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Tuesday, 2 May 1989
Page: 1572

Senator BUTTON (Minister for Industry, Technology and Commerce)(3.50) —I listened to that diatribe with a great degree of interest. I could not help recalling, having been here for a few years, that we are in the Senate; we are not taking part in a school debating society. The school debating society technique of Senator Puplick is to grab every quotation he can find from various people, throw them all together and read them out to the Senate. Not once in his speech was there any idea of conceptual issues relating to science policy, not once in that speech was there any idea of what the Government's policies have been in relation to the policies of previous governments, and not once in that speech was there any regard for facts as distinct from fiction.

I know that the Government is going to bring down a science policy statement next week. Senator Puplick also knows that. I knew that this speech would be made today, thrown together by the Opposition at the last moment so that it could say when the Government's statement was brought down, `We provoked all of that. We raised all these issues last week. What a vigorous Opposition we are'. That is the purpose of this so-called matter of public importance today. I have often accused the Liberals of being the 1960s show. Their ideas and minds are firmly rooted in the 1960s and stuck there, regurgitating in a whole range of policy areas the things they stood for in the 1960s. Senator Puplick is said to be one of the trendies of the Liberal Party, but he is doing that again today.

Let me address the basic problem which this Government had to face when it came to office: the worst record in research and development in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development after 29 out of 30 years of Liberal Government in this country. That is the issue we had to address when we came into government in 1983 following the last Budget of those opposite in 1982. We had a situation in which people complained all the time about various issues.

Senator Puplick has been at it again today. Japan, he says, has an enormous record in research funding. Does Senator Puplick not know that 80 per cent of Japanese research funding is conducted by the private sector? Does he not know that in Australia 70 per cent of research funding is paid for by the public sector and that that figure was 80 per cent when the coalition was in office? Does Senator Puplick not understand those figures? Does he not understand that the very fact of commitment to private sector research in Japan has been a great strength to the Japanese economy, whereas we drifted along for 29 years under Liberal governments with nothing being done about these issues? I thought the philosophy of a Liberal party was to lay stress upon the importance of the private sector in dealing with all these issues. Did the Liberal Party ever lay stress on the importance of the private sector in dealing with issues of science and technology in this country? Not at all. It allowed the general level of funding for research and development to decline in those 29 years of government, including the seven years of Fraser Government, the most crucial period of neglect in Australia's history. It allowed all of that to happen and it left it all on the plate of the Hawke Government when it came to power.

Senator Archer asked me, for example, whether he could table a document from the National Health and Medical Research Council in relation to medical research in Australia. When the honourable senator uses that document he ought to get up and tell the Senate about the increase under this Government in research and development funds available to medical research in Australia. Let him get up and tell us that rather than him give us the annual whinge from medical researchers about research funding. He should tell us what the increase has been when he uses that document in a speech. I hope he does not blush when he says it. He ought to blush when he compares the increase of research funding for medical research with what happened in the days of his Government.

Throughout Senator Puplick's speech he dealt lightly with the truth on all of these issues. He said research funds had been cut by 32 per cent in cumulative terms. Where does he get that figure from? I think he gets it from the Opposition spokesman on science. What a source to go to if one wanted to get an accurate figure on any of these issues! Perhaps he gets it from the Opposition spokesman on education, who keeps talking about the Department of Science, which was abolished two years ago, who keeps talking about research funding in universities as if nothing had happened in the last 10 years. Perhaps he gets it from one of those two shadow Ministers, the people who would be over here-God help the country-if the misfortune ever came about that those opposite were elected to government. There were crass inaccuracies in much of the material which was regurgitated by Senator Puplick in his speech today. It was a most discreditable effort.

