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Wednesday, 29 April 1987
Page: 2020


Senator JONES —On behalf of the Standing Committee on Science, Technology and Environment, I present a report on technology assessment in Australia, together with the transcript of evidence.

Ordered that the reports be printed.


Senator JONES —by leave-I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

This report concludes an inquiry undertaken in fulfilment of terms of reference first given to the Committee on 15 June 1984. On that occasion I said:

The effects of technological change on society will be felt more and more in the future. How to go about formulating policies to deal with these effects is the concern that lies behind the proposed inquiry.

The current period is one of great potential for technological advancement. New possibilities are emerging in areas such as computing, information technology, communications technology, biotechnology and new materials research. Tertiary institutions are becoming more involved in product development. New government programs, such as the National Industry Extension Service, NIES, and the grants for industrial research and development, GIRD, have been started.

The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation is reorganising its priorities to be more responsive to current industrial needs. There are signs that private business is increasing its investment in industrial research and development. The potential is there. Australians have the expertise, the ability, and the need. But more needs to be done to ensure Australian industry modernises quickly and for the benefit of all Australians. Any process of technology assessment must address this need and must be aware of the issues and approaches being discussed.

The Committee saw the new grants for industrial research and development and the National Industry Extension Service as central to establishing a strong Commonwealth technology promotion and assessment capability. We cannot make over-optimistic projections based on past history of technological change, and its relationship with economic growth. In the past, as a particular sector of the economy became more capital intensive and shed labour, the `excess labour' was absorbed in other sectors of the economy. Today's technological revolution is making possible rationalisation of production in the agricultural, manufacturing and service sectors of the economy simultaneously.

In the United States, during its recent period of rapid computerisation, the only place people could turn to for new jobs was in relatively servile or poorly paid service employment: The eating and drinking industry, including fast food chains; care of the aged and sick; and building maintenance, cleaning and delivery services. Successful management of social and economic impacts will facilitate a smoother and less costly introduction of new technology. If Australia is unable to deal with large-scale job displacement, with changing impacts on different sectors of the work force, with the effects on income levels as the balance between skilled and unskilled workers changes, and with new health and safety problems, resistance to change will only increase. Considerable costs could be involved in repairing social and economic damage caused by the inappropriate introduction of technology.

The Committee received, in submissions and in evidence, a range of proposals. The more substantial of these included, firstly, a Ministry for Technological Development; secondly, a Technological Assessment Board; thirdly, various decentralised technology assessment systems; fourthly, an improved Australian Science and Technology Council Technological Change Committee operation; and, fifthly, technological impact statements.

It is impractical to expect that a single central bureaucracy could effectively monitor all technological change affecting employment and working conditions. Industry is based on the use of technology, and obviously no bureaucratic agency can effectively monitor all changes in industry. The Committee therefore has been more interested in mechanisms which required a minimum of additional central bureaucracy, and which could tap into any existing or new processes which could throw light on the effects of technological change. We noted the decision of the ASTEC Technological Change Committee-TCC-not to collect data on an industry by industry basis, and on its lack of direct contact with the work place. The TCC's weaknesses do not reflect upon its own competence, but upon the overall situation in Australia. Three proposals were put to the Committee during its inquiry to remedy the deficiencies in technology assessment. The proposals were technical impact statements, industry databanks and co-ordinated national technology assessment. Given the lack of information sharing currently operating, despite the existence of the National Labour Consultative Council's guidelines on information sharing, it seemed that some form of legal obligation should be required of employers. The Conciliation and Arbitration Commission has already determined that employers should provide certain information in writing, after a firm decision has been made to introduce new technology. However, the impact of the Arbitration Commission's test case determination has not been widespread. The obligation to provide information on technological changes should be strengthened by legislation. This legislation should specify, along the lines indicated in a technology impact statement, what information should be provided. The legislation could also take into account the size of the enterprise's work force in assessing the need for it to lodge such a statement. Such statements could facilitate genuine consultation and make available the information necessary to analyse current impacts. They should not be required in order for the Government to evaluate whether the proposed technological change can go ahead. The Act could be called the Technological Change (Sharing of Information) Act.

There will be opposition, I should imagine, to such measure. To grapple with this problem, an increased educational program will also be necessary. The active promotion by the Government of technological change agreements, which include impact statements, will also be important. An education campaign promoting information sharing is urgent, and in that light the Committee supports the Australian Science and Technology Council's Technological Change Committee recommendation in its report `Computer-related Technology in the Metal Trades Industry' on this issue. It reads:

That the Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations consult with the union movement, employees and employers to produce detailed proposals for the implementation of a voluntary scheme of firm-based consultation between management and workers on the introduction of new and improved technologies.

The unions must strengthen their expertise in relation to new technologies. Workers in a particular enterprise usually build up an intimate understanding of the systems they are working with. But they may not necessarily have the expertise to participate, as fully contributing parties, in the planning of new technological systems.

It will be necessary for employee organisations to have the necessary expertise to participate fully in improved consultation in the work place. Increased and more widespread consultation, based upon the free and full flow of information, guaranteed by the introductions of technology impact statements, would help fill the gap as regards work place oriented information. If such statements were lodged in a central registry, it would help to produce specific industry based data. The assembly and collection of data on an industry basis is important. The Committee could not make specific detailed recommendations in this regard due to the technical questions involved in ensuring compatibility of data collection and storage methods. The Committee recommends that the Department of Industry, Technology and Commerce and the Australian Bureau of Statistics prepare a feasibility study on the proposal for an industry databank.

