Senate debates

Monday, 17 March 2014

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers


3:05 pm

Photo of Kim CarrKim Carr (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister Assisting the Leader for Science) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs (Senator Ronaldson) to a question without notice asked by Senator Carr today relating to science policy.

It is appropriate that the Senate get a few facts on the table when it comes to the discussion of science policy, given that this is Science meets Parliament week. I ask a simple question: does the coalition government have a science minister? The answer is that it does not. Does this government actually have a science policy? The answer is that, no, it does not. Have they promised not to cut science in the budget? The answer is that, no, they have not. When Labor was in government, there was, clearly, a very strong emphasis on science and research. There was a science minister and there was a very, very strong science policy. What we have seen is that the government opposite is maintaining its position of running from the enlightenment. It is a government that essentially is working on the assumption that they do not need a champion for science. Senior members of the government are going out of their way to boast about being knuckle draggers, taking credit for any action the government takes against the scientific community.

I remind the Senate of the record of contrast. When Labor was in office, investment in science, research and innovation increased by 35 per cent. That took the figure to an annual total of $8.9 billion. We invested a record of over $3 billion in the CSIRO. For the first time, we took the CSIRO's revenue past $1 billion per annum.

In the 2013-14 portfolio budget statement, the CSIRO was allocated staffing for 5,550 people at the time of the election. In fact, the CSIRO was overstaffed by about 200, on these figures. Now we discover that about 16 per cent of the CSIRO's workforce is under threat because of the government's decision—not management's decision—to freeze recruitment and renewal of staff on temporary contracts. That is why we are seeing media reports of over 1,500 people's jobs under threat. It is no coincidence that the CSIRO's climate adaption and preventative health flagships are the ones being cut in the current restructure that has been announced.

Senator Ronaldson made the claim that the government is a great supporter of science and the science community 'knows it has a friend in us'. I am afraid they do not know that. They do not believe that. They know, in fact, it is the contrary. He goes on to suggest that the government will keep its promises. But what have they promised? What we have seen from this government is a continuing list of policy positions that are actually hostile to science. What we know is that the report of the Commission of Audit—or the commission of cuts, as it has been referred to—has been sitting on the Prime Minister's desk for over a month, and we understand that is precisely where you will see these cuts being argued.

From the behaviour exhibited by this government, we know that we already have cause for very deep concern. We know that $103 million has been ripped from the Australian Research Council, particularly in the abuse of humanities. We know that the Treasurer has described the research grants from this particular area as 'ridiculous research projects'. We have seen threats to the future of industry innovation partnerships, some $500 million in investment. We know there have been cuts from the global centre for excellence in oil and gas technologies research, in Perth, which is a $10 million program. We know there has been the scrapping of the quarterly credits for the R&D tax incentive—a very important measure, if you want to commercialise scientific discovery.

In a recent statement the Prime Minister said:

The difference between us and our ancestors dwelling in caves is that we understand science and do our best to apply the fruits of that understanding to the way we live.

What we have in reality is a government approach to science which essentially takes us back to a caveman approach. We know this is a government that has no science minister, no science policy and no commitment to securing the benefits of science and research to ensure that we are able to sustain the modernisation that this country needs. We know that the Alcohol and Other Drugs Council of Australia— (Time expired)

3:10 pm

Photo of Christopher BackChristopher Back (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is amazing the hypocrisy we see from Senator Carr now that he is on the other side of the chamber. On 22 May 2008 the then chief executive of the CSIRO, Geoff Garrett, warned about the organisation's research effort suffering—as it shuts laboratories and loses 100 staff as a result of a reduction in its budget funding of $63 million a year—in a Labor government over which Senator Carr had responsibility for science. The funding cuts were $23 million to meet the Rudd government's one-off efficiency dividend, plus an extra $40 million to extend the efficiency dividend to a research component of the CSIRO's appropriation. It is a bit stiff to come in here and listen to this sort of argument from Senator Carr. The Canberra Times, on 5 December 2008, said:

The Rudd Government's one-off 2pc efficiency dividend for this financial year imposed an "arbitrary and unfair" burden on the CSIRO, a new government report says.

