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Monday, 6 June 1994
Page: 1336

Senator PANIZZA (5.55 p.m.) —I move:

  That the following matter be referred to the Standing Committee on Industry, Science, Technology, Transport, Communications and Infrastructure for inquiry and report by the last day of sitting in September 1994: The adequacy and appropriateness of the operation, funding and resourcing of research relating to rural industries by the CSIRO.

I ask honourable senators to please ignore the paper that was circulated twice this afternoon, indicating my intention to amend that motion. That will be left, if he so desires, in the hands of Senator Coulter. The motivating factor in moving the motion was the surge of representations from CSIRO scientists and employees right around Australia, including bodies in Western Australia. The calls from these scientists have been supported by the peak rural bodies in Western Australia, so I apologise to nobody for calling for such an inquiry.

  The problem at hand is that CSIRO top management is about to consider the position of up to 200 staff, consisting mainly of agricultural scientists in the agricultural divisions, mainly as a result of the short- to medium-term budget cuts to eight agricultural divisions around Australia on 25 May. It is not as though there have not been past staff reductions. I believe that, irrespective of their status, all organisations in Australia have to go through some restructuring to meet the demands of modern times.

  The Institute of Animal Production and Processing has taken the brunt of redundancies in the past three years. It is not as though this section has not been the subject of a certain amount of restructuring but this restructuring seems to be occurring mainly in the agricultural sector. To back up that argument, it should be noted that, in 1991-92, of a total of 103 redundancies in the CSIRO, 67 were agricultural scientists—65 per cent. In 1992-93, of 115 CSIRO personnel made redundant, 67 were agricultural scientists. Until 13 May 1994, 114 agricultural scientists were made redundant out of a total of 182 redundancies. In this and many other ways the dice are loaded against the rural industries.

  The CSIRO and other research organisations within departments of agriculture around Australia under the auspices of state governments need to be looked at in terms of the next 25 years rather than in the short term as has occurred under this federal government. The government should harness the zealous research work of agricultural scientists and set specific goals for each agricultural commodity so that we can meet the demands of the future. Concrete proposals are needed to harness and keep in Australia the top agricultural scientists that we have.

  The other day, in answer to a question by Senator Sandy Macdonald, Senator Collins said that there is record funding in Australia for agricultural research. However, in saying that, Senator Collins did not point out to the Senate that he was taking into consideration all of the agricultural research around Australia, including all departments of agriculture which, of course, are paid for by state governments and have nothing to do with the federal government, thus belying the fact that the CSIRO had had its agricultural based funding cut. We need to harness the talents of those CSIRO agricultural scientists and keep them in Australia.

  The last thing I want to see is a further brain drain to competing countries. The brain drain of agricultural scientists has already started to places like Uruguay, Argentina and Chile, and those countries are receiving the benefit of the written research and minds of those scientists. The other day I heard Senator Cook say that the frontiers of science never cease to expand. That was a motherhood statement that we knew of without him telling us, but it demonstrated the disastrous effects of the brain drain.

  The most famous example of such a brain drain that I can think of—perhaps you, Mr Acting Deputy President, could think of more famous examples—is Marconi. The Italian government did not think that Marconi's discovery would turn the world upside down.

Senator Abetz —Italians don't have a good record, do they, John?

Senator PANIZZA —No, they do not have a good record in that area. They kept some of their scientists, but Marconi was probably the most famous. Another example that comes to mind is Von Braun from Germany who, fortunately, went to the United States.

  That is one of the biggest worries I have with top agricultural scientists leaving Australia for other parts of the world because those other countries will then use their research when competing against us in world markets. Selling off Australian research stations is forcing Australian agricultural scientists to commit professional suicide, especially those research stations that were bought by levies. I refer to a document that I received the other day. As I said earlier in this place, one station that I am particularly concerned about is Yallanbee in Western Australia, although there are plenty of others on the list to be sold off.

  Yallanbee is CSIRO's only experimental research farm for Australia's mediterranean region, which stretches from north-western Victoria through South Australia and Western Australia. The CSIRO has been told that has to be sold and shifted to Katanning, which has a different environment altogether. As a sideline, it also appears that half of CSIRO's Yallanbee station, 1,100 hectares of research farm, has been paid for by wool growers, yet proceeds from the sale would not go back to wool growers. This situation is because of the fact that CSIRO, no doubt under instruction from the government, has been told to sell these research places off to fund the government's deficit or to fund the budget cuts.

