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Tuesday, 7 June 1994
Page: 1398

Senator COLLINS (Minister for Primary Industries and Energy) (4.21 p.m.) —Before I get into the substance of the actual debate on rural research I want to make a comment on what I think needs to be exposed on where the opposition is coming from on this issue. The Australian Democrats and Senator Coulter—formerly from the research community, of course—have a consistent philosophy, which I understand and appreciate, that whenever there is a need to fund something we simply fund it. I know that the Democrats, who are not being unrealistic enough to ever aspire to actually have to manage the Treasury, do not have the same concern that others have about balancing the books.

Senator Coulter —Look at our budget submission.

Senator COLLINS —I have seen the budget submission of those opposite and I rest my case on it, Senator Coulter.

Senator Coulter —It is fully balanced.

Senator COLLINS —Balanced, it is, Senator Coulter. It is whether anyone agrees with the particular weights used to make the balance that is the question. But I do understand where Senator Coulter is coming from and I am not being particularly critical in that respect. However, the opposition aspires to be the government of Australia.

Senator Ian Macdonald —Will be!

Senator COLLINS —Aspires to be. It is interesting to compare once again the two opposition approaches to the question of the budget. This motion is directly relevant to the budget because it is asserting that we should put more funding in on top of what is, as I said the other day, an already record level of funding for rural research in Australia in the 1993-94 financial year.

Senator Ferguson —Where does it say that?

Senator COLLINS —I live in the real world, not the world those opposite are trying to create. The entire basis on which this debate is proceeding is that the government has cut funds to CSIRO. If we add up all of these commitments that have been given to interest groups around the place, we find that we have an opposition which is criticising the government for not reducing the deficit sufficiently, not reining in public spending sufficiently but at the same time happily totting up commitments all over the place that amount to billions of dollars in additional public funding.

  I do not think I have seen a document that has exposed the opposition's position more efficiently than the structural reform management group proposal from the opposition on regional and rural development. I could not think of anything more relevant to this debate than the opposition's real position on rural initiatives in Australia. This was put together by the former shadow minister for regional and rural development, Bruce Scott—I assume that he is one of the casualties; I do not know, I have not bothered to have a look. This document is a fascinating expose of the credibility of the opposition on this issue. The opening paragraph of the document reads:

It is important when considering initiatives in the portfolio of Regional and Rural Development, to distinguish between those which are essentially beneficial to the development of Australian regions and those which will win the Coalition seats in regional Australia. Initiatives in the first category include: industrial relations reform and a review of private sector infrastructure financing. These issues are critical to the development of regional Australia, but they will not propel us into Government. This discussion will be concerned with those initiatives which will win votes for the Coalition.

This is a document prepared by the shadow minister this year—a very relevant document—on the opposition's real position on financing issues of importance to rural Australia. I know Senator Ian Macdonald does not like this.

Senator Ian Macdonald —Mr Acting Deputy President, I raise a point of order. My point of order relates to relevance. This is a debate on a motion of reference by Senator Panizza. The minister is now talking about a document which he knows has absolutely no standing. It is not coalition policy; it never has been. I do not know where the minister got it from. It is obviously a stolen or leaked document.

Senator COLLINS —It was leaked.

Senator Ian Macdonald —Stolen, I would suggest. Mr Acting Deputy President, it has no standing and Senator Collins knows that. I ask you to bring him to order on the point of relevance.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —The honourable senator has put a point of view but it was not a point of order.

Senator COLLINS —I will quote further from this document—I will only be another minute. It states:


We are talking about infrastructure in this debate, and I will be talking about some infrastructure in a minute to do with CSIRO. I can understand why Senator Macdonald would like to disown this document. The document further states:

We need to set a figure ($1 billion, $3 billion—the actual number is insignificant)—

This is the opposition's real position on these issues.

. . . as an indication of our commitment to putting roads, dams, ports, airports, bridges, whatever, into regional Australia. We should then also allude to some sort of assessment procedure—

This is the mob that were talking about sports rorts and whiteboards not so long ago—

. . . by which regions can directly seek funding—

It goes on, and I will conclude on this. When talking about family services and community services to rural Australia, it states:

. . . health education and telecommunications,

and again the actual dollar value of it is not important.

That is convenient, I guess, when in opposition but, unfortunately, when in government we have to balance the books. The opposition is always criticising us about balancing the books but is perfectly happy to tot up endless commitments for further funding for anything that comes across its path if it thinks there are a few cheap points in it. That is what this debate, fundamentally, is all about. I will table this opposition document on regional policies.

