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Wednesday, 16 October 1996
Page: 4331

Senator IAN MACDONALD(7.08 p.m.) —I seek leave of the Senate to speak on a document that has already been dealt with. I apologise for doing this. I rushed into the chamber as soon as I heard that documents were being discussed but I did not get here in time.

Leave granted.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —The Australian Institute of Marine Science is located at Cape Ferguson on a 207 hectare site just 50 miles south of Townsville where I have my electorate office, and also in the Dampier-Karratha region of north west Australia.

Marine industries are worth some $35 billion annually to Australia and these have been growing at eight per cent per year. The need for ensuring the natural system is protected and managed for sustainable development is quite evident. I was interested to hear Senator Cook's speech on the previous report and I concur with a lot of what he said about Australia's pre-eminence in science.

The Australian Institute of Marine Science—AIMS—has established itself in strategic basic marine science and is supported by both public and private sector interests. The institute recently restructured its three science programs into 12 projects of national significance, removed a layer of management by abolishing program level management and introduced a formal system of project evaluation.

As well, the institute has conducted a voluntary redundancy scheme to enable efficiency gains through restructure of support sections, shifted the budget towards increased support for capital and maintenance and upgraded its computer systems to allow a modern management information system to be introduced during 1996 and 1997.

The institute has built very strong links with Australian industries, particularly in the petroleum, pharmaceutical and computer technology industries and the wider Asia-Pacific region. It has established a long-term environmental monitoring program and it has built skills, knowledge and resource assessment, especially in tropical mangrove and coral reef systems.

AIMS is a recognised leader in setting environmental assessment standards. The effectiveness of the improved links with industry, which I mentioned previously, were reflected in the level of the institute's external earnings. In the term of this report, the external earnings of the institute were some $4½ million. I am personally aware of a number of the people who work at AIMS and of the tremendous work they do and the income they earn for Australia in their science works and in their collaboration with private drug companies in particular, and this is good.

I do, however, note with just a fraction of concern the National Commission of Audit which reported in June of this year recommending a range of reviews by the government of its objectives and justification for all programs and services. In particular, the commission noted that a plethora of Commonwealth government science and technology programs were inefficient, unaccountable and complicated. The report concluded that there was considerable scope for rationalisation, improved efficiency and achievement of more targeted outcomes.

In the Townsville community there is a concern that this may mean that AIMS is somehow joined with CSIRO and loses its independence and its independent function. There is no factual basis for that at this time, but there is that feeling around scientific, academic and business circles in Townsville that this might happen. From the comments that have been made to me by the people at AIMS—and I do not profess to be in any way an expert in this area—I share this concern about a move which may be detrimental to the whole system of science agencies in Australia.

I know the member for Herbert, Mr Peter Lindsay, has also been approached. Whilst it would be improper for me to say he shares my concerns, because that is for him to say, I know that he is following this matter as well. Obviously, as well we have spoken to the relevant ministers and no decision has been made; it is part of a long-term process.

I thought this was an appropriate time, while discussing this report, to place on record the great work that AIMS does as an independent scientific organisation. Until I can be convinced that some other form of structure would be beneficial, I remain a very strong and firm supporter of AIMS as an independent scientific organisation.