ADDRESS TO THE ASSOCIATION OF AUSTRALIAN MEDICAL RESEARCH INSTITUTES
Thursday, 7 DECEMBER 2017
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Thank you, it’s a great pleasure to be here with you this morning.
I am here to represent Bill Shorten, who is otherwise engaged and sends his apologies for his inability to attend.
You have chosen the last day of the parliamentary sitting, a very interesting time to be in Canberra.
I can’t recommend it as the best day of the year, but it is nonetheless a time in which you’ll probably see a fair bit of action.
I have really enjoyed working with you throughout the year and I welcome the opportunity to continue with that work.
As has been indicated this morning, the 457 visas were an example of how we could make a quite substantial impact in terms of policy direction from opposition.
And we trust that today’s opposition will be tomorrow’s government – and that tomorrow means very soon indeed.
There are other issues that are being pursued at the moment. I understand that today the Government will release its foreign donations bill, and I share with you some grave concerns about the reach of that bill, particularly insofar as it deals with international philanthropic contributions.
The pattern here is that this crowd basically don’t know what they’re doing.
They’ll start off with something really simple like “Let’s get ‘GetUp’: They’re obviously a bunch of radicals that we don’t like, and we’ll ban people from making international contributions.”
But they end up getting some of our great medical research institutes. I don’t imagine at the beginning that they thought they were going to do that, but that’s what happens.
That’s what happened with the 457 visas. They’ll start at one point and don’t realise that it ends up somewhere else..
It’s a reflection of what goes on in the political process when you really don’t do the work when you’re in opposition.
Opposition is never a good time. I can assure you of that.
But it is a time when you can renew and find the occasion to revitalise your view of the world, so that when you do get into government you’re not dependent on the public service.
You have a vision about where you want to go. You have a notion of what values you subscribe to. You have a clear roadmap of what you’re trying to achieve.
That’s the approach I have always taken. This is my 25th year in the Parliament, and I’ve had experience of good times and bad.
Working with organisations such as yours does provide that chance to come forward with a program, so that you’re not dependent on day-to-day political management.
And that’s what’s going on in this place at the moment. What happened to the Liberals is that Mr Abbott was really good at opposing us. He was terrific as an opposition leader. He knew what he was against – us!
But he didn’t quite know what he was in favour of. The 2014 budget was really a collection of proposals that the Treasury boffins had stored away for years in their bottom drawers.
A new government comes along, a new minister comes in, and like the “Yes Minister” script, the boffins pull it out and say “Minister, look at this idea!”.
For them it may well have been an idea that’s been rejected 15 times before, but with a new man on the job maybe they won’t reject it. And that’s what happened, he didn’t.
And on that occasion they came up with some really silly stuff, and the Government has never recovered since the 2014.
They went on with this notion that they could manage politics day to day. For them government was about political management, and when that failed they were left with the personal stuff, which is where they’re at now.
For them it’s really about proving that Bill Shorten’s unworthy, and that the Labor Party is really beneath them.
They’re trying to demonstrate that there’s something inherently wrong at a personal level, rather than trying to deal with substantive policy questions.
That’s what happens when you’ve had 24 negative Newspolls. You just get more and more desperate.
I like to think we’ve used this period in opposition constructively.
I put to you that for us the big question is developing a notion of Australian society in which we can say that we’re going to ensure the very best future for the country, based on the principle of working closely with industry and the academy, and of ensuring that we are going to be an advanced society that’s not frightened of the future.
A society that understands that if we’re going to get the best out of all of that, then we’ve got to be able to encourage everyone to get a share of it.
In simple terms, that means we’ve got to start with research and development.
If we don’t have a really solid commitment to research and development, we’re not going to develop the new technologies, create the new jobs and build a new prosperity that we can share.
The alternative is that increasing numbers of people in the outer suburbs and rural towns will feel that they’re not really part of anything.
They will feel that society and politics are not working for them, so they will turn to the nutters.
That’s happening all around the world. It’s the core problem of western politics.
So I say to you that the question you’ve been raising with me about the importance of research is vital to us.
That’s why we have committed to a target of 3 per cent of GDP devoted to R&D by 2030 – a commitment Bill Shorten has made to the Academy of Science.
We are eagerly awaiting the response to the report from Finkel, Ferris and Fraser on the R&D Tax Incentive. It is so important that we get a better connection in the way the Commonwealth engages with R&D.
I note, for instance, that the NHMRC grants were announced recently.
It’s good to see that institutes associated with the Group of Eight have done particularly well again – 65 per cent of the grants.
I also note the new gender arrangements, with 34 new female lead investigators bringing the total to 15 per cent. There’s a way to go in that regard.
All of that suggests to me that there’s a fair bit of work to do in the area, and it comes back to the need to build a national consensus around the importance of research.
I want to make one final point to you. In any such approach, we must not neglect the importance of basic research.
That’s the proposition Bill Shorten advanced in his speech to the Academy of Science.
If we do not have a commitment to the advancement of basic research, we will never be able to master the question of commercialisation of that research.
If we are not able to generate new knowledge, there is no commercialisation.
That is the approach I will pursue if I am given the honour of being Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research in a Labor government.
