Bills Digest No. 183  1997-98 Australian Science, Technology and Engineering Council Repeal Bill 1998


Numerical Index | Alphabetical Index

WARNING:
This Digest was prepared for debate. It reflects the legislation as introduced and does not canvass subsequent amendments. This Digest does not have any official legal status. Other sources should be consulted to determine the subsequent official status of the Bill.

CONTENTS

Passage History
Purpose
Background
Main Provisions
Endnotes
Contact Officer and Copyright Details

Passage History

Australian Science, Technology and Engineering Council Repeal Bill 1998

Date Introduced: 1 April 1998

House: House of Representatives

Portfolio: Industry, Science & Tourism

Commencement: Upon Royal Assent except as otherwise indicated.

Purpose

To repeal the Australian Science, Technology and Engineering Council Act 1978 and enact transitional arrangements to allow the Australian Science, Technology and Engineering Council to wind down.

Background

Scientific and technological developments generally benefit society by, among other things, generating economic growth, improving the health and well-being of citizens, protecting the environment and the sustainable use of natural resources and maintaining national security.(1)

The Australian Science, Technology and Engineering Council Act 1978 (the Principal Act) established the Australian Science, Technology and Engineering Council (the Council) to provide information and advice to the Government on the advancement of, development and practical application of scientific knowledge. The Council was not the only scientific advisory body to the Government. Two other such science advisory bodies(2) are the Prime Minister's Science, Technology and Engineering Council (PMSEC) and the Coordination Committee on Science and Technology (CCST).

The Council's 1996-97 Annual Report claims that the Council's strengths are that it has:

  • Independence guaranteed by legislation;
  • A broad science, technology and engineering perspective;
  • A charter to take a long-term view;
  • An ability to consult widely with community interests;
  • An ability to balance conflicting views; and
  • Advice that is independent of a vested interest.(3)

Following the June 1996 National Commission of Audit report, which commented on gaps and overlaps in the fields of science and technology, the Chief Scientist, Professor John Stocker, was (in February 1997) asked to undertake a review of Commonwealth science and technology arrangements. The review involved extensive consultation and considered some 95 submissions received from individuals and representatives of major government departments and agencies as well as from representatives of the science and technology communities. The final report was entitled Priority Matters and was tabled in June 1997. The report made 21 recommendations. These included the better identification of national priorities for science and technology.

Of relevance to this Bill, the report Priority Matters recommended that:

  • The Australian Science, Technology and Engineering Council (ASTEC) should become a standing committee of PMSEC, with the tasks of preparing 'key issues' papers and presentations for PMSEC, and undertaking the consultation, information gathering and analysis necessary to provide PMSEC with information and advice on national science and technology priorities;
  • ASTEC should be made up of the non-Ministerial members of PMSEC, and should be Chaired by the Chief Scientist;
  • ASTEC should remain a statutory body;
  • National level priority identification for science and technology should be undertaken by PMSEC supported by ASTEC and the CCST, with the Chief Scientist taking the leading executive role; and
  • As an initial task, ASTEC should develop the priority identification framework and methods further, and propose an approach to PMSEC for consideration.(4)

Priority Matters also identified a number of gaps and overlaps in scientific disciplines. The report noted that because of 'our small size compared with the world's research and technology effort, gaps in Australia's coverage of research and technology are inevitable'.(5) Some of the gaps identified in the report include Australia's management of its extensive Exclusive Economic Zone; research in areas of soil conservation and the general understanding of ecology and biodiversity; and in the use of the CRC mechanism for 'public-good' research.(6)

The Government response noted that the Prime Minister had already announced the establishment of a 'new high level advisory body, the Prime Minister's Science, Engineering and Innovation Council' which will be 'the Government's principal source of advice on issues in science, engineering and technology, and relevant aspects of education and training.'(7) The Government response did not accept the recommendation of Professor Stocker's report that ASTEC remain a statutory body. The response noted that:

The Council will be a non-statutory body. The Government does not consider it necessary for a body whose function is advisory to have a statutory basis.(8)

There have also been calls, for example by Dr Peter Pockley, Science Journalist, for a 'national voice for science which is broadly representative, combined and truly independent of government.'(9)

Main Provisions

Item 1 of Schedule 1 repeals the Principal Act.

