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Monday, 6 June 1994
Page: 1342

Senator COOK (Minister for Industry, Science and Technology and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Science) (6.32 p.m.) —I recognise that Senator Coulter has an amendment to put to Senator Panizza's motion. It has been circulated in the chamber and I am therefore aware of its terms. Since my colleague Senator Collins will speak later, he will be able to answer any specific issues raised by Senator Coulter.

  It is a great pity that none of the three honourable senators listed to speak—Senators Panizza, Abetz and Coulter—participated in the estimates committee process in which the appropriations for the CSIRO came before the Senate estimates committee. That is the appropriate forum in which one probes the expenditure of an organisation. It is an opportunity afforded to all senators.

  I admit that by raising this point it may now be that, out of party solidarity and loyalty to the three senators I have just named, an opposition member from the estimates committee may rise. However, these three are the ones who are promoting this motion, and none of them took advantage of the opportunity that the parliament affords to find out the facts.   Based on their abysmal ignorance and the facts that no-one who knows the fact from any of the other parties that I have referred to has come forward to support them at this stage, there is a case to be answered here in just terms of parliamentary conduct: whether we take the forms and organisations of this place as responsible and deal with them in a proper and responsible manner, quiz the various authorities in a proper and responsible way and enable a smooth running of the place, or whether we introduce out of the blue motions such as this because the mood seizes us.

  This motion is ill-considered. It is not a logical motion. It raises a number of questions which have big implications for the CSIRO. The people who are proposing this motion are not friends of science or the CSIRO because it is inherently disruptive and is based on assertion and allegation. In the normal course of debating, a person who makes such an assertion or debate would come forward with some supporting evidence to justify his claim. None has been presented in any logical or coherent way, and we have had a muddle-headed and intellectually confused presentation of reasons which, as I say, when we break them down to their logical basis are merely assertions.

  We have had from opposition Senator Abetz a list of questions that he wants answered. I suggest that Senator Abetz puts all of those questions on notice and they will be answered. He does not need to go to the expense or the disruption created by this inquiry to get an answer to any of those questions.

Senator Abetz —Or the embarrassment to you.

Senator COOK —No, they are not embarrassing to me or anyone else. They are embarrassing to people who ask silly questions, but that is a problem for them.

  There is another factor I should touch on before I go to what the government would put as the merit of its position, and that is that a red herring has been drawn across this debate and referred to by the last two speakers over what the CSIRO's ruling is concerning access to CSIRO officials by parliamentarians. At basis, it is not, of course, to interfere with the professional expression of opinion by any CSIRO officer at all. Allegations of that sort are just not true. Nor is it to do anything other than ensure that officers of the CSIRO are protected from becoming political footballs by there being an objective body of recording of what it was they said.

  If there is any reason to show why that is necessary, let me go no further than Senator Abetz's last remark. He selected a name of a professional officer of the CSIRO and described some of this professional officer's utterances as unbelievable. He then went on to say that a memorandum allegedly penned by this officer is an absolute disgrace. That is, I gather, the non-professional opinion of a backbench politician in this place about what a professional does.

  But what has he done by doing this? He has introduced in public debate the name of a professional officer of the CSIRO and then derided that person's professional opinion under the coverage of parliament without there being an ability of that person necessarily to reply. I think that is disgraceful. That is why an objective, independent record of conversation should be kept on all of these occasions so that the facts of the matter can be made clear.

  I now turn to the issue at hand. The starting point in any logical dissertation on a subject such as this should be to find out what the act setting up the CSIRO provides for it to do? Subsection 9(1)(a) of the Science and Industry Research Act sets down the functions of the organisation. It would serve honourable senators opposite well to read the organisation's objectives that they are complaining about because the objectives are quite clear. Subsection 9(1)(a) states:

(a)to carry out scientific research for any of the following purposes:

(i) assisting Australian industry;

I will come back to that point, `assisting Australian industry', when I deal with remuneration achieved by the CSIRO by selling of its services to Australian industry, which goes in part to what rural Australia does do by buying some of these services as consultancies or as research commissioned by them. It goes to some of the terms of reference put down by Senator Coulter, who seems to suggest in those terms of reference that perhaps there is some imbalance here and perhaps the Australian industry requirement is distorting the priorities of the CSIRO—at least that is the implication of the terms of reference. It is a direct obligation on the organisation to work in assisting Australian industry in such a way.

  The rest of the objectives of the CSIRO set out in this act as a matter of public record are clear and the CSIRO is, and let me say this clearly now, adhering to those objectives. As the minister responsible for this authority, I have full confidence in its board and executive to discharge the obligation it is charged with by this parliament, and I believe it to be doing that.