This was the Labor government's own report, talking about the imposition of $24 million in cuts in addition to the federal budget cut of $40 million, forcing the CSIRO to merge divisions and shed jobs in a bid to find annual savings.

It was interesting that Senator Carr referred to aspects associated with the oil and gas industry R&D, because Senator Smith, who will contribute to this debate, and I, from Western Australia, are only too aware of the sovereign risk being imposed on the multinationals, the oil and gas industries and the mining industry as a result of the actions of the previous Labor government—supported by the Greens, as it became apparent—with regard to the carbon and mining taxes.

As happened in Tasmania last Saturday, so in September last year did the people of Australia give a mandate to the government, led by the Hon. Tony Abbott, to repeal the mining and carbon dioxide taxes. The actions of the Labor Party and the Greens, in this chamber, to frustrate the democratic statement of the people of Australia is reprehensible. I earnestly hope this will be shown in the rerun of the Senate election on 5 April.

Our state of Western Australia is the one most hurt by the mining and carbon taxes. It is essential the taxes be repealed. Mr Shorten knows that. He keeps changing his position. He wants to engage with the mining industry. Well, I can save him the cost of a flight to Western Australia—the cost increased as a result of the carbon tax. As we know, Qantas quoted more than $100 million of added costs due to the carbon tax.

Senator Lines interjecting

Mr Shorten, as Senator Lines knows, does not have to go to WA to ask the citizens of that state, or ask industry, what they want to happen to the mining tax. I give you this one statistic, as evidence of the cost of mining and carbon taxes and of the sovereign risk to Western Australia as a result of the last Labor government's activities. It goes to ASX listed mining exploration companies and their mining exploration activities in Western Australia. In 2012, 65 per cent of mining exploration's time, effort and money was spent in Western Australia. By 2013 that figure had reduced from 65 per cent spent in Australia to 35 per cent. That was the impact of the threat of the carbon tax, the mining tax and the other risks imposed by the then Labor government.

And where was the two-thirds being expended? Of ASX listed companies it was in Africa, in Canada, in markets that are welcoming Western Australian and Australian investment. It is essential that on 5 April the Labor Party and the Greens Party accept the mandate of the Australian people to return senators who will come into this place and do what the will of the Australian people in September last year indicated—and that was to remove them. Senator Carr spoke about R&D incentives. All that happened under his watch was that small R&D based companies shifted offshore and the Labor government saved money in unexpended— (Time expired)

3:15 pm

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to take note of answers given by Senator Ronaldson in response to questions we asked him today in the science area. I am absolutely gobsmacked that the government continues to hide what it is doing in the science area and in particular to the CSIRO when we hear the government today refer to events that happened in 2008! They like to tell us that they are the government. Well, let us hear their plans for the CSIRO. Let us hear their plans. Let us see what the Commission of Audit has to say about CSIRO.

We heard the government today go on about how important the mining industry is to Western Australia. It is important to Western Australia. It is vital to Australia's economy. Yesterday I drove past the CSIRO's really fabulous facility next to Curtin University, and yet I find out today that the government has ticked off on six redundancies taking place at that facility in Waterford—as I speak, during Science Week!

You might say, six redundancies—so what? Guess what they are. Three are scientists. This is what the government is doing in the midst of Science Week, getting rid of three science positions. In addition to that, it is getting rid of six project scientists who all hold Bachelor of Science degrees—in Science Week—and yet they are trying to tell us that they are the friend of science.

