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Wednesday, 16 October 2002
Page: 5286

Senator GEORGE CAMPBELL (2:50 PM) —My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Industry, Tourism and Resources, Senator Minchin. Does the minister recall announcing in a press release on 17 July 2001 when he was the Minister for Industry, Science and Resources, a $40 million increase in funding to support the expansion of the COMET program and in particular to increase the number of business advisers from 10 to 17? In announcing this increase, didn't the minister state that `the demand for COMET management and financial services was overwhelming, with a higher than anticipated number of quality applications'? If this is the case, why is the Howard government cutting the number of business advisers from 17 back to 10? Can the minister provide the reasons for the slashing of this important commercialisation assistance program for small and medium sized businesses?

Senator MINCHIN (Minister for Finance and Administration) —I do recall that press statement, and it was a very appropriate and sensible part of our great initiative, Backing Australia's Ability, which has done so much to improve innovation in this country. We are delivering while Labor talks. The COMET program has helped over 600 small innovative companies to progress their emerging technologies over the last 2½ years. It is administered within its budget to get its maximum benefit from the taxpayers' investment. As part of a funding overlap with the implementation of the Backing Australia's Ability program, COMET funds were fortuitously, but as a one-off, doubled to $20 million in the financial year 2001-02; funding returns to the original level of $10 million for 2002-03. That did allow the number of business advisers to be increased from 10 to 17—which I think was fortuitous and welcome—for an 18-month period only.

An example of the program's success is that around $100 million in equity funding has been raised by participating companies. We recently received a thankyou letter from a COMET recipient, PowerConnex, which said:

The COMET program has provided enormous benefits to our business ... We have no doubt that our rate of commercialisation has been fast tracked via the COMET program.

Australia consistently ranks in the top 10 of OECD countries in expenditure by government research institutions. Programs such as COMET are assisting in the commercialisation of innovations from that research. It is a great program. It is funded at the ongoing level of $10 million a year. It is fortuitous that, as a result of Backing Australia's Ability, we were able to double it in 2001 and 2002. It has now returned to its normal level, which we will continue to sustain.

Senator GEORGE CAMPBELL —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Minister, why is the Howard government failing in its responsibility to foster the capacity of Australian businesses to extend their innovative products into the global marketplace? Is this program another casualty of the blowout in the budget deficit or, alternatively, is this just another symptom of this government's ignorance of the commercialisation needs of Australia's small and medium sized businesses?

Senator MINCHIN (Minister for Finance and Administration) —On this side we really are sick of being lectured by the Labor Party about the budget. These are the people who drove the budget into so much deficit. They are the ones who are trying to prevent us from getting the budget back into order. They sit there blocking our budget at the moment. They are blocking our savings measures through the PBS and DSP. Now they have the hide to lecture us and say that we should be spending more money on innovation programs. We are the ones who brought in the $3 billion Backing Australia's Ability program. It is as a result of our excellent fiscal management that the government has been able to be in a position to spend that sort of money on innovation. If we still had them governing, we would have annual deficits of $10 billion and we would have to cut all of those programs. It is only as a result of our good management that we are able to invest in these excellent innovation programs.