  As I said the other day, the level of funding for rural research and development for the 1993-94 financial year has reached record levels. I will go through that again in response to something Senator Panizza said in his contribution to this debate the other day. He referred to the fact that $200 million of the $700 million, which is currently committed to rural research and development, was coming from state governments, as if this was somehow or other a weakness in the argument. The fact is that, as Senator Panizza should know—and I have had a look at what Senator Panizza said in the Hansard—it was clearly enunciated by me when I laid out the breakup of that $700 million. I will go through it again.

  The Commonwealth government this year contributed $126 million to rural research and development corporations under the matching dollar for dollar funding arrangements which I recently confirmed would continue. It was confirmed that the funding would continue without change not only for this financial year but also for the following financial year as well.

  Other Commonwealth funding of rural research and development included $85 million directly paid from the Commonwealth to universities for rural research; $20 million to the relevant cooperative research centres which the government has established, also for rural research; and $140 million in direct allocations to CSIRO, making up 40 per cent of the research effort of that organisation with federal government funding.

  The state governments, for Senator Panizza's benefit again, have invested over $200 million in rural research and development, and industry made up the remainder through compulsory levies totalling $100 million and private research estimated to be a further $25 million.

  The only assumption on which anyone could proceed to justify Senator Panizza's position on this is that the only agency in Australia which should bear the full responsibility for funding rural research and development is the Commonwealth government, which is a nonsense proposition, and, further, that the only organisation that should be carrying that out in Australia with this funding is the CSIRO, which is also a nonsense proposition that I do not think even the CSIRO would subscribe to. I make absolutely no bones about the fact—I am on the public record enough times saying this—that I am a strong supporter of the CSIRO. I declare, as I have done before, a personal interest with my being a former employee of the organisation. I am a strong supporter of the world-class research that the CSIRO does, but it is not the only player in the game. As I have pointed out, $85 million was committed by the Commonwealth to—

  Opposition senators interjecting

Senator COLLINS —Those opposite conveniently left out those commitments—

Senator Crane —I did not.

Senator COLLINS —Senator Panizza did; I am talking about him, not Senator Crane. They left out those commitments in totalling up the amount of Commonwealth commitment off the budget to rural research and development. If we add up all the figures, we find that the total amount of money in the 1993-94 financial year devoted to rural research in Australia is $700 million, of which the Commonwealth is contributing over half. It is a fact that that is a record level of funding for rural research in Australia, and the Commonwealth contribution alone has doubled in real terms since 1984-85.

  I have pointed out the hypocrisy of the opposition in continuing to talk about just throwing more money at this, that and the other when at the same time it is talking about reducing the deficit. It is also instructive to have a look at the brilliant position that we inherited from those opposite when we took office because the comparison is stark. When Labor came to power in 1983 it inherited, in the words of John Kerin, an unworkable and paternalistic set of arrangements. There was a series of research councils that had no autonomy, no capacity to make even the most minor decision without the direct, specific approval of the minister. There was no basis for decision making other than an ad hoc, individual, case by case decision by the minister. The organisations had no autonomy whatsoever.

  Just how much funding was the coalition government putting into research and development? I will tell honourable senators. It was putting in $30 million in 1982. These people who are now castigating us—the representatives of the farmers, they tell us; the people who represent, according to them, rural Australia—about investing record levels of money into rural research and development were financing rural research and development to the brilliant total of $30 million. We overhauled that and brought it up to the level that it is at today.

  This is not the first time that the Senate has expressed an interest in rural research and development. There was an investigation into it in 1982 by the Senate. The Senate committee that reviewed rural research in 1982 described this brilliant commitment by the coalition as `appalling'. It expressed `alarm' at the continuing real decline in the coalition's funding of rural research and development. The committee noted that it was disappointing that real funding to rural industry research had fallen from $40 million in 1974-75 to $30 million in 1980-81—all of those, of course, years of coalition government. These are the same people who are in here now castigating us for the record levels of funding that we are putting into rural research and development.

  Our response was to put in place industry based research and development corporations, which I have said on many occasions before is one of the best things that I think this Labor government did in those years in relation to primary industry and energy. We put into place a series of industry based research and development corporations and councils, jointly funded on a predictable basis by the industry and government, with their own capacity to develop strategic research and development plans—that is, coming from the industry itself, which is the way it is driven—

Senator Crane —I said that.

Senator COLLINS —I am delighted to acknowledge Senator Crane's contribution to this. He said that those corporations and councils were doing an extremely good job, and a job that is appreciated by rural Australia. They do this not only because of the very extensive funding we provide, but also because a lot of the strategic planning and direction for the research is coming directly from consultation with the industry itself. It is going where industry wants it to go. That is what this government did.

  The recent proposals for rationalisation of research sites in the CSIRO Institute of Animal Production and Processing actually reflect a decline in wool industry funding from the high peak experience during what was an unsustainable boom in industry revenue—and that is acknowledged by everybody. The reason I make that statement is that Senator Abetz, who contributed to this debate yesterday, said in an interview on the Country Hour that the coalition was concerned about CSIRO getting away from a concentration on structures and putting more money into research.

