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Monday, 23 September 2002
Page: 4622

Senator STOTT DESPOJA (3:27 PM) —I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts (Senator Alston) to a question without notice asked by Senator Stott Despoja today relating to the culling of science programs.

I asked the minister in his capacity as the minister representing Minister McGauran whether it was true that this government was contemplating `culling' programs—that is the word I understand Peter McGauran used this morning at the launch of the FASTS statement of principles and policy document. FASTS is of course the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies. I wanted to get from the minister an assurance that there were some criteria in place and some openness from the government as to what the plan was. Given that Senator Alston gave a robust and strong defence of Backing Australia's Abilityin his response to me today, it was quite surprising that he professed no knowledge and no understanding of any comments made by Minister McGauran in the other place or at the policy document launch this morning—and yet this is one of the most significant contributions we have seen in recent years to Australia's research and development capacity and the promotion of innovation in Australia.

Having said that, I should acknowledge that the announcement, the innovation statement, made in January last year by this government really only restated some of the cuts that this government has made in the areas of education, science and technology. Nonetheless, it was a significant first step, a step that the Australian Democrats supported. Thus we worked with the government in order to implement the changes and the recommendations in that statement. So it is quite surprising to the sector today to hear from the Minister for Science the plan from this government to cull aspects of Backing Australia's Ability. It was somewhat more surprising to me to ask the minister representing the minister about that and have him declare no knowledge of this proposed culling.

The Australian Democrats recognise that it is appropriate to assess programs. We are not suggesting they should not be examined or analysed from time to time; of course they should be evaluated, especially when we are talking about Australian taxpayer dollars. However, what surprises me is that there has been no comment by Minister McGauran— and certainly not by Minister Alston in the chamber today—and no explanation as to what criteria there could possibly be, what time line there could possibly be, why these programs are being contemplated for culling and certainly not even a hint of recognition from Minister Alston in the chamber today that the freezing or culling of programs may not be the most innovative and promising message to be sending to our scientific and research community.

The FASTS document which is being promoted was launched today by the minister. It is a welcome contribution but once again it is a contribution to the debate that highlights how far behind Australia is lagging when it comes to R&D, particularly our investment in science. Australia spent less on gross expenditure on research and development—GERD—in 2000-01 as a percentage of GDP than it did back in 1996-97. We have dropped from 1.66 per cent of GDP in 1996-97 to 1.53 per cent in 2000-01. So the last thing I would imagine this government should be contemplating is cutting, in any financial or other sense, the programs that have been put forward as part of Backing Australia's Ability or the innovation statement. That is the precursor document if you like.

The other thing I asked the minister today, in an attempt to get some response to any questions asked, was whether or not the minister could confirm other comments made by Minister McGauran this morning in relation to the R&D Start program. As I hope many honourable senators would be aware, that has been a highly successful program for Australia, yet this government made a somewhat extraordinary decision to freeze the R&D Start program. So the Democrats have been asking this for a long time: when does the government plan to unfreeze the R&D Start program? Once again, I was not able to get an answer from Minister Alston, which suggests that he has to do a lot more work as Minister representing the Minister for Science because clearly he had no clue. However, I understand that this morning Minister McGauran suggested that the R&D Start program would be unfrozen in the first quarter of next year. All I am looking for is confirmation of that and, in the same way, the Democrats request confirmation very quickly from this government as to what it plans to do with Backing Australia's Ability. I have no doubt that it would be a great dorothy dixer for some coalition backbenchers tomorrow. They could perhaps come in, pretend everything is okay and give us an explanation as to what on earth the minister was on about today. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.