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Tuesday, 19 June 2001
Page: 27930

Mrs VALE (9:30 PM) —Just 200 years ago, across the whole of this vast continent of Australia, there was not one wheel or axle, no plough, not one roadway, not one book or standard measurement ruler. There was not one draught animal or fence. Today, despite the ground zero start, the extent and isolation of our geography and our small population, we have one of the world's best physical and technological infrastructures. Over the past 200 years we have innovated and contributed our fair share of technology to the world, especially in the agricultural and medical sciences. It is worth reminding the House again that, of all the Nobel prizes won by Australians, all but one, that of Patrick White, was awarded in areas of research, particularly of medical science. Australia is also one of the world's best adaptors of technology, as we have shown during the recent surge in the development of information and communications technology.

These achievements have happened because we have a history of investment in intellectual capital, with its flow-on to innovation. In an earlier speech I reminded this House that in 1849 the colonial statesman William Charles Wentworth, in a famously controversial speech, informed the New South Wales Legislative Assembly of his audaciously ambitious plans to establish the University of Sydney. It was Prime Minister John Curtin who envisaged the formation of the Australian National University and the Commonwealth Scholarship Scheme, but it was Prime Minister Robert Menzies who financed them beyond Labor's wildest dreams. It was one of the most ambitious spending plans on university education that Australia had ever known. It enabled generations of school leavers to attend university, whatever their family background. Menzies' support and financial commitment enabled the ANU to compete with the best universities in the world and, by 1963, the ANU's Professor John Eccles had won the Nobel Prize for Medicine.

So you can see, Madam Deputy Speaker, that the Howard government comes from a line of coalition governments with an outstanding track record of watershed achievements in the area of Australian higher education and innovation. It is what we on this side of the House, and the academic community, refer to as the `Menzies legacy'. Consequently, this government is determined to keep our nation up there performing at its very best, and that is what the Innovation and Education Legislation Amendment Bill 2001 is all about.

Australians are an innovative people, and this government see its role as providing the opportunities for their innovation to be encouraged, released, realised and made productive. We are intent upon making innovation become productive here in Australia, because that will create more jobs for Australians and reinvest profits here in Australia for all of us. To start with, the Howard government has chosen to do this not by continuing to run up the national debt from the $80 billion inherited from the former government in 1996 but by building an economic climate conducive to innovation, paying off $60 billion of Labor's debt to put Australia in a stronger economic position, so that innovation will not only bud but blossom and bloom productively on the fertile ground of solid economic management.

This bill is evidence of the strong commitment of the Howard government to making innovation work for Australia. This bill backs the government's words with real programs and shows again that the government puts its money exactly where its mouth is. This is no election gimmick like the 1990 Hawke Labor government's `Clever Country' campaign, with its full-page advertisements that came to nothing of any real substance, despite the Labor government being in office for another six years. I note that the empty words of the `Clever Country', splashed across the country in 1990, have now been rejigged to `Knowledge Nation' in 2001. But why should Knowledge Nation have any more meaning to the ALP in 2001 than Clever Country had in 1990?

Instead of empty election gimmicks and media campaigns, the Howard coalition government have developed a real innovation policy and program, soundly built and well considered. Instead of propaganda, we have this bill in the parliament that outlines the education component of a broader program, carefully and thoughtfully constructed by the scientific and research community, from both government and the private sector. In place of newspaper ads and media releases, there has been a steady consultative process that led in August 2000 to the final report of the Innovation Summit Implementation Group and the report Innovation: Unlocking the future. In response to this well thought out document, in January this year, Prime Minister John Howard announced an innovation package of measures termed Backing Australia's Ability. This bill gives legs to that package.

When the Prime Minister outlined the package in his announcement, the response of the innovation, scientific and academic community was overwhelmingly positive— so much so that there can be no real doubt that the government has found the best way forward, the truly clever way forward, to build a sustainable and productive innovation base for the future prosperity of our nation. Australia's Chief Scientist, Dr Robin Batterham, praised the government's decision to implement 18 of the 20 recommendations in the report of the innovation summit. The Chair of the Australian Research Council, Professor Sara, said that the extra funding contained in the package would make research conditions in Australia comparable with other Western countries and would reduce the brain drain in which thousands of Australia's brightest minds left Australia. She said that the program would lift graduate chances of winning research grants by about 60 per cent and would allow the Australian Research Council to give longer term research grants with proper funding for infrastructure.

