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Tuesday, 11 August 2015
Page: 5001


Senator EDWARDS (South Australia) (18:44): It gives me great pleasure to rise in support of the Medical Research Future Fund Bill 2014 and related bill which have come before this chamber. But, before I talk about these bills, I want to acknowledge Senator Wright's contribution in this debate and indeed her much broader contribution. In the break, Senator Wright announced that she was leaving this place. I am not sure when that is actually going to happen, but I would like to acknowledge your great work in South Australia, Senator Wright, especially in those areas which you spoke of so eloquently. I know you are very passionate about the area of mental health, and passion is exactly what you need to have in this place to drive a cause.

Recently our Prime Minister said to me privately: 'You have to stand for something. You have to be known for something in this place. You can never leave this place not being known for something.' I took that on board. The day that you do leave this place, Senator Wright, I will remember your contribution in the area of mental health outcomes for Australians—in particular, the mental health outcomes for regional Australians. As we know, for a range of reasons, there is a disproportionate amount of dysfunction and even, tragically, suicide in the regions and our Indigenous communities stemming from mental health issues. I have watched your contribution in the area of mental health and I have an enormous respect for it. So thank you for that.

I was also heartened to hear that the Greens are going to support this legislation. It is a landmark legislation. It is legislation which takes into account a lot of what we in Australia have been subject to for many years—that is, the ebb and flow of budgets and budget pressures. With the establishment of the Future Fund we saw a demonstrably successful piece of policy which is now delivering dividends for all Australians. All Australian saw the benefit of that and are now seeing the benefits of that. This legislation looks to try to address what has been an issue throughout history. Invariably when governments come under pressure to balance their budgets they look to areas of expense, and traditionally the biggest area of expense in any government's budget is the health area.

In quarantining what will be a significant amount of money—in its final form, $20 billion—the Medical Research Future Fund will become the biggest endowment fund of its type in the world. The importance of that and the commitment to that by this government cannot be understated. This is a particularly important issue when it comes to providing security to ensure that the research professionals in the medicines industry can stand by all the people they employ and we can stop any leakage of our incredibly smart and dedicated scientists and health professionals to other countries and we are able to keep them here, because they will know that this government and subsequent governments will be committed to the cause.

In this legislation there are a lot of mechanisms. There is obviously the provision for revenues that will be provided. A sum of $1 billion initially has been allowed for in the next 12 months, and I will outline later in my speech how that has been achieved. Importantly, it will provide $400 million over the next four years, and that is in addition to the government's existing commitment to direct medical research. The establishment of this fund will not only encourage innovation and medical research but also provide economic benefits, which I will outline later in my contribution. There is nothing like money to attract money, and this will support investment across the research spectrum—laboratory research, clinical trials, commercialisation of new drugs and devices and the translation to new techniques or protocols into clinical practice and into public health improvements. As I say, this legislation provides for the mechanics of creating credits to this fund, provides a mechanism for debiting the funds and provides how the fund is going to be governed and how it is going to be administered.

The fund will bridge gaps in the existing system. Successive governments, no matter what persuasion, have seen that there is a need. We have seen knee-jerk reactions to various programs, and we want to smooth out the highs and the lows so that we can get a translation of research projects into applied technologies and practices and ensure that medical research for the longer term does not suffer any setbacks which would put us behind in terms of achieving the best health outcomes for Australians. The fund will provide for us to be an innovative nation and provide for us to commercialise our research work. Who could forget the work of Professor Graeme Clark AO in the development of the bionic ear, a multiple-channel cochlear implant?

There are so many stories. I see Senator McEwen is in the chamber on the other side. She would be well aware of Dr David David and his great work. He grew up in Adelaide. He gained his medical degree in 1966. He set-up the Craniofacial Unit, now the Australian Craniofacial Unit. Three decades since, he and his team of dedicated professionals have helped restore dignity to thousands of patients. In his hands, complex surgical procedures seem somewhat commonplace. He does, indeed, perform everyday miracles. To see the work that is able to be carried out with the necessary public funding to change the way people live their lives, in his case, is profound.

Dr Bill Griggs is another local. He is involved in innovation in trauma surgery. He has cared for victims of events where there have been multiple casualties. He is best known and lovingly remembered for his exceptional work after the Bali bombings and the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.

All of these people are products of the great research work that is able to be carried out here. Senator McKenzie referred to spray-on skin—another incredibly important advancement for burns victims. We have to be and continue to be a nation leading the medical technology race. It is not just about the health outcomes of Australians; it is not just about increasing the longevity of people's lives; it is about increasing the quality of people's lives.

