Tuesday, 26 November 2019
Australian Research Council Amendment Bill 2019; Consideration in Detail
I move the Australian Greens amendment:
(1) Schedule 1, page 3 (after line 11), at the end of the Schedule, add:
4 After section 51
51A Announcements about approval of expenditure on research programs
(1) The Minister must, within 21 days after making a determination under paragraph 51(2)(b):
(a) make a public announcement of the determination; and
(b) cause a copy of the announcement to be published on the internet.
(2) The Minister must not make an announcement under subsection (1) together with any of the following:
(a) another member of parliament;
(b) a candidate in an election for the Senate or the House of Representatives.
(3) An announcement made under subsection (1) is not a legislative instrument.
(4) To avoid doubt, subsection (1) applies in addition to subsection 51(3).
(5) In this section, member of parliament means:
(a) a senator; or
(b) a member of the House of Representatives; or
(c) a Minister of State who is not a senator or member of the House of Representatives; or
(d) a person who is taken to be the President of the Senate under the Parliamentary Presiding Officers Act 1965 and who is not a senator or member of the House of Representatives; or
(e) a person who is taken to be the Speaker of the House of Representatives under the Parliamentary Presiding Officers Act 1965 and who is not a senator or member of the House of Representatives.
This government has not been a great friend of research. We've seen research and science spending decline to the lowest share of GDP since they started keeping records. That is not something that anyone should be proud of, but this government bears it as a badge of honour that it has cut science and research funding. It boasts about getting to a surplus. Well, getting to a surplus off the back of having the lowest percentage of spending on science and research since they started keeping records is a stupid set of priorities. It's an absolutely stupid set of priorities.
What is also worrying to many researchers and intending-to-be researchers who are doing amazing work across Australia is not only that the government is cutting funding to research but that it is also starting to politicise research. We've seen this happen in a number of ways over a number of years starting with the traditional, where someone from the conservative backbench gets up in parliament and reads out a list of ARC grant titles that they don't like—and it had been left there for a while. But then, recently, the Minister for Education said that he was going to refuse funding for some ARC grants that had been approved by the independently peer assessed process within the ARC. They've justified it by saying: 'Well, one of them is about post orientalist arts. Do people want their money going on post orientalist arts?' A number of other titles were listed, presuming that people wouldn't want money spent on that. My answer to the minister on that front is: I don't know. Maybe we've got a world expert in post orientalist arts here. Maybe we have got someone who can lead the field and create an international reputation for Australia. I trust the Australian Research Council to be making those assessments, that's why we have the Australian Research Council. Once politicians start getting in the way and saying, 'We're going to start knocking back grants on the basis that we don't like the title'—even when the ARC has assessed them—we are in increasingly dangerous territory.
Then we get to the point of this amendment. It hasn't stopped there, because what the government has done is something no other government has ever done, as far as I'm aware. They have issued new guidelines that say, 'Even once the Australian Research Council has approved a grant and it's been through the process, you can't announce it publicly unless you're a coalition MP,' even if it's not in your electorate and even if it's got nothing to do with you. You have to wait until you've got the public announcement of your grant. You have to wait until a coalition MP, a backbencher in a marginal seat, is ready to front up and do a press conference with you. That is an appalling abuse of the independence of the ARC. People should not have to wait to have grants publicly announced to suit the political convenience of a backbencher from the Liberal or National parties.
The fact that it is a nakedly political act is apparent from the terms of the guidelines itself. The government doesn't say, 'Grants will be announced with whoever the MP is for the relevant area.' The guidelines say, 'The announcement can only be made by a coalition MP together with the minister.' It is nakedly political. I've seen it happen in my electorate—someone came into the University of Melbourne to announce a grant that had nothing to do with them. Other members have seen it in their electorates. But this isn't about us as members of parliament; this is about researchers. This is about researchers having the confidence and the integrity in the ARC process and the way that the government goes about these decisions.
To give you an idea of how this is being interpreted by the universities and by the researchers, we had a leaked email from the University of Queensland that said, 'We are just reminding everyone: Don't announce your successful ARC grant, even though it's been independently assessed by the Australian Research Council.' They said, 'It's under embargo. We understand that the embargo is lifted by local MPs in conjunction with the Minister for Education.'
To date, two universities nationwide have been able to announce their DECRA outcomes due to the embargoes being lifted by their local MPs. UQ is waiting for its local MP, Julian Simmonds, to lift its embargo. That is how universities and researchers are feeling right now. They can't talk publicly about it until the local MP decides it is to their political convenience. That is posing enormous difficulties for the researchers, because it may mean that until there is a public announcement it may get in the way—according to what some of researchers have said—of some of them receiving funding and funding arrangements being signed. They are put in a position of uncertainty that they don't need to be put in. But it's worse than that. It sends a chilling effect into future research, because what does it do in the mind of someone who wants to apply for a research grant? They will ask themselves, 'Is this a project, that, if I put it in, a backbench Liberal Party or National Party MP might want to come and sit next to me and announce it?', or, 'Am I going to be looked upon badly and not have my grant announced publicly simply because a Liberal MP doesn't agree with it?' That is not how we should be assessing research in this country. We should leave it to the independent Australian Research Council to make their proper assessments.
Yes, there may be a role for the minister in checking off that the grants have dotted all the i's and crossed all the t's and that the money is being spent appropriately. But in terms of getting into the detail and saying, 'I'm going to refuse this grant because I don't like the title,' or, 'I'm sorry, even though that other grant is worthy and has been assessed as being independent you can't go and announce it publicly and sign your funding agreement because we've got to wait to find a Liberal or National Party MP from a completely different electorate because you just happen to be in a Labor, Greens or independent electorate,' that is not how research grants should be assessed and announced in this country.
I'm moving an amendment that puts in place a very clear process that can't be accused of being politicised. It makes it crystal clear that when a minister makes the decision to approve the grant funding—so it's not changing the processes under the act—they just publish it within 21 days so that everyone knows. It also says that the announcement is not to be made together with another MP or a candidate from the minister's own political party; they just put it up on the website so that people know.
There should be absolutely no objection to this amendment. It doesn't change the process of the ARC and it doesn't change the minister's existing powers to intervene—whatever one might say about whether those are good powers or not—but it takes the politics out of it. Researchers around the country have been crying out for the politics to be taken out of the process of announcing ARC grants. This should not be a political plaything. This is the public's money, it is not Liberal Party or National Party money that's being awarded. This is public money that is being awarded according to an independently assessed process, and the procedure that follows that should be independent, transparent and not subject to the political whims of Liberal or National Party MPs or candidates.
I would just ask the minister to respond to one simple question: if they're not going to support this amendment when it comes to announcing an independent grant that's been assessed by the ARC, then give a defence of why only Liberal and National MPs can be involved in that announcement. It's not their money; it's public money. Why can it only be announced by them? Why is it that grants have to wait until someone from a neighbouring seat or from a seat that may have nothing to do with it is available to come to the announcement? If you don't want to support this amendment, give us a simple answer as to why only Liberal or National MPs or candidates get to be involved in these announcements and why researchers should have to wait until the political needs of someone sitting in a marginal seat that may not even be the seat associated with the grant dictates it?