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Thursday, 15 September 1983
Page: 871


Mr McVEIGH(11.0) —The Opposition supports the Barley Research Levy Amendment Bill. It stems from an initiative of the Australian Wheatgrowers Federation last April to have the barley research levy increased from 20c to 30c per tonne for the 1983-84 season. The industry is to be congratulated for this initiative, as it recognises the importance of research, not only to the industry itself, but also to the community generally. One of the main reasons why there is a need for this increase is that the financial reserves of the State barley research committees and the Barley Industry Research Council are in a serious situation because of reduced levy collections due to the drought affected 1982-83 season crop. Indeed, the financial reserves of some of the State committees have reached the stage when some research programs have had to be significantly scaled down. In addition to rebuilding reduced levy collections , it is also essential to ensure that the real value of research funds is not eroded by inflation.

Obviously, the actual amount of moneys raised by the levy is dependent on production. But, I understand the industry is hopeful that this increase will replenish research funds, and get research activity back to the appropriate levels. I would like to think that this very important area of rural research is one where there can be general agreement between the Government and the Opposition. Both parties have indicated a commitment to rural research. During the election campaign, the Australian Labor Party promised to increase government involvement in research, while the coalition undertook to lift Commonwealth contributions in 1983-84 from $22.5m to $30m.

We also indicated that greater emphasis would be placed on research into helping farmers reduce costs in times of drought, through such areas as drought tolerant pastures, efficient water use in irrigation and effective fertiliser practice. All of this plays a part in barley which is used as a rotation crop. I hope this Government also appreciates that there are undoubtedly areas where greater research effort can be directed to help achieve improved efficiencies and drought management practices. Obviously, any breakthrough that can be achieved in this area will not only benefit the individual farmer, but also the nation as a whole. I trust the Government will give this issue due consideration in the development of its drought programs.

To me it appears worthy to spend a little time on the general question or rural research. It seems to be one of those areas where industries understand the importance of research programs, yet the public generally does not. In fact, in many cases, the public probably does not even know that such programs exist. This is unfortunate, because successful research effort can directly benefit the wider community as well as those involved in a particular industry. While growers may benefit from improved efficiency and lower costs, the nation and the community gains from the ability to remain competitive on world markets and from increased supplies of higher quality food and fibre.

The direction of research priorities is also important. A research program should have as a fundamental goal the benefit that it may achieve, not only for a particular farm venture, but also for industry and society. In the wheat and barley industries, for example, emphasis in the past has tended to concentrate on productivity gains, especially plant breeding. I am in no way suggesting that this emphasis is wrong or should in any way be curtailed. What I am saying is that gains in efficiency and increased competitiveness can also be achieved from economic research on cultural and financial management techniques, reducing market costs, and on research to increase the efficiency of the infrastructure sector. In other words, gain to individual growers and society can be just as readily achieved from research directed at increasing the efficiency of the infrastructure services sector, as with research into increasing on- farm efficiency in wheat and barley growing. I am sure similar arguments could apply to research effort into other agricultural commodities.

I know there is also some concern, especially within the wheat and barley industries, that those who actually carry out research should not be the same people as those who decide what research projects will be undertaken. The view is that the researchers should simply be the contractors who carry out research on behalf of the beneficiaries, in accordance with the priorities of the beneficiaries. The beneficiaries, of course, are those who are putting up the money, namely industry and the taxpayer. The point of the argument is that the people, or institutions such as the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, universities or State departments of agriculture, that carry out the research, may place greater emphasis on projects that benefit their studies rather than projects that are in the best interests of growers and the wider community.

There is a broad proposal circulating in the grains industry suggesting that a specialist, highly qualified group should be established to help in the selection and setting of priorities for research programs. This is an area in which I believe greater government attention could also be directed. Another important question is that of accountability and review. Each research project that is funded should specify why it is proposed, what it hopes to achieve, how it will proceed and how long it will take.

On that basis, each project should then be reviewed for a number of reasons: To make researchers aware that they are accountable to those who fund their work; to enable those who fund projects to continually re-assess the progress and value of them; and to determine for each project whether the money spent has been worth while in terms of bringing desirable effects to growers and the wider community. Barley and wheat growers generally believe the extent to which current research projects are reviewed, and the degree of accountability of researchers to those who fund them, is inadequate. They argue that while the Wheat Industry Research Council has an internal review process, the results of those reviews are not made public. Therefore, there is no feedback and no opportunity for an independent assessment of the progress or end results of projects.

I have no doubt that the issues I have mentioned have been considered by the Australian Wheatgrowers Federation's research review committee, which held a meeting yesterday. Its views and findings I expect will ultimately be submitted for Government consideration, and I would hope the Government does give the entire question very thorough attention. There is no doubt in my mind of the importance of research programs aimed at improving the efficiency and productivity of all our primary industries. The sugar industry has done a great job in this area. I firmly believe that any measures which Government can adopt to enhance the approach towards setting the priorities for, and assessing the results of, research projects should be supported.

I mentioned earlier that both the Government and the Opposition were committed to rural research. The policies of the parties are generally in line with the findings of the Balderstone Working Group to provide a Policy Discussion Paper on Agriculture for the 1980s, which said that the Commonwealth should increase its overall funding of agricultural research. However, one point of Labor policy does cause me concern. I will quote from its policy document. It states:

Labor will review industry funding arrangements and the Commonwealth's contribution to ensure research funding is put onto a secure basis.

That is a pretty ambiguous statement. It could be taken to mean the Government intends industry to pay a larger proportion of the research bill, especially as the other part of the policy commitment only says Labor is committed to increasing Government involvement in research. Involvement does not necessarily mean financial contributions. I am sure primary industry as a whole would appreciate a more detailed explanation of precisely what the Government's policy is with regard to Government contributions to research funding.

A further area of disappointment in this regard was last week's announcement by the Minister for Primary Industry (Mr Kerin) of funding for the 1983-84 Commonwealth Special Research Grant. This provided for total expenditure during the year of $279,000 on 35 projects, the same allocation that was provided under the grant for 1982-83. In real terms, of course, the allocation is a reduction in Commonwealth funding when inflation is taken into account, and therefore raises doubt about the commitment of the Labor Government to increase its involvement in research. It is, nonetheless, pleasing to see the Government has accepted the industry request in this case to raise the levy for barley research , and to continue matching industry contributions on a dollar for dollar basis.