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Chairperson of the Commission for the Future discusses his promotion of research and development in the private sector as the Minister for Industry, Technology and Commerce in the Hawke government

ROBYN WILLIAMS: Well, it's about 1.30 and as usual at this time, I'm speaking to somebody who's had a life in science or who's been involved with matters scientific. And our guest today really, I suppose, it's fair to say had a scientific interest second to his other main interest which is as a Geelong football team supporter. He's also an author and his gesture then implied he was about to hit me. Were you about to attack me then, John Button?

JOHN BUTTON: No, I wouldn't do that, Robyn. But it is funny for a person who's been in public life as I have, walking down the street in Melbourne and people used to say: 'Oh, I know you. You're a Minister in the Government.' Now they tend to say: 'Oh, I know you. You're a Geelong supporter.' And that's a big change.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: Do you mind that?

JOHN BUTTON: No, I don't mind that at all.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: What are you doing now, apart from writing books?

JOHN BUTTON: Well, I devote some time to Monash University where I'm a Professorial Fellow and largely associated with the university's international activities. I'm Chairman of the Commission for the Future, which is going through a difficult period financially at the present time, but I think a worthwhile organisation. I'm on the boards of four companies -all, interestingly enough, three of the four are science-based companies with very interesting technologies. I'm on the board of the Howard Florey Medical Institute in Melbourne. I do a little bit of work in Indonesia. So, I'm fairly busy.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: Now when you were in government, one characteristic of your career on the front bench was that you kept more or less the same portfolio for a very long time. You combined industry with the responsibility for science. What did you think of the scientists when they first came over your horizon?

JOHN BUTTON: Well, I thought the scientists when they first came over my horizon, as you put it, were like everybody else was in this country, in a sort of mode where they'd grown up with certain institutions and traditions for a long time and were reluctant to change. For example, I think the CSIRO was a much narrower organisation than it is now.

It wasn't particularly outward looking; it was seen as the repository of pretty well all scientific wisdom in Australia, and in a sense it was, because there was very little science being done elsewhere. Some institutions did it, but in the private sector there was very little research and development. We had a very poor record for that. And I think that's changed significantly.

And scientists were, I felt, reluctant to change. In fact, in one case, they were very critical of government measures to try and stimulate companies and the private sector generally to pursue research and development. If I might just say about the CSIRO, it's been a great institution in Australia's history. But one of the criticisms I had of it was that because it existed, as distinct from other countries in the world, businesses here used to say: 'Well, science, that's not our business; that's the CSIRO's business. We don't have to do anything about that. We don't have to think about that.' And that led to an extraordinary lack of innovation in Australian business; an extraordinary unwillingness to pursue science-based industries and things of that kind.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: Well, you wanted to kick-start that sort of thing. I think you can be responsible for starting way back, over 10 years ago, the era when applications, when, as you say, the development part of RD was considered more and more important. And yet we've reached a stage where some people, including Sir Gustav Nossal, the President of the Australian Academy of Science, is one among many who says that may have in fact gone too far and demoralised those very scientists who were so unwilling, some of them, to change, way back, when you first came into it. Do you think the process has gone too far?

JOHN BUTTON: No, I don't agree with that. Gustax Nossal has been a wonderful and great protagonist for the science in this country, over many, many years. But the fact of the matter is if you look at where Australia, in my view, is succeeding in exports and so on, it is in new value-added industries.

I mean, I can list off the top of my head nearly 20 companies that were established about 1985 - a little more than 10-years-old, all science-based, used research and development incentives and so on. And the interesting thing about all those companies, apart from them being significant exporters and so on, is that they employ highly-skilled people and their work forces have grown on average 10-fold, 10-fold!

I shouldn't mention names, but you can take one example here, in Sydney, MEMTECH - an environmental company. When I first knew that company, they had about 70 people. Now they have 1,500 and they're one of the biggest companies in the world in their speciality. Now that's a wonderful growth and it is all because they captured the environment which was there to get on with their own work.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: But what about the scientists themselves who do complain that managerialism, that accountability - all those systems from the corporate world - have taken what they do too far, to the expense of their actual research productivity, their energy, their ideas?