  Let me go to the government's role in relation to the CSIRO. We bring forward, and parliament decides, the act which sets down its objectives. That is point one. Point two is that the government—and I am the recommending minister to Cabinet, which then makes recommendations to the Governor-General—constitutes the board of the CSIRO. We have an eminent and well-respected board of Australian citizens whose qualifications are, in terms of the job they have to do, without par. They deserve the respect of this parliament. I think Senator Panizza's motion seeks to undermine them, as I propose to demonstrate.

  That board fixes priorities under its strategic plan and notifies them to me, as minister. I, as minister, have a chance—if I want to—to use a section of the act to direct the board. I have not done so. It has brought forward its strategic plan; the one for this financial year is to come forward shortly. In the best consideration of the priorities of the organisation, and within its budget—a point recognised by opposition spokespersons in the past, and I am sure not denied by them now—it recognises the appropriate priorities for Australia's premier science research institute.

  Those priorities, by and large, are applied research priorities. I hear a lot from Senator Coulter—he may say something about this later—about pure science. I have a great and deep interest in seeing that the funding for pure science in this country is appropriate and ensures that we are internationally competitive.

  The CSIRO, while it does some pure science research, is not primarily a pure science agency; it is primarily an applied science agency. When we have done all those things, we appropriate in one line in the budget an allocation of funds to enable the organisation to thus perform. That is the appropriate role of government. That is what we do—and the organisation carries on from there. The executive and the board, working together, ensure what those priorities are.

  I have heard in this debate no argument from anyone in the opposition that this is the wrong thing. I have heard in this debate no argument from anyone in the opposition that we should do something else. I have heard in this debate from the opposition an argument that we should not interfere in the CSIRO. Coming from the opposition, this is a laughable proposition because the motion before this parliament is the mother of all interferences possible with the CSIRO. Those opposite cannot sit in this chamber and say to the government that has responsibility to the Australian people, `You can't interfere,' when we are not and when we are abiding by our obligations to the organisation, and then undertake the most disruptive, undermining possible sort of inquiry which interferes fundamentally with the structure of the CSIRO. That is the key reason this government will reject the motion.

  Last week Senator Panizza, the author of this motion, put out a press release headed `Cook interferes in the CSIRO', when in fact under this motion he is proposing to interfere more than anyone ever dreamt of. In the context of his press release, I never interfered with the CSIRO.

  Let us pause for a moment and consider what a Senate committee brings to this matter. It will essentially bring to this process the powers of a royal commission with the power to compel evidence to be produced, to compel documents to be brought forward, to censure people and to deal with them in that way. What has been produced here to justify that level of inquiry? Nothing at all!

  True to its logical, careful, planned reform of its own agency, the CSIRO is in the process of being part way through a restructuring. At what point of time would an inquiry, which knocks all this into a cocked hat, have the worst effect on an organisation undergoing restructuring? The answer is: about this time. Why do we not just sit back as a parliament, deal with the report of the CSIRO, utilise the forms and techniques of this parliament through its estimates committee process and other forms of inquiry—such as putting questions on notice or simply asking them—and allow the CSIRO to discharge its obligations to this country in the way in which over the years it has won an enviable reputation, both internationally and in Australia? Why do we have to have a motion such as this which undermines the authority and standing of the organisation, at a time when it is undergoing sensitive restructuring?

  As I have said, and as can be freely taken from my remarks, I believe that this motion constitutes an affront to the management of the CSIRO, the reputation of its managers, the efficacy of its board and the careful and logical managerial and administrative responsibility that is put in place to discharge its obligation under the act.

  If people in this chamber—and I make this an invitation—believe that the appropriation of funds that the government has given the CSIRO is improper, if that be the motivation of this inquiry, let them censure the government. I invite them to do so. I ask them not to crawl over the CSIRO in order to embarrass the government. I ask them not to bring it out and require its resources to be misallocated to meet the needs of this inquiry. Also, I ask them not to interfere with the delicate restructuring phase the organisation is now in. Those people need to face up to what they believe to be the fundamental problem, if they believe there is one, and deal with the government. But those opposite should not try to undermine this organisation in the way in which they do.

  The motion suggests that there is little real interest—there might be some—in saying something about funding, but there is interest in getting into the bowels of the CSIRO and its administration. I invite those opposite to step forward and deal with us, if that be the case. But I am afraid that is not the case.

  What are the present circumstances of the CSIRO? Let me go back to 1987-88. In that year the CSIRO commissioned a report, a report that any administrative organisation would itself commission in order from time to time to check that it was operating properly. This was a report by the McKinsey organisation. Its report to the CSIRO recommended several things. I have heard the name of that report canvassed in this place as if it were some foul, underhanded thing. This is a reasonable, proper and logical thing for an organisation such as the CSIRO to do—namely, invite a consultant to examine and report.

