Australian Research Council Amendment Bill 2013

Ms BIRD: (Cunningham) (12:16): The opposition will be supporting the bill before the House. The purpose of the Australian Research Council Amendment Bill 2013 is to amend the Australian Research Council Act 2001 for two purposes. Firstly, to apply indexation to the appropriation figures that are already set out in the act and, secondly, to add a figure for the last year of the forward budget estimates for the financial year commencing 1 July 2016. It is a fairly standard procedure for updating those figures in the act.

Of course, the Australian Research Council itself is a statutory authority and its purpose is to advise the government on research matters. It manages the National Competitive Grants Program and has responsibility for the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) initiative. The act sets out the maximum amount of funding that can be provided to approved research programs in each financial year. Currently, the latest year referred to in the act is the 2015-16 financial year. The bill will increase the funding cap for the financial years commencing 1 July 2013, 2014 and 2015 by the application of an indexation formula. Then it will also insert the funding cap for the financial year commencing 1 July 2016, as the additional year. The funding caps are indexed annually to maintain the value of the base funding for those approved research programs.

I want to take the opportunity to make a few brief comments in addressing the bill about the context of the Australian Research Council. I would point out to the House that, under the former Labor government, the Australian Research Council was restored to its position as an independent authority, awarding peer reviewed grants.

Under the Howard government, which preceded the Labor government, projects were rejected by the minister for research. Under Labor's period in government, no projects were rejected by the minister for research. The Australian Research Council was an independent authority and we respected the peer review of the grant application process.

Australia's researchers are entitled to the very best research infrastructure the country can afford. The country, in exchange, is entitled to answers to the big challenges of our time. We need researchers to be working in partnership with our industries and our communities on that task.

In order to support what is very important work, Labor in government put in place a number of measures to assist this work. We, firstly, boosted investment in science, research and innovation to record levels, including $3 billion over four years for CSIRO and $3.6 billion since 2008 for research funded through the Australian Research Council.

We put research in universities on a sustainable footing, with more than $8.7 billion paid in university research block grants since 2008. We invested $1.5 billion in research infrastructure through the Education Investment Fund, attracting a total investment of $3.5 billion. We supported over 800 of our best and brightest midcareer researchers with Future Fellowships worth over $844 million.

Also, to much great excitement and I am sure this will play out in future years with a great deal of interest across the community, we secured the Square Kilometre Array for Australia, a multibillion-dollar global investment. We also opened up research and development tax incentives to more firms, and boosted the available benefits. Importantly, and I go back to the comments that I made at the beginning, we guaranteed research freedom through compacts with universities and independent research agencies.

Labor will continue to champion the nation's scientists and will make the most of their potential. We are concerned to bring research and business together in new innovation precincts, of the scale to attract the attention of investors all over the world. We are keen to see the work of our best and brightest in Australia build on the momentum of the Square Kilometre Array.

It was, therefore, of some concern to us to see an opportunity taken by a few members of the now government in the lead-up to the election, and indeed since the election, to be very critical of some of the grants that have been awarded under the Australian Research Council. Sadly, I think they too easily took cheap shots at what is very important and particularly useful research.

Obviously, a lot of the research that is funded is around scientific responses to some of the great challenges that we as a nation face and some of it is around social responses—around how we work as communities and societies. Both these tasks are equally important. So it was disappointing to see some attack made on and some cheap shots taken at that type of research.

It is also the case that the former member for Indi, in particular, led a fairly remorseless campaign against the CSIRO and indeed the Chief Scientist. I think it is important that, while we may engage in debate in this country—and we should engage in debate in this country—we do not undermine or demean the role of scientists and the tasks that they perform, not only directly through the work that we fund through programs such as grants under the Australian Research Council, but also more broadly as they seek to have a debate in the community themselves.

It is a great disappointment to us—that is no surprise. We have made the point on a number of occasions that the government did not choose to appoint a minister for science for the first time in decades. While the science task has responsibility under a minister, it is not in the minister's title and it is not drawn to the attention of the nation. With regard to my own portfolio, I would point out there is no minister for vocational education or skills either—one of the biggest tasks in educating our population as we seek to make sure that we have a widely qualified population for the jobs of the future.

We are particularly keen to see organisations such as the Australian Research Council continue to do their great work and to do it with the appropriate independence and authority. It is not our view that ministers should be under public pressure or under pressure from their backbench, or wherever that pressure may come from, crossing out research that has been approved by a rigorous peer reviewed process. I would just like to put on the record that that causes great concern. But the bill before us is a fairly reasonable and an obviously fairly standard adjustment to appropriation figures. For that reason we would support the bill.