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Thursday, 13 May 2004
Page: 23315

Senator SANTORO (5:43 PM) —Listening to Senator Crossin, I have again become convinced that the Labor Party just cannot help itself. It lives by crying wolf over all manner of imagined ills and then it whinges when other people point out the flaws in the logic of its arguments—as speakers on this side of the Senate have done throughout this debate. Such is the case with the motion moved by Senator Carr that we are debating today and, indeed, the contributions of senators opposite.

Senator Carr's motion proposes that the Minister for Science overrule the decisions made by an independent selection committee on the current round of funding for cooperative research centres. It asserts that the government has botched the implementation of the current round and calls on us to note this with concern. It also calls on the government to `restore public interest research as a key selection criteria'—I think it means criterion, Madam Acting Deputy President Kirk; and I am putting the whole thing in quotes, as befits fiction—`for future CRCs'.

Labor calls on the Minister for Science to take responsibility for the denial of funding to nationally significant CRCs such as the reef, rainforest and photonics CRCs and to use his powers under the current CRC guidelines to hear appeals from such CRCs against their exclusion from the current selection round. In short—and as other speakers and the minister have pointed out—Labor is seeking to politicise an independent process. Labor thinks it knows better than the experts—in fact, that has always been a particular and peculiar problem of the Labor Party—and because it thinks this is so it would like to trample on the independent decision making process that CRCs rely on.

In all, 52 applications were received for the 2004 selection round of the CRC Program, and the committee decided that 19 of these applications were not competitive enough against the selection criteria. This is a game of Labor bluff—political blindman's bluff, in fact, or perhaps it is another attempt by the Labor Party to pin the tail on the donkey. It missed. As I said yesterday—in the context of another Labor bluff: its policy for workplaces in this enterprising country wherein it wishes to hand them over to its preferred regulators, the unions—the sky does not fall or the earth reverse its orbit around the sun just because the Labor Party says it will if someone does something that is not to its taste.

According to Labor, the community is already bearing the brunt of the cuts in funding to cooperative research centres. Senator Carr would like us to believe that, right across the Great Barrier Reef, millions of coral polyps are ready to rise in revolt, egged on by the green lobby and Labor's obtuse political me-too-ism, because they will not be visited as often, they fear, by scientists being paid to research them. As Senator Tierney has said, that is absolute nonsense, because funding for that particular CRC does not run out until 2006.

We know this is all just politics on the part of the Labor Party. We know that this is a product of the ALP's `quick, find a platform' department. That is why Labor has done a rain dance over the minister's proper and sensible position that it is the job of the selection committee to select CRCs for funding from competing and competitive applications. That is why it has announced that it would fund three of the CRCs that were excluded by the selection process from the current round. That is why it will never say which of the successful CRC applicants in this round would be axed or how much money would be taken from the successful applicants to fund the three CRCs in the `Labor Choice' awards. I listened very carefully to the contributions from senators opposite, and not once did they display the courage to say which of the successful CRCs in the latest round they would deprive of funding. Until they start putting their money where their mouth is, honourable senators opposite cannot come into this place and insult the intelligence of senators—particularly those who are prepared to listen to them.

It is important for everyone to recognise that Australia needs more research that will lead to new and improved goods and services and additional economic activity. There are other funding opportunities—many of them—for research that is not directed towards new and improved goods and services and additional economic activity. The best public interest research is precisely that research whose objective is to produce economic gain and improve economic and social capabilities. That is in no way to decry or seek to diminish respect for the more esoteric varieties of research that Senator Carr, in his artistic motion today, apparently favours—along with his colleagues and attendant lobbyists.

But it is a question of priority. In budget week one would have thought that even the Labor Party would connect with reality—imperfectly perhaps, but nonetheless they would try—and with the fact that dollars are finite. We all know that `son of Whitlam' is playing with dodgy dollars today in the other place—no doubt his disciples in this place will be doing so, too, after the dinner break—but most sensible people are very well aware that dodgy dollars simply do not work. Those Australians who remember the first Whitlam and his three-year crash-and-burn collision with fiscal reality and responsibility have good reason to fear a prodigal return by the member for Werriwa.

In relation to the shred of reality that Senator Carr's motion attempts to cling to in this debate, it must be remembered that the majority of the 19 unsuccessful applications in this CRC round were new operations rather than CRCs that already exist. As we know, the unsuccessful solar CRC bid was in this category. The five unsuccessful applicants for 2004 round funding that were existing CRCs have secure funding for more than two years to come. Listening to Labor and others and their siren songs of distress, you would think that everyone involved had been instantly deprived of funding. That is not the case. If Labor valued honesty, it would stop seeking a shrieking headline and come back down from orbit.

I turn to the Queensland context. Obviously, as a senator for Queensland this is vitally important to me. It needs to be underlined here—again, as others have already done; in particular, Senator Tierney—that the CRC for the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area will receive $5.5 million in the next two years, taking the total it has received from the Commonwealth to $19.4 million. It is important to re-emphasise—and I do so very emphatically—that the CRC for Tropical Rainforest Ecology and Management will receive $5.6 million over the next two years, which will mean a total of $18.95 million over the seven-year life of the centre. It is important to again re-emphasise—and I do so emphatically—that the CRC for Coastal Zone, Estuary and Waterway Management will receive $6.6 million this year, taking its total from the taxpayer to $17.72 million.

