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Tuesday, 11 August 2015
Page: 4993


Senator McKENZIE (Victoria) (18:09): It gives me great pleasure to rise this evening to speak to the Medical Research Future Fund Bill 2015 and the Medical Research Future Fund (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2015. It was with great pride that I sat listening to a budget speech where we announced the fact that an Abbott government was going to make the landmark decision to commit significant funds to one of our nation's most competitively advantageous sectors, that being biomedical research.

We like to play to our competitive advantages in this country. I do not want to get onto the cricket team or even the Diamonds of late. But we did go all right with the Wallabies this week, didn't we? So I think that as a nation we have to pull down, ruck hard and we will go all right. When it comes to biomedical research, we definitely do punch above our weight internationally. That is why this government has chosen to commit significant investment to ensure that what we have done great in the past we can continue to build on, not only to assist domestic citizens with increased access to practices, technologies, serums and the like that can assist in the health outcomes but to take that capacity to the world.

Our competitive advantage as a nation has always been our creativity, our ingenuity and our tenacity. We think outside the square because we have had to do so over a long period of time. When I think about innovations and inventions and the spaces where Australia has punched above its weight, Australians have made significant contributions on the world stage as a result of the creativity and ingenuity of our research bodies: the black box; spray-on skin, thanks to Fiona Wood; the electronic pacemaker from Sydney Women's Hospital; Google Maps; the medical application of penicillin by Florey, which saved hundreds of thousands of lives in World War II; the bionic ear, and we know the great story of Cochlear and Professor Clark; not to mention our winged keel, permaculture, the ultrasound scanner et cetera. We have made a significant contribution to the world through our research. When you go through our top 20 contributions as a nation, the vast majority are in the medical research sector. That is why our government have chosen to play to our strengths, to get out on the field, to do what we do best and to invest where we know we will get a great return.

It is not just a financial return. The only return for those of us who come and serve in this place is to ensure that the lives of Australians are better after we leave than when we arrive. That is why a fund of this magnitude, focused in the way that it is, will make such a significant contribution to the health outcomes for Australians over a long period of time. I am very proud to be part of a government that, under projections, by 2019-20 will see $20 billion being invested and the fund disbursing funds to our researchers for creative projects. This will have benefits not only for Australia and Australian researchers and Australian citizens but also for our universities, our hospitals and our private institutions that will be able to access this type of money—money unheard of at the moment.

Our researchers go through a very competitive process, and there are more wonderful ideas out there and capacity in our research bodies then we have dollars to spend. With something like this not only can we harness that energy and creativity and focus it into projects that will deliver great benefit in terms of health outcomes but we have also got to think about the commercialisation opportunities and how transformational that will be when we look at advanced manufacturing opportunities. The additional industries that will be spun off this research over time will be absolutely fantastic.

Four hundred million dollars will be committed over four years, which is a significant injection. This is in addition to the significant investment the Australian government makes into medical research, because we are a government that is actually interested in investing in 21st century technologies. We know that we cannot continue to rely on the technologies of the past and the industries of the past. That is why we have identified our competitive advantages. We have a competitive advantage in international education, particularly in my home state of Victoria. It is the No. 1 export. That is where we need to be focused. We know that agribusinesses are underpinned by good science and industry policy, free trade agreements, and by managing our land appropriately in giving consideration to the environment and ensuring that regional communities are underpinned by investment in agribusiness. Similarly, our competitive advantage lies in medical research.

This type of fund is going to allow us to attract high-calibre researchers from across the world. That is going to assist us to move our universities through the international rankings, which will have flow-on effects for the international student market. More and more internationally accredited researchers in the biomedical sphere can say: 'I'm struggling to get that trial up and going. I'm struggling to get the funding for that new practice that I saw of the innovative way that the nurse was interacting with patients, and the interesting technology and the way they were using that particular machine in the hospital. Maybe we could use that in another way and get some real productivity gains.' It is in those creative spaces where our very, very clever people out there in the research world can get a spark of an idea and do something fabulous that none of us have ever thought of. Being able to have a pool of money that those people can be attracted to will assist in so many other ways throughout our economy. It will be very, very exciting to see internationally renowned researchers being attracted here to Australia.

The types of projects that are going to be funded under the medical research fund will include everything from work that needs to be done in labs through to clinical trials and commercialisation issues. We are going to be looking at new technologies. There will be room for new protocols to be established that will impact and affect not only patients but also the interoperability of people within a hospital system more broadly. There will be new practices—whether they be for physiotherapists, dentists, GPs or surgeons—to increase productivity and safety for the health outcomes. As Senator Reynolds mentioned earlier, the focus of this fund has to be on ensuring better health outcomes over time because we know the challenge is great, and it is only going to get greater as the Australian population ages. We have the ingenuity and now, thanks to the Abbott government, we have the funds available to invest in the type of research that is going to make a difference, because the challenge is very, very great.

We are trying to get the passage of this bill through the Senate, and the delay is simply going to mean that these lifesaving projects and these lifesaving research efforts across a wide spectrum of areas will start later. It is going to be a longer time before we get the next cochlear bionic ear developed. It is going to be a longer time before we see new and innovative ways to use penicillin. It is going to be a longer time before we create something as innovative as spray-on skin. That is the opportunity disadvantage, and the reason that this is a problem is because it is not an economic disadvantage—it is about real people, real lives and real health outcomes that we will be delaying if this Senate chooses to continue to delay supporting this wonderful initiative. It is the largest fund in the world dedicated to this type of research. We need to be very proud as a nation that we are prepared to do this.

