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Thursday, 3 March 2011
Page: 2300

Mr CRAIG THOMSON (10:11 AM) —It is almost unique in this parliament to speak to a bill that is actually being supported by the opposition. We are used to the no, no, no from the other side, the negative rants that come out of there. I am shocked—we have a bill, the Australian Research Council Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2010, which they are actually supporting! Gosh, this is a red letter day. What makes it even more of a red letter day is that it is about investing in education.

The former government had an abysmal record in relation to education, both higher education and school education. The best thing the opposition did when they were in government, the big issue that they are very proud of, was putting flagpoles in schools. That is the crowning glory in their contribution to education over 13 years in government.

Opposition members interjecting—

Mr CRAIG THOMSON —You should hang your heads in shame in relation to what you did to education. What we saw under your government was that investment in tertiary education went backwards.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. Peter Slipper)—The member for Dobell will direct his remarks through the chair.

Mr CRAIG THOMSON —Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. What we saw under the previous government was a decline in investment in education. We were ranked last in the OECD in terms of the investments in education that occurred during the Howard government. They have a very, very sorry track record. That is what makes today such a red letter day. They have decided at last—and let us hope they do this in relation to the NBN and the carbon tax, because they do not have policies; I hope this is a change—to get out of the way and let us get on and do the job that governments do. I am very, very pleased that this bill is being supported.

The bill updates the special appropriation fund cap administered by the Australian Research Council to include indexation adjustments and an additional forward estimate for existing schemes within the National Competitive Grants Program. Indexation adjustments and adding of forward estimates are part of the standard budget process and are administrative in nature. The bill only alters or creates appropriations. The Australian Research Council Act 2001 is the source for administered funding which enables the Australian Research Council to provide funding to underpin high-quality Australian research, which is both fundamental and critical to the Australian national innovation system.

All universities, including the Central Coast campus of the University of Newcastle—which is in my region, a region that I share with the member for Shortland, who is here—are eligible to apply for funding under the National Competitive Grants Program. We would not have a university campus on the Central Coast if it were not for a Labor government. The former member for Dobell, Michael Lee, was successful in securing funding so that kids on the Central Coast would not have to travel up to Newcastle or down to Sydney for their higher education because we would have that campus.

It is a wonderful campus that is expanding in size every year. It is one of the most successful and innovative campuses in Australia. In fact, the Bradley report came out and there were recommendations in relation to the way higher education should be done, being integrated with TAFE and community colleges, and that is precisely the model that we have on the Central Coast. The Pro-Vice-Chancellor who looks after the Central Coast, Professor Stephen Crump, should be congratulated for the development of that campus and the role that he has played in terms of that.

University campuses and investments in education are very important to the people on the Central Coast because they have not always had these resources. It has only ever been Labor governments that have turned their minds to looking after the people on the Central Coast. We still have some problems in education and need continuing investment in what is there. Less than 40 per cent of the kids on the Central Coast actually complete year 12. We are talking about raising national benchmarks to 90 per cent. We are still at half the current national benchmarks of 80 per cent. So you can see that it is a region that, at the high school level, needs particular investment. It also needs it at the university level. We have this great campus that is now attracting more and more kids and fewer of them have to go to Sydney. One of the problems with going to Sydney is that they often drop out because of the difficulties with the four-hour round trip every day. In my electorate we still have the second lowest number of people who go on to get degrees. We have difficulties in retention at year 12 and in terms of people going on to get their degrees.

The Central Coast campus of the University of Newcastle has terrific programs, including Next Steps, which is a program for kids who did not quite have the marks to get into university. They can come to the campus and do courses. If they are successful in doing that, those courses are converted to their first year of university. That has been a great bridge in an area that has struggled to have these facilities for children to go through and get the training they need to get jobs. These programs have been absolutely fantastic.

The Ourimbah Campus has a new exercise science building, which is a fantastic project that this government has funded. It will provide three special teaching spaces and laboratories for exercise and sports programs. The Central Coast has a very strong sporting culture. We are home to the Central Coast Mariners. I take this opportunity to wish them all the best in their game on Saturday. I am sure it will not be their last game of the year. I am sure that they will have some success over the member for Moncrieff’s team, Gold Coast United, and go on to meet Brisbane Roar in the grand final. I think it is only fitting that that actually happens. We have a very strong sporting culture. The university, as part of that culture, has developed specialist expertise in exercise science, which plays a great role for us on the Central Coast. That is one of the areas that they work on.

