Tuesday, 11 February 2020
Australian Research Council Amendment Bill 2019; In Committee
I would like to raise with the minister some matters in regard to the special research initiative that was flagged by the minister recently, particularly whether or not the $12 million that's been referred to is, in fact, new money. But I'd also like to raise some other matters, because the ARC was under attack this morning by a new wave of assault. Further to this program, this process of politicisation of ARC grants appears to have had some receptive hearing within the government ranks, and it follows a similar pattern. The Australian has reported that $262 million in grants have been awarded since 2014 to projects involving Chinese organisations. Four of these projects involved the telco Huawei. My question there specifically is: were any of these grants awarded in breach of government policy? It clearly follows a similar pattern where an unproven allegation about a purported security risk in collaboration between Australian and Chinese researchers is asserted, and then the facts seem to be ignored, particularly in regard to whether or not the project has passed the very strict security processes imposed by the Defence Trade Controls Act. Have any of these matters been in breach of the Defence Trade Controls Act, Minister? A further aspect of these campaigns seems to be that an unproven allegation is made and reported, impugning the loyalty and good standing of respected Australian researchers.
I referred to some $262 million in grants. These grants, according to The Australian, included 'work on advanced materials and coatings, cryptography, quantum computing, next-generation radio technologies and machine learning'. It's alleged that there have been grave concerns because the research could have 'military applications'. It uses words such as 'could have', 'might have' and 'may be'. This is the usual pattern: there are dark conjectures about alleged possibilities, but there are no proven facts. There's no acknowledgement of the most fundamental fact of all: that these grants occurred, I will assert, under government policy; that, throughout this period, the government has actually encouraged collaboration with People's Republic of China research institutes; that it's been the policy of the Commonwealth of Australia that such practices take place, under the conditions imposed by the Defence Trade Controls Act, the strictest regime; and that no breaches have been reported in meeting those conditions. Minister, I would ask whether or not you can confirm that is the fact, as distinct from the implication in the paper today.
What we saw is that the ARC grant process includes a national interest test. We know this follows previous tests that were in place with very similar wording, so there was no real difference; nonetheless, those on the government side have expressed horror at the thought of this collaboration between Australian and Chinese researchers. At estimates, Senator Abetz asked a question about the grants. I didn't see this quote in the paper this morning, but Senator Abetz said in the paper today that these grant allocations had been 'deeply disturbing'—deeply disturbing, it was reported. Senator Abetz asked another question at estimates. He asked: 'Since its introduction, how many applications for the ARC funding have been rejected on the basis of failing the national interest test?' You'll be surprised to hear this, Minister Birmingham, but the answer was simple, direct and emphatic; the answer was 'none'. I must have missed that in the paper this morning.
Given there was an assessment of the provisions of the Defence Trade Controls Act and no evidence of a security threat was discovered in any of these grants by the Australian Research Council, and given all of these grants have been signed off by a minister of the Crown, I'm wondering how it can be that there is a threat to our security. I'm wondering how undermining the integrity of the grants process through the politicisation of the grants process actually enhances our security.
We've seen too often now the growing politicisation of the process. We saw it in the special research initiatives that the minister announced just recently. Minister, you'll be able to tell me whether or not there's any new money involved in that. The minister announced we need 'fewer people telling us what to think'. Well, I'm just wondering where in this process we would actually establish that we would have fewer people telling us what to think. I'm also wondering how making such an announcement on a day of global significance—namely, the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army—fits into the minister's process of ensuring that our understanding of history takes a more domestic and narrow focus; how a knowledge of our history will help us 'break the cycle of Australia Day antagonism' on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz—whether or not there were any global implications of such an event.
If these SRI funds are to be allocated through a normal peer-review process without political interference, I'm just wondering how the outcomes might be different from the present arrangements; how we would see the process change from the way in which grants are allocated at the moment. What happens when a historic inquiry is undertaken under the directions of a political process from a minister who seems to know better than peer-reviewed processes, a minister who seems to want a situation where we have fewer people telling us what to think? How does the process that the minister has outlined produce a result where we have fewer people telling us what to think? How is it that the historical process will be improved when the minister determines what's politically acceptable and what's not?