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Thursday, 9 June 1994
Page: 1630


Senator SCHACHT (Minister for Small Business, Customs and Construction) (3.28 p.m.) —I was not going to speak until my name was gaily thrown around by Senator Ferguson. I think I was damned with faint praise in some of his remarks. I support the decisions taken by Senator Cook. They are quite reasonable. When I was minister and responsible for CSIRO an incident occurred when Dr Kemp, the shadow spokesman for science, without any indication to my office, attended a meeting of the senior executives of CSIRO.


Senator Ferguson —While you were minister?


Senator SCHACHT —While I was the minister. He insisted on attending the meeting to seek information about an episode of contractual dispute where a substantial payout had to be raised. It has already been discussed in an estimates committee. He did that without the courtesy of letting my office know that he sought to have a meeting about it.   That is the sort of incident that Senator Cook, quite rightly, says should not occur. It is embarrassing to senior officers when someone turns up like that and insists on sitting in on the meeting to get information. The officers do not know what the ground rules are and whether he got the permission of a minister and so on. I think that is the particular episode that Senator Cook is dealing with, and I fully support him.

  On the issue Senator Ferguson raised about the coming inquiry, I have listened to the remarks made by Senator Panizza and Senator Coulter about the inquiry and about funding for rural research in particular. I want to make this very clear: the decisions taken to reduce the research capacity of CSIRO in the rural sector, in the rural area, were taken by the board and the senior management of CSIRO; they were not taken by the government. Those decisions were made in a priority setting arrangement that was taken on by the board. With that capacity, it made those decisions.

  Even if we increased funding to the level that Senator Coulter might want, there is no guarantee that the funds would go into that area because the government does not direct where the funding goes in CSIRO. It is a one-line budget for three years, and the board makes decisions on advice from the senior management. That is what the act says; that is the power. So the reduction in expenditure and effort in the rural research area is a decision of the board and the executive.

  The example was raised in the debate of the Division of Wool Technology at Geelong. I was approached by the staff there, who were concerned about their future and about the cutbacks because wool levy money was going down due to the decline in wool prices and so on. I raised my concern with the senior executive of CSIRO, Dr Stocker, as a result of representations made to me by Mr Gavan O'Connor, the honourable member for Corio, whose constituents were getting concerned about their future. I thought there was a reasonable case for money being provided to get that division through this period until wool prices went up. But the decision in the end was made by the management and the board of CSIRO; it was not made by the government.

  I hope this inquiry, when all the information is before it, will look at what is clearly the philosophical issue: do we want a stand-alone board of CSIRO, as it is at the moment, making its own decisions on the allocation of resources, independent from government and the parliament, or do we want ministerial direction, ministerial guidance and advice given so that the government, which is responsible here day by day, takes responsibility for where the money goes? I say to Senator Ferguson that this is an important philosophical issue that ought to be debated. But those opposite cannot have it both ways. They cannot say one day, `Leave your hands off CSIRO; don't touch it,' and then say, `Now we want you to intervene and fix up some money for areas that we think personally are very important.'

  It is a very important philosophical position that I think the parliament ought to debate from time to time. There is no easy answer. Either way, there will be controversy about it. Those opposite cannot have their cake and eat it too. They cannot say, `Leave CSIRO alone,' and then say, ` But in this case you should intervene, fix it up, and direct CSIRO to put money into an area that we think is important.' In this inquiry those issues may come out, and they ought to be debated.