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Monday, 5 March 2001
Page: 24961


Dr KEMP (Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service) (5:49 PM) —I move:

That:

(a) the House insists on disagreeing to amendments Nos 3 to 7, 10 and 11 insisted on by the Senate, and

(b) disagrees to the amendments made by the Senate in place of amendments Nos 1, 8 and 9 disagreed to by the House.

The Australian Research Council Bill 2000 and the Australian Research Council (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2000, as put forward in this parliament, have the intention of broadening and strengthening the ARC's role in both providing strategic policy advice to government and administering a new financial regime in support of excellent research. While the government notes that the Senate has modified some of the amendments to the Australian Research Council Bill, in particular taking account of the unworkable proposal to expand the board of the ARC, there are still a number of issues in relation to which there has been no change, and the government is not convinced that the proposed amendments will enhance the role of the ARC in the national innovation system. The government is therefore moving that the House once again reject the Senate's amendments.

The amendments proposed by the Democrats and the opposition alter the balance between the performance of the ARC's statutory duty to administer its programs and inform the government on particular priorities and other priorities of the ARC's choosing. One of these matters relates to the role of the ARC in initiating its inquiries. As I previously informed the House, the ARC will be able to identify areas which are in need of further investigation through its strategic planning process. Thus, with the approval of the Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs, the ARC will be charged with providing policy advice or possibly implementing strategies to achieve better outcomes in Australia's research effort.

I would like to stress that there is nothing in this bill which prevents the ARC from drawing the minister's attention to an issue which should be referred to it for further investigation and advice. Such an approach ensures that there is regular consultation between the minister and the primary advisory body on research matters. By separating research education from matters related to research, the proposed act could be interpreted as providing the minister with the power to seek advice on a much narrower range of matters than those into which the ARC has the power to conduct inquiries. While the Senate has inserted a caveat on the powers of the ARC to conduct inquiries on its own motion, the House questions the appropriateness of inserting such a limitation in an objects of act provision. The ARC is also likely to be impeded in carrying out its functions by the administrative requirements which the Senate proposes to place on it.

Firstly, it is not necessary to require the tabling and inclusion of the funding rules in the annual report. These rules, as highlighted in clause 6 of schedule 2 of the Australian Research Council (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2000, will be the successors to the guidelines of the schemes previously administered by the ARC. As these rules will set out the eligibility criteria, assessment process and accountability requirements for funding under ARC research programs, it has always been intended that they be widely available throughout the research sector. The timely release of the rules into the public domain may be jeopardised by such a requirement.

In the bill which was agreed to by the House of Representatives, both the ARC and the minister are required to meet certain accountability requirements. All ministerial requests and directions, as well as the ARC's record of how such requests were met, are required to be included in the annual report. Perhaps the House is not aware that there is no current requirement for a number of these matters to be reported at all—in particular, references from the minister and a report from the ARC concerning progress with any referrals. I remind the House that the ARC's independence in assessing excellent research proposals for funding approval is protected as the minister is prevented by other provisions in the bill from directing the ARC to recommend that a particular proposal should or should not be approved for funding. Under the present legislative framework there is no such guarantee, as section 23 of the Higher Education Funding Act 1998 provides the minister with the power to approve funding for research based on such conditions as the minister determines.

In relation to student representation on the ARC, I notice that this was a matter raised by the shadow minister in a recent press release. Let me make it quite clear that there is nothing that will prevent a research student being appointed to the ARC board. In making appointments to the board, the minister must try to ensure that the breadth of academic, industry and community interests in the outcomes of research are represented and this, of course, includes the interests of research students. The current membership of the ARC is drawn from academia, industry and government. (Extension of time granted) However, there are no designated positions on the ARC board for any particular group within the sector. Many recognised interests—the ABC, learned academies and the NTEU—have equally valid claims to have the same treatment which Labor want to give to the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations. To the best of my knowledge, no Labor minister ever appointed a research student to the ARC during Labor's time in office. One can only speculate as to why they are so keen to start this process now. These amendments have been put forward by the Democrats, and part of the government's reasons for rejecting them has to do with the inappropriate selection process of such a representative. If Labor think it is necessary for student representation, why don't they move the amendments themselves?

Finally, although not related to the operation of the ARC, the amendments to the Australian Research Council Consequential and Transitional Provisions Bill 2000 impose unnecessary restrictions on the availability of funding to support research and research training. The framework set out in Knowledge and Innovation will require that the funding to support research and research training is only directed to those institutions listed on the Australian Qualifications Framework registers which provide an appropriate research and research training management plan. These requirements deal solely with blocked funding for universities under the Higher Education Funding Act 1988. There is limited funding available for research organisations, such as museums, through the Australian Research Council.

Let me make it quite clear and state unequivocally that private corporations will not be able to gain access to this blocked funding; nor does the bill grant the authority for institutions, such as BHP, Telstra or Microsoft to issue postgraduate research degrees. While the amendments attempt to correct a misperception of the government's intention, they also remove the access to Commonwealth funding for research and research training from at least one university currently in receipt of it. Bond University, for example, receives limited access to this funding. In 2000, Bond University received $165,000 to support the provision of high quality research training and the performance of research. It is interesting that it was the decision of the current opposition to provide Bond University with access to its first Australian postgraduate award in 1994—the same opposition which is preventing such funding from continuing. One might ask why, in the opposition's view, Bond University is no longer worthy of this funding. Here we have the extraordinary contradiction of a party which claims it supports the knowledge nation that wants to cut off funding to a university. This is really brilliant thinking!

I remind the House that, while the ARC will still be in existence if these bills are defeated, there are many improvements to its operations which will not take effect—these include, most importantly, financial independence. In particular, this includes the institution of a more rigorous funding regime in which the role of the Australian Research Council has statutory authority. A new government structure will also be put in place, including placing requirements on the minister to ensure that the academic industry and community interests in the outcomes of research are represented. There will also be a chief executive officer with a distinguished record, experienced in research and management, to manage the day-to-day operations of the ARC.

The government's recent statement Backing Australia's Ability recognised the importance of the Australian Research Council's role in the national innovation system by doubling its funding over the next five years. The bills currently before the House will allow the ARC greater power and responsibility to manage this additional funding, stronger links with users of research to better target its support and a strong consultative relationship with the government to better inform Australia's transformation to a knowledge economy. The government therefore moves that the House reject the Senate's amendments.