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Thursday, 10 May 2007
Page: 42

Mr RIPOLL (11:47 AM) —I rise to speak on the Governance Review Implementation (Science Research Agencies) Bill 2007. Can I say at the outset that Labor supports this bill. It is a mechanical bill and one that addresses a number of corporate governance issues. It follows on from a report that was commissioned by the government—the Review of the corporate governance of statutory authorities and office holders, by John Uhrig, which was undertaken in 2004. The Uhrig report is a good report. The report made a number of recommendations to improve the governance of statutory authorities and their office holders and also to improve the accountability frameworks within those institutions. It is an important document because it goes a long way to improving the way that these three very important institutions work. These three statutory authorities—the Australian Institute of Marine Science, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation—are very important to Australia in science and research and through the roles they play in making Australia a more competitive and more innovative country. They give us the ability to compete with our neighbours.

Labor are supportive of the measures in this legislation because we do want to improve the governance of these bodies. We think it is important that they operate smoothly, that they run efficiently and effectively and that they deliver something in return for the public funding they receive. So there is no argument there at all.

A number of measures contained within the Uhrig report have been adopted in this bill. I will not go through all of them. They have been mentioned by other speakers in this debate and they are of a technical nature. They include a range of issues which will bring these statutory authorities into line with other authorities, bodies and boards. They go to the standards expected in the 21st century as to how these authorities, their board members and their membership will operate. They cover rules and also, very importantly, transparency.

While Labor support these measures, we are very conscious of the independence of these organisations—and I think it is an important issue for the community and the public to take note of—and the need to ensure that the research, the work that they do and the outcomes of the work are independent not only of government but also of politicisation. It is important to understand that these bodies play a significant role in Australia’s development, in our scientific base, in teaching and in research. It is a sad day when governments start to interfere at a political level in the work of these organisations, in their structures or in the appointment of staff to these bodies. Politicisation, as we have seen from the Howard government, is certainly an issue. We have seen the politicisation of our defence forces right through to the politicisation of CSIRO. It is important to note that these changes do not make these organisations immune from political interference or politicisation, and we should do the best we can to respect the independence of these scientists and these organisations.

This bill is important for a number of reasons—not just because of the technical nature of the improvements it makes but also in relation to the broader science and research that is undertaken in Australia. A dialogue has been taking place in the community for quite a number of years—which Labor has been at the forefront of—about productivity, growth, industry and innovation, about how we build sustainability in our industries and about how we compete. These conversations, policies and viewpoints have been out there for quite some time from the Labor side, even at a time when they were considered by many people, particularly those in government, not to be important enough to warrant attention through either budgets or legislation.

Through perseverance, if nothing else, Labor has managed to put the issues of innovation and industry at the forefront of thinking at a government level and also at a community level. I think there is a greater understanding now of the things that we need to do to maintain our position in global markets. I will talk a little about the Productivity Commission report on those very issues as well. Even these minor mechanical legislative amendments contained in this bill build a broader policy machine. This larger policy machine is the nature of the government’s support for public scientific research in Australia. In this respect, Labor has some very clear policy goals that match up with our broader approach to industry, to innovation and to building sustainability. Labor also believes in the social and economic worth of sustained and comprehensive government support for our public scientific research institutions—not the dumbing down of those institutions, the ripping out of funds, interference and then, at some later point in time, deciding that that support is important again and therefore providing some extra funding. I think the principle should be that it is always important that government supports these institutions in the work they do.

If the government does not get that message, I can certainly tell the government that the community does. There is a lot of public support for scientific research and the way it improves our economy. Society as a whole probably has a greater understanding than people will grant. The Howard government on the other hand, I believe, has lost sight for many years of what public scientific institutions should be, how they operate and why they should receive significant government support. This translates as a lack of vision on the part of the Howard government. It is highlighted by the fact that there is a distinct failure to tie together scientific research, innovation and industry. A lot of money goes into these areas. We have just heard from the previous speaker about the billions of dollars and some of the new measures in the budget that support some of these institutions. While this is certainly welcome, and we welcome it in this election year, it has been very slow in coming. I think that has had a detrimental effect on our ability to innovate and compete.

