INDUSTRY Minister Ian Macfarlane says CSIRO budget cuts and job losses have had minimal impacts on agricultural research.
“Yes there were cuts but they were small by comparison to other areas and we’re confident the work CSIRO does in the agricultural space will continue and continue to focus on the major issues and challenges that agriculture faces,” he said to Fairfax Agricultural Media.
Mr Macfarlane said in a budget of $3.2 billion over the forward estimates, or about $800 million per year, CSIRO’s net budget cut was about $45 million per year. He said the headline number was $114 million in cuts to CSIRO but that was offset by the Coalition budgeting $70 into the CSIRO’s research vessel the Investigator.
“We put $70m into the Investigator which was going to stay in dock, under the Labor Party’s plan, because they provided no money for the boat to operate,” he said.
“The overall science budget in my portfolio went up - I think it’s being managed quite well to be honest.
“If you work on a basis that the head count in CSIRO has been cut by around 16 per cent, in agriculture it was cut by about 6pc.
“In terms of the actual staff numbers the cuts in agriculture and biosecurity are the least across the whole portfolio and organisation.
“I know the ABC love getting out of bed every morning and talking about the massive cuts to CSIRO - but $45m in a $3.2b budget isn’t what I’d call a budget cut.
“Everyone would have liked to have increased the budget (but) you could hardly call that ‘slashing’ the budget.”
Mr Macfarlane said the silver lining of the budget changes was that the CSIRO was now being placed “on a very stable footing with the complete confidence of government going forward”.
“They know what their funding is for the next three-and-a-half years, it’s in the budget and it’s not going to change so that’s got to be a positive message in terms of rural industries looking at CSIRO’s potential contribution,” he said.
Mr Macfarlane said despite ongoing criticisms about budget cuts and job losses, the reality of the situation hadn’t be lost within the CSIRO.
He said he sat down with former CSIRO chief Megan Clark and worked out a plan on what needed to be done and what needed to be protected.
“People blame us for a lot of the job losses but a significant amount of these job losses were actually instigated by the previous government who cut the budget in real terms, in science and innovation,” he said.
“Yes, we have instituted an efficiency dividend and that has resulted in job cuts, but I’m confident that’s all being managed in a way that doesn’t affect CSIRO’s output.
“And talking to the various people and scientists working within CSIRO they understand that position and they’re getting on with the job.”
Mr Macfarlane said CSIRO’s work on plant breeding, including future biotechnology traits, and other agricultural programs, would continue delivering results, despite the budget adjustments.
“Any time money’s short prioritisation has to happen, but the good projects get maintained and that’s the way it works,” he said.
“We’ve all have to live within our means; this is a legacy of the previous government that we have to manage.
“The whole community needs to basically understand CSIRO is getting on with the job and we are continuing to do the really important work and producing the great breakthroughs that CSIRO is renowned for, including for agriculture.”
Mr Macfarlane also slammed recent comments by Opposition Leader Bill Shorten that the Labor Party would increase CSIRO funding.
Mr Shorten told ABC radio the ALP would seek to increase funding for both the ABC and also the CSIRO and SBS.
“We have to invest more in science and, as we get closer to the election, you’ll see a very pro-science-based Labor Party policy,” he said.
But Mr Macfarlane said Mr Shorten’s “hollow” claim was “empty rhetoric that defies the evidence of Labor’s record in government over six years, which were bookended by budgets that slashed CSIRO funding”.
“From its very first budget in 2008, through to its last in 2013, the Labor Party cut CSIRO funding,” he said.
“It was the Labor Party that cut $63.4 million from CSIRO in 2008 under then-Minister Kim Carr.
“It was the Labor Party that imposed an efficiency dividend on CSIRO in the 2013 budget which led to job cuts.
“The government is investing $9.2 billion this year alone in science, research and innovation. The evidence is clear and Mr Shorten’s words are cheap.”
Mr Macfarlane said a review of Co-operative Research Centres (CRCs) headed by David Miles - a former chair of Innovation Australia - would help inform the government’s move to establish of a food and agribusiness growth centre.
He said the growth centre would focus on improving the agribusiness sector’s productivity and profitability, including for farms but specifically the food processing chain and market access.
“As part of that process we’re having a look at the CRCs which have literally received billions and billions and billions of dollars, and some of them have gone on for almost decades, certainly more than one,” he said.
“We want to ensure that CRC process is still delivering and they are integrating into the broader scientific and commercialisation effort that the government is focusing on.”
CRCs started under the Hawke government in 1991 with 209 various operations receiving about $4 billion from the Australian government.
Currently there are 36 CRCs operating including for sheep, pork, dairy, poultry, future farms industries, invasive animals and plant biosecurity.
Mr Macfarlane said some of the existing CRCs may fit neatly alongside the growth centre, but some won’t - and “some will basically reach the end of their tenure and cease”.
“How that all fits together is why I’ve had the review,” he said.
“Just because you’re a CRC doesn’t mean you’re going to be shut down in fact very few if any will be. The review is not an attempt to save money; in fact it’s quite the contrary.
“We’re just trying to make sure the money we’re spending in that area is spent to an absolute optimum outcome because money is tight.”
Mr Macfarlane said Mr Miles suggested he would have a preliminary report tabled to the ministry in mid to late February 2015.
“His view is very similar to mine - that we need to see how we can get the most out of these CRCs,” he said.