Tuesday, 11 February 2020
Australian Research Council Amendment Bill 2019; In Committee
I will add a few comments. Look, I have been involved in these issues for nearly 2½ decades in this chamber. I have taken a keen interest in these matters. The question of the ARC's role in administering these programs is a crucial one, as are the ministerial interventions. We have seen circumstances which I was heavily involved with in terms of combatting Minister Nelson's interventions. He did veto a number of grants, and we did make it clear that a number of those grants and the circumstances around those grants were totally inappropriate. As with Senator Birmingham, I was the one that drew those matters to the public's attention.
Notwithstanding that, we have had conservative ministers who undertook interventions which were totally inappropriate and I believe for gross political purposes: to meet internal political questions within their own parties. I still maintain the view that ministers are ultimately responsible for the allocations of programs, because they have to sign off on them. That's why I argued the case that, if the ARC does make a recommendation under peer-review processes and that recommendation is to be rejected by a minister, the minister must put that position to the parliament. That's the position that I've always argued here, particularly if you're a Senate minister, which clearly puts you in a position where invariably you'll be in a minority. If you can't explain that, I think you'll be faced with some considerable difficulties.
The fact remains that the ARC does not get it right on every occasion. I am a strong supporter of the ARC, but I have seen it throughout what is now coming into my 28th year come Easter. I have seen examples where they have made errors. And I've made this point with regard to the centre of excellence program with regard to reefs and the situation down in Wollongong last year, where world-leading researchers were not even able to get on a shortlist. It was very difficult to explain, and I would never get an adequate explanation as to why that had happened. I think there are circumstances you can argue that ministers do need to have accountability where there have been judgement questions raised where the peer-review process has let us down, because it's not infallible. But, where that occurs, my strong view is that there has to be parliamentary accountability for the minister's action.
What occurred with Minister Birmingham's position was that he acted in secret, and that had to be exposed by chance through the estimates process. I was given a tip-off that there was a problem. I indicated to the chamber on previous occasions that I was not aware how extensive that was until I saw the process. When I saw the particular projects, I was truly horrified. I was particularly horrified by those projects and the subject of the ridicule that was visited upon those researchers. A researcher of bird songs was subjected to infamous abuse—a world-leading musicologist, an internationally famous musicologist, but when you discover they are actually doing neuroscience—oh, of course, that was a different situation entirely, wasn't it? It's one thing to abuse humanities scholars; it's another thing to abuse medical scientists. We can't do that, can we? Of course, most of those projects were subsequently re-funded—not all of them; most of them. I made inquiries. Some were actually out of time and they weren't able to be re-funded under the ARC rules. But the fact remains, in this circumstance, that if the minister felt so strongly that there had been a miscarriage of judgement then he should have come into the chamber and explained why he was exercising that discretion.
The Labor Party's position is not to give the ARC a blank cheque but to protect the integrity of the ARC to ensure the ARC has the capacity to fulfil its functions. That's why I'm concerned about the changes that are now occurring with the way in which grants are announced, and I'm particularly concerned about the assaults on the ARC through the history program and the attempts to belittle historiography in this country. I am particularly concerned that the special projects that the government has now embarked upon should have had additional money. When I was minister, when we did the SRI program, which you can do under the act, we always provided additional money to support that direction to the ARC. I can see the officers looking at one another. Check the facts and you will find that that's the case. It was a particular policy position that we adopted. That's what should have occurred. If the minister felt this was necessary, he should have provided the extra money and not taken it from other people.
I'm particularly anxious about what's happening with regard to historiography, because what we see in this government is an assumption that there are good histories and bad histories, based on political judgement. History is always, invariably, an argument. I find Pascoe's book to be a particularly good one. I know it'll be controversial. It's a particularly good book, because it argues to overturn traditional views about the nature of hunter-gatherer Indigenous society. It goes to great lengths re-examining documents from the early settler period, looking at Indigenous architecture, aquaculture, agriculture and animal husbandry. Frankly, as a student of history with quite substantial qualifications, I had not appreciated the extent and manner in which that historical interpretation had been suppressed. So, it's a very interesting book, and I think it's really worthy of close study. That doesn't mean you have to agree with every word of it. That's the nature of history. It's going to be an argument. For the government—a minister!—to say, 'I'll pick and choose what's good history and what's bad,' poses very serious questions about the way in which we discuss not just our past but our future. That troubles me enormously when it comes to the question of the allocation of research funding, given how important research funding is to the future of this nation. That's why I'm concerned.
As for the questions the minister has answered, I really do thank you, Minister, for the direct answers you've given me on the series of questions I've asked about the defence control act, government policy and the story that appeared in TheAustralian today. I want to repeat: the letter that Larry Marshall wrote to The Australian today needs to be highlighted, because it has been bastardised in the way it's been presented in The Australian. Larry Marshall is a cautious man when it comes to public comment, so we should note he has made statements such as:
To imply the Centre … poses a national security risk, without any supporting claims of fact, is alarmist and irresponsible reporting.
Those words have been deleted. He goes on to say that the centre's 'research outcomes are available in the public domain' and 'calls for greater transparency about this research are disingenuous'. Disingenuous, he says. Those words have been removed. It strikes me as quite an important matter to draw to the Senate's attention when it comes to defending the integrity of our researchers.
Minister, I thank you for your answers. I note that all too often our researchers have been subjected to vilification and outright slander. The only thing I'm disappointed in is that I believe it is not just Labor senators who should be speaking up on these matters; I think it is appropriate and timely that ministers of this government defend the integrity of our researchers. I think you would appreciate how significant the consequences are in relation to our relations with other countries. (Time expired)