But it goes further. That lack of coordination between what we do at all those levels is having a broader impact on our abilities. We can look at specific industry areas where we are falling behind, particularly in the area of innovation—for example, manufacturing and a range of other industries. We can see that what is happening now through policy and funding is a catch-up game. Catch-up games in these areas are no good. By the very nature of innovation, you can never catch up. By definition, innovators are those who lead; they are not the ones who follow. This government is less than innovative in its approach to these areas. The government follows many years behind; it has a huge lag. We keep comparing ourselves with OECD countries such as Britain, Canada, the United States and certain parts of Europe. We are lagging behind in our R&D spend. It is not only about the dollars we spend but also about how it is coordinated, about the rules and guidelines, about how we treat foreign entities and innovators in this country and about our commercialisation principles and how we aid those people in business—the real innovators and the real leaders who take the risk upon themselves regardless of government. We do not see much support. We see a lot of money going into a whole range of areas, but when you start to look at the disparate parts of industry and innovation policy you really do have to ask the question: where is the bang for the buck? What does the community, as taxpayers, get in return for the massive amounts of money that go into these areas? I do not for one minute begrudge the money that goes into these areas—in fact, quite the opposite. I am very supportive because I think there is real progress to be made through proper funding channels in key areas of industry, through industry policy generally and in building innovation in our community, in our business leaders and also in the three statutory bodies that are within this bill. So there is a lot of work to be done.

It may be the case in other policy areas, but in this policy area it is certainly not the case that you can just wait for things to get bad, look around the world and see what everyone else is doing and decide, ‘We’ve fallen behind a fair way so now is the time to catch up.’ Catch-up in these areas is very difficult. This government’s lack of vision is a distinct problem. The policy will look good on paper. It looks very glossy. All you have to do to see what I am talking about is grab a copy of the government’s latest industry policy. This in itself is a testament to this lack of vision. Basically it is just a glossy brochure. This is a government that has been in power for 11 years. The minister has been administering his department for quite a number of years and claims to have some sort of insight and vision as to where industry should be going. With all the resources of government and the billions of dollars it spends, the government has put together what could be classed as nothing more than a marketing 101 glossy brochure. It is very thin on policy and comprises solely of a political grab bag of things that may look good in an election year.

For me, it is just not good enough in this very important area of industry and innovation. The really important part is how we sustain our current standing in the world in terms of productivity and jobs growth. I do not think it is good enough for the government to just sit back and say, ‘Have a look at how low unemployment is; have a look at how good the economy is; have a look at the things we are doing.’ That is fine, but it is not good enough on its own. You really need to compare us to the rest of the world, which is having the same resources boom as we are. If you compare our economic position to that of the other nations that we compare ourselves to—our unemployment rate and all of those factors that we look at to determine that we have a good economy—then suddenly it does not look that good. Suddenly it does not look as if this government has actually been doing that great a job; it has just come along for the ride.

These things were going to happen anyway. With the Australian economy being supported by a once-in-a-lifetime resources boom, which is being generated out of Western Australia and Queensland, you can begin to understand where the innovation is, where industry is driving and where things are being done in the economy. The whole point is that that is not actually being driven by government. Yes, we do have a good economy and unemployment is low, but how much better could it be if the government were taking an active role? Wouldn’t it be better if unemployment were down to below four per cent, not just below five per cent? Wouldn’t it be better if our economy were actually producing more jobs? The government gloats about jobs—and I am pretty happy; I want everybody in my electorate to have a job—but if we compare our participation rates with those of other countries, particularly for older Australians and younger Australians, again we do not look so good.

So where are the policies from the government to address those issues? It is no good to just say: ‘We have done a good job. It’s all over. We can rest.’ There is no resting for government. We have to continue to be competitive and productive. We have to increase our capacity. If we do not do that, we start to fall behind. All the things that we enjoy today and all the capacity that we have today start to slip behind. The catch-up is the hard road. The link here with this bill and the catch-up is that, while these mechanical and technical changes are long overdue—and we support them—we need a bit more from government. We need more than technical changes, more than a glossy brochure on industry. The only thing I can divine out of their glossy brochure is that some sort of fix for Australian industry policy is the global supply chain. Apparently, that—contained in one sentence—defines everything this government is going to do. I believe there is a lot more we can do.

Labor have a vision. We have a plan. We have a lot of ideas. These ideas did not just come out this week or this year. They are things we have been talking about for many years. I can remember talking about productivity and innovation in industry years ago, when this government did not even know how to spell those words. These words, for government, have only just appeared. Finally, their polling told them, ‘Hey, this stuff is really biting in.’ Suddenly it is, ‘Hey this stuff is important to the community.’ The community is getting it, years after us. Sometimes you struggle on these policy issues and everybody says you have no policies, because the stuff we are talking about has not quite bitten in yet to the Textor polling and all the stuff that the government does, wasting taxpayers’ money. But when it does, finally we start to see some catch-up and a bit of money goes into these areas, which is always welcome.

