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Monday, 7 November 2005
Page: 65

Ms ANNETTE ELLIS (4:41 PM) —I want to use my time here today to speak about very serious and concerning issues regarding the current government’s attitude towards research and education in this country. The CSIRO has a long and proud history of leading the way in scientific research in Australia and the world—which is why I was disappointed to hear some disturbing reports about new directions adopted by CSIRO management.

Hundreds of jobs at the CSIRO here in the ACT are set to be cut and the organisation’s research priorities are shifting in favour of economic considerations. The staff cuts will largely come out of support roles in areas such as administration, finance, legal services and library records. While some may say that these jobs are support roles, not directly related to the main game of scientific research, I would contend that our scientists deserve all the support they can get in the continuing work of this important organisation. I am certainly not filled with great faith in the new management’s priorities when I hear that, according to a report in the Canberra Times, the number of senior executives earning over $300,000 at the CSIRO doubled during the last financial year while the actual scientists remain on salaries on or near $67,000 each.

The priorities of the CSIRO are set to shift away from renewable energy, medicinal research and crop and livestock research, in favour of research into biosecurity and information technology, and trying to make coal cleaner. It may not be my place to interfere with the priorities of the CSIRO—I am happy to say that. I cannot speak with great authority on the merits of one sort of research over another. My concern lies with the methods by which the priorities are being shifted.

At the launch of his science textbook Life of Marsupials, Dr Hugh Tyndale-Biscoe, who can boast a 45-year career with the CSIRO, summarised perfectly the problem, in his opinion, with the organisation’s new direction. He said:

The point of contention is not that the organisation has changed its research priorities; that must always happen. What is at issue is that priorities are now determined from above, rather than by the practitioners.

While any government department needs to work with the minister in charge, there are limits to the amount of acceptable interference by ministers and senior management, especially in research and investigative organisations. While those limits have been respected to varying degrees by former governments, they have all but disappeared under the current regime. In the case of the CSIRO it would appear that the emphasis has shifted away from scientist-driven research priorities towards a management-dictated agenda as determined by financial and public relations considerations.

Dr Tyndale-Biscoe declared his most recent book launch to be a celebration of past biological research and a wake for the CSIRO that nurtured much of that research. Whether the old CSIRO is dead or merely wounded, when the new management are simultaneously hiring more communications staff while decreasing overall staff numbers, it betrays an unfortunate attitude towards research and education on the part of the government. We can fill the skills shortage from our own population, we can lift the apprenticeship completion rate and we have the ability to actively encourage more students to complete tertiary degrees—we are just not doing it at present.

The changes in CSIRO research priorities have been determined at least in part by the federal government’s short-sighted attitude to research and education in Australia—the same attitude that has been exacerbating the skills shortage in this country over the past nine years and has helped to turn Australia’s skills shortage into a skills crisis. Australia is currently the only country in the developed world that has reduced its expenditure on tertiary and vocational education since 1995. It is the only developed country on the planet to do this. As disadvantaged as most skilled workers are going to be by the government’s ‘no choices’ workplace relations package, their disadvantage is nothing compared to that of the thousands of Australians who have not been able to get trade skills in the first place. Completion rates for new apprenticeships are falling and trades services are costing more each year while this government avoids responsibility for actually addressing the issue. As thousands of Australians are turned away from technical colleges and universities, the skills crisis is getting worse.

The government’s so-called solution, announced during the last election campaign, was a new set of technical colleges independent of the current TAFE system. The problems with the government’s alternative TAFE proposal have already been highlighted at length by many members on this side of the chamber and I certainly do not have the time today to canvass the issue in detail. Having said that, I think there is one point that is worth revisiting, and it is this: the new technical colleges will not produce their first tradesperson until 2010. In the meantime Australian businesses are meant to twiddle their thumbs and wait while the skills crisis deepens and Australian families are meant to keep paying more for services, all because the government cannot bring itself to properly fund real solutions. The government’s latest idea is to ship young apprentices to Australia to alleviate the skills crisis. Never mind the tens of thousands of young Australians who are lining up around the block to get into existing technical colleges—do not bother funding real solutions, just ship in apprentices in what can best be described as one of the biggest bandaid solutions yet devised by members opposite.

The Howard government have now spent, by their own admission, tens of millions of dollars on an advertising campaign for their ‘no choices’ workplace relations package. When the legislation is challenged in the High Court, they will undoubtedly spend more money trying to make their changes stick. Instead of attacking workers’ rights for reasons best described by the Prime Minister as ‘an article of faith’, perhaps this government could start pursuing measures that will actually help Australian families. There is nothing stopping the government, save outdated ideological reasoning, from taking an active interest in the skills crisis gripping this country. The old adage that they do not think there are any other solutions just because they cannot think of any does not really apply here. The solutions are simple: stop attacking student organisations and support campus services; stop trying to shift the cost of education onto students and their families; support organisations like the CSIRO and let the scientists decide what research to pursue; most importantly, support the education system that will inevitably need to produce the next generation of skilled workers; and properly fund universities and stop wasting money competing with the states in vocational education. Our TAFEs and universities have the potential to be world class again. They have been in the past, they should be now and they deserve to be so in the future. We have excellent, highly qualified teachers who want to do their jobs: give them the support they need and let them do what they do best.

The skills crisis is not insurmountable and I would like to think that the CSIRO is not yet dead. If this government can put aside its hatred of student organisations, loosen its grip on scientific organisations like the CSIRO and start cooperating with the states on vocational education, I believe that solutions can still be found. The situation that the CSIRO is facing is desperately embarrassing to this government. The CSIRO is one of the pre-eminent scientific research and development organisations in the world. I cannot believe that this government are happy to see the CSIRO’s standing in the world community decline by even one millimetre under their jurisdiction. We in Canberra obviously have a particular interest in the CSIRO because much of the research work that it performs is done in our community; we know this organisation well. But it is not a Canberra thing; it is an Australian thing, and I am pleading with the government to do something about the CSIRO in a serious way. Consider all the marvellous and wonderfully inventive work that it has done in the past. I believe no member of this House could put up their hand and say honestly they are not proud of the CSIRO. I am absolutely dismayed to see that this government’s attitude is leading this organisation down the path on which it now finds itself. When you listen to people like the academic I just quoted, you understand it is really something that we need to take very seriously and look at as a matter of urgency for the sake of this country’s research and development efforts. So I say to the government, ‘Please think very carefully about this. Look at the CSIRO’s value and ensure its valued existence into the future.’