The chair of the so-called `Group of Eight' leading Australian universities, Professor Gavin Brown, said that the government's plan would mean that Australia would be a serious player in the global knowledge economy stakes. Another comment from the vice-chancellors was that the government had heeded the message that Australia's innovation capacity can only be developed in a sustainable way if it is built on a firm foundation of broadly based education and research. The Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies described the package as a `sea change'. Even those in the business sector who were disappointed that the tax concessions were tightly targeted described the package as a major step forward which would encourage education and research.

There can be no doubt that the foundation of this bill is built upon a national and expert consensus. The consensus is that the government has struck the right balance in drawing together the many complex threads of science in basic education, improved lifelong education opportunity, increased public sector funding for research and tightly targeted measures to compensate the private sector for the positive externalities of research and development.

The Backing Australia's Ability package, of which this bill is part, is the largest commitment to innovation ever made by an Australian government. It provides almost $3 billion over five years. The package does three things. Firstly, it significantly boosts public funding of scientific and technological research. This is the major area of funding. Secondly, it boosts the education sector by providing extra funds for university research and equipment, and changes the postgraduate education system to be more open-ended and demand driven. Thirdly, it creates new institutions for Australia in the form of two world-class centres of excellence dealing with information and communication technology, and biotechnology.

This bill is the first step in boosting the education component of the innovation package. It provides the first down payment of the $1.47 billion over the next five years for research and higher education in Australia. To put this in perspective, the real value of the Commonwealth's investment in education has risen from $9.4 billion in 1995-96, when we came into office, to $11.1 billion in 2000-01. These boosts in funding will come on top of investment in higher education research and development that, as a share of GDP, is already high by international standards. In order to give innovation longevity, these boosts will equip our own people to be world competitive. They will strengthen our resource base in disciplines such as science, mathematics and technology.

The bill helps to do this in two ways. Firstly, it will establish a new Postgraduate Education Loans Scheme designed to encourage lifelong learning and to help Australians upgrade skills and acquire new skills. Instead of paying up-front fees, postgraduates will be able to take out interest-free loans. It is expected that, over the next five years, loans totalling approximately $995 million will assist about 240,000 students to undertake further advanced education.

Secondly, $151 million will also be provided over five years for additional tertiary places in information and communication technology, mathematics and science. This will support an additional 2,000 tertiary places each year, rising to over 5,000 places a year as students move through the system, or 21,000 equivalent full-time places over five years. Students need to see a future in these disciplines in Australia that is challenging, exciting and rewarding. The incentives contained in this bill will put that future in place. Studies in science, mathematics and technology will take on a new meaning. These initiatives will establish a steady stream of qualified personnel with fresh ideas for innovation development in future years, which is the lifeblood of innovation.

A new vista of opportunities will open with the doubling, over the next five years, of funds for the national competitive grants run by the Australian Research Council. The extra $736 million will lift the competitiveness of researchers' salaries and increase the support available under the discovery and linkage elements of the Australian Research Council's grants program. Complementing this will be $583 million over five years to strengthen research infrastructure in universities, including scientific and research equipment, libraries and laboratory equipment.

For those who are qualified, we need incentives to retain our leading researchers and attract leading researchers from elsewhere. Part of the extra $736 million will be used to support 25 new Federation fellowships each year to retain in, or restore back to, Australia the very best Australian researchers. These fellowships will be worth $225,000 a year in salary for five years, and at that level they are internationally competitive. The world today is a much more competitive place than it has ever been in our history. It is a world of highly mobile capital and labour, particularly talented human resources. As I noted earlier, these initiatives will place Australia on a level playing field for attracting leading research talent. These additional funds will focus on research areas where Australia has a competitive advantage or decides to build an advantage.

I have pointed out to the House on a number of occasions the need for this kind of legislation and the additional resources it will provide for higher education and innovation. I firmly believe that the 21st century is a new frontier in time and space where only those countries that make the best use of their human and physical resources will prevail. The best guarantee we have to ensure that Australia will be one of those countries is to invest in our intellectual capital. Sir Robert Menzies knew this 50 years ago and John Howard knows it today, and he is making the needed investment that is represented in this bill. It will lead to a Menzies style renaissance in Australia in our higher education, with a consequent recharge in our centres of academic excellence in our universities across the nation. The boost in morale has already occurred, the plans are in place, the money is available and the bright light is already there on the horizon of our future.

This bill effectively implements the Prime Minister's Backing Australia's Ability announcement of January this year. Few Australian statesmen have left a greater mark on this country than Wentworth, Curtin and Menzies. I believe that the fruits of Backing Australia's Ability will see Prime Minister John Howard taking his place alongside these historic figures. I warmly commend this bill to the House.