Senate debates

Monday, 18 March 2024


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

1:24 pm

Photo of Hollie HughesHollie Hughes (NSW, Liberal Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Climate Change and Energy) Share this | Hansard source

Research is important. The coalition, when we were in government, always recognised the importance of high-quality research. We want to make sure that researchers are working on the cutting edge, that their research is innovative but it's also aimed at advancing our nation, putting Australia first, and aligns with our priorities and is working towards outcomes that support our economy and our communities and our society.

There are lots and lots of brilliant minds in our country, and we, as a coalition government, wanted to work with those minds, we wanted to support those minds, we wanted to make sure that they had their chance to contribute to our wonderful country, to our community and to the economy, to actually make a contribution to what, quite often—if you look at some of the projects that Australians have been responsible for in the past—have led to changes to the global environment—we had a little bit to do with wi-fi. These projects have made significant improvements and changes to people's lives all around the world. We want to make sure that research is funded and we want to make sure that every single dollar that's spent on research is done so in a way that it is in the national interest; it's not something that goes against our interest as a country, that doesn't look like it will have any impact at all in securing and ensuring our future as we go forward.

In fact, under the coalition's $2.2 billion investment in the university research commercialisation package. This $2.2 billion was a key factor of our support, and there were key initiatives to reform Australia's research commercialisation landscape. And when we talk about research commercialisation, it's all well and good to come up with an idea in a laboratory, come up with a new product or come up with a new advancement in technology, but unless you can actually take that out and reach the marketplace, unless that can then be put into something that's actually of use to people, it doesn't achieve very much. So you do want to see a commercialisation outcome coming from a lot of the research that you're doing. We wanted to place our national priorities at the heart of that research. To think that that wouldn't remain a consistent priority is almost gobsmacking.

We wanted to make sure that funded research by the Australian government was placing our national priorities at its core. We were also looking to work with these organisations and researchers to ensure those commercialisation opportunities were something that were on their agenda, well within reach, that was well supported. We wanted to see university research funding reform that actually strengthened genuine collaboration between researchers and industry. We wanted to see researchers actually looking for things and exploring new ideas and new ways of doing things that was actually working with industry, that was working in tandem together and supporting each other. We didn't want to put good money into something that's going nowhere or goes into an outcome somewhere that no-one in industry is looking for. You want to make sure there is genuine collaboration between the two.

You also want to make sure that you're investing in the people because at the very heart of this, at the very core of this, in the organisations that conduct the research, it is an individual, it is a person doing this work. We want to make sure those people are skilled. We want to make sure they're supported. We want to make sure that they are achieving the best they can.

We did put in place a number of mechanisms to drive these reforms. There were five key strategic and targeted investments that we made. There was the 243 Trailblazer Universities Program to boost research development and to drive commercialisation outcomes. There was a $150 million capital injection to expand the CSIRO Main Sequence venture programs, which backs start-up companies to create commercial opportunities. There was $296 million for 1,800 industry PhDs, over 800 in new fellowships, the creation of a new IP framework for universities to support greater university industry collaboration and the uptake of research outputs. And, of course, there was $1.6 billion over 10 years for Australia's Economic Accelerator, a new stage-gated competitive funding program aimed to help university projects bridge the so-called valley of death on the road to commercialisation.

As I've said, it is all about making sure that industry and research are operating in tandem with each other, that we're not working in opposite directions to the other and that there is ample opportunity for those researchers, those organisations, those university-led research programs to actually commercialise whatever technology they devise and develop to ensure that allows for further investment in further research.

So where are we today? How have things changed? Why has there been the change that we now see around the way in which the Australian Research Council will work and operate and how research will be treated in this country? Like everything we see from those opposite, it is under a veil of secrecy. We know that they like to keep things as opaque as possible. They also like to remove themselves from ever being responsible or ever having to be held accountable in any shape of form. What we are seeing here is that the Minister for Education is removing his oversight of the ARC board and the grants that they are able to hand out. These are taxpayer funded. It's your money. It's all Australian taxpayers' money that is handed out for these grants, and taxpayers should expect that when the money they give to the federal government is then doled out, it is doled out with some sort of oversight. But, no, when it comes to having any sort of responsibility, this government wants to make sure that they will obfuscate, that they will remove themselves, that they will remove any transparency and that they will remove themselves from the equation, ensuring that, for any funding that's given to grants that would be deemed to be unacceptable or not in the national interest, the minister has no oversight and has no capability to actually stop the ARC board from putting forward these grants and that the minister will have no powers to revoke the grants.

Now, you might think that, under the previous coalition government, the minister was, willy-nilly, revoking funding from grants. In fact, it happened very, very rarely. It was very uncommon for grants to have their funding revoked. In fact, since 2005, in nearly 19 years, only 32 grants have been revoked, so we're not talking about hundreds—or thousands—of grants being given out for research projects; we're talking about 32 that were revoked. I know some of my colleagues have mentioned some of them, and I may take the liberty of reiterating some of them. In monetary terms we're talking about 0.53 per cent. Less than one per cent of all grants given had their money revoked, so this puts to bed any outrageous slur that may have been inferred about the coalition somehow interfering with who got and who didn't get support. In monetary terms, we're talking about less than one per cent—in fact, it was 0.53 per cent—of money that was revoked.