JOHN BUTTON: Look, managerialism is a dreadful word and it's a dreadful thing, because it does interfere with creativity, whether it be in the arts or science or anywhere. But I think I would have to say that those companies that I've been talking about, that are science-based, as I would call them, innovative, value-added companies, I think there's a very good spirit in those companies because they're not managerial. They operate as sort of collectives where the chief executive is usually a scientist or an engineer who understands what the troops are doing. He's not usually an MBA using all the alleged skills of MBAs in running that business.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: But in the university sector and to some extent in CSIRO, there is a malaise.

JOHN BUTTON: Yes, I think that might be true. And that's a cultural question which has not yet been sorted out properly in my view.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: Did young John Button, destined to be a lawyer, study science much?

JOHN BUTTON: Young John Button did a subject at Melbourne University which was called the History and Philosophy of Science. And I actually enjoyed it. All Arts students had to do what was called in those days a 'science' subject. And I think geography qualified. And I wrote an essay on a thing called the 'phlogiston theory' - the rise of the phlogiston theory. And I really enjoyed all that, and I think I learnt something about scientific methodology from that.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: Yes, just to explain the phlogiston theory. Do you remember it, by the way, the idea that before they knew about oxygen, that something, when you had a chemical reaction, when you heated a substance - something flew out, the phlogiston, which then made it lighter.

JOHN BUTTON: It was a non-existent substance which is said to be responsible for combustion, and that was because they didn't understand about oxygen at the time. And I think it lasted a hundred years, something like a hundred years, the phlogiston theory, and then it disappeared.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: So then afterwards having done your history and philosophy of science, did you continue reading? Did you maintain the science right up to the present day as an interested intellectual?

JOHN BUTTON: No, I can't say that. I used to sort of read from time to time the New Scientist and publications like that, but not as avidly as I read the New Statesman.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: The Wall Street Journal?

JOHN BUTTON: Oh, well, that came later. But I did that. And I must say that when I was in opposition, before the period of the Hawke government, I had a very good policy thinker on my staff - a fellow called Geoff Evans, who is in fact an agricultural scientist, who had worked in CSIRO. And we published a paper in opposition on science policy for the future, and it was a very disciplined, thoughtful piece of work. Geoff Evans wrote most of it. You know, I fell under his influence a bit, in terms of considering what one might do with science policy in government.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: You also were blessed with a quite remarkable junior minister - junior, that is, to the Minister for Industry and Science combined. The Minister for Science as such, of course Barry Jones - unusual to have such remarkably erudite as well as full personalities sharing a portfolio. How did you get on?

JOHN BUTTON: Oh, look, it was difficult from time to time, because Barry had a very substantial knowledge - not just of science, but of all things - and was a tremendous enthusiast. But the tensions between us, which arose from time to time, were about how you delivered things, you know, how you got things through Cabinet; how you persuaded institutions that they had to change in particular ways and things like that. And we had difficulties, Barry and I, from time to time, with those issues. But, I mean, he was always good to have around, you know, a great wit, and that alleviated some of those tensions quite considerably.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: Do you see him socially now?

JOHN BUTTON: From time to time, we have a cup of coffee or something, a chat in the street, or a book shop. We often run into each other in bookshops. But of course, he's still in Parliament.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: When you took the matters scientific to Cabinet, did your colleagues receive them with the open heartedness that they might have other industrial or economic matters?

JOHN BUTTON: No, I don't think so. I mean, look, the 80s and that period of government was essentially about changing cultures and governments were subject to the same need for cultural change. I mean, I found the most supportive people in Cabinet, the sort of people who themselves had scientific problems or considerations within their portfolios like the Minister for Health, or sometimes the Minister for Transport might have issues which were similar to the ones which we were trying to advance. And I thought Bob Hawke in his early days as Prime Minister was quite receptive to new ideas and certainly was supportive of the introduction of the major tax concession for research and development in Australia, which I think was enormously important because it was a sort catalyst. It showed people that the Government was interested in getting you to do something in this area.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: What about Paul Keating?

