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Wednesday, 23 October 2002
Page: 5725

Senator MASON (2:56 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, Senator Alston. Will the minister please outline to the Senate the steps the government has taken to ensure that research and development in the information and communications technology sector continues to foster innovation, accelerate the commercialisation of new products and services and contribute to strong and sustainable economic growth?

Senator ALSTON (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —I thank Senator Mason for a very important question from a very innovative senator. The fact is that, for Australian ICT R&D, we have gone from something like $1.2 billion to $2 billion in the last five years, which is a very impressive performance. Just as we have already got runs on the board, I think we have made it fundamentally plain that we do not want to go down the tired old track that seems to be an endless fascination for the Senator Lundys of this world: the idea of building fab plants and vertical silo operations. We are much more interested in the high value added end of the market, where the intellectual property resides, where the margins are high and where you have something that sits—

Senator ALSTON —I am not sure about that.

The PRESIDENT —Order! I would like to be able to listen to him, if you would keep quiet, Senator Conroy. I think everybody else would too.

Senator ALSTON —The fact is that innovation has always been very high on our agenda. We think it is much more important than noodles and spaghetti, and we demonstrated that some 18 months ago with our Backing Australia's Ability program. The high watermark of that—

Senator Lundy —How high was it on your agenda when it really mattered and you could have given the industry a decent—

Senator ALSTON —The trick is to stay ahead of the game, Senator Lundy. That is really what it is all about. If you think you can wait until a couple of months before an election and come out with a silly little cartoon like that and expect people to take you seriously, you still have a long way to go. We were actually well ahead of the curve. Nearly two years ago, we released Backing Australia's Ability—a $2.9 billion initiative—

Senator George Campbell —You suspended most of it!

Senator ALSTON —It has been so successful, Senator Campbell, as you well know, that in some areas supply has not been able to keep up with demand. That is hardly a sign of a failed policy. The high watermark, I think, of the whole Backing Australia's Ability program is the Centre of Excellence for ICT—$129.5 million. The contract for that has recently been signed and the funding arrangements have been put in place. Now that the NICTA consortium is up and running, it is going to be a tremendous asset for us because it will attract the best and brightest. It will provide critical mass. There will be up to 300 researchers. Just so that you understand that this is not passing unnoticed overseas, I can tell you that we had the CEO of Microsoft here last week. His comment was that this would constitute—

Senator George Campbell —Did we pay his fare?

Senator ALSTON —No, I do not think so. I think he arranged his own transport.

The PRESIDENT —Senator Alston, return to the question and do not respond to interjections from Senator George Campbell.

Senator ALSTON —What he said was that the Australian government is working on exactly the right kinds of things to leave the right kind of industry development ingredients around. He went on to say that building a centre of excellence such as this would be of much greater importance than providing higher R&D incentives for multinationals. So he was not talking to his own brief. He was actually saying it is in the national interest to have world-class research facilities, and that is what we are doing.

I hope that you will acknowledge that, Senator Lundy. Pay them a visit. They would be more than happy to take you on a familiarisation tour and explain all those important concepts which sound exciting but which you cannot quite get your head around. This is the big chance to do it and I think you will find that if you visit the ATP there is a high level of excitement about the prospects of this centre. When you combine it with all the other initiatives that we have announced in Backing Australia's Ability—such as doubling the ARC funding over a period of five years, the 80 per cent increase in funding for the cooperative research centres and the major national research facilities—these initiatives are the vital ingredients that were lacking for so long under Labor. (Time expired)

Senator Hill —Mr President, I ask that further questions be placed on the Notice Paper.