  That is precisely what the Institute of Animal Production and Processing is doing, and it is now being criticised by the coalition for doing what Senator Abetz said on the Country Hour the other day that it should be doing. This rationalisation is designed to do exactly that. I advise the opposition, and indeed the Australian Democrats, that it would do them a lot of good to have a look at the press statement that has been issued today by the National Farmers Federation on this very question.

Senator Panizza —Do you mean this one?

Senator COLLINS —That one, Senator. That one.

Senator Panizza —Yes, written by Rick Farley.

Senator COLLINS —No. I just say that, for people who claim they do not like Stalinists and who want to criticise government ministers because government ministers suggest they might want to have accurate record taking, it does not make your case stand up very well at all, Senator Panizza, when you single out individuals within organisations for personal attack and make suggestions about official statements from the organisations. You might like to read the statement and withdraw your personal attack on Rick Farley. Have a look at who has put it out.

  Senator Panizza interjecting

Senator COLLINS —I will tell you who has put it out—the new President of the NFF, Mr McGauchie. So you might like to lay off the Gestapo tactics that you are using against this individual, who is a servant of the organisation and not its master.

Senator Ian Macdonald —Mr Acting Deputy President—

  The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Colston)—I think that word might be a little over the top.

Senator COLLINS —I will withdraw it, but it is worthwhile—

Senator Ian Macdonald —And as—

Senator COLLINS —I have withdrawn, Senator.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! It appears there is a point of order.

Senator Ian Macdonald —Are you a mind-reader that you know what my points of order are?

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! Senator Macdonald, I ask you to address the chair.

Senator Ian Macdonald —Thank you, Mr Acting Deputy President; that was the second part of my point of order. You have properly dealt with the first part about the minister's language. The second part is that the minister continually addresses Senator Panizza directly when he should be directing his remarks to you.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —The minister probably had some justification for doing so.

Senator COLLINS —Mr Acting Deputy President, I will continue to address my remarks through you, as of course I should be. The point I am making is that it is a bit cute for people in this debate—and it was in this debate—to be criticising ministers simply because they want records kept of meetings with the opposition, and running once again this very nasty campaign against an executive of the National Farmers Federation in whom the National Farmers Federation clearly has continued to express its support by employing him. I simply say that, in terms of the unfairness of this attack—

Senator Panizza —Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. I would like the minister to explain where I or my colleagues have been running a vendetta against Rick Farley.

Senator COLLINS —Read the Hansard.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —There is no point of order. You have recourse to—

Senator COLLINS —Mr Acting Deputy President, I would simply—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! The honourable senator—

Senator Crane —I did not actually say his name.

Senator COLLINS —Senator Panizza did.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! The chair is speaking. The honourable senator has recourse to make that point of view at a later stage.

Senator COLLINS —For clarification for Senator Crane, and the Hansard will clearly show this, it was Senator Panizza who singled out Mr Farley once again, and I responded to that interjection. I just point out to Senator Panizza that he should do the NFF justice of reading that statement because it has, in fact, been issued by the President of the NFF, not Mr Farley. Senator Panizza would do well to read the substance of it.

  There have been changing priorities in agricultural research. They are not set in concrete. These priorities do change, and the research organisations that carry them out have to change to reflect that.

  An example of the last point is research into poultry production.The Chicken Meat Research and Development Council has advised CSIRO that much of the research that is being been carried out is no longer required as the industry is moving toward importing genetic material and, therefore, the research direction has to change. Similarly, the focus of the wool industry is moving away from production research toward research into adding value to our wool clip—a change in direction which I would have thought all honourable senators would agree is desirable. While research in some areas will, without question, diminish, as it will in the Chicken Meat Research and Development Council, emerging priorities in other agricultural research will consequently receive greater attention.

  The changes being proposed by the CSIRO are aimed at maintaining the aggregate level of research while extracting greater efficiency from existing assets—exactly what Senator Abetz said it should be doing; that is what it is doing and what it is now being criticised for—thereby reducing the cost of conducting the research. Again, these are all laudable and supportable goals.

  There has been a decline in wool industry levy collections as a result of reduced industry revenue over recent years, stemming from, as we all know, the catastrophically low prices on the international wool market. That is what has caused this dramatic reduction in the levy flow. On top of that, of course, there was an unsustainable boom in the 1980s.

