent of GDP in 1998-99. R&D spending has fallen by more than 10 per cent in two years, and this is the worst fall of any OECD nation. The OECD figures place Australia below Iceland, Denmark, Canada and Austria. In 1985, Australia's gross expenditure on R&D was 1.1 per cent of GDP, compared with 1.9 per cent for the EU. By 1996, just prior to the Howard government's destruction of R&D, Australia had improved significantly and was around level with the European Union. That is a dreadful indictment of a nation that should be investing in research and development and in our children's and grandchildren's education. That record is well documented. This does not come just from the Labor Party. These figures are documented from this government's record since 1996. They have been well documented in the media and by eminent organisations that rely heavily on R&D for their research, innovation and their ability to make the impossible possible.

This debate is out in the public, and it is a debate that Labor brought forward. I mentioned before the discussions that we had with the scientists who are here for Science Meets Parliament Day 2000 about genetically modified organisms, cancer and AIDS research, genetic engineering, the human genome project and DNA testing and mapping. The community understands the value of governments investing in R&D and the benefits that are going to come to us, to our children and our grandchildren from it. It is because of government investment in R&D that a cure for cancer may be found and that the degradation of our environment might be reversed.

On a local level, in my home area of Newcastle scientists are playing a pivotal role in the development of an earthquake prediction program, which is being developed by the Australian Geological Survey Organisation. What they are doing is using information from the 1989 Newcastle earthquake to calibrate a model so that it can be applied to other cities around Australia. The project leader in Newcastle, David Stewart, said that it would help build a database to assess the vulnerability of buildings to other natural disasters such as floods and major storms. He said further:

By building up this information our emergency management organisations will be able to better plan for major disasters and our planners and engineers will be able to design safer cities.

By knowing the risk we can plan ways to minimise it.

I am sure that all of us who are parents or who are grandparents will appreciate the work that is being done to try to minimise the effect of natural disasters. But that work would not be able to be done if it were not for the scientists and highly educated engineers who are doing this work.

Some of the community responses to this government's record have also been well outlined. The government's general failure to invest in R&D, to invest in knowledge and to invest in innovation is not going unnoticed. The National Tertiary Education Union said:

It is an indictment of Australian education policy that at a time when other nations are recognising the value of increased investment in education, Australia has substantially reduced investment.

Eminent scientists and researchers are leaving Australia to pursue their work overseas where available funding and facilities are significantly better. A recent survey of researchers has shown that researchers both at home and abroad fear that a continuing lack of availability of adequate research funds, poor job security and lack of a career structure in Australia will exacerbate the exodus of scientific talent. The report carried out by the innovation summit's implementation committee said that Australia must spend at least $2.6 billion on research and development over the next five years or risk losing its place in the international research effort. Another reporby Robin Batterham, the government's Chief Scientisthas recommended a doubling of research funding by the Australian Research Council to about $500 million and new grants and new scholarship schemes.

The Leader of the Opposition, Kim Beazley, has stated that the record weakness in the Australian dollar is due in part to the government's failure to put enough effort into a high technology economy. The poor level of research and development funding is crucial to this. He said:

Australia is not a knowledge economy. Unless it is, it will not be a successful economy and the dollar will be valued like it is.

In a joint statement, which appeared in the media, leaders in business, industry, education and research said:

Over the past few years, nations such as the United States, Britain, Canada, Japan, Germany and France have significantly increased their levels of national investment in research and development. They have thrown down a challenge to any country that intends to remain among the group of the world's prosperous nations.

They go on to say:

Just as in sport, where we have always known that we cannot rely on greater numbers to compete successfully at the highest level, our effort as innovators and educators must remain above average if we are to compete against the bigger players.

Young Australian of the Year, Dr Bryan Gaensler, has stated that he would be `absolutely insane to come back to Australia' to work. That is a tragic consequence of this government's failure to invest in R&D. He went on to say:

We have reached that point where the idea of the clever country is not a source of inspiration. It is really tinged with irony about what might have been.

An IMF report shows that Australia is the second largest user of new technologies but the second last among advanced economies as an IT producer. The President of the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies, which has organised today's Science meets Parliament Day, Professor Sue Serjeantson, said that scientists are leaving Australia not only because of low wages but because they are unable to compete internationally because of inadequate research facilities. John Ridge, the President of the Australian Computer Society, has said that government has the responsibility to show leadership and provide R&D incentives which will be an example for the private sector to follow. He goes on to say that it would be a mistake to allow market forces to determine the growth and development of the technological sector.

They are just a few comments which have been out there in the media and in the community regarding the government's failure to invest in innovation and knowledge. What this government must do now is take notice of these comments, take notice of the fact that Australia is going to be left behind in the global economy if we do not seriously invest in our tertiary education institutions, in research and development and in the future of our children.

In conclusion, I would just like to quote from a letter that was sent to me personally from Professor Ron MacDonald, who is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research at the University of Newcastle. There have been contributions to this debate talking about the number of green papers, white papers and discussion papers the government has received in relation to research and development investment. The University of Newcastle particularly noted with interest The chance to change and Innovation—unlocking the future, which were commissioned by this government. Professor MacDonald wrote to me saying that the university has noted statements from a number of national science and technology organisations supporting the recommendations of the two reports. The basis of that support is the necessity for Australia to maintain and improve its position as a major researcher if the Australian economy is to improve. He goes on:

... Australia must switch its economy from a dependence on export of its natural assets and the provision of services to one in which knowledge-based industry underpins our economic development.

The University of Newcastle endorses this view and would urge the Government and all Members of Parliament to accept the recommendations and move quickly to implement the proposals.

As you can see, Mr Deputy Speaker, there are many people in the community who are calling out for policies and for decent government funding in research and development. The Labor Party is the only party which has given the commitment of a future Labor government, with Kim Beazley as Prime Minister, to research and development and to investment in the knowledge nation. We have had nothing from this government. The community is asking for it, the electorate is asking for it and the government should deliver it.