We heard today that apparently the government has some commitment to the CSIRO. I think that is a commitment to downsize it, to dumb it down. What we know about the government is that they are not interested in facts. They do not like facts. They do not believe in carbon. They do not believe in upskilling the workforce. This is a government that is about dumb and dumber. I find it extraordinary that in my home state of Western Australia with the fabulous facility at Waterford—which is absolutely about the development of minerals and at looking at smart ways to continue to develop and extract; that is what the Waterford CSIRO facility focuses on—that this government sees fit in Science Week to just tick off on nine science positions going out of that establishment.

That will impact on Western Australia. There is no doubt about that. The CSIRO is a premier organisation, a leader in scientific development, and yet the government continues to go along in absolute silence about its plans for CSIRO. To sit here today and be told by the government that they are some kind of friend of the scientific community is ludicrous. All I can say is that every time I hear the government utter the word 'friend' and 'industry' that means that industry had better watch out. Whenever they say that, there are cuts and they cut deep and they cut savagely.

So it is time that the government came clean on the Commission of Audit and what it has planned for science. The problem we have got with this government is that it does not even have a minister for science. That is how little value it promotes in looking at scientific breakthroughs and promoting the best possible science in the land. They just want to be a dumb and dumber government. They just want to dumb down Australian industry. They do not believe in facts. They do not believe in science. They just believe in the cheapest possible way of dumbing down our sector.

Particularly in Western Australia with our links to South-East Asia, one of the other important roles the CSIRO does is undertake research specific to South-East Asia. But, gee, the government would not know that because guess what: they do not have a science minister! You cannot keep your finger on the pulse if you are too busy doing a million other jobs. The fact that it does not have a science minister was one of the things that Senator Johnston led an attack on. He could not believe it. He said, 'For God's sake, we have got a sports minister and no science minister!' So one of your own, a Western Australian senator, thinks that you are not doing the right thing. So come clean on CSIRO. Put a cross against the nine positions in WA, because we value science on our side. (Time expired)

3:20 pm

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is important to pay close attention to what we have heard from the Labor Party opposition this afternoon. We have heard two things. The first thing we have heard is that the National Commission of Audit cannot be trusted, that somehow it has a secret plan to reduce waste in our economy. The second thing we have heard is that somehow the coalition government cannot be trusted when it comes to cuts to science and specifically when it comes to the CSIRO.

Let me just take Labor opposition senators back in time a little bit to May 2008. Senator Dastyari was not in the Senate in May 2008, so I might just read for Senator Dastyari some comments that were reported in the Australian Financial Review about the former government's cuts to science, cuts to the CSIRO. The Australian Financial Review on 22 May 2008 report starts by saying, 'CSIRO's chief executive, Geoff Garrett, has warned that the organisation's research effort will suffer as it shuts laboratories and loses a hundred staff as a result of a reduction in its budget funding of $63 million over four years.' Let us think about that. In May 2008, who was the government? You might want to forget that it was former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd—

Senator Dastyari interjecting

I think, Senator Dastyari, you might have been the national secretary of the New South Wales Labor Party at the time. That is a debate for another time.

This is a lonely moment for members of the Australian Labor Party, and this brings me back to the National Commission of Audit. You will hear Labor senators and others say that the National Commission of Audit is a bad thing. But in January this year who was it who came out and said that the National Commission of Audit was necessary to correct the budget crisis that we find ourselves in? It was none other than former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating, and his comments were endorsed by former Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke. It is a very, very lonely time for people in the Australian Labor Party at the moment.

Let me just add to that: this is probably an excellent opportunity for Labor senators to familiarise themselves with the important work that you must start to do to rebuild credibility in the electorate.

Senator Bilyk interjecting

Senator Bilyk, I do not want to reflect on the results in Tasmania here at the moment—

Photo of Helen KrogerHelen Kroger (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Why not?

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Because they would be embarrassing. It would be embarrassing, Senator Kroger, for me to spend my limited time talking about the Tasmanian election result. But I do want to go back to talk about the 7 September federal election result. Let us talk about that. What do we know? Labor recorded its lowest primary vote in 100 years. Labor in my home state of Western Australia received just 28.7 per cent of the vote, and across our country they won just seven seats on primary votes.