  These stations have had ongoing programs to provide animals for the research itself, to provide a site for field experiments and to provide stock feed for animal houses and adjoining laboratories. Selling off is not the same as selling off an airport. If an airport is sold off, Australia still gets the benefit. That station is an example, but there are plenty of others in the same situation. Agricultural research farms are our own laboratories—as you well know from your own state of Tasmania, Mr Deputy President—without which our agricultural scientists cannot work, or it means that their work is dramatically reduced if they have to go elsewhere.

  I want to go through the specific reasons why funding for agricultural research has declined in the past. First, there are ongoing funding cuts and increasing difficulty in winning Australian wool research and processing. Secondly, AWRAP research grants for CSIRO in some respects duplicate the extension of the research approach of these state departments and only concentrate on practical research projects rather than the hows and whys of agricultural research.

  The funding crisis within CSIRO's agricultural divisions has even forced an axing of this practical research. The reasons for crisis in research are: the six agricultural stations have virtually lost their external funding. AWRAP, which had a different name before, has eliminated 80 to 90 per cent of the research arm. There has been a big downturn in the price of wool in Australia, unfortunately, so that the levies from those sales have gone down. While we are facing a smaller amount of levies, one would think that the government would be more interested in putting in extra funds until the woollen industry comes back—and it will. I have said that often enough in this place. The market is showing that the price of wool is coming back, although production has gone down—

Senator Crane —It was 628c yesterday.

Senator PANIZZA —Well, if it keeps going we will get back to somewhere near a reasonable price. One would think that the government would be interested in increasing funding rather than eliminating it. I have given the reasons, namely, the collapse of the wool fixed price. Of course, we all remember the price of 700c a kilo under the floor price scheme, and we remember that debate. Half of one per cent of the sale of every bale of wool is taxed to fund research. But if the price is not there, so the research money goes down. As a result, wool growers' contribution to research has fallen dramatically. It has been aggravated because the federal government's dollar for dollar basis has gone down with those levies. I have already said, and I will repeat it in case it has not sunk in, that is the reason for the government increasing funding.

  But what did we see? CSIRO's overall budget was cut by six per cent in the overall scheme. There was a change of course in the priorities for CSIRO research initiated by a couple of former ministers in this place. Through the McKinsey report, CSIRO was told to shift focus. This is a government and a minister who tell us that they do not direct an independent body. We were told last week that CSIRO was an independent body, yet it cannot give us a briefing. If someone from CSIRO, uninvited by me, arrives at my door and asks if I would like a briefing, would I not say yes? But I have to have present one of the minister's henchmen, although the minister denies that he gives these sorts of instructions. I declined that briefing because I was not going to be told who comes to my office.

  CSIRO has been told to shift the focus away from agricultural research and put it as its least important priority. I would like to hear the minister deny that. The McKinsey report recommended that CSIRO concentrate on small to medium business, where a small business has been defined as employing at least 20 employees and having an annual turnover of $2 million. I have no problem with research into small business as small business is the biggest employer of labour in Australia, but let us find funds for that purpose. But in order to do that, do not take the focus away from some of Australia's most important industries. There are not many farms in Australia, and they are mostly family farms, that employ 20 people. There are not many farms in Australia with a turnover of $2 million. This has disenfranchised and excluded research to serve Australia's 50,000 farmers who are helping to carry this country but who are no longer defined. I always took farming to be a small business, and Senator Jones obviously agrees with me. But now we have been defined out, not legislated out.

  CSIRO's agricultural division has also lost access to CSIRO's priority fund source created by a one per cent plus tax on all 38 division budgets and then allocated to priority funded research projects. Internal announcements by the chief executive officer of CSIRO show that priority will be given to buildings rather than to retaining staff. Some of the CSIRO divisions directly affected and facing staff cuts later in this month are as follows: tropical animal production; animal production itself as a different subject; plant industry; tropical crops and pastures; animal health; wool technology; entomology; and half of the Division of Soils. That is how this government is treating agricultural research in Australia.