This fund addresses the commercial issue of money. I love talking about money because you cannot do anything without money. People say to me, 'Money is not everything.' If you have got it, you can choose your own level of poverty, I say. This innovation fund will be governed by a mix of specialties from science, administration and governance, and they will identify medical research projects and innovation priorities and give certainty to the nature of investment activities to support the growing needs of what is required for the commercialisation and the sustainment of this important area.

I am not going to talk about the boiler-plate of the bill which talks about independent advisory boards and their role. I am not going to talk about the ministerial provisions to report to government every two years. They are all contained in the legislation, as you would expect that a proper government would have in place. There is a transparent listing and regular updating and listing of the priorities of the fund, and how the fund is administered. The strategy will be set on a five-yearly basis and it will take into account the national health needs, the gaps in current investment and the strategic sequencing needed to deliver the best results for the expenditure.

It also will strategise the priorities which are expected to ensure that program level funding from the fund has a strong business case. I have talked about the commercialisation of our research. The CSIRO is well-known for it. Ranging from sunblock to wifi, they are famous for their contribution to the planet in terms of the research and science that they have deployed. But this fund will address health and welfare. It will be the biggest fund in the world. The governance of this fund, the people behind it, will ensure that they coordinate research and innovation programs that will minimise duplication and leverage the expertise which we have in this country and use existing medical research arrangements. They will ensure that everything that we do complies with what is internationally accepted in terms of medical research and innovation, including peer review and the provision of expert advice where required. The innovation of the fund will always be directly proportional with medical research. It is just a fact that medical research is a great consumer of cash. It goes to the very core of our being to improve our way of life, the way we live and our quality of life.

I am going to be a little parochial, if I might, and talk about how this relates to South Australia because that is my home state. I had the pleasure several weeks ago of attending the newly constructed South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute. In Adelaide, we affectionately call it the SAHMRI building. It is west of the train station on North Terrace. Some call it, also affectionately, the 'cheese-grater' because of its design and out-there architecture. It houses some of the smartest minds that this country has in the fields of science and medical research. These people will be directly affected by this fund. There are about 450 people there now and there is capacity to go to 550 people.

We are hoping that we can get the cyclotron there which works in conjunction with ANSTO, the Australian nuclear organisation—the government-run organisation that is so well-reputed around the world. It will be the only one in South Australia, and we can use that for making radioactive tracers that will be used in the early detection of cancers. These things are expensive, and when health budgets are cut by state and federal governments these things are put on a backburner. But not with this fund. There is a compelling argument to deploy this facility and the scientists that go with it for the early detection of cancer, in order to turn the outcomes for people's lives around much quicker. These are typical examples of how the benefits, the dividends, of this fund will flow and support the way in which we live—not just in South Australia but also in Australia, in Asia and the rest of the world.

The SAHMRI building and research institute is run by Professor Steve Wesselingh, a very smart man who was obviously attracted by the long-term commitment of both the federal and state governments to that facility. He assumed the role of the inaugural executive director in October 2011. Without the commitment to that facility and the programs within that facility, we would not be able to attract the world-class expertise of people like Professor Wesselingh. I include Senators McEwen and Wright in this contribution, because they were with me on the day on which the Prime Minister, the Hon. Tony Abbott, opened this building in November 2013. It was a celebration because it marked the beginning of a new era for research in South Australia, and it was certainly emblematic of the future of the state's economy and the health economy. It is a big marker in time as to where we felt our economy should be turning to, and medical technologies will be a very big part of the way in which the South Australian economy will grow.

Visiting places like this provides you with the momentum to come and talk about these things. When I was there with Professor Wesselingh, he talked about the work that they do in Aboriginal health—the Wardliparingga Aboriginal Research Unit is housed in the SAHMRI building within the institute. Their research is focused on a significant gap between health status and life opportunities available to Aboriginal people as compared to other Australians. This is topical, because I have the Minister for Indigenous Affairs here in the chamber in his ministerial role. He would, no doubt, know of the great work that this and other institutions are doing to improve life outcomes for our Indigenous communities. Also within the medical research institute in South Australia is an overarching goal to foster excellence in a full spectrum of cancer-related research from fundamental genomic discovery and developmental biology to translational research and the development of innovative clinical trials.

It might sound complex, but it all takes cash. Research and innovation, by their very nature, have to have somebody paying for it and, when it is untested and you are in new ground, that is the role of government. In establishing this fund and going about this in a way in which we can deliver health outcomes and fund health outcomes for the next two generations, we know that when we leave this place after setting up this fund—by passing this bill—that we will have left the medical research institutes, the like of SAHMRI, all over Australia in very good health.