So what is the lesson? What is the exercise that federal Labor should be engaging in? It is one of establishing relevance again with the electorate. When we come to the National Commission of Audit there is no more important piece of work that this government is doing at the moment than the National Commission of Audit because, as people know, our spending is increasing at a much faster rate than we are raising revenue. People like me think that we should decrease the tax burden on taxpayers and decrease the size of government, and I do not believe for one moment that that necessarily means that the sorts of services government provides to people need to be compromised; nor do I believe it needs to have a dampening effect on economic growth.

So the National Commission of Audit is a very important piece of work for this government. It is one on which Labor senators today should heed the advice of your former Labor leaders—our former Prime Ministers, no less—Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, and you should embrace the work of the National Commission of Audit and the work it will do to improve our budget position. (Time expired)

3:25 pm

Photo of Sam DastyariSam Dastyari (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to take note of answers provided by Senator Ronaldson earlier today. The coalition has pandered to a small but vocal antiscience chorus for more than a decade. The Abbott government did not release a science policy. They have not appointed a minister for science. We have a Prime Minister who has declared that he believes that climate change is 'crap', a view that is shared by many other people on the other side of the chamber. And, since the election, this government has ruthlessly slashed funding for the sciences, threatened the independence of our research institutions and worked actively to undermine the integrity of Australian scientists.

There are more cuts around the corner, and the Commission of Audit is sitting there, as a previous senator pointed out, in secret, deciding which programs are going to be recommended for axing. These are cuts to our future prosperity, and the scientific community, like the rest of Australia, have been left in the dark, hoping that this budget will not be the blackest in our history. Which of our great scientific research centres, which of our great technological research projects and which of our leading centres of innovation are going to face the axe? Joe Hockey has confirmed that the government will adopt the great majority of the commission's recommendations. We are asking for transparency to find out which science and research funding is on the chopping block.

The Prime Minister's proposal to not commit to releasing the Commission of Audit's report until just before the budget is astonishing. When the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, was the opposition leader he argued for the release of the Henry tax review, and I quote him here: 'Issues of great moment for Australia's economic future and for the welfare of Australia's families should not be hidden.' I will say that again: 'should not be hidden'. Yet we do not know which of our scientific research programs the Commission of Audit will recommend cutting because the report is being kept secret.

The Abbott government has already shown a willingness to slash funding for science research. Australia's national ICT research centres have had $42 million slashed in the last budget MYEFO. Up to 1,400 scientists at the CSIRO will not have their contracts renewed. A centre of excellence for oil and gas technologies in Perth has had its funding of $10 million cut already. The government refuses to confirm their commitment to a global hub for oil and gas innovation in Western Australia that Shell, Woodside, Santos and many other companies have supported along with the CSIRO and a number of universities—an alliance that would have given a much needed boost to Western Australia's efforts to face the future after the mining boom and cement itself as a global technology leader and employment hub.

But I want to draw the Senate's attention to one of the most truly astonishing collaborative science projects in history which will require significant funding to reach its unique potential. The Square Kilometre Array radio telescope will be built in Western Australia in cooperation with partners in New Zealand and South Australia. The SKA will be 50 times more sensitive than any other radio instrument and will be able to survey the sky more than 10,000 times faster than ever before. The Labor government supported the project through a $289-million investment in Western Australia on infrastructure to support the SKA. We provided $80 million of funding for the Pawsey high-performance community centre. We provided another $118 million in funding for the latest astronomical technology to be built by the CSIRO in Murchison.

We also committed to funding and properly building the NBN. Labor were a staunch defender of science when it was under threat from deniers and sceptics. Labor oversaw the growth of a network of national research institutions. Labor guaranteed academic freedom at universities— (Time expired)

Question agreed to.