QUESTION AND ANSWER
QUESTION: One of the announcements we all welcomed yesterday was about the Medical Research Future Fund … [inaudible] … Medical research depends on periodic increases. We’re grateful to Labor for bipartisan support for the MRFF and we hope it will continue. Do you want to comment on that?
SENATOR CARR: Of course that’s important. The quantum’s important, really important. That’s why we have this target argument. I really want to emphasise the importance of the incentive it provides.
That’s what drives the internal discussion. It’s a commitment made in opposition, which means it’s an election commitment, by the parliamentary leader that is important in future budget considerations.
So you’ve got to pursue the overall growth, that’s important. I also want to emphasise to you – and this may be a little dangerous in an audience of medical researchers – but we have to have a balance in the research program.
We simply can’t try to run a populist line that says “Listen, we’ve got to have a cure for cancer sometime in the future” and assume that’s going to satisfy the demands of the country.
We’ve got to be able to a whole range of capacities for this country in terms of our research effort.
That includes the humanities. And engineering. We just can’t allow ourselves those.
The other thing is that we must allow ourselves to retain the fundamental principles that underpin the governance arrangements.
So questions of institutional autonomy and peer review remain vital. The last think you want is politicians like me picking and choosing what is good and bad research.
That means we’ve got to have strong public support, which means we’ve got to have strong ethical principles, and it also means that we’ve got to have a commitment to ensuring that misconduct arrangements are well policed.
QUESTION: One of the things that occupies our minds is research infrastructure. Could you enunciate both the large infrastructure policy and also how, within individual institutions and research institutes, infrastructure which is so critical to the cutting edge is going to be underpinned?
CARR: First of all, the major problem at the moment is that there is no money. There is no money for research infrastructure. I want to emphasis just how incredibly dangerous that position is.
The only available source of money is the investment fund, EIF, which this mob want to close down.
They first tried to do it by using it as a fund for the privatisations of roads, and now they’re claiming that it’s going to be used for the NDIF, which of course is nonsense, because when you read the fine print it’s to pay down debt and various other things.
I am really strongly opposed to the removal of that fund. I want to use that money, with my colleagues, as a basis for reinvestment in research infrastructure. That’s the approach I’m advocating.
But we do need to find a mechanism that ensures we have new Commonwealth contributions to infrastructure. The real problem is that the universities are relying upon international students and price gouging to transfer funds for new investment in infrastructure, at the same time as the Government is throwing stones at the major source of those international students.
As I have said on other occasions, I hope they know what they’re doing! Did you say you were from Monash? I think 35 per cent of the students at Monash are international students.
And 45 per cent of Monash’s income is international. In Queensland, when universities of “lesser” standing had that sort of income, I was highly critical of their dependence.
Because the same dependence occurs at such a prestigious institution as Monash do you think it would be any less conceded? Or the facts change because of their vulnerability? Particularly at a time when the Government feels we can be so reckless in the way we treat our number one trading partner.
QUESTION: One of our major problems as institutes is red tape. Everybody says get rid of red tape. We have to get some specific lines where we can show that we can get rid of red tape. And there’s a consultation ongoing at the moment about the regulation of gene technology – of the gene technology regulator. I see absolutely zero benefit to society or the environment in regulating what kind of transgenic mice are made [inaudible} because everything that happens in that area slows us down. The steps beyond that, beyond the methodology, which keeps changing, is hard to legislate for, are well regulated by the TGA, the environment [inaudible]. I would like it if medical research was excluded from this analysis because I doubt if there’s any case [inaudible].
CARR: I’m glad to hear that you’d like that but the reality is that there is a political dimension.
I’m more inclined to your line of argument than I am to Greenpeace’s or Friends of the Earth’s.
When we’ve tried to deal with this in the past, for instance on nanotechnology, I sought to engage with green groups, who are the main protagonists on these questions.
I thought the best way to deal with it was to get people in a room, to get them talking… [Inaudible].
The truth is people won’t necessarily engage. We have to find a mechanism to engage the public, because your social licence depends on public confidence.
It’s no good saying, “Listen, we know better than you”. I’m not saying you do. But we can’t say that. We’ve got to find a mechanism that actually protects your capacity to find a solution to these great problems.
That’s partly my job as an advocate – one of the key jobs for the science minister and the innovation minister is to be an advocate. So I’m saying to you that I’m more than happy to engage, but the political problem has to be faced.
When you get people prepared to break into a CSIRO site here in Canberra and smash experiments, you get a mindset that’s not prepared to engage on a rational basis.
In this room, I suspect many of you have this notion that politics is about rationality. It’s not a view I’m confronted with day to day. It’s about emotion.
You’ve got to find a way to get people to understand what’s actually being said is not correct. On these ethical questions you can’t just wipe the slate clean.
That’s not to say you allow yourselves to be subject to some of the humbuggery, which we do see as well.
So there’s a complex array of issues to deal with. The point is we’ve got to front it up. And the political system – and as I say, as minister I’d be more than happy to pursue that. We can’t even have a conversation in this country about nuclear energy, let alone about some of these more sensitive issues about medical technology.