JOHN BUTTON: I think he was totally preoccupied with being Treasurer when he filled that post. I don't think he was very receptive to the sort of science push, as he would have called, arguments. I think later on he came to be more sympathetic to them. But certainly in the early days of the tax concession and so on, he was not in favour of those things. And that was based on the Treasury view which, simply stated, is that the market will work all these things out and you don't need any additional stimulus.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: How damaging, really, is the force of Treasury in government these days? Because it seems really to be unrelenting in its influence.

JOHN BUTTON: Well, I think it has a very powerful influence and Treasury is not always wrong. Don't let me say that. But like all economic bodies, you get some major things quite wrong from time to time, and it's not very accountable for getting things wrong, as scientists would be.

Secondly, I think because there is a sort of prevailing orthodoxy within Treasury and in other economic institutions at the present time, I find it a very narrow orthodoxy, ignorant, if you like. You see, I find Australian economic institutions very unaware of what is happening Asia; very ill-informed about it.

We have ample opportunity and ample challenge, I think, to learn from some of the great economic success stories of Asia, like Singapore; Malaysia, I think; Hong Kong; Japan, of course more fundamentally. And we're very reluctant to learn from those experiences, and I don't think we ought to be because we're right here, very close to Asia.

We sit as a society between a dominant European culture and Asian cultures, which are very different. And that creates a unique opportunity for us to be experts about those things and to consult and think widely about them. Now, I don't think you find that ... very much of that amongst economists here. I think they're very narrow in their approach to these issues.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: Very short term?

JOHN BUTTON: Short term. And of course, Japanese business culture and managerial culture is long term, and that is a great competitive advantage for Japan, I'm sure, because while our companies are working out what's going to happen in the next six months, they're thinking about what's going to happen in the next 10 years, and that leads them to understand, for example, scientific research better - that it takes time. You know, you've got to work out over the next 10 years what sort of products and so on, you want to be producing in the next century. And if you're not thinking with that degree of long-termness, then you fall behind.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: Which brings me to a question before which I have to declare an interest. I've been on the Commission for the Future as a director since its beginning, when Barry Jones thought it up in the mid-80s. You are, as you indicated, chairing the commission. You were sceptical about the organisation when it was first brought up. What has changed your mind so much so that you've become involved?

JOHN BUTTON: Well, I think I was sceptical about the organisation because it tended to take on the mind-set of the particular director it had at a particular time. So at one stage the commission was interested in social policy. And then the next stage the director was an environmentalist; so, the commission became interested in environmental issues. And when we managed, as a board of the commission, to change that sort of focus so that we weren't shifting from one sort of 'trendy' issue to another. I think that was the point I decided that the commission was much more worthwhile.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: What specifically do you think the job of a commission for the future is, to convince you in the first place to join?

JOHN BUTTON: When the commission was first set up, I think it really had a particular task, which was very much in the mind of Barry Jones. At the time it was set up, there was a lot of apprehension about new technology. You know, we were at the start of the technology bubble, which we've had since. And people were very apprehensive about what it meant and so on, and I think Barry believed very strongly and I think he was right that you needed a body like the commission to sort of talk through these issues and what the impacts would be over a period of time.

Now, I think there's still validity in that sort of forward looking concept, particularly in the light of what I said a minute ago about our relative incapacity as a predominantly Anglo-Saxon society to think ahead, think strategically. I mean, people talk about what the Government should do about industry policy. I don't think the Government should do very much about industry policy. What it should do a lot about is in a country this size, is strategic policy, you know, thinking about strategies for wealth generation, community development and so on, in the next decade - not now.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: What do you think of the future of the Geelong football team?

JOHN BUTTON: I don't know whether you or your listeners are really interested, but we were a team which relied on great stars like Gary Ablett, you know. And we had about eight of them and 10 other players who weren't so good. Now we've got about 18 players who are much younger, and all of whom are very promising. So, it has a future and I'm encouraged by that. It's a great relaxation - football.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: Choose some music for us.

JOHN BUTTON: Well, I'd like to end on an optimistic note. I think you should perhaps play that marvellous Purcell trumpet piece. I love trumpet music - classical trumpet music. And of course, that led me at an early stage into liking classical jazz, which I do.