  What comes forward by way of recommendation does not necessarily mean it is adopted automatically. What the CSIRO management has done is get that report from the McKinsey organisation and it has thoughtfully gone about proposing change within the structure of the organisation. A key reform that came through from that report is that it brought together both the production and the productivity sectors of the organisation in their institutes, and virtually integrated the raw materials and value-adding functions of the CSIRO. Frankly, I think that is a commendable step forward because for too long we have concentrated in this country on raw material production and not enough on thinking about how we add value to the raw materials we produce and how me might use scientific means to encourage production from that. That is one of the fundamental changes that came forward out of that report, and it is to be commended.

  The executive has gone further. It has said that in the coming financial year, 1994-95, there will be another investigation and report, this time from an organisation which, I understand, is not yet named. Nonetheless, it is another external review to see how the implementation of its strategic plan is going and whether it is meeting the objectives that it has set. Again, that is a quite reasonable and logical set of external review and analysis of the structure of a responsible organisation.

  In 1992 the organisation had an internal review of its two premier agricultural institutes, one dealing with plant life and the other with animal husbandry, in order to ensure that internally they too were functioning. This Senate comes along on the back of all that and says, `Let's poke our nose around in all this too.' Why I ask, when the organisation is functioning properly and responsibly, having regard to external consultancy advice and within that structure applying a restructuring of the organisation to make sure it remains relevant as the frontiers of science change in Australia, and as it needs to ensure that Australia is up to date and across all those changes—and able to reflect them.

  They are, as I have said, clear, logical and cogent reasons why this organisation should be left alone and not dragged into this type of inquiry. I have not yet heard Senator Coulter. In his previous statements he has talked about pure science—something on which I have a fundamental agreement with him—but perhaps we part when it comes to accommodating that in a budgetary way because the government has a responsibility for budgets and the Democrats do not. I have heard from Senator Panizza and Senator Abetz that they would like some more research centres, or they would like some research centres to be kept open. That is what they would like.

Senator Panizza —No. Keep what we have got, especially what we have paid for.

Senator COOK —They have come from agricultural Australia. What we are seeing here is politicians on the backbench of their party pursuing their own self-interests about what they think ought to be the priorities of the CSIRO; not a consideration of the scientific needs of this nation and not an external review to get the best advice to see how we can set those goals—just what they happen to think the CSIRO should do. I could say to Senator Panizza that he may want to drag the CSIRO into this debate in order to enhance his political reputation and serve his own precious little self-interest group in the community, but that is a distortion of values and it is one that we will not agree to in government.

  Let me now go to the record of this government on rural research. Australia's rural research and development in general, and the CSIRO in particular, is a well-funded effort in this country. Australia is a leading source in the world of scientific papers on agricultural research. It is often the most frequently quoted source of research by other nations in the world.

  Primary industry and energy output in this country is important, and it is an important element of the total economy of Australia. It represents, however, 4.3 per cent of our GDP and 23 per cent of our exports. It is important that we give it due recognition but it is not the only thing. There are other elements of the economy that are important, that require recognition and require elevation. They represent a bigger share. In setting priorities one has to have regard for those as well.

  The rural focus for the CSIRO in funding is best demonstrated by going to the figures. In the 1993-94 budget year the CSIRO spent 40 per cent of its budget on rural research in one form or another. Some who come from the mining sector, the manufacturing sector, or environmental science, might say that that is a distortion of priorities and it should have gone elsewhere. That is what the organisation did. For the coalition to pretend that the CSIRO does not focus itself on research and development in rural Australia is to argue that the priorities of the other sectors should be relegated further than they are. I would like to hear the opposition explain that to those other sectors. Forty per cent of the total budget in any person's language is a substantial percentage when it accounts for 4.3 per cent of overall GDP in a country.

  It might be argued that the CSIRO should spend money in other areas. It could be argued that it could spend some more money in molecular biology. The CSIRO, when it spent money in molecular biology in Australia, was able to come up with the world's first breakthrough on gene shears. When those opposite talk about giving it all to the rural area, they should look at what the organisation has been able to achieve in other areas. If the CSIRO reorganised its priorities, as it is trying to logically and reasonably do, we may in fact come forward with further breakthroughs and that would be important for the country.

  In the 1993-94 budget year, on agricultural research in its two premier institutes in the CSIRO, the government funded $140 million; on primary industry research and development in other sources the government funded $126 million; for university funded primary industry research we funded $85 million; and through cooperative research centres we funded another $20 million. Therefore, out of the taxpayers' pocket in this current financial year we have spent $370 million in rural research direct from government outlays. That is not a small amount of money.

Senator Panizza —Yes, but where does it come from?

Senator COOK —When we add $70 million in earnings that the CSIRO has been able to make and the $255 million that gets spent on this sort of research by state governments, by private foundations and by industry levies in the current financial year, we are looking at an all up grand final figure of something in the order of $700 million spent on rural research in Australia. That is not a small amount of money. For those opposite to say that it is not enough and that we should inquire into it and disrupt the premier delivery organisation in so doing, is hardly a reasonable argument.

