Senate debates

Monday, 18 March 2024


Australian Research Council Amendment (Review Response) Bill 2023; Second Reading

12:37 pm

Photo of Sarah HendersonSarah Henderson (Victoria, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Education) Share this | Hansard source

I was saying that the government must remain accountable for the expenditure of taxpayers' money and that, if this ARC Board goes on a frolic of its own and starts irresponsibly approving improper expenditure, which is most improper in itself, the taxpayer will suffer. I make the point in relation to this irresponsible proposal to remove ministerial discretion on ARC grant programs that ministerial discretion exists for most programs across government. This discretion ensures that taxpayers' money is spent on projects which align with the national interest and on things that will advance Australia as a nation. So, despite protests by the government that it is taking the so-called politics out of the ARC, what it is actually doing is removing itself from any accountability in relation to a very large amount of funds which are spent in the name of the taxpayer. This is not only lazy and unacceptable but most improper.

The government and the Greens have concocted a ridiculous narrative claiming political intervention by the coalition, and I just want to reiterate that the coalition objected to just 32 grant decisions since 2005—just 32. Many of these grant decisions included excess travel costs to international destinations. The projects, by their very nature, did not make it clear how they would advance Australia's interests. So, for example, I will refer to a $200,000 project titled 'Classical love in modern times: transformations in the keystaging profession in colonial Korea'. There was $124,000 on a project titled 'Queer career: a cultural history'; and $161,000 on a project called 'On beauty and ugliness as persuasive tools in changing China's gender norms'.

I'm not disputing that there may be some merit in this research, if a researcher wants to fund this research him or herself, or an institution wants to fund this research. But this is not the type of research which should be funded by the taxpayer. The absolute sheer hypocrisy of this government in running this pathetic narrative, claiming they're taking the politics out of the ARC, when in fact the minister is preserving his right to approve grants concerning tens of millions of dollars—they are the projects which give him the opportunity to cut the ribbon, to make the big announcements. I mean, it is absolutely pathetic. And it is a reflection of this pathetic government, pathetic in so many respects, pathetic in safeguarding taxpayers' money. So removing ministerial discretion is just absurd, and regrettably the Greens played into the government's hands in not even calling out this hypocrisy.

The Australian Research Council receives more than $1 billion in funding each year, with nearly $900 million distributed through grants. We are talking an incredible amount of money. Taxpayers have a right to know where their money is going, and to expect the government of the day to ensure it is spent on projects which will support the Australian people. That's a key issue here. The government has absolved itself from its responsibility. Hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayers money will now be outsourced to a so-called independent board. Where are the safeguards to stop the board going on a frolic of its own? Say there's an application for a research program of $500,000 that involves $400,000 of international travel and accommodation with dubious merit. This weak and pathetic minister now puts himself and the government in the position where he can no longer intervene. That is an absolute disgrace. The taxpayers of this country deserve better than that. The government doesn't even have the temerity to produce the ARC financial sustainability report, which it's also trying to keep secret—another shocking example of this completely appalling government.


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