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Thursday, 14 May 1998
Page: 2811


Senator ALSTON (Communications, the Information Economy and the Arts) (10:29 AM) —I move:

That these bills be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speeches incorporated in Hansard .

Leave granted.

The speeches read as follows

NATIONAL ROAD TRANSPORT COMMISSION AMENDMENT BILL 1998

I am pleased to be able to bring forward the National Road Transport Commission Amendment Bill 1998, which contains a range of reforms to upgrade and revitalise the national road transport reform process, following a major review of the National Road Transport Commission (NRTC).

The bill will ensure that the significant task of national road transport reform can continue to be effectively carried out. It extends the sunset of the NRTC until 2004 and makes it, and the inter-governmental processes through which reform is pursued, more effective.

The National Road Transport Commission Act 1991 (the NRTC Act) was reviewed in late 1996, by a joint government/industry steering committee. The review drew on the lessons of the first six years of the NRTC and examined ways to improve the road transport reform process. The review recognised the significant economic benefits that will flow from the road transport reform program—the Industry Commission has estimated that GDP benefits could total $800 million per year—as well as making the roads safer.

The passage of the National Road Transport Commission Amendment Act 1997 through this Parliament extended the life of the NRTC Act for twelve months from January 1998, ensuring that the reform process could continue while this bill was finalised in consultation with States and Territories.

The Government is committed to delivering road transport reform to benefit not only the road transport industry, but all the community, rural, regional and urban. Since the NRTC was created in 1991, reforms developed and agreed through the NRTC process include nationally consistent heavy vehicle charges, consistent heavy vehicle registration requirements, National Mass and Dimension and Vehicle Standards, a new Dangerous Goods regime, and national driving hours for long distance coaches and trucks. Many further reforms are on the agenda.

These reforms will provide a nationally uniform or consistent operating environment for road transport operators and drivers, no matter where they are based or travel. An important ongoing role for the NRTC and all jurisdictions will be to ensure that the gains delivered by reform are maintained and built upon.

Effective observance of road transport reform is also one of the key components of the national competition policy, and thus one of the criteria for determining the national competition payments to the States and Territories.

The bill will give stronger objectives and focus for the NRTC, set by Heads of Government.

It will strengthen the NRTC's accountability to the Australian Transport Council—the council of Transport Ministers—including through new strategic planning requirements and the appointment of the Commission's Chief Executive by the Council. The Council will also review the NRTC Act at least every six years.

The bill is to be supported by amending Heads of Government Agreements, which will give jurisdictions greater flexibility in their implementation of legislative reforms, so reforms can be implemented more quickly. Heads of Government will sign these Agreements shortly.

The bill provides recognition for the unique transport operational requirements of the Defence Forces, to make it easier for them to operate, particularly in potential security and emergency situations, but with due regard to road safety. These provisions were developed in a strong cooperative spirit by the Department of Defence, the States and Territories and the Department of Transport and Regional Development.

The bill also gives legislative backing to the National Environment Protection Council's involvement in the joint development of motor vehicle noise and emission standards, and allows for New Zealand's involvement in developing trans-Tasman vehicle standards.

In short, the National Road Transport Commission Amendment Bill 1998 will provide a better road transport reform process that, through cooperation between Governments, the NRTC and the road transport industry, will deliver big benefits to the whole Australian community.

AUSTRALIAN SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY AND ENGINEERING COUNCIL REPEAL BILL 1998

The Australian Science, Technology and Engineering Council Repeal Bill 1998, in part, implements the changes announced by the Prime Minister on December 18 last year to his high-level science, technology and engineering advisory arrangements.

Upon coming to office, the Government identified, as a priority, the need to examine how Australia's science and technology system might be improved. The then Minister for Science and Technology commissioned the Chief Scientist, Professor John Stocker, to investigate and report on certain aspects of Australia's science and technology arrangements.

In his report to the then Minister, Professor Stocker identified several strengths and a number of structural weaknesses in the current science and technology advisory arrangements. Professor Stocker spoke very highly indeed of the role played by the Prime Minister's Science and Engineering Council (or PMSEC). He observed that PMSEC provides a unique forum for the Prime Minister, and other senior Ministers, to be informed of recent developments in science and technology and their application to the national needs and opportunities. Professor Stocker noted also, the difficulties which the Australian Science, Technology and Engineering Council (or ASTEC) faces in respect of undertaking the complex tasks of consultation, analysis of issues and in the synthesis of its findings. Professor Stocker suggested there would be an advantage in drawing ASTEC closer to PMSEC, but at the same time, allowing ASTEC to keep its independent perspective on the issues which it examined.

The Government has acted on Professor Stocker's recommendations in regard to the Prime Minister's high-level science, technology and engineering advisory arrangements. In so doing, the Government has sought to capitalise on the strengths, and to address the weaknesses of the former arrangements.

A new advisory body known as the Prime Minister's Science, Engineering and Innovation Council has already been established. It will supersede the former PMSEC. The new Council reinforces the vital role which the Government sees for science, technology and engineering in the creation of Australia's future. The name of the new Council also emphasises the importance which the Government places on innovation as a primary driver of industrial competitiveness.

This new arrangement has created a science, technology and engineering advisory body that is able to conduct studies as ASTEC has done in the past. But, in addition, the new advisory body has the benefit of being able to draw upon the best expertise and experience available in this country, while at the same time having a mechanism that can deliver the outcomes of these studies direct to the Ministry. This is a considerable enhancement over the previous arrangements in that it does maintains the conduit for independent advice, while adding a delivery mechanism that ASTEC has never had.

The new Council will meet in full session, generally twice in a year, to discuss major issues in science, technology and engineering and their contribution to the economic and social development of Australia. It will be chaired by the Prime Minister and will include ministerial and non-ministerial members. Ministerial members will comprise Ministers for whom science, technology and engineering are particularly relevant to their portfolio responsibilities. Non-ministerial members will be drawn from key representatives of the business and scientific communities.

The non-ministerial members of the new Council will constitute a standing committee. This standing committee will oversee and contribute to studies and research to improve the understanding of Australia's science, technology and engineering capabilities and the effectiveness of their organisation and utilisation. As such, the standing committee will have similar functions and responsibilities to ASTEC. It will also have a similar capacity to ASTEC to undertake work on its own initiative, as well as work identified for it by the Government.

With this new and significantly enhanced advisory Council established, the Government is acting now to remove the largely redundant ASTEC from the statutes. In repealing the Australian Science, Technology and Engineering Council Act 1978 (the ASTEC Act), the new Council will become the Government's main independent source of advice on science, technology and engineering. The Government is therefore concerned to see that the new Council is provided with adequate resources to underpin its important advisory role. The resources which are currently allocated to ASTEC will be transferred to the new Council and its Secretariat once the ASTEC Act has been repealed.

The Government values ASTEC's current work and wishes to see it completed before the ASTEC Act is repealed. I believe that adequate provision has been made in the bill to ensure that this may be the case.

The Government also wishes to see that provisions in the ASTEC Act to protect Council members and others associated with the Council, both past and present, against actions, suits or other proceedings, are maintained. Similarly, secrecy provisions comparable to those in the ASTEC Act must be maintained to ensure that confidences are kept in respect of information and data that might have been provided to past and present Council members and others associated with the Council during its existence. The bill carries forward both the protection from actions and the secrecy provisions of the ASTEC Act.

I commend the bill to the Senate.

Debate (on motion by Senator Carr) adjourned.

Ordered that the bills be listed on the Notice Paper as separate orders of the day.