Let us look at the question of Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation funding, to which Senator Puplick gave some attention in the course of his remarks. CSIRO's budget has not been cut by 32 per cent, as Senator Puplick alleged, or by 28 per cent over the past five years, as some people have claimed. It is true that the Government appropriations for CSIRO have been reduced by 17 per cent over that period, but the overall budget of CSIRO has been reduced by only 7.5 per cent. Why? This Government was confronted with a situation where 80 per cent of research was being done in Australia in the public sector, paid for by the taxpayers. In countries such as Japan and in various European countries almost 80 per cent of research and development was being done by the private sector and paid for by the private sector.

We say that in Australia the balance should be shifted more towards a balance between taxpayer-funded research and development and private-sector funded research and development. That is deliberate government policy. We have asked CSIRO to earn 30 per cent of its earnings from private industry. The Opposition did nothing about that for 30 years and the CSIRO languished because of it. We have asked CSIRO to earn 30 per cent from outside and have permitted it to retain the earnings it makes from outside. That is a low proportion, compared with what the great international research institutes require in respect of their budgets. It is only 30 per cent. We think that is about the right figure, in the Australian context, because the CSIRO has very important core capability roles in terms of the agricultural sector, the environment, meteorology and things of that kind. We have embarked on a deliberate strategy. Senator Puplick does not seem to understand that.

Secondly, Senator Puplick talked about a reduction in funds for CSIRO. That reflects a reduction from a capital works budget for major projects such as the Australian Telescope, at a cost of $50m, and the Clayton Material Science Laboratory, at a cost of $148m. The Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong is a monument to the sorts of things which Senator Puplick would do if he ever became Minister. The Fraser Government did that. It cost $50m. Can Senator Teague get anybody to get up and say that that was a good spending decision? These were the things which money was spent on, and properly so in respect of the first two projects I mentioned. That is where the comparison is made. Big sums of money were spent by the previous Government on these projects and of course the CSIRO's funding has declined, particularly in capital funding, but also in recurrent funding, for the reasons I have given.

Senator Puplick also made a point about basic and applied research. It was a silly point. Probably one of the best basic researchers in Australia at present is also a very distinguished applied researcher. There is a continuum between basic and applied research, and to create an artificial argument between the two is rather ridiculous. I want to make a few more information points in the time available to me in this debate.

Senator Teague —How long is Wran going to last?

Senator BUTTON —Well, Senator Teague asked that when Mr Wran was in government. He was always asking, `How long is Wran going to last?'. Those opposite put up their best and their brightest and they got knocked over all the time. He will probably last a while.

Senator Boswell —He just got out in time.

Senator BUTTON —I knew Senator Boswell would come in with the brown paper bags. The fact is that government funding of research and development as a proportion of GDP is higher in Australia now than in Japan, Canada, Belgium, Switzerland and Italy. Total research and development expenditure in this country is up 39 per cent in real terms since 1981-82. Consult any of the international journals, Senator Archer, if you speak in this debate. As a share of gross domestic product, research and development expenditure has grown from 1 per cent to 1.25 per cent since this Government came to office. That is not good enough, but it is better than it was in all the time those opposite were in government. Business expenditure on research and development has doubled between 1981-82 and 1986-87 and is continuing to rise. Business spent $1,200m on research and development in Australia last year. None of these things was mentioned or acknowledged by Senator Puplick. Judging by the tone of his remarks, I would not think that he even knew about them. He quoted some scientist who said that there is a great brain drain of scientists out of Australia. The fact is that there have been 12,500 new research and development positions created in Australia between 1981-82 and 1986-87, largely in the private sector and in education institutions. There has been a net gain in the number of scientists, engineers and so on over the past five years. It is true that many young scientists go overseas. They always have, and 80 or 90 per cent of them leaving Australia come back. They leave with the intention of coming back, and that has always been so.

Senator Aulich —They need to go over there and have a look.

Senator BUTTON —Of course they do. Most young scientists, whether they be Americans, Australians, French or whatever, want international experience. That is proper because science is an international community. That is natural and is quite consistent with the career path of young scientists who need international experience.

Senator Teague —But morale in CSIRO is very low.