Work is well underway on extensions to the campus library. It will soon be bigger and will be a great facility for students, staff and lecturers. It is worth mentioning, while we are talking about the Central Coast campus of the University of Newcastle, that the fine member for Robertson was a lecturer at this esteemed campus until she won the election last year. This is an area that is close to all three federal MPs who come from the Central Coast. The project to open up the library to the quadrangle will promote greater activity in the area. It will relocate the information common area and that will mean it is more accessible. There will also be a boost to the campus’s research capabilities, which is important. The investment needs to continue in one of the fastest growing campuses in Australia.

We know Australia is a clever country and now, thanks to this Labor government and the Excellence in Research for Australia initiative, for the first time we can see exactly how our country’s research efforts compare to the rest of the world. The first full ERA evaluation, its 2010 national report, showed us that we have a large number of research strengths and that we should be proud of this. It showed that our performance in areas like history, immunology and quantum physics is truly outstanding. The Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, Senator Kim Carr, observed:

… when it comes to funding quality research it is important the Australian Government fully understands Australia’s strengths and weaknesses.

The Australian Government invests billions of dollars in research each year. ERA gives the Australian taxpayer assurance that their money is being invested wisely and gives the Government a clear idea of the research areas we need to focus on for improvement and continued excellence.

The report also showed that we need to do better in some areas. The evidence the ERA evaluation gave us is helping us to find ways to improve.

Earlier this month the government announced the establishment of the Gillard Labor government’s Australian Research Integrity Committee. Australian taxpayers can now be more confident that the research activities that they fund meet the highest ethical and moral standards. The establishment of the committee reinforces the importance of upholding Australia’s science and research reputation in ensuring public research funding is used appropriately.

The government recognises that Australian researchers and research institutes are among the best and most respected in the world. We proudly invest billions of dollars in research each year. However, the government’s reputation must be protected and our investment must be ethical. That is why the government takes allegations of misconduct very seriously. We expect all allegations to be investigated thoroughly. The taxpayer deserves nothing less. The committee can be asked to investigate if it believes an institute has not taken appropriate action in their internal investigations into alleged research misconduct.

This bill will apply indexation to existing appropriation amounts in the act and add an additional out year for the financial forward estimates. Indexation adjustments and adding a forward estimate are part of the standard budget process and are administrative in nature.

In the time that I have available I would like to talk a bit about the grants program. The Australian Research Council Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2010 provides additional funding for the council as part of the standard budget process. This is important legislation to ensure the ARC can continue to support high-quality research in Australia. Through the National Competitive Grants Program, the Australian Research Council supports the highest quality fundamental and applied research training through national competition. The ARC funds research and researchers under the National Competitive Grants Program.

As part of its commitment to nurturing creative abilities and skills of Australia’s most promising researchers, the NCGP provides support for the highest quality research leading to the discovery of new ideas and the advancement of knowledge; financial assistance towards facilities and equipment that researchers need to be internationally competitive in; support for the training and skill development of the next generation of researchers; and incentives for Australia’s most talented researchers to work in partnership with leading researchers throughout national innovation systems and internationally and to form alliances with Australian businesses.

The NCGP comprises two main elements: Discovery and Linkage, under which the ARC funds a range of complementary schemes to support researchers at different stages of their careers, build Australia’s research capability, expand and enhance research networks and collaborations, and develop centres of research excellence. A major component of Linkage is the ARC Centres scheme, which brings together leading researchers from around the world to work collaboratively on specific research problems. The ARC Centre’s scheme is administered independently of the other components of Discovery and Linkage.

As I noted at the start of my contribution, this is an important bill. It is a great pleasure that we at last have a bill that is supported by the opposition. We are hoping that this is a change in trend and that we are now going to see a more positive opposition—though I am not holding my breath. It has been a very unusual feature to see them make any positive contributions to any national infrastructure issues or national policies that further develop Australia’s interests. Given their extremely poor record in government in relation to education it is somewhat of a surprise that we find them supporting any government legislation. But we do welcome this support—it is something that should be given bipartisan support. Let us hope that they can come to the party in relation to the other big issues that we are also debating in terms of carbon tax, the future of our planet, and the NBN—some of the big, major infrastructure issues. We need to be able to take a bipartisan view in relation to these issues so that the Australian people get the best they can out of this parliament rather than the continual negative ‘No, no, no’ that we see every day from the opposition. It was refreshing today to hear the opposition support our bill. I commend this bill to the House.