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Wednesday, 12 August 2015
Page: 5063


Senator LAZARUS (Queensland) (10:54): I will be supporting this important bill to establish the Medical Research Future Fund. In representing my home state of Queensland in the Senate, I have undertaken extensive travel around the state to visit universities and medical and research centres to understand how the research sector is fairing in Australia.

The overwhelming feedback from everyone is that the research sector is on its knees and people are extremely concerned about the health and future of the sector in Australia. There is a genuine concern among those within the sector that Australia is not keeping up with the rest of the world. Funds are becoming scarcer as businesses pull back on donations and market conditions continue to toughen. Much of the research sector relies on the generosity of businesses and philanthropists, government grants and other general fundraising activities to fund their operations, resourcing and facilities. Morale is so low that good researchers are leaving Australia in high numbers to find work and opportunities overseas. The feeling is that there is no future for researchers in Australia and that our country does not value the role of research. As a result, we are losing talent and intellectual grunt to the rest of the world on a daily basis. Many research projects are being compromised and closed down due to a lack of funds and their inability to secure long-term funding arrangements.

Having visited the sector across Queensland, I am of the view that the Medical Research Future Fund will provide a much-needed confidence boost to the research sector and provide long-term funding opportunities to research centres across the country. It is clear Australia cannot compete with the rest of the world on labour costs. This has been shown across a range of sectors, including the manufacturing sector. Countries with lower labour costs are out-performing Australia and many other countries. This has seen the demise of many of our industries here in Australia. As a nation, we need to compete on smarts. It is essential that we shore up our nation's future on the basis of being the clever country. We cannot continue to keep digging up dirty coal out of the earth in the hope that this is going to sustain us forever. Nor can we continue to sell off Australian assets, land, farms, businesses and jobs to overseas interests. This approach is just stupid, short-sighted and irresponsible.

I am firmly of the belief that we must put in place measures and mechanisms to build a future for our country based on innovation and being clever. Australia is revered the world over for our ingenuity, resourcefulness, inventiveness and capacity to innovate. Research plays an essential role in supporting and fostering innovation, creativity, technological breakthroughs, and other advancements.

The world will pay good money for breakthroughs, inventions and innovative products. They will pay even bigger money for advancements which improve health, extend life and fight disease.

We have already seen our country lead the way in medical breakthroughs. For example, in my home state of Queensland, the technology which led to the development of the cervical cancer vaccine used across the world today, was first developed and patented in 1991 by the University of Queensland in collaboration with others.

Queensland scientists at the Queensland Brain Institute have recently discovered a new treatment that could help restore the memory of people suffering from Alzheimer's disease. The process uses ultrasound technology to help clear a plaque that builds up in the brain of Alzheimer's sufferers. Researchers at the Institute have trialled the technique with great success to date.

At the Queensland Institute of Medical Research, the Berghofer Institute has recently developed a world-first blood test to assist in the early diagnosis of melanoma. The early detection of melanoma means there is a greater than 92 per cent chance of the cancer not recurring, which means a greater chance of survival for many people. This is just a small example of the goals our country is kicking in the sphere of medical research. While these projects have resulted in success, there are many projects which have not been able to continue due to funding shortages. It is for this reason and many more that funding of the research sector is vital and must be continued and increased. We just need to ensure that we are clever about the way in which we manage our intellectual property and the transition from concept to commercialisation.

While it is imperative that we invest in research, we must also ensure that we manage the resultant opportunities wisely and not sell them off too cheaply. Research is fundamental to supporting innovation across all sectors of our society, and it is imperative that the government demonstrates leadership by putting in place mechanisms to enable the appropriate and consistent funding of this sector.

Importantly, the bill wastes no time. Once the bill receives royal ascent, the fund will be established almost immediately. This is an excellent outcome for the sector, which is so desperately in need of funding support and acknowledgement from the parliament and the government for its important role in moving our country forward.

Importantly, the bill also supports strong financial targets for the fund to enable the appropriate financial support of the sector. According to the government, under the 2014-15 budget, it is anticipated that the fund will reach a target capital of $20 million dollars by 2019. The bill also supports the involvement of the research sector in the fund through the establishment of an independent expert advisory board, which will be entrusted to develop strategy plans and priority plans in the areas of medical research and innovation in Australia.

The CEO of the National Health and Medical Research Council will occupy one seat on the advisory board, along with up to seven other members who I understand will have expertise in medical research, health systems policy, health services management, medical innovation, financing, and investment and commercialisation.

While I support the need to ensure the board consists of industry experts, I am concerned about the manner in which appointments will be made under the bill in its current form. As the bill stands, the health minister will have the ability to consider and appoint members to the advisory board. With all due respect to the health minister, I am uncomfortable with this approach and feel the appointment of board members needs additional scrutiny and transparency. As a result, I will be putting forward an amendment to this bill to require any and all appointments to the board to be ratified by both houses of parliament. This will ensure the appointments are considered in a manner which is reasonable, bipartisan and transparent.

While I understand that my amendment may introduce a level of administration not currently included in the bill, I feel that the people of Australia deserve increased transparency in the management and use of taxpayer funds and this amendment will introduce an important level of accountability and scrutiny not currently present within the bill.

The board appointments are not small appointments. They involve the appointment of board members for a period of up to five years, and board members will be responsible for managing the allocation of millions of dollars of taxpayers' funds to the research sector. It is for this reason that there needs to be an additional level of scrutiny and consideration in the management of these board appointments.

The community needs confidence that the best people are being appointed to this board. Currently, as the bill stands, the minister has the sole discretion around board appointments. Presenting appointments to the parliament will require the Minister for Health to detail the name of the person the minister is seeking to appoint and the field in which the person has the relevant experience or knowledge.

As the only independent senator for Queensland I want to ensure the people of Queensland and, more broadly, Australia have confidence that the government is making decisions in the best interests of all Australians and that it is using taxpayer funds in the most appropriate manner. My amendment will deliver this level of accountability and confidence to the people of Australia, and I sincerely hope that the Senate will support my amendment.