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Thursday, 25 March 2004
Page: 27356

Mr LINDSAY (12:20 PM) —Today I want the parliament to know that I have begun a campaign that will see James Cook University in Townsville become the home of a powerhouse of tropical scientists, creating the largest group of tropically focused researchers in the world. Unfortunately, there are many powerful vested interests in the higher education sector—people who, in the past, have worked in their own interest against the best interests of our university. I well remember the big guns aimed at JCU when I succeeded in getting a medical school for the north. Well, it is time to have the next battle.

The federal government has made available an extra 2,303 university places for distribution to Queensland universities, with the new places on offer to be taken up at the beginning of next year. The Queensland government are making certain recommendations to the federal government as to how the places should be allocated across universities in the state. Their model is a dud for JCU because it does not recognise the many opportunities JCU has to meet its vision. If I have to pick a fight with the Beattie government, then I look forward to the battle. I want a minimum of 500 extra places for JCU, not the paltry 250 being recommended by Queensland. I am fed up with Brisbane-centric policies that see the metropolitan universities getting an unrealistic number of extra places when the need for new places is in the north. The University of Queensland and the Queensland University of Technology have had it too good for too long. It is time to build on the potential of JCU.

I am particularly interested in seeing the establishment of the first veterinary degree course outside the capital cities and a focus on a complementary agricultural science program. Plant and animal production systems are climate specific, and none of Australia's three tropical universities—JCU, CQU and NTU—have programs in agriculture, veterinary science or horticulture. The training gap is therefore national as well as regional. I would expect undergraduate programs in these areas to recruit students from other tropical countries as well as from Australia, as the existing graduate programs do now.

I am working to convince the government to allocate 80 new funded places with a pipeline to veterinary science and 70 new funded places with a pipeline to tropical agricultural science. If I win the battle—and I intend to—JCU can begin the new courses next year, as existing infrastructure will allow the first year of both programs to be delivered. I am also working on a $12 million capital grant to establish additional facilities in Townsville and Cairns and points of presence in Mackay, Atherton and Mount Isa.

At present, a young North Queenslander who wishes to be a veterinarian, an agronomist, a soil scientist, an agricultural extension specialist or a plant or animal breeder—in order to work in professions which support North Queensland rural industries or to obtain professional skills which will enhance farm management—must leave North Queensland to obtain professional training. As in other professions, those who leave for training often do not return. In an era where survival as a primary producer is becoming progressively more dependent on professional skills, access to technical advice and security from new biological threats, this training gap is a serious deficiency for the region.

Most of the industries which contribute to the economic and social wellbeing of North Queensland are well supported by JCU's professional programs and by its research, but the plant and animal production industries are not. This is a serious gap, both because the region has no local alternatives to JCU for professional training and because the biosecurity issues for tropical plant, animal and human populations present a research agenda of critical national importance. Zoonoses, emerging and imported infectious diseases of humans, animals and plants, and agricultural pest and weed invasions are all threats whose likelihood and potential impact have increased with increasing human mobility between Australia and other tropical nations. JCU has significant capabilities and the potential for much greater contributions in support of tropical primary production and its protection. Development of its agricultural and veterinary professional specialties and the synergies available with the existing capacity in medicine, bioscience and environmental science offer a unique opportunity to strengthen Australia's capacity to respond to biological threats.

The lack of undergraduate programs further constrains agricultural and veterinary research in North Queensland, since the supply of graduates who might then train as researchers does not exist. This limits the capabilities of other research agencies as well, since research training and the students who undertake it are a key element that universities bring to research collaborations with other organisations. This proposal would further enhance collaboration by providing co-location of other agricultural and veterinary research agencies on JCU campuses.

James Cook University in Townsville must play a crucial role in this, by transforming the Northern Australian economy and ensuring the wellbeing of its people by providing the knowledge, ideas and innovations that lead to new industries, new technologies, better health and new ways of managing complex systems; by underpinning the sustainable management of Northern Australia's internationally significant terrestrial and marine ecosystems and its nationally vital beef, sugar, tourism, fishing, horticulture and mining industries; by equipping future generations of scientists with the capacity to develop path-breaking solutions; and by acting as a centre of excellence with critical mass in tropical science. I am ready for the inevitable fight. I want the North Queensland community to back me and I want to see JCU become the world's leading hub of tropical science.