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Wednesday, 23 May 2007
Page: 119

Mr SECKER (5:45 PM) —I note that the member for Fraser was largely supportive of the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research Amendment Bill 2007. It is significant that the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research was set up under the Howard-Fraser coalition government. In fact, the member for O’Connor, who will follow me, would have been around at that time—not many of us were, so he has a greater corporate knowledge of the history of how the centre was set up.

Mr McMullan —Some members of the House were not born.

Mr SECKER —That could very well be the case. I rise tonight to speak in support of this bill. The Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research was established in 1982 to assist and encourage agricultural scientists in Australia to use their skills for the benefit of developing countries, whilst also working to solve Australia’s own agricultural problems. As the previous speaker, the member for Fraser, said, the centre is very much focused in providing overseas help to other nations, but we also benefit from that in our own country. Some of the scientists have come back and work in other areas of Australian society—in private enterprise or in a public institution such as the well-respected CSIRO. Some of the benefits that derive from that research will always benefit agriculture, whether it be here in Australia or anywhere else in the world.

The ACIAR is a statutory authority that works within the Foreign Affairs and Trade portfolio. It supports projects in six regions—Papua New Guinea, the South Pacific, South-East Asia, South Asia, North Asia and southern Africa. Whilst ACIAR will no longer be a legal entity separate from the Commonwealth under the amendment bill, it will continue to have authority to design and commission research with Australian and overseas partners. The ACIAR Amendment Bill was put in place to make changes to the government’s arrangements of the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research. The bill implemented the government’s response to the Review of the Corporate Governance of Statutory Authorities and Office Holders conducted by John Uhrig. Unlike the previous speaker, the member for Fraser, I very much support the arrangements that are being put in place in many of our institutions as a result of this review. Certainly, those that have already occurred have proven to be quite successful. I think that the proof of the pudding is in the outcomes and certainly the outcomes of the institutional changes that we have made as a result of the John Uhrig report have been very successful and, I believe, will continue to be very successful in the future.

The Uhrig Review of the Corporate Governance of Statutory Authorities and Office Holders was completed in June 2003. The report recommended two templates designed to ensure good governance. You hear more these days about good governance in federal, state or local government or in private companies. It is one of those catchphrases that have been widely accepted. I had the ability and good fortune to be part of a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association meeting last year that was entirely about good governance. It is being accepted all around the world.

As I said, the report recommended two templates designed to ensure good governance. The first outlined that governments can be best provided by executive management. The second stated that it is best delivered by a board. ACIAR was reviewed in the second and third quarters of 2006 and, in the case of ACIAR, it was agreed by ministers that there is an inconsistency between some of the provisions of the Financial Management and Accountability Act 1997, the FMA act, and the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research Act 1982. The government assessed the existing governance of ACIAR against the recommendations of the Uhrig review together with authorities from the Foreign Affairs and Trade portfolio, the purpose being to have the most effective accountability and governance structures across the whole of government.

The purpose of the amendments to this bill is to change the governance arrangements of ACIAR from a board of management to an executive management structure involving a chief executive officer and a seven-member commission. This is quite common across our nation, as I have said, in government or in private enterprise boards. There are also several other key amendments within the bill. The first outlines the responsibility for the administrative and financial management of ACIAR to be changed from where it currently resides with the board of management to the CEO. The CEO will report directly to the minister, which is in line with the provisions of the Financial Management and Accountability Act 1997. The revocation of ACIAR’s body corporate status follows.

The establishment of a commission comprising a chair and six other commissioners would include the CEO, who could also be named as the chair. This commission would provide collective decision making and expert advice to the minister in relation to program formulation, priority setting and funding. It does not matter who you are or how brilliant you may be, you can always use the advice of other people. In the end, democracy works, but it also brings greater ability and greater knowledge that can spread throughout the organisation. The commission will also offer advice on other matters as requested under the legislation by the minister.

The current Policy Advisory Council, the PAC, which includes key overseas stakeholders, will be retained—and I think it is important that we recognise that. This bill, however, introduces amendments to ensure there will be no duplication of membership between the commission and the PAC. The current functions of the PAC will not change under the commission structure—again, that is another important thing to note. The PAC will continue to advise on the agricultural problems of developing countries and suitable agricultural research options to address these problems. The main change will be the shift in responsibility for the administration and management of ACIAR to the CEO in line with the executive management model, which is the template recommended by the Uhrig report. The only refinement to the current PAC arrangements is that key overseas stakeholders will retain membership but will not overlap with the commission. This refinement will allow for more specialised input with high-level partner country participation in the PAC. The act will also be amended so that the appointed commissioners hold office on a part-time basis for a period of up to three years. The act will also be amended so that the minister can provide directions to the CEO concerning the performance of his or her functions under the legislation, which includes the strategic direction of ACIAR.

In conclusion, I do not think the outcomes and operation will change greatly, but I think it will be a more efficient model. Perhaps that will lead to quicker and fuller decisions, if I can put it that way, and it is certainly something I believe this House should support. As I understand it, those opposite will be supporting the amendments in the bill as we have put them.