  As I said in my opening remarks, this inquiry was sought by the agricultural scientists. It was not, as Senator Cook said, that members of the coalition went to CSIRO demanding to be heard and to sit in on its deliberations—yet he wants one of his henchmen to sit in on any sort of briefing that we have. The push for this inquiry came from those scientists around Australia. Senator Murphy can laugh as much as he likes—it shows what he thinks of the farmers of Tasmania—but that is the situation. Perhaps when he goes back to Tasmania on the weekend he can explain to the farmers down there why he was laughing at their concerns.

  As soon as there was a hint of an inquiry into the CSIRO the paperwork started pouring in, encouraging us to carry on. We did not go out and create a demand for an inquiry. The committee in question is busy enough without taking on extra inquiries. But in this case it

was demanded by those people out there. We claim to be the clever country, so let us look into the concerns of those clever people and not have Senator Cook telling us how to go about it.

  The scientists are speaking with one voice. Not one of my colleagues has told me that they have heard a differing view. The scientists doing the research are speaking with one voice. Apparently, there are people out there who believe that there have been enough inquiries into the CSIRO—

Senator Cook —That's true.

Senator PANIZZA —Is it true? I have looked at the summary of reports to the Senate and House of Representatives from 1970 to the present time and there has not been one inquiry into the funding of agriculture research by CSIRO. Senator Cook might believe that there were plenty of such inquiries prior to 1970 but I can tell him that since 1970, which is a long time ago, there has not been one inquiry with these specific terms of reference. That puts paid to that lie. It answers the critics once and for all. If Senator Cook knows any different then I would like to hear about it.

  I would like to come back to Senator Cook's attitude to this situation since hearing that there could be an inquiry. I cannot explain his attitude in this place—standing up in question time, saying he will not allow the coalition, the Democrats, the Greens or anyone else to hold a briefing with staff of the CSIRO without one of his staffers being present—calling them simply `notetakers'. I presume that when Senator Cook is discussing something in his office concerning Western Australia he would not mind my sending around a notetaker, simply to take notes.

Senator Cook —I have responsibility—ministerial responsibility.

Senator PANIZZA —Yes, I know.

Senator Cook —You do not, and you are never likely to.

Senator PANIZZA —Yes, I know my place in life but I have got through life pretty well without having to resort to the jackboot tactics that Senator Cook has used. I cannot understand Senator Cook's attitude. He must have something to hide, either on his own behalf or on behalf of someone else. When he rises to speak in this debate, if he is going to rise and speak because, generally, when something like this arises he turns tail like a coward and walks out—

  The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator West)—Order! Senator Panizza, would you like to withdraw that reflection upon the minister?

Senator PANIZZA —Madam Acting Deputy President, before I withdraw, are you ruling it unparliamentary or has it been ruled unparliamentary before?

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Yes, it has been.

Senator PANIZZA —In that case, I withdraw it and replace it with `with his lack of courage and intestinal fortitude', which he has never been known to exhibit when the chips are down. We cannot ignore the great number of agricultural scientists around Australia who are demanding this inquiry. Senator Murphy still laughs. He is laughing at the agricultural scientists, the farmers and the rural producers in Tasmania.

Senator Murphy —Madam Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. I do not know whether Senator Panizza thinks we are not allowed to enter this chamber and smile about things without him being able to make some reflection—

Senator O'Chee —What is your point of order?

Senator Murphy —My point of order is that Senator Panizza was reflecting on me incorrectly, and I take offence at that. I ask him to withdraw his remark.

Senator Vanstone —On the point of order, Madam Acting Deputy President: we have to have a tough skin in here. If I were the sort of person to take offence, I would be out there weeping when Senator Murphy says, `Back in your tub, Flora.' He wants to make out that I am a big lump of lard; it is just another way of calling me Fatty. He is just a jerk. If he wants to have a thin skin, he had better tighten up his own mouth before he complains—Thinny-Skinny!

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! There is no point of order on either side. I call Senator Panizza to continue his remarks.

Senator PANIZZA —All I can say to Senator Murphy is that if he cannot stand the heat he should get out of the kitchen. I have made the points I wish to make about why there should be an inquiry into funding for the CSIRO's agricultural division. I thank the Australian Democrats for their support. We do not agree on many things in this chamber but obviously we have found some agreement today. I look forward to the contributions to be made by my colleagues.