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Thursday, 14 June 2007
Page: 53

Senator CARR (12:57 PM) —As Senator Bishop has already indicated, the opposition is supporting the Governance Review Implementation (Science Research Agencies) Bill 2007. We do so because, as has clearly been indicated, it makes sense to have clearer lines of communication and responsibility. It is particularly appropriate that CSIRO, ANSTO and AIMS, the premier scientific bodies responsible for our national and international research effort, are given appropriate administrative support to ensure that they can fulfil their proper functions, especially considering the enormous contribution that they have made over time and that I believe they will continue to make in the future. They represent public research assets which are the envy of many other countries. Collectively, over an 80-year period, these agencies have undertaken research programs that have saved existing industries and created new industries. They are absolutely vital to our national innovations system and they have profound national importance. As part of a national innovations system, they provide this country with the resources it needs to meet some of the challenges we face with respect to the great questions of our time, such as the ageing of the population, climate change and globalisation. They provide this country with a huge capacity to support our manufacturing industries, to advance new manufacturing industries and to find new technologies that allow us to meet the challenges of the day. So the governance of these agencies is of considerable importance.

In the case of AIMS, the legislation shifts the powers of governance towards the AIMS council, away from the minister. This is particularly important with regard to the appointment of a chief executive officer and the new power of the council to directly appoint the new CEO. Similarly, in terms of ANSTO and CSIRO, the legislation clarifies the relationship which exists between the CEO and the various boards or councils. Labor supports this legislation because it clarifies the financial responsibilities and the accountability of the boards of these organisations. They are very useful reforms.

I know from recent discussions with CSIRO that the project in contract management has been less than perfect. Contracts have been awarded on occasions to people in, I think, highly dubious circumstances. I have made these points at Senate estimates hearings. The Senate estimates process will still operate and provide us, as members of parliament, with an opportunity to pursue these matters. But, frankly, if these powers had been in place at the time of these events I have spoken about then there would have been a different response from those organisations. The fact that the minister failed in his duty of public accountability at the time is regrettable. So I look to the boards and the councils of these organisations to take up these new responsibilities with gusto. It will place greater importance upon the relationships between the minister and these boards. Frankly, a higher and more sophisticated response will be required as to the operation of these boards by way of direct line through to this parliament via the minister.

The autonomy and the integrity of these agencies should be foremost in our thinking. Notwithstanding the fundamental value of the research that these agencies undertake, the public perceptions of these organisations depend largely on the management of these organisations. This can be highlighted in the authority with which these organisations speak on scientific matters. The future health of our national research effort demands no less. But in recent times we have seen a ham-fisted—in fact, incredibly clumsy—approach to the capacity of our scientists to undertake research and to engage in public comment about the significance of research. Only two years ago the debate within CSIRO on climate change was a matter of some considerable public controversy. In recent times there appears to have been a shift in the policy directions of organisations on the capacity of scientists to speak out, and it is something I welcome. However, questions about the capacity of ministers to intervene to steer public debate on matters of scientific interest still remain. Therefore, these reforms go some way to providing a clearer demarcation of responsibilities to manage these organisations.

The employment of staff and the status of senior staff within these agencies ought to be the responsibility of these boards, but the responsibility for the general welfare of these organisations cannot be abrogated by the parliament. We have an ongoing responsibility to ensure that there is appropriate accountability through the estimates process and that the welfare of these agencies and councils is in fact protected. The prosperity of this country depends upon our capacity to remain competitive and productive and that, in my view, depends on our capacity to strengthen our national innovation system. That is precisely what the government has failed to do. It has failed to appreciate just how important these organisations are by not ensuring that that occurs. It has failed to ensure that their integration within the national innovation system is in fact upgraded and that there is a capacity for our scientists to contribute to public debate and genuine research effort to allow us to meet the challenges that lie ahead.

That is why Labor have proposed a comprehensive reform program for our national innovation system. We are committed to a comprehensive program to stimulate innovation, competitiveness and productivity in which these public research agencies will have a central role. Therefore, like Senator Bishop, I commend this legislation to the Senate.