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Tuesday, 11 August 2015
Page: 4985

Senator BACK (Western Australia) (17:31): I continue my comments on the Medical Research Future Fund Bill 2015 and related bill. In the few minutes available to me I want to explain why the government does not accept the amendments to the bill as proposed by the opposition, because I am certainly hopeful that the opposition will support the bill.

The first is the fact that the amendments do not support the objective of the bill to establish a fund to provide complementary funding in addition to existing levels of funding through the NHMRC. Such an amendment would limit and reduce the amount of funding available to go into the capital fund so that these proposed changes would constrain funding for medical research infrastructure and the commercialisation of medical research innovations. I do not think any of us really want to see that but that is the objective of that amendment and I speak against it.

The second reason not to support the amendments as put up by the opposition is that they would remove the ability for the government to enter into agreements with the states and territories—who would be critically important in the medical research space—or with corporate Commonwealth entities or, indeed, with corporations. At the commencement of my contribution this afternoon—Acting Deputy President Williams, unfortunately for me you were not in the chair, at that time, to listen—I mentioned some of the most important people: Nobel prize winners from Australia in the fields of medical research. In fact, the vast majority of Nobel prizes won by Australians have been in the medical and related spaces. In the Commonwealth entities corporate sector, I mentioned the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories as just one example.

Another amendment proposed by the opposition should not be supported, because it would burden the CEO of the NHMRC with significant additional administrative responsibilities and provide that person with additional powers that would be inconsistent with the intent of building proper checks and balances into legislation. Importantly, as I will state in a moment, there is a critically important role for the NHMRC chief executive officer and that is to chair the advisory board, so that person will have the most critically important space.

Finally, the other reason the government does not support the opposition amendments is that the opposition amendments call for the continuation of the Health and Hospitals Fund and the billion dollars that sits in it. With the MRFF coming into existence, there is no further need for the Health and Hospitals Fund. Surely everybody's interests would be best met by that billion dollars going to start the development of that capital fund, which will build up to $20 billion and will become the capital base from which interest, over time, will fund the necessary research.

I made mention of the fact that there will be an advisory board, skills based, including people who collectively possess expertise and experience in medical research, policy relating to health systems, management of health services, medical innovation, financing and investment, and commercialisation. It will leverage from the experience that exists already in the NHMRC.

One of the areas that I hope will find its way into the execution of the legislation, once it is passed, is that whilst it is the case that it is directed towards medical research one must never lose sight of the fact that an enormous amount of research that did not have its origins in the medical space has found its way. So much of the work that has come out of the space race—NASA and those others around the world—has found its way into medical research. I am particularly hopeful that whilst it is a medical research fund we will not exclude those areas in related disciplines that may well have a pathway into medical research.

What is important to conclude here is who will receive payments from the interest that accrues from the capital fund. They will be medical research institutes, universities and corporate Commonwealth entities and corporations. They can all receive grants, not loans but grants, for medical research and innovation under the legislation as can the states and territories; again, this is a reason for us not being able to support one of the opposition's amendments. I will say again that the NHMRC will play a vital role in the funding arrangements through the CEO's membership of the board, the requirement for the board to take into account the NHMRC's national strategy for medical research and public-health research.

So we have got a scenario now with the states and territories involved through the COAG process with government instrumentalities, corporations, universities and the CSIRO if it is relevant to them. But of course the fund will not be able to fund health services or primary health care; they are dealt with under 'others'. I mentioned earlier the role of the Future Fund—the fund that is exceeding all other funds in terms of the success of the investments—in overseeing this complete scenario and removing the need for a whole new bureaucracy to administer this. I do recommend this to the Senate. I hope it passes unanimously.