What we want to make sure of, though, is that, by removing this ministerial discretion on research—and we're talking about hundreds of millions of dollars here of taxpayer funds—and outsourcing these decisions to the board, this government is really trying to remove its accountability for its decisions to this place, the parliament, and then, ultimately, to all Australians, under the democratic system of responsible government. Ultimately, this is bad policy and we will be opposing it.

Fundamentally, this is the Albanese government removing itself and putting a board in charge of a very large slice of money. This outsources their responsibility, but it also puts in place a system where anything goes, so there'll be an opportunity for projects to get funding without any oversight, without any responsibility for the funding lying at the doorstep of this government or that of the minister. You might be interested to know, as, perhaps, would anyone who's listening or anyone who's watching and playing along at home or anyone who's here in the gallery, that some of the projects were deemed not to be in the national interest. You will remember that, at the core of this, our research funding is for projects that are in the national interest, that align with our national interest and with our national security, projects that ensure that our economy, our community and our society continue to move forward and have more opportunities available to them.

Among the projects that were revoked was 'Gender liminality and globalisation: transgender and transnationalism in contemporary Polynesia'. I'm not sure that has much to do with Australian society and our national interest. I heard Senator Brockman refer to 'Spectacles, dress and second-wave feminism in the Philippines'. Some other ones were 'Perverse corporealities: self-transformation and the sexual body in contemporary queer and gender theory', 'Classical love in modern times', 'Transformation in the kisaeng profession in colonial Korea' and 'Beauty and ugliness as persuasive tools in changing China's gender norms'. I'm pretty sure President Xi wouldn't be too into that one. I'm not quite sure President Xi and China will be in there with regards to looking at beauty and ugliness as persuasive tools in changing China's gender norms. I'm not quite sure China is that into changing gender norms. Far be it from me, but I'm pretty sure it's still not in Australians' national interest. I'm pretty sure those in the gallery aren't desperately searching for their wallet to chuck us down a fiver to add to that one.

Then there's, 'A history of Australian men's dress, 1870-1970', which was originally titled 'Shirt-fronted: a history of Australian men's dress, 1870-1970'. Now this one may have been revoked. As long as we don't go back to the long collars and fat ties, I think there might actually be some value there. I don't know. Maybe some of the men will get a few tips. Stick with a nice Tom Ford tuxedo or whatever it might be. Again, not really sure it's going to be pushing the national debate forward. What about 'Soviet cinema in Hollywood before the blacklist, 1917-1950'? Seriously. I know that communist Australia, it is not dead. We know that communist Australia still has its supporters—some of whom I think sit closer in this chamber. Or, thankfully not that close.

I'm not quite sure these are programs that invest in the national interest or advance our national economic, social, environmental and cultural interests. Certainly no tangible benefits. Again, I'll come back to the fat ties and the bell bottoms and the long collars. I think we can avoid those. I think that just goes without saying. Really it's not up to the taxpayer to decide these things. Yet, here we are with the minister saying, 'Don't ask me. I'm not going to have any oversight of the taxpayer funds that literally sit in my bailiwick.'

Who knows who's going to be appointed to this board? Goodness me. What's the criteria there? We can ask those questions. Not sure we'd ever get to the bottom of those. We can't even get any information on NDIS funding, which is pretty important to 600,000 Australians, so I can't see why they'd bother to give us any information about who they're going to appoint to these boards. That said, when I think about who they appointed to other boards, particularly around the National Reconstruction Fund and some of the other big issues they've put some pots of money towards. They've actually all been payments for their union mates. Quite a few of their union mates have been put straight on those boards. We have a very special friend of Senator Ayres who's managed to get on two boards since this government came to power. He's got two boards including the National Reconstruction Fund—even though they had 'a great board' according to Minister Husic. It was a great board, ready to go, open for business, but oops, 'We just realised we didn't appoint one of our union mates and we can fit him on the board.' Couple of hundred thousand dollars a year payment. Nice job if you can get it. Why would we trust who they're going to put on their board? We know it's just going to be their union mates who go on the board, make some crazy research decisions. How can we expand union membership across every single industry? I think they know what they'll be trying to do with that one.

There'll be no responsibility on the minister because the minister's approach is, 'Don't talk to me. I have no oversight. I'm washing my hands of all responsibility.' Yet again, no accountability, no transparency—all those good government promises that Albanese made. Prime Minister Albanese said, 'My word is my bond.' We know how effective that was. It was a complete load of rubbish. Every Australian can see he's completely full of rubbish, and this is Minister Clare trying to remove himself and absolve himself from any accountability or responsibility.

Let them appoint more of their board mates to research council positions, so they can probably use it to do dirty deals with the Greens to let them fund some of these crazy research projects. What was one of the good ones there, Senator O'Sullivan? I can't find the list, but there were some crackers. 'The beauty and ugliness and persuasive tools in changing China's gender norms'. I'm pretty sure the Greens would be right in on that one. 'Gender liminality and globalisation, transgender and transnationalism in contemporary Polynesia'— (Time expired)


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