  In this current financial year the intention of the CSIRO, following the allocation of funds to it by this government, is to spend on the two largest institutes, the Animal Production and Processing Institute and the Plant Production and Processing Institute, about $158 million. That is an increase of $140 million from what was spent in the current financial year. So we can see that that is again a recognition of the important priority agricultural research has and of the important dominant position it obtains within the cost structure of the CSIRO.

  I come back to the fundamental point. The CSIRO's charter—its act—requires it to deal with all Australian industry, not just one industry. What would the debilitating effects of this inquiry be on the organisation itself? In the first instance, it does reflect on the management, no matter how those opposite might pretend otherwise. Those opposite are inquiring into priority setting by CSIRO management; the means of administration that that management adopts; the way in which it goes about consulting rural organisations and others to set its priorities; and how it lets its outside consultancies.

  If those opposite want to conduct an inquiry, clearly that is not good enough. They cannot ignore the fact that they are reflecting on both the board and the management of this organisation. The board started about setting goals for the organisation back in 1991. It involved all the stakeholders in the organisation getting a clear direction and providing leadership for the CSIRO. The CSIRO—now three years old—because of those steps is regarded internationally as the model organisation for other science institutes to follow in this form of administration: how to set goals, how to consult, how to involve the community; and how to go about determining priorities. Those opposite are reflecting on an internationally recognised organisation.

  It also reflects on the ability of an organisation to adapt and change. I have often said in debates about the CSIRO that things in science change because knowledge is discovered and new things are learnt. Therefore, priorities change accordingly. We cannot have a snapshot from the 1930s or a snapshot from the 1950s and say that things were set then; agricultural funding got almost all the money, therefore it must continue for ever and a day to get all the money. We just cannot say that because it is a denial of the obvious fact about the nature of the enterprise itself.

  The goal setting methodology adopted by the CSIRO essentially has four criteria. They are to look at the potential benefits from the research that is to be undertaken; to look at Australia's ability to capture something of value from those benefits and keep and develop it here; to look at the research and development potential that might come from those further exercises; and to look at the research and development capacity of the organisation as well.

  I understand that there are currently 46 different levels of inquiry into the CSIRO, including a broad inquiry into science funding in Australia by the Industry Commission. Does anyone in this chamber have any idea about the massive allocation of resources that it takes an organisation such as this to meet that demand? It takes a huge allocation of resources which is a tariff or a tax on the funding of that organisation and which takes money away from its scientific effort. The broad ranging `poke your nose into every damn thing that is going' type of inquiry proposed here would again be an inquiry which would take substantial resources away from the CSIRO, and one that we would not support as a consequence.

  I could make many more remarks. However, let me come to a conclusion. It seems to me that one of the key points that the opposition has made is that, in the course of this goal setting and priority distillation process, the CSIRO will be consolidating its activities from 27 sites to 17 sites. Reducing and consolidating the sites has been said to be a major problem for the opposition. The CSIRO is developing a critical mass to more effectively spend its funds on scientific research. It is doing this by removing the overhead costs of different institutions, by overcoming the communications and maintenance costs of buildings and by overcoming the problem of travel and extra administration. By doing that and taking funds out of all of those areas, the CSIRO, through this consolidation process, is able to put more funds where they are necessary in the targeted area of real research.

  While that will lead to reductions in staff over three years in a phased-down way, they will not be in scientific research. The CSIRO itself, I understand, has said that the reduction in scientists from their research activities will be a total of three—one, two, three—people. While people in this chamber bandy around other figures such as 143, they are not reductions in the scientific research capability of the organisation. Those senators misrepresent the position in an effort to try to stampede people into confusion, worry and concern about their own futures. They are reprehensible and must be condemned.

  The last time the opposition indicated its policy on science, it did so in a document it now seeks to ignore. It did so in a document it called Fightback. In that document—I refer this to all members of the opposition present in the chamber—the opposition proposed to reduce funding to the CSIRO by imposing a higher levy on that organisation through efficiency gains. When we look more broadly at the allocation of the funding to the science effort under Fightback, we see that the opposition proposed to reduce across-the-board funding of science in Australia.

  The opposition may not wish to know about this any more. It does not have a policy at present but the last one we know of was to cut funds. Those opposite should not come in here and tell me or lecture me about what the government has done by increasing base line funding to the CSIRO when their last declared policy position was to cut funds and when their shadow science minister, who obviously ought to have a say in this debate, does not have the guts to come in here and put the position on behalf of the coalition. His absence is noted—it is noted by me—it will be drawn to the attention of the science community and he will have a case to answer. From the point of view of the Australian Democrats, we have—(Time expired)