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Thursday, 28 February 1985
Page: 323


Senator JESSOP(1.14) —I raise a matter that I regard as quite important concerning Commonwealth finance directed to research programs under the Industrial Research and Development Incentives Act 1976. I think all honourable senators should realise the importance of such schemes in advancing and developing Australian initiatives in technology in order to make our industries and exports more competitive on the world market and to expand the base of our export income. I consider this a matter of urgency. If Australia is to increase its presently decreasing standard of living and to reduce our national foreign debt, I think it most imperative that we increase our export income. Everyone will recognise just how serious the matter is when they see that in the Budget last year we spent, I think, of the order of $5.6 billion, or over 8 per cent of the Budget, to service public debt throughout Australia. That is a considerable amount of money and the only way we can reverse this is to increase our export earnings.

There are many examples in the past that I could cite of successive Australian governments having failed to develop fully the overseas market potential of local inventions. Xerography, Interscan and, more recently, the over-the-horizon Jindalee-type radar system are some of the more familiar ones. Because of our reluctance to provide the $10 for every $1 spent in pure research to develop these initiatives and, I suggest, because we failed to spend even more-perhaps up to $20 for every initial research dollar spent on these inventions-and unless we are prepared to spend that sort of money on entrepreneurial promotion of these initiatives, I think Australia is going to lose out continually to overseas interests who are anxiously awaiting further world initiatives from Australia in order to capitalise on the world market. I believe that lack of Government commitment in this area combined with bureaucratic red tape is alive and well, thereby militating against the interests of Australian entrepreneurs.

An unfortunate example of this was drawn to my attention recently; I raised it in Question Time this week. I refer to a computer assisted disaster management system called CADMAS. This particular project was refused finance under the provisions of the Industrial Research and Development Incentives Act. I drew attention the other day to the fact that in 1985, this year, alone Australia has suffered losses in the vicinity of $250m from natural and man-made disasters. An efficient and comprehensive national disaster management system such as CADMAS could easily save the Australian community from 10 to 20 per cent of the annual cost of such disasters as bush fires, floods and cyclones, not to mention the human lives which could be saved as a result of the implementation of this system.

In November 1983 the then Minister for Science and Technology, the Hon. Barry Jones, suggested when approached by the company that the CADMAS system was an ideal project to be applied for under section 39, the public interest section, of the Industrial Research and Development Incentives Act. I have seen an excellent video presentation of the CADMAS system, and I agree with the former Minister and the Industrial Research and Development Incentives Board who suggested that this project had some merit. I believe it is an excellent project which should be supported by the Government. On 29 November 1983 an application was lodged but the company concerned was later informed that no money was left in the 1983-84 Budget allocation. This was despite the fact that the Budget Papers show that the Government underspent its public interest grants allocation by almost $2m. Also the project grants and commencement grants allocations were underspent by $2.2m and $1.6m respectively. Some accounting explanation could well be offered for this surplus, but it seems to me that to underspend research grant money is quite irresponsible of the Minister and Department concerned.

Finance of approximately $4m was sought for CADMAS and the Australian Government could have received up to approximately $200m in estimated royalties, as, I understand, it would have been assigned all the software rights and licences. An American company which is interested in this system cannot understand why this project is not being assisted by the Australian Government. They say that CADMAS is five years ahead of the rest of the world in this field of software technology. A large number of States within the United States are waiting to buy CADMAS as soon as it comes on to the market and South Australian and Victorian authorities are also very interested. Further applications for funds from this year's grants have been rejected, even though the then Minister, Mr Jones, and the Industrial Research and Development Incentives Board have described the project as meritorious and worthy of funding. I am mystified why worthwhile national projects such as this have been pushed around from one board hearing to another in spite of the fact that the Minister and the Incentives Board have obviously commended it as a worthy project. Why should CADMAS now be subjected to the time-consuming and costly feasibility study which is suggested?

I believe a more efficient national disaster management scheme such as this would lead to the export of this new high technology. Australia, once again, if we do not get on with the job, will see overseas interests developing this local initiative and then eventually we will have to buy back this Australian facility to sell to interested parties within our own country. Such inaction would ensure that significant export income which would evolve from this project would end up in an overseas country. I can assure you, Mr Deputy President, that an American company is very interested in spending millions of dollars on this particular project. Unless the Australian Government gets into the act and does something about it, we will lose that initiative, and the profits resulting from export sales will go to the United States of America. All that needs to happen is for the new Minister for Industry, Technology and Commerce, Senator Button, to get the interested parties around the table and make sure that this valuable project, which in my view is a most exciting innovation with respect to national emergency, is pushed through this bureaucratic red tape so that the Australian community will benefit from a CADMAS system operating nationally and from the significant export sales that will undoubtedly flow from marketing this commodity internationally. I wonder, Mr Deputy President, how many other examples there are of Australian initiatives having been held up by continual frustration due to bureaucratic red tape.

Sitting suspended from 1.24 to 2 p.m.