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Monday, 19 October 2015
Page: 11509


Mr CONROY (Charlton) (11:25): To state the bleeding obvious, I think everyone in this House is in agreement about the importance of STEM, of the importance of encouraging students to study science, technology, engineering and maths, the importance of innovation support, support for research, support for commercialisation and support for technology. Unfortunately, the actions of the government do not match their rhetoric. This motion mentions a dollar funding figure, which is fine. It is an absolutely fine funding figure. What it neglects to mention is the $2 billion in cuts this government, since coming to power, has inflicted on support for innovation in this country. These cuts have been most egregious. In fact, they have targeted areas where we need more support and not less support.

What is the fundamental problem in this country around innovation? It is that we do great at blue-sky research, we are great at doing deep research—our universities and CSIRO are world leaders in some of these areas—but we get poor bang for buck for our applied research investment. Some people, such as Professor Goran Roos, have tried to develop figures about our dollar pay-back for applied research and investment by the public sector, and it is quite low.

That is the area where we need to target investment and culture change, and where we need to turn universities away from focusing on themselves and instead support industry. Also, we need to turn industries towards universities and ask, 'How can we work together to commercialise great research ideas?' Unfortunately, the current government has withdrawn a massive amount of funding that was designed to do this work. The two best examples of this were two initiatives out of the 'Aussie jobs' package that the last government announced at the end of 2012, or early in 2013. Part of this was a $500 million precincts initiation—a precincts initiative that was driven by industry demand for such a program. It was a program that put together a pool of funding that was available for industry and academia to collaborate on to drive a cultural change where the two sides worked together to commercialise ideas and grow the jobs of the future. It was to develop the companies that would be our mass employers going forward. What happens when this mob get into government? They cut it. It is no longer a $500 million program—it is a $188 million program rebranded as the growth centres initiative. I am pleased they kept some of the money, but that very significant $312 million cut will limit the ability of the growth centres to do what they are designed to do.

Secondly, they have cut the $300 million venture capital fund that we put aside, through the tried and tested IIF model, where the government is a co-investor with the private sector, where money is made by the government and that money can be pumped back into venture capital. Ultimately, we will not get commercialisation in this country if we do not get investment in venture capital, and we have quite a shallow venture capital industry in this country.

We have seen cuts to Commercialisation Australia. We have seen them destroy the Enterprise Connect program, which was doing great work out there in the private sector. I have manufacturers coming up to me regularly bewailing the abolition of Enterprise Connect. They are pouring scorn on the poorly designed and poorly funded replacement program the coalition has put in place.

I am pleased that everyone in this place is supportive of STEM education. I am pleased that everyone in this place supports innovation in this nation. But we need to match rhetoric with action. So far, this government is sorely lacking. The new Prime Minister talks a good game. He talks about a positive vision for the economy. He talks about innovation. We have an assistant minister for productivity at the despatch table. He has a couple of other amigos talking about innovation. That is great, but they need dollars. They need well-designed programs and they need dollars to match this action, and so far we have not seen anything but bluster and rhetoric. The coalition side have form on this. One of the first actions John Howard took when he took power in 1996 was to cut the R&D tax concession in half. So I welcome this rhetoric, but they need to match it with action.

On my side, I am proud that the Labor Party—in the budget reply speech of our Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten—made great announcements around coding in schools, finance for start-ups and a half a billion dollar venture capital fund. That would be a great start to building innovation in this country and I welcome it. I applaud the Labor Party's commitment. I hope for more to be announced before the next election, because, so far, we cannot rely on the current government to do anything about this massive problem.