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Thursday, 17 October 2002
Page: 5437

Senator STOTT DESPOJA (5:47 PM) —To facilitate the passage of the Research Agencies Legislation Amendment Bill 2002 and to enable the minister to make a contribution I will keep my remarks brief. The bill amends the Australian Institute of Marine Science Act 1972 and the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation Act 1987 to encourage AIMS and ANSTO to commercialise their intellectual property. It is consistent with a key theme in Backing Australia's Ability—that is, to remove barriers to commercialising government-funded research.

AIMS and ANSTO are currently allowed to undertake commercial activities, but the agencies have limits on the size of contracts they can enter into without ministerial approval: $100,000 and $1 million respectively. In addition, neither can commercialise IP developed as a by-product of their core activities—that is, they cannot commercialise non-marine and non-nuclear IP. The Democrats have longstanding concerns with Australia's participation in the nuclear cycle. However, for the record I stress that this bill only goes to developing ANSTO's non-nuclear intellectual property. The bill increases thresholds for ministerial approval— to $1 million and $5 million respectively— and broadens functions to allow for the commercialisation of non-marine and non-nuclear IP.

The Australian Democrats will support this bill; however, it does raise some broad policy concerns. In particular, the Senate report to which Senator Carr referred, Universities in crisis, and various reports by state auditors-general have raised concerns about inadequate accountability and governance arrangements and practices in universities, raising more general concerns about the role of government research agencies. I acknowledge that finding the right balance between providing flexibility to important, publicly funded institutions and insisting on proper constraints and governance requirements does require good judgment and, of course, good and clear policy. However, such concerns are legitimate, and for this reason we will be considering favourably the opposition's second reading amendment. I am not sure how long ago it was circulated, but I will certainly be considering it.

Senator Carr —Quite a while.

Senator STOTT DESPOJA —Okay, quite a while. I would have liked more consideration of some of the amendments that the Democrats moved on important issues in the previous debate, but I will not reflect on a view of the Senate.

Senator Carr —I did not handle that bill.

Senator STOTT DESPOJA —I know you did not, Senator Carr. I know your commitment to these and other issues, and that is why I enjoy working with you on them. The second policy issue that this bill raises is that successful commercialisation may give a future government a warrant to reduce government funding. There is a clear precedent for this in the way that universities have been forced to find additional private income to cover the cuts imposed on them by the Howard government since it came to office in 1996. The important point about this shift from public to private sources of funding is that in universities private funding does not replace public funding; it goes to quite different activities, including marketing and the recruitment of international fee-paying students, and it does not replace the public funding of teaching, learning and research, notably in the enabling disciplines of physics, chemistry, mathematics, philosophy, languages and history. The third policy issue is that these measures may encourage ANSTO and AIMS to concentrate on non-core research functions. The last issue is that commercialisation always involves a risk. In the event of poor decisions or plain bad luck, there may be adverse exposure or financial implications.

These concerns are valid, reasonable and highly plausible, and I trust that AIMS and ANSTO will consider them seriously and carefully. However, it should be clearly understood that AIMS and ANSTO are subject to public scrutiny and accountability mechanisms, as covered by the Commonwealth Authorities and Companies Act 1997 and, moreover, are subject to ANAO audit. I am not aware of systematic failings of the CAC Act framework, and of course the work of the ANAO is highly respected, particularly by the Australian Democrats.

In my view, none of the concerns warrant opposition or substantial amendment to the legislation before us, and that is why we will be supporting it. In addition, it is worth while acknowledging that there are sound economic reasons to encourage commercialisation of IP. The Democrats will be supporting the legislation before us. Senator Carr, I have read your amendment; I was just wondering when it was circulated. The Australian Democrats will be supporting the opposition on that second reading amendment today. Given Senator Carr's reference to science and the debate we have just had in relation to science and indeed the FASTS document, which is a very impressive document, to save time I am not going to mention it in any more detail. With the indulgence of the Senate, I do want to pay tribute to the women of WISENET, the Women in Science Enquiry Network, who are constantly debating these issues. I spoke to them about the Research Agencies Legislation Amendment Bill 2002 today, as a matter of fact, when I addressed them at a luncheon on women in science issues. With that indulgence, I conclude the remarks of the Australian Democrats in the hope that we can facilitate the passage of this legislation this afternoon.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Lightfoot)—Thank you, Senator Stott Despoja. The amendment that you referred to was circulated yesterday.