Thursday, 17 July 2014
Asset Recycling Fund Bill 2014, Asset Recycling Fund (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2014; In Committee
by leave—I move opposition amendments (1) to (6) and (14) to (17) on sheet 7486:
(1) Clause 4, page 4 (lines 16 to 18), omit the definition of Education Investment Fund.
(2) Clause 4, page 4 (lines 19 to 21), omit the definition of Education Investment Fund Special Account.
(3) Heading to subclause 13(1), page 12 (line 4), omit the heading.
(4) Clause 13, page 12 (line 5), omit "(1)".
(5) Clause 13, page 12 (line 14), omit "subsection 34(1)", substitute "section 34".
(6) Clause 13, page 12 (lines 16 to 28), subclause (2), to be opposed.
(14) Heading to subclause 34(1), page 26 (line 19), omit the heading.
(15) Clause 34, page 26 (line 21), omit "subsection 13(1)", substitute "section 13".
(16) Clause 34, page 26 (line 26), omit "subsection 13(1)", substitute "section 13".
(17) Clause 34, page 27 (lines 10 to 31), subclauses (4) to (6), to be opposed.
The focus of my remarks is around the issue of the somewhat ill-advised proposal to abolish the Education Investment Fund. I find it an extraordinary proposition that the government is seeking to do this, given the claims about the Prime Minister's obsession with infrastructure. We would all surely agree that infrastructure is critical to securing the future of the nation, but I would have thought that infrastructure would also include investments in our science and research and at our teaching facilities at our universities, at the CSIRO and TAFE colleges.
This proposition goes to the very heart of that. These institutions, of course, are where we find the new technologies that we need to ensure that we are able to generate the economic and social benefits not just now but well into the future. That depends upon the capacity of the Commonwealth to invest. The abolition of this fund would prevent that. I am very surprised that the government should try to slip this through as being part of the arrangements for this bill. Upon reflection, I can nonetheless understand, given the government's deep antipathy to higher education. It is in that context, I suppose, that it fits with the government's mentality when it comes to the removal of the Education Investment Fund. It is another broken promise. This is exactly the opposite to what the Liberal Party said during the last election. Senator Mason was quoted in The Australian newspaper before the election as saying:
We would seek to reinvest and rebuild EIF back to its former state wants the budget is back in surplus. This is a nation-building fund and the coalition intends to restore it as such.
Of course, this could be nothing further from the truth in terms of what has actually happened with the proposal contained in this bill. I would have thought that we would have heard more from the Liberal Party itself about this act of blatant vandalism towards the higher education system in this country. I have enormous regard for Senator Mason. I think it is a great tragedy that he is not engaged in the higher education sector in this government. Of course, the obvious point that is so often made in political comedy or farce is that as soon as you actually know something about a particular field it is not surprising that governments seek to move politicians out of that field. Senator Mason certainly fits that category.
The opposition amendments provide the opportunity for this chamber to reconsider this very, very rash decision. The amendments would save the Education Investment Fund. Our amendments do so because the Education Investment Fund provides the funding for the very projects that we need to develop the infrastructure in higher education research and vocational education. If the government succeeds in abolishing the fund, serious questions must be raised about its long-term commitment to investment in these areas. It is clear that the Asset Recycling Fund will not be available for investments in those areas. Is a perverse outcome, because 59 per cent of the funding for the Asset Recycling Fund comes from education. What an extraordinary proposition: research infrastructure which is so vital to the future economic and social health of this nation is being used to fund privatisation of assets.
I note the Australian Technology Network, the group that involves a number of very respected institutions—QUT; RMIT University, in my home state of Victoria; the University of Technology, Sydney; the University of South Australia; Curtin University—has raised concerns. In their submission to the Senate inquiry into the bills they state:
The ATN is concerned about the continuation of research infrastructure funding from 2015 and the lack of guidance in the Bill as to how future research related infrastructure projects will be prioritised for funding via the ARF.
The Australian Technology Network of universities went on to say that the coalition election policy stated that the coalition was in the business of:
… building a world-class Education and Research sector
This bill could be nothing further from that. It notes the statement in which the coalition government pledged that it would:
… encourage modernisation and the development of world-class Education and Research capabilities and support the use of new technologies, particularly digital and IT.
This bill could be nothing further from that. This government attacking the agencies that could deliver on such an election commitment, such as Australian universities, CSIRO, and NICTA. This is exactly the sort of thing I suppose we could relate back to what the Prime Minister said when he said that we 'should judge him on his performance'. His performance in this matter is abysmal. The ATN also noted:
The provision of modern research capabilities comes at a cost. To date 71 infrastructure projects have been funded by EIF to the sum of $2.4 billion. This included $643m in funding for pure research infrastructure …
The ATN submission also raise concerns about the removal of the remaining research funding mechanisms:
Therefore following the removal of EIF the remaining research funding mechanisms, including research block grant funding, are not sufficient to create world class research infrastructure.
It strikes me that this is a pretty fair point. You take this money away and what are we going to use to fund the necessary research infrastructure in this country? How are we going to be able to fund the work that CSIRO does in terms of research infrastructure, the work of the universities, the work of the other science agencies?
I might emphasise that I have got a bit of an interest in this matter, because when I was the minister the fund operation placed particular importance on proper administration by an independent board. It was not a pork-barrelling exercise, as we have seen with this government in its attempt to use Australian Research Council funding. It was not done in any way other than on a competitive basis—on the basis of an evaluation of projects under very rigorous criteria. There were over four funding rounds and 71 projects were supported. They were projects on university campuses, TAFE campuses—projects supporting major scientific infrastructure. They were projects like these: the Science and Engineering Precinct in Ballarat, now at the Federation University; the Science Place for northern Queensland at James Cook University; the Indian Ocean Marine Research Centre at the University of Western Australia; the University of Tasmania Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies; the University of Adelaide's Institute for Photonics and Advanced Sensing; the Latrobe Rural Health School in Bendigo; the University of Western Sydney Centre for Climate Change and Energy Research.
I note that on Tuesday—and this is a particular irony—the Minister for Industry was at Mount Stromlo launching another project that was funded through this fund. The project is, of course, the Advanced Instrumentation and Technology Centre. And I will seek leave to table the minister's press statement from Tuesday because it will highlight the sorts of infrastructure projects that are funded by this government which, of course—I must say that the minister was at least gracious enough to acknowledge that the funding had actually been provided by a Labor government.