Item 2 provides that notwithstanding the repeal of the Principal Act, the Council continues to exist after the date that Schedule 1 commences (which is to be fixed by Proclamation) so that the Council can prepare its final annual report for the period 1 July 1997 to the date that Schedule 1 commences.

The Principal Act provides (in section 6) that the Council must report to the Minister on matters requested by the Minister but that they may also report to the Minister on such matters relating to their functions as they think fit. In the latter case, the Minister is entitled to keep the report confidential and not table it (or table an edited version) if the Minister is satisfied that it was a confidential communication or that it is not in the national interest or will prejudice the security, defence or international relations of Australia (or relations between the Commonwealth and any State). These provisions are continued in Item 2.

Section 25 of the Principal Act protects members and staff of the Council as well as people serving on committees assisting the Council or consultants to the Council, as well as to officers or employees of Commonwealth authorities that are performing services for the Council from being sued for acts done in good faith for the purposes of the Principal Act. Item 3 provides for the continuation of such immunity after the repeal of the Principal Act.

Section 26 of the Principal Act imposes secrecy requirements on members and staff of the Council as well as people serving on committees assisting the Council or consultants to the Council as well as to officers or employees of Commonwealth authorities that are performing services for the Council. The Principal Act does provide exceptions, such as when the documents are required by a court. Item 4 maintains these secrecy requirements and exceptions. So, for example, it is an offence (and continues to be an offence under the Bill) to (without the permission of the Minister) make a record of, divulge or otherwise communicate to any person information acquired by reason of appointment under the Principal Act. Similarly it continues to be an offence to produce or otherwise supply documents without the permission of the Minister to a person outside the Council. The penalty for breaching the secrecy requirements will be increased to 30 penalty units. Under section 4AA of the Crimes Act 1914, one penalty unit is currently $110.00.

Endnotes

1. National Goals and Priority Setting by Government Science and Technology Agencies, December 1994, Paper prepared for the Coordination Committee on Science and Technology, 3.

2. Press Release of Mr Peter McGauran MP 24 June 1997.

3. Australian Science, Technology and Engineering Council Annual Report 1996-97, 1.

4. Priority Matters (June 1997) Report to the Minister for Science and Technology on Arrangements for Commonwealth Science and Technology by the Chief Scientist, Professor John Stocker, 2-3

5. Priority Matters (June 1997) Report to the Minister for Science and Technology on Arrangements for Commonwealth Science and Technology by the Chief Scientist, Professor John Stocker, 9.

6. Priority Matters (June 1997) Report to the Minister for Science and Technology on Arrangements for Commonwealth Science and Technology by the Chief Scientist, Professor John Stocker, 10.

7. Government Response to 'Priority Matters', Dept. of Industry Science & Tourism, 1998, 2.

8. Ibid. 3.

9. Dr Peter Pockley, interviewed by Robyn Williams on the Science Show 28 June 1997.

 

Contact Officer and Copyright Details

Susan Downing
27 April 1998
Bills Digest Service
Information and Research Services

This paper has been prepared for general distribution to Senators and Members of the Australian Parliament. While great care is taken to ensure that the paper is accurate and balanced, the paper is written using information publicly available at the time of production. The views expressed are those of the author and should not be attributed to the Information and Research Services (IRS). Advice on legislation or legal policy issues contained in this paper is provided for use in parliamentary debate and for related parliamentary purposes. This paper is not professional legal opinion. Readers are reminded that the paper is not an official parliamentary or Australian government document.

IRS staff are available to discuss the paper's contents with Senators and Members
and their staff but not with members of the public.

ISSN 1328-8091
Commonwealth of Australia 1998

Except to the extent of the uses permitted under the Copyright Act 1968, no part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without the prior written consent of the Parliamentary Library, other than by Members of the Australian Parliament in the course of their official duties.

Published by the Department of the Parliamentary Library, 1998.



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