More than just a clearing house is needed for assessment of the general social and economic impacts. It was the Committee's view that a central co-ordinating body should have the following functions:

It should be a place of lodgment for the technology impact statements or in-house assessments prepared in the process of management-union consultations;

it should be responsible for administering a scheme to fund technology assessment-related projects that trade unions may wish to carry out;

it should be involved in promoting understanding of the available models for consultation;

it should be able to use this information, as well as information gathered from other sources, to conduct inquiries into any matter related to the identification and management of technological change impacts;

it should produce both recommendations to government and publish useful information for the community;

it should use public inquiries, in addition to professional expert research;

it should analyse data accumulated in the process of consultation and in the course of the work of NIES;

it should seek community submissions; and

it should encourage community groups to submit requests for inquiries.

I emphasise that the Committee is not advocating compulsory inquiries into the proposals of particular firms for technological change. It is advocating more general inquiries into questions relating to the impacts of technological change. The Committee recommends that a Technological Change Council be established, and suggests terms of reference along the following lines:

1. It should maintain a continuing review of the processes and trends in technological change in Australian and elsewhere, and evaluate and report on the direct and indirect effects at the national level, including social, economic and technological effects. The Council should carry out public inquiries as a principal method of evaluation. The Council should have the right to empower its director and senior specialist staff to conduct public hearings.

2. The Council should act as a place of lodgment of technological impact statements produced in the course of management-union consultation at the enterprise level. The Council should utilise the information in these statements, giving due regard to legitimate issues of confidentiality, in conducting its inquiries.

3. The Council should manage a scheme of financial assistance to unions, and community groups, who may wish to carry out technology assessment projects, as a means of improving their ability to contribute to work place, and industry level, consultations.

The Council should comprise a broad range of people, representing business, unions, community groups, women's interests, labour market and sociological expertise. They should be part time members. The Council should ensure that women's interests are represented by women. The Committee recommends that the Council be formed by taking the following steps:

Removing the Technological Change Committee from the ASTEC framework. The new Council would also report directly to the Prime Minister. Its reports should be presented to the Parliament.

Rewriting the TTC's terms of reference along the lines I have just indicated, with the current second clause of its terms of reference being given to ASTEC.

Restructuring of its membership in line with the composition I have just outlined above. The current size of the membership need not be expanded.

The Committee's evidence indicated that impact-oriented assessment in Australia was most unsatisfactory. This was partly because such assessment work was carried out by institutions whose primary concern was to promote the rapid diffusion of new technologies.

It is equally important for Australia to understand the nature of the social and general economic impacts of new technologies. Such cost-benefit assessments should be carried out by a body mandated to do that alone. By ASTEC taking on the technology promotion assessment work, and a restructured TCC becoming an independent council, a new body could be put into place with minimal additional expense or bureaucratic arrangements. The new Council could use part of the existing TCC staff, with few additional staff. There does not seem to be any reason why the two councils-ASTEC and the Technological Change Council-could not share premises.

I am confident that the proposed Technological Change Council would be of great benefit to Australia. This benefit can be maximised only if there is an increasing community interest and participation in the consideration of Australia's technological future. Additional public education will also be necessary. The submission from the Commission for the Future noted that there were many sectors of the community affected by new technology which did not make submissions to the Committee's inquiry. These sectors included women, migrants, the Aborigines, older workers, disabled workers and youth. The awareness of technology-related issues within these groups, and the community generally, should be raised. We were therefore interested in the concept of a community education program as proposed by the Commission for the Future. The Committee supports the initiative taken by the Commission for the Future to establish a Clearing House on Future Issues. The major function of CHOFI will be to disseminate information about all major issues which involve the future of work and impact of technological change.

The Committee's principal recommendations are:

1. That the Senate review the operation of the grants for industrial research and development, and the National Industry Extension Service, within two years of their commencement;

2. That priority be given to establishing within, or in association with NIES, a clearing house for information material on the potential of new technological applications, and on the various problems faced in ensuring rapid adoption of these technologies;

3. That a Technological Change (Sharing of Information) Act be introduced, requiring the provision of specific categories of information to employees and their unions in the course of consultation over technological change, and that such information also be lodged with a Technological Change Council;

4. That the Government implement the recommendation made by the ASTEC Technological Change Committee `that the Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations consult with the union movement, employees and employers, to produce detailed proposals for the implementation of a voluntary scheme of firm-based consultation between management and workers on the introduction of new and improved technologies.' The Committee adds the proviso that it believes that the information to be shared during consultations should be defined in legislation, and that the term `workers' should include their unions;

5. That a feasibility study into the establishment of an industry databank be carried out by the Government;

6. That a Technological Change Council be established by restructuring the current ASTEC Technological Change Committee to:

(a) carry out specifically impact-oriented assessments; and

(b) manage a system of funding assistance to non-government organisations wishing to carry out technology assessments as a part of improving consultation in Australia. The Council should be provided with adequate resources; and

7. The membership of such a Council should ensure the representation of women's interests by women.

I would like finally to thank sincerely the staff who worked for the Committee-the secretary and the research officers, including the people who worked as research officers and then left the Committee to work for other committees, and other research officers who came during the time we were undertaking the inquiry. It was only as a result of the work carried out by that staff that we were able to bring down this report within the three-year period. I recommend the report to the Senate.