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Tuesday, 10 May 1994
Page: 480

Senator McKIERNAN —I address my question to the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy. It is not about his cooking skills but about the impact of the government's Working Nation statement, particularly as it affects rural Australia. Is the minister aware of criticisms of the statement, in particular the changes to the administration of the rural adjustment scheme? Has the minister examined the criticisms, and are they justified? Can the minister also advise the Senate how farmers and rural communities—

Senator Ian Macdonald —I hope you have more idea than Rosemary.

Senator McKIERNAN —Does Senator Macdonald not care about rural communities? How will farmers and rural communities benefit from measures announced in the Working Nation statement?

Senator COLLINS —I did note the press statement that was put out by John Anderson. As the Australian accurately noted the other day, the only group that did not welcome the rural initiatives announced in the white paper was the federal opposition. The white paper does include increased funding for rural community access programs, which has been welcomed warmly across the rural community. It does also contain a refocusing of the government's major instrument in the restructuring of rural Australia, the rural adjustment scheme. The RAS refocus will enhance regional adjustment and continue to support individual farmers through training grants and interest subsidies for productivity improvements. The government's substantial support for RAS will be revealed when the budget is brought down tonight.

  The new focus will draw on a reserve which will comprise, as I said publicly, underspends on the normal RAS scheme and a modest levy on state RAS allocations.

  Senator Panizza interjecting

Senator COLLINS —If the senator from the bush would rather have these underspends go back to consolidated revenue instead of being retained in RAS, let him say so. I am negotiating the details of this new approach with the states, which administer the scheme and contribute a minor amount of the funding—about 10 per cent—to it. This new approach will also improve the linkages between the rural adjustment scheme and other Commonwealth, state and territory programs, which is a sensible thing to do.

Senator Crane —You blame everybody but yourself.

Senator COLLINS —I point out to the peanut gallery opposite that the suggestion that these changes should be made came to me from farm groups; so, if the honourable senator wants to continue on that course, he may do so.

  There will be a competitive bidding process for funding from the reserve and projects will be developed in full consultation with regional or industry bodies. Mr Anderson queried whether $6 million had been `lopped off' the forward estimates for agribusiness programs in last year's budget. The fact is that a total of just over $13 million will be directly available to agricultural based industries for the purpose of enterprise and export development—an increase over last year.

  Another criticism levelled by Mr Anderson was with regard to the level of CSIRO funding. This is a matter for my colleague Senator Cook, but it does have an important focus in my portfolio because of the agricultural research that is conducted. Mr Anderson focused on a straight comparison of last year's funding with this year's, conveniently forgetting that the last triennium's funding was bolstered by this government by a special supplement of $50 million per year for capital works.

  The outcome of the government's consideration of funding for this triennium, and this is the important distinction, was to increase the base level of funding for the science agencies by $34 million a year—not the generous level of the special supplement that we gave for that triennium but a substantial boost to the historic levels of activity for CSIRO.

  The outcome must also be viewed in the context of the white paper initiative to fund $60 million of national research facility programs over the next eight years and the ongoing support of science agencies by the R&D corporations within the portfolio which, between them, now administer the allocation each year of $250 million worth of research activity. I must say that Mr Anderson's statements in this portfolio, as they were in the previous portfolio, are grossly inaccurate.