While we are talking about important things to remember in this artificial debate that the Labor Party for political reasons has kicked along, let us remember these things, too. Great Barrier Reef research is also funded through the Australian Institute of Marine Science; CSIRO; the Australian Research Council; and several universities, including James Cook University. The Howard government is committed to supporting renewable energy research. As well as funding provided through the existing CRC Program, the funding commitments of the education, science and training portfolio to renewable energy research include Australian Research Council funding for renewable energy related research of $26.3 million over 2002-04 and government funding for CSIRO renewable energy research of $14.1 million between July 1998 and November last year. The R&D Start program administered by AusIndustry had funding commitments to renewable energy projects over the past two years of about $9 million. R&D tax concessions relevant to renewable energy totalled about $23 million in 2002-03. Let us remember those things during this debate.

In short, the government is very well aware of the continuing importance of research work into sources and technologies of renewable energy, and of the critical importance of the Great Barrier Reef as a unique living organism of which all Australians are the custodians. There is no monopoly on any side of politics on reasonable and reasoned environmentalism. So let us have no more of the sort of desperate and cynical hand wringing that we see from those opposite when in pursuit of a vote.

Queensland is also the home of a lot of world-leading medical research. The Howard government supports that and will continue to support it. As honourable senators will be aware, Queensland leads the world in many aspects of tropical medicine, among other disciplines in the world of medical science. This leadership has been enhanced by the Howard government's strong commitment to both excellence and independence in research. We on this side of the chamber simply do not believe in guided research any more than we believe in guided democracy of the sort that Labor invariably tries on whenever it is in power.

We believe in the power of the human mind, unfettered by the constraints on freedom imposed by Labor picking winners—or not, as is generally the case—and free to go where it will in pursuit of excellence or answers or the genius of great research. That is why, for example, the Howard government is always ready to be innovative in its own policy research and development and implementation. I hear lots of feedback from the research community in Queensland, and I have to tell senators opposite I do not hear many cries of anguish from the people who run productive and, I stress, results-oriented research funded by government money.

In fact, the reverse is the case: the Howard government listens very carefully and acts accordingly. That is why, for example, the new science and innovation package—which was belittled by Senator Crossin a few minutes ago—called Backing Australia's Ability: Building Our Future through Science and Innovation, which is worth $5.35 billion over seven years, is such a great program. That package was announced by the Prime Minister last week and, like much else that comes from the Prime Minister and our government, it is a carefully coordinated multiportfolio operation that builds on past success. That is what government is about: delivery; sound policy; and sensible, properly funded outcomes. It is not about running around in circles like headless chooks shouting, `We'll all be rooned'. Senators opposite might like to note that.

I respectfully suggest to Senator Carr, and I note that he is in the chamber, that his motion is a disgrace. It does not adorn the Notice Paper, it stains it. It is simply not acquainted with fact. It derives from the poisoned well of underachievement in policy development. Labor has no ideas, so instead it makes a lot of noise. The new Backing Australia's Ability package builds on the original $3 billion policy announced by the Prime Minister in 2001. And in the context of Labor's sad little exercise here today, it is worth repeating what the package also provides in funding for important new initiatives. These are only examples; senators opposite might like to inform themselves by studying the full package.

There has been $305 million provided for CSIRO on top of its base funding in order to support large-scale collaborative research projects in areas of national importance such as preventive health, food and agriculture, water and the environment, light metals production, new energy technologies and Australia's oceans. Infrastructure support to Australia's medical research institutes—including the Queensland Institute of Medical Research—has been allocated $200 million. I pay a particular tribute to that magnificent research institute based in Queensland, and I see the Special Minister of State, Senator Abetz, nodding because I have often explained to him the value of supporting that particular institute. This funding will assist institutes to underpin research conducted with National Health and Medical Research Council grants.

There has been $38.8 million designated for new initiatives connecting schools with local industry groups and universities in order to inspire school students about science and mathematics. And $7.2 million is being provided for a new unit in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet to coordinate and focus R&D to support Australia's counter-terrorism needs. These are practical, forward-looking and innovative elements that support practical science and new technologies. Against that record of solid achievement, Labor's sorry effort with this motion today stands exposed for the sham and fraud that it and its authors represent.

In conclusion, I cannot let part of the contribution by Senator Crossin go by without passing further comment on it. She suggested that this government is somehow prepared or able to interfere and that somehow the program of selection of CRCs is flawed. She comes into this place and says that the CRC that is associated with Tony Staley—a very distinguished Australian and a former member of this parliament—has somehow not received funding, that the government should intervene and that even Tony Staley is criticising it.

Senator Carr —That is what he says; he says it's indefensible!

Senator SANTORO —That proves the point that this government does not interfere with the independent umpire. We have respect for the independent selection committee, and for you to come in here and try to coax us into doing the sort of thing that you would do in government—

Senator Carr —It's a fiasco!

Senator SANTORO —as previous ministers have done with a whiteboard—is a disgrace. It is the epitome of outrage when you come in here and you openly encourage us to favour our mates, our friends and former Liberal ministers.

Senator Carr —You have no trouble with anyone else!

Senator SANTORO —In a barefaced manner, you come in here—God help this country if you ever have the chance and the opportunity to interfere and meddle in the way that you are suggesting that we do. I could not let that particular point that was made by Senator Crossin—

Senator Carr —I'll send you a copy of the speech.

Senator SANTORO —I have heard the interjections by members opposite, and I do not need the speech because I have actually listened to it. Unless you wrote it, Senator Carr, you were not listening to it. I actually listened to it, and the point that I am making is that the sentiment behind Senator Crossin's speech is encouraging us to overrule the independent umpire. We are not in that sort of business. We have mechanisms that help run a government that is accountable, that is honest and that is wise. That is the reason why this debate in the Senate tonight will be viewed with great amusement by the people that you are seeking to represent, who know that credibility in the debate does not belong to your side of the argument.