One of the key questions that researchers like to know when they are applying for funds is who is going to make the decision on where the money is coming from and which projects get funded and which do not. This is going to be a strategic, appropriate, independent decision-making process so that academics can have confidence in the outcomes that this fund will be seeking to achieve. Each year the Future Fund Board of Guardians—I know other Senators have talked about the Future Fund Board of Guardians' role in this process, so I will not go to that—will advise the finance minister of net earnings that can be withdrawn from the fund and invested in medical research and medical innovation. They are going to do their best to raise as much money for this fund as they can. That is absolutely appropriate and exactly what they need to be doing. On an annual basis they will let the finance minister know how much the Medical Research Future Fund will have at its disposal to distribute. The government will then make decisions through the annual budget process and be guided by a national medical research strategy. This is about strategically applying the funds—looking where we can get the most bang for our buck and the best health outcomes. This is about the greatest commercialisation opportunities to create new jobs in a new economy, in the new century and building our great history as a nation around biomedical research.

The national medical research strategy will inform the government on how to allocate that money and on how to best use these funds to support medical research and medical innovation priorities. This process will ensure that taxpayer money invested in the fund is protected. The future fund board will aim to provide certainty to the medical research sector by assessing the fund's net earnings in such a way as to minimise undue volatility in the amount available for distribution from year to year. Because, when you go out there and talk to researchers, particularly those involved in the scientific field, you see that it is about that continuity of the finances being available over time. The government is currently conducting a review of research. I get a lot of feedback around the need for research projects to be approved over a much longer period so that you can fully develop the program, fully run it out and indeed assess it at the end so that the learnings can be shared amongst the wider academic community. So I think it is important that that continuity of disbursement be absolutely reassured for the research sector.

I think the exciting thing, though, for the Senate to note about this particular bill and what it is setting up is who can actually receive the payments. It will not just be CSIRO or hospitals. Indeed, medical research institutes, universities, corporate Commonwealth entities and corporations can receive grants for medical research and innovations, as can the states and territories. As a Victorian I think that is absolutely fabulous. We have a great history of investment in science and research, and in spin-off industries, and we are looking forward to getting our hands on—I bet—as much of this money as we possibly can. So I would challenge Senator Muir and Senator Madigan to get on board for Victoria's sake, because we have a great history as a state in absolutely capitalising on our ingenuity and our brains in this sector and the fact that states and territories are able to actually be part of this is a great story for the great state of Victoria.

Every year, as a part of the annual budget process, the health minister will develop proposals for medical research and innovation funding through the Medical Research Future Fund, subject to the maximum distribution available for disbursement, which the finance minister will advise themof as a result of the advice given to them from the future fund's governors. Then he or she will submit that to cabinet for consideration. The health minister must take into account the priorities set by the independent advisory board. We do not want politicians deciding where the best project is because, if I had my way, they would all be in Victorian institutions, creating jobs for Victorians and creating education opportunities and research opportunities for my great state. So it is a great thing that the health minister must take into account the priorities set by the independent advisory board and seek those opinions, which will be delivered to him or her to take to cabinet.

Cabinet will consider and approve program proposals as part of the budget process. Annual disbursements for medical research and medical innovation, including the NHMRC, are expected to be around $1 billion from 2023-24 onwards. This will result in a doubling of the existing health and medical research funding, from 2023-24. That is a great story. We are investing in the future; we are investing in our brains. For a very long time we have gotten rich on the back of the sheep. We have dug things up and we have shipped them off and we have been very, very good at that. It has meant that we have developed as a wealthy nation. Regional Australia has delivered most of that prosperity over our 200 years. However, this particular future fund recognises that our future as a nation is in smart technology, in advanced manufacturing and in the creative in the 21st century. It also recognises that we can make a significant contribution to the world's thinking around the human condition and some of the challenges that we will be facing as a species going forward and the significant contribution that we can make, based on our expertise.

One concern that has been raised with me with respect to this bill is around the question of the public accountability frameworks that will be put in place to ensure public transparency on the performance of investment for the Medical Research Future Fund. Again, the Future Fund Board of Guardians will continue to be subject to the financial accountability framework that the government has in place for all Commonwealth agencies. It will be required to provide annual reports, audited financial statements and quarterly portfolio updates reporting on fund performance. And that is a good thing because it will be able to be questioned by senators if the need arises. So the greater Australian public can be assured that the Senate will continue to watch over taxpayers' dollars and the annual reports of the future fund through the estimates process. If you have any questions, see your local senator.

Grants funded from the Medical Research Future Fund will be published online, consistent with the Commonwealth reporting framework for grants. So with respect to who gets the money, where it has gone, what sort of projects will be funded it will be very transparent. That is exciting, transparent and accountable. We are happy to be judged on the decisions we make. I think that is a form of good governance, it is part of our process of cabinet and it is something that we as a government and indeed a nation should be very proud of.

Further to this, the health minister is required every two years to prepare a report which will provide meaningful information to the parliament on all funding provided by the government for medical research and innovation from the fund and to detail how this funding is consistent with strategy and priorities set by the advisory board. Isn't that great? So you are not going to get a health minister making the decisions, doing the deals. They will have to be accountable with respect to the advice they are given by the independent advisory board, that they then take to cabinet and discuss. Then, two years later, they have to actually detail how the decisions they have made are consistent with that strategy and that advice.

I am very, very proud of the meticulous nature with which our government and our ministers have approached this particular fund's set-up and how it is delivering on our commitment to be an accountable, open and transparent government. This says it all and I am very, very proud of it.

Confucius once said, 'When you breathe, you inspire. When you do not breathe, you expire.' I think the Medical Research Future Fund is an inspirational, landmark decision by a government that is continuing to inspire, and I just hope that the Senate chooses to come on the journey with us.