  Government matching grants have correspondingly declined, but the effect of this drop in revenue has to date been softened by substantial investment of reserves by AWRC totalling some $10 million last year. The problem has been that the research effort by the CSIRO and other institutions is geared to funding levels linked to the boom in revenues in the late 1980s. Maintaining research activity at around that level has quickly depleted the available reserves to the point where, this year, very little is available. I make that point for Senator Coulter's benefit, to indicate to him that a countercyclical mechanism already exists. The problem is that expectations of research effort have been defined by the peak level of funding rather than the historical average. Of course, that is what always happens.

  I pointed out that in 1989 we brought down a science statement. That science statement gave a commitment to, I think, $150 million of additional funding for infrastructure improvement and a number of defined projects. Indeed, our former minister for science pointed that out in the caucus this morning, and it has been pointed out in here. Of course, what always happens—it does not matter whether one is talking about rural research, RAS or whatever—is that if one puts in additional effort and announces three years in advance that there is going to be a cut-off date for a project such as black spots road funding, one always runs the risk when that cut-off time comes of people saying, `You have cut funding.' It is nonsense.

  The base funding—and it is important in terms of the budget processes of a government that this is emphasised, despite Senator Coulter's objections—will be given an important boost. The $30 million a year into the base funding of course goes onto that base when the next triennial funding for CSIRO is discussed in three years time. It is exactly the same arrangement with the ABC.

  Important concerns have been raised that assets said to be funded by wool growers are being sold off without consultation, with the proceeds being taken away from wool research. Some of these assets were developed with the help of contributions from the old Australian Wool Corporation. Wool growers funded about 25 per cent of the resources of that institution, the rest of the funding coming from the Commonwealth. We have spoken to CSIRO about this. I want to give an assurance to honourable senators that I will ensure that proper and full consultation between CSIRO and industry occurs—and it will occur—in terms of any equity that industry has in those investments.

  Members of my own staff have already met with the CSIRO and we have already received assurances that the proceeds from the sale of those jointly funded assets will be preserved for wool research purposes. Consultation with industry was always planned, with the CSIRO due to meet both the Wool Council and the Australian Wool Research and Promotion Organisation this week. Indeed, I left a meeting with that organisation in my office to come in here for this debate, and I will be going back to it. As I left, the subject we were discussing was the consultations that will occur between those industry organisations and CSIRO next week as to the proper handling of any equity that industry has. So I can assure honourable senators who have raised this matter—I think Senator Crane and Senator Panizza both raised it—that it will be taken full account of.

  I noticed with interest the comments of Senator O'Chee on this matter last week. His views were delivered with his usual professional toastmasters' style, but with absolutely no regard for substance or fact, which is his normal delivery. Firstly, he suggested that the Commonwealth was looking to sell off the Queensland sugar experiment stations. I am sure that this will come as great news to the state government of Queensland which actually owns the research stations in question, not the Commonwealth. So I am sure that the news that those Queensland government-owned assets will be sold off by us will come as a great shock to the Queensland government. Perhaps it will not come as a great shock because I guess it will dismiss what Senator O'Chee says, as all sensible people always do.

  But I have to make the point that I was a little surprised that a Queensland senator, who constantly tells us that he represents rural Queensland, would not know that the research stations he was trying to run a scaremongering campaign about—that we were supposed to be selling—are not in fact even owned by us. Senator O'Chee went on to say that the sale would be another way—this is again the sale where we are going to sell something we do not own—to cut back funding for sugar research and development. It is another gross error of fact by Senator O'Chee.

  Commonwealth matching funding, of course, is against the industry funding of 0.5 per cent of GDP. I might add that that is a fairly kindergarten piece of information which anyone who has even the slightest knowledge of dollar-for-dollar matching funding knows. It has absolutely nothing whatever to do with whether Queensland government state-owned research stations are sold or not. All that this garbage of Senator O'Chee did was highlight the fact that the opposition, as I started this debate by saying, is simply playing a little political game on this issue.

Senator Panizza —I reject that.

Senator COLLINS —Of course the honourable senator would. Senator Coulter is not doing that because I know of his strong commitment to the research area. But it suits the opposition, when playing this little game, to support Senator Coulter. It is playing this little game of outrageous and unsupportable scare campaigns in states and in industries that it purports to represent in this chamber—which it represents very badly, I might add.

  I think I have demonstrated very clearly that a great deal of the opposition's case on this matter is built on sand. In fact, a lot of it is just outright nonsense, as I have just demonstrated in regard to Senator O'Chee. The very aims that Senator Abetz, in his contribution to this debate yesterday, said the CSIRO should be pursuing—that is, getting away from a concentration on structures and getting more money back into research—is precisely what these changes are designed to achieve.

  I conclude by saying that the one inescapable fact in this debate which has not been acknowledged by a single opposition senator—because it is an undeniable fact—is that currently the Commonwealth government is putting in a level of support for rural research in Australia which has never been exceeded in the history of this country. It is a record commitment of which this government is justifiably proud.