Senator BUTTON —Senator Teague interjects about the morale in CSIRO. That organisation is going through a period of restructuring as a result of an inquiry which this Government commissioned. It is a restructuring which the Government thought should take place, and is the most major restructuring of its kind in the 63-year history of its organisation. It had to undergo that, as many other sectors of the Australian economy have had to undergo restructuring and change. That has led to some difficulties in the management of CSIRO. There have been many spokesmen from all parts of CSIRO talking about these things, and I understand that, but it is part of a deliberate strategy. CSIRO has to be the best of its kind in the world, if together we can make it so. That is why government is committed to better equipment for CSIRO and similarly to better equipment in the universities.

Senator Archer —When?

Senator BUTTON —We will be making a statement about some of these issues next week. When we discuss these issues, let us not be like Senator Puplick who comes in here and sounds as though any scientist who writes a letter to a newspaper, any scientist who writes a letter to Senator Puplick, any scientist who makes a bit of noise on a television program would, if Senator Puplick were the Minister, immediately receive a cheque in the post saying `Dear Professor Chatterton, we know you are aggrieved about funding for science and we are sending you a cheque for $25m by return mail'. That is Senator Puplick's attitude when he comes in here and thinks that the Government has these sorts of responsibilities. He feels that the Government must respond to all these requests wherever they come from, and from whatever section of the community, by saying `Cheque in the post by return mail. We are an efficient government. We will show you how to handle these people'. That was the tone of Senator Puplick's speech: `I have got all these letters, all these articles in newspapers, showing that people are a bit concerned about change and about one thing and another. What is the Government doing? It ought to respond with money'.

That is not the style of this Government. The style of this Government in respect of these matters is to recognise that we have been stringent with these organisations. We regret that. The style of this Government is also to see that these organisations are modern, progressive and capable of responding flexibly-an organisation like the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research capable of responding to the needs of Australian industry whether in the primary, manufacturing or service sectors; capable of reacting to and interacting with industry in a way which never happened in this country before. People come along with their complaints, like `We invented the black box in Australia. What happened to it? It went overseas'. `We invented this or that in Australia. What happened to it? It went overseas'. That is their complaint. That all happened in the period of government of those opposite because they did nothing about these issues of producing interaction between industries and scientific organisations.

When some scientists hear these sorts of remarks from somebody like me, they say, `He is unrepentant. He wants us all to be wearing blue overalls and working out there in industry'. That sort of talk is a lot of bunkum. All I am saying is that there has to be better reaction and interaction between government and scientific organisations and industry. It is no good listening to every second wimp who writes a letter to the newspaper because he is particularly aggrieved about a particular matter. One has to have a strategy and a policy for these things. The strategy and the policy is to help people to improve the performance as much as we can within proper economic responsibility by improving the equipment, the conditions, the interactions and the capacity for exchange; by increasing the critical mass of scientists working in Australia; and by helping them to relate better to international science and what is going on here. By doing all these things we shall encourage an environment in which science can grow and develop in this country consistent, among other things, with the economic needs of this country.

Senator Puplick comes into this chamber and says that there are fewer students doing science as part of the higher school certificate now than there were 20 years ago. That is absolutely right. The number of students doing physics as part of the HSC has been declining by one per cent a year for 20 years. That is a tragedy. One cannot turn that around overnight. One can only do it by making a positive and constructive environment, and to reach that environment for science one has to have change. One cannot walk away from that and again put on the 1960s show of the Liberal Party. One cannot go through all the stuff of doing nothing for 20 years and leaving a subsequent government in the sort of mess in which those opposite left us in connection with this issue, as on every other issue they failed to face up to in their years of government.

Senator Boswell —That's wearing a bit thin.

Senator BUTTON —That might be wearing a bit thin. I cannot say the same for Senator Boswell. He is not wearing a bit thin at all. He is getting bigger every day. I oppose the matter of public importance.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! The Minister's time has expired.