AN announcement on the promised $100 million Rural R&D for Profit program is “imminent”, says Agricultural Minister Barnaby Joyce.
The $100m research program formed the centrepiece of the Coalition’s multi-million dollar agricultural policy commitment at the 2013 federal election.
Mr Joyce was meant to launch the program, and details of its competitive bidding process, during a speech he gave at the University of New England last October but forgot to make the announcement, leaving stakeholders somewhat bemused.
The program is designed to give rural Research and Development Corporations (RDCs) “greater capacity to deliver cutting edge technology, continue applied research and focus on collaborative innovation”.
The $100m was announced in last year’s federal budget, with the first $20m pledged for 2014-15, followed by $30m in each of the following two years and $20m in 2017-18.
Broken promise: Fitzgibbon
But Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon told Fairfax Media ongoing delays on the program’s funding distribution, more than halfway through the Abbott government’s first term in office, equated to a broken promise.
Mr Fitzgibbon said he was increasingly concerned the $20m promised for round one would not be delivered in this year’s budget and those funds could go into consolidated government revenue.
He said the broken promise was also based on the Abbott government “robbing Peter to pay Paul” by announcing the additional $100m for agricultural R&D - but then cutting the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation’s funding by $11 million over four years and slashing the CSIRO’s budget by $114m over four years.
Another aspect of the broken promise, he said, was the Coalition’s promised method for delivering the money, via a complicated competitive bidding process involving RDCs and research partners, which contradicted the expectation they created, in opposition, of a simpler method.
“After 18 months the Abbott government has not delivered a cent on its $100m promise for agricultural R&D and now I’m concerned the first round won’t be delivered,” he said.
“I’m very worried the $20m that was in the budget for this year is now going to go back into treasury coffers.”
Funding process delays
In making the announcement, Mr Joyce said the $100m program would provide nationally co-ordinated, strategic research that delivers real returns at the farmgate.
Applications for round one closed on December 15 last year, with the individual applicants acknowledged via email.
In outlining the new process, the Department of Agriculture’s website said it would liaise with applicants only (RDCs) “and any communication with partners will be the responsibility of the applicant”.
“Following the assessment and ministerial decision process outlined in the program guidelines, applicants will be advised whether their project will be funded and contract negotiations will begin with grantees,” the website says.
“We expect negotiations to have concluded by March/April 2015.”
Under the program, all 15 rural RDCs can apply for funding but must partner with one or more researchers, research agencies, funding bodies, businesses, producer groups, or not-for-profit organisations.
They must also provide a contribution (cash or cash/in-kind) at least equal to the requested Commonwealth grant funding.
But Fairfax Media understands research sector representatives are growing increasingly nervous about extended delays in notifying successful applicants, with the budget and end of financial year fast approaching.
One source said the extended delay was escalating concerns related to public sector rules where approved projects need individual contracts confirmed and subsequent invoices issued by June 30 or the budget money is “gone”.
The $20m could be rolled-out into the following year’s budget, retaining the overall $100m of the election promise, the source said, but a wide group of stakeholders remained in the dark about successful applicants.
Concerns are also held about the lengthy bureaucratic nature of the application process, which contradicts the Abbott government’s red tape reduction agenda.
But in a statement, a spokesperson for Mr Joyce said up to $30m would be allocated in round one through a competitive grants program.
“The announcement of the successful round one projects is imminent, with projects expected to commence in July 2015,” a statement said.
“The Rural R&D for Profit Program implements the Australian Government’s 2013 election commitment to provide $100m additional funding to the RDCs to fund research over four years to 2017-18.”
Applications for the Rural R&D for Profit Program are assessed by an expert assessment panel which scores and ranks them and then advises the Department on which projects best meet the program guidelines.
The panel is assisted by the Department’s chief scientist, Dr Kim Ritman, and is chaired by former CEO of the Australian Research Council, Professor Margaret Sheil.
Regional Australia Institute CEO Su McCluskey is also a panel member, along with international food science expert Professor Alastair Robertson, and other experts with farming and agricultural science backgrounds.
While it’s understood contracts are still to be finalised, it’s unclear whether Mr Joyce has made final recommendations based on the Department’s advice.
Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane has justified the CSIRO’s budget cuts saying the organisation has a $3.2 billion budget over the forward estimates, or about $800m per year, and its net budget cut was about $45m per year.
He said the headline number of $114m in last year’s budget was offset by the Coalition putting $70m into the CSIRO’s research vessel, Investigator.