It is clear that we need to support our scientific and research institutions. That is an integral part—you cannot separate this out—of industry policy and innovation policy. These are the drivers of our economy. These are the things that create the jobs. There is something that I like to remind people of when we talk about these issues. There seems to be a lot of concern in the community—and it is well-founded in a lot of areas—about our ability to compete with China. This is talked about literally every day in every workplace, in every home. The great fear is that we cannot compete against cheap labour rates. China can always build something cheaper than us; that is true. We will never beat them. We will never be able to work for the same pay rates—nor should we and nor do we want to. The problem is that that is the discussion from the government of yesterday. The discussion from government today is: how do we beat China on the innovation front? What the Chinese are doing, very cleverly, is not just competing on labour rates and their ability to make things cheaper; they are starting to innovate. They are starting to beat us at what we do best.

Australia is renowned around the world as innovators, as inventers and as entrepreneurs. But, if we do not start taking that seriously and supporting the people who build that, tomorrow the battle we will have will not be on China building something cheaper than us but on China out-inventing and out-innovating us. These are the challenges we will have tomorrow. That is what gives me real concern about the government’s vision—because there isn’t one. There is nothing in their policy today that addresses the problems we will face tomorrow and next week. The government are very happy to sit here and ride home on the good economic conditions that have been delivered to them but not by them. Let us remember that government do not create a resources boom; they just ride the resources boom. The resources boom is built by miners and by huge demand. It is built by China and India and other countries that have a huge thirst for our resources. These are the things that drive our economy. Make no mistake about that. No-one denies it. But, if we do not do something on top of that, if we do not start to skill our workforce, if we do not provide the policy and the funding and the resources to our technical institutions like TAFE, to our universities and to our science and research institutions and provide the mechanisms for innovators in this country, we are going to start falling behind—and it will not be on our pay rates. That is what concerns me.

What I want to see in this place coming from government are real policies, not just technical changes like those contained in this bill. I want to see real policies that deliver some real money and real programs. There is plenty of money out there—there is no question about that. We can see it in this budget. There is plenty of money left over, and there will be more money to come—don’t worry. The government is not just sitting on a $10 billion surplus; it is sitting on much, much more. Come the election, we will all know about that. Where the money should be going is on skilling the workforce, making the workforce more productive, providing for young people to access TAFE and providing our science research bodies and organisations like ANSTO, CSIRO and the marine institute with the ability to deliver on that. You cannot have one without the other. We need to focus on teaching, on quality research, on all those drivers—all those things we used to be the best at. Other people are not just sitting around watching us and saying, ‘These guys are the best at that.’ No—they are saying, ‘How do we beat these guys?’

How they beat us is simple. They spend more on R&D than we do. They support their innovators more than we do. I am sure that everybody will concur with me—they would have heard a story or know of somebody. I will not list them all today, but there have been plenty of great ideas and inventions based here in Australia that could not find any support—not government support, nor industry support, nor private support. The innovators go offshore and they literally make $1 million overnight and then sell it back to us. That is our biggest problem. That is our biggest challenge for tomorrow. This is what I do not find in government policy. I do not find the answers, the policy solutions. I do not find the funding basis to deal with those challenges of tomorrow.

I will round off by just saying a couple of things: it is great to see money going back into higher education from the government. It is a funny thing—$5 billion is a lot of money. It is an endowment. It is the sort of thing that people used to do privately. The Treasurer said it: more money is now given in one fell swoop, in one day, to the university sector in the form of endowments than was given for the past 150 years of endowment by private people feeling they had a need to support higher education and doing it themselves. It is a good thing. Universities will certainly appreciate it. I cannot see too many people giving in the future now the government has given them $5 billion. Perhaps they could make those endowments to CSIRO, who always need more funding and more support.

There is no money for clean coal technology from the government. They do not see that as important. The rest of the world thinks it is important. Labor thinks clean coal technology is important. Coal is our biggest export. Coal is one of the things that drives our economy and we are not doing anything about it. We are not innovating in coal. Other countries are innovating in coal because they can see the future. The future is tomorrow—and it is real; it is about productivity. Even France, where there is a 35-hour working week that they actually stick to, are more productive than we are. We work more than them. Why aren’t we doing something about the productivity of this nation and our ability to compete? We can compete in manufacturing. We can compete in coal. We can do more than just dig things out of the ground.

I commend this bill for the technical changes it makes but I give a very bad, negative mark to the government because they do nothing about tying together these three very important institutions or funding them in a real, significant way.