Labor tries to knock Afghans off agenda

October 12, 2001

Australia's Labor party is striving to shift the political focus from the Afghan refugee issue to higher education and other public services in the run-up to the November 10 general election.

Party leader Kim Beazley will try to highlight the government's poor record in education and health. He will point out how spending cuts have led to a crisis across the higher education system and how top private schools have received millions of dollars in additional funding at the expense of the public system.

But prime minister John Howard is expected to focus on global security and the looming world recession. He will argue that this is no time to make changes - especially with the Australian economy performing much better than that of the United States.

Although his government had been trailing in the polls all year, Mr Howard's electoral fortunes improved after an Australian naval vessel rescued a boatload of Afghan refugees who were travelling from Indonesia.

Mr Howard refused to allow the refugees into Australia and arranged for them and other groups of boat people to be sent to Christmas and Nauru islands while their refugee status was determined. After the terrorist attacks in the US, and strong indications of Afghan involvement, public opinion has backed the government's strong stance.

Mr Howard is also certain to highlight government promises to spend A$3 billion (£1 billion) over the next five years promoting innovation in universities and research institutions.

In January, the government announced its response to the report of a working group set up after a National Innovation Summit held in February last year. Mr Howard promised to:

  • Increase spending on universities by A$151 million
  • Create 21,000 extra undergraduate places
  • Provide A$736 million more for the Australian Research Council, thus doubling funding by 2005-06
  • Boost research infrastructure funding by A$583 million
  • Invest A$155 million in research facilities
  • Spend an extra A$176 million to establish centres of excellence in information and communications technologies and biotechnology.

In response, the Labor Party set up a "Knowledge Nation" task force to recommend policies covering research and development, university and school education, and vocational training. The task force's report will no doubt form the basis of Labor's election platform for education given its enthusiastic endorsement by Mr Beazley.

The report details plans to boost research efforts and tackle the brain drain, to double research and development investment by 2010, increase funding of universities, vocational education colleges and top research institutes and to build three national institutes in biotechnology, ICT and environmental management.

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