Prime Minister John Howard's $2.9 billion innovation package to help Australia invest in brainpower was driven by electoral politics, commentators and political foes said on Tuesday.
The government's multibillion-dollar boost to spending on research and development (R&D), higher education and the sciences just reversed cuts in incentives and Federal support for innovation during Howard's five years in office, they said.
It was also widely regarded as a vote-winning ploy with a Federal election looming at the end of this year.
The centre-left opposition Labor Party has made education and the "knowledge nation" a key plank of its campaign, and opinion polls show education is the leading concern among voters.
"It represents a road-to-Damascus election-year conversion," wrote commentator Paul Kelly in The Australian.
"In global terms, it is a catch-up bid by Australia. In electoral terms, it puts belated polish on the Howard government's shoddy research and development credentials."
The $2.9 billion in spending over five years, announced on Monday, will double research grants, offer greater tax incentives for companies to invest in R&D, create 21,000 places for university undergraduates and improve research and university infrastructure, among other things.
WELCOMED WITH MISGIVINGS
The plan was welcomed as a step in the right direction by industry, which has criticised Howard's conservative Liberal/National coalition for slashing corporate R&D incentives.
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development figures show Australia ranks midway among 24 OECD member nations in terms of R&D investment as a percentage of gross domestic product. In business R&D expenditure, however, Australia is among the laggards.
High-tech firms blame a steady drop in R&D expenditure on the government cutting the tax concession on research and development investment to 125 percent from 150 percent. A new premium rate of 175 percent will only apply to new investment.
"Five years ago, John Howard hit the pause button on education, research and development. Now, with an election looming, he's trying to catch up," said Labor opposition leader Kim Beazley.
Beazley said investment in R&D was a third lower than it would have been had it continued to grow at the rate it did under the last Labor government, ousted by Howard in 1996.
Howard, who jokingly informed a luncheon on Monday that he was educated in the humanities and had not had much exposure to the sciences, lashed back in media interviews.
The prime minister said his government had inherited an economy left in chaos by the previous Labor administration.
It had taken him five years to get the public accounts in order, and now that the economy was sound, Australia could once again invest in its future, he said.
Despite the misgivings in some quarters, the proposals were welcomed by the scientific community.
"The policy changes should pay immense dividends in the future," said Brian Anderson, head of the Academy of Science, an independent organisation of 300 of the country's top scientists.
"They constitute not just the implementation of a repair programme. They include new policies, rather than just old policies with extra money."