Senate debates

Thursday, 15 November 2018


Australian Research Council; Order for the Production of Documents

4:18 pm

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party, Minister for Regional Services) Share this | | Hansard source

I table a letter in relation to an order of the Senate of 13 November 2018.

Photo of Kim CarrKim Carr (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the document.

The government has sought to claim executive privilege in regard to the release of the incoming ministers brief from the Australian Research Council, claiming public interest immunity on the basis that release of the documents would prejudice relations with the Commonwealth and the states. I might indicate that this is inconsistent with the approach that's been taken with the release of other incoming ministers briefs in recent times, which we've seen with the Department of Defence, the Special Minister of State and the childcare section of the Department of Education and Training. I know that in 2010 many departmental or government documents were also released. So I put it to the Senate that the government's assertions in this letter that's been tabled by Senator McKenzie on behalf of the Minister for Education are simply not credible.

What we have here is a proposition which really is seeking to disguise or hide the fact that this government is now engaged in a comprehensive assault upon universities and their role in the life of this nation. Hardly a day goes by in which this government does not bring forward yet another attack upon universities. The idea of the university itself seems to be under assault by this government. The idea of autonomous, self-accrediting institutions devoted to free and independent inquiry is something that this government finds that it can't accept. It regards the university system as essentially hostile to its interests, and, as a consequence, the universities are to be harassed by this government. Specifically, we've seen this in the government's rejection of 11 grants in the humanities and social sciences under the former education minister, Minister Birmingham, which he sought to keep secret until it was revealed through the Senate estimates. We saw 11 grant applications from outstanding, internationally renowned scholars—all of which were recommended through proper, due peer review processes and assessed as being worthy of support, and some of which were unprecedented in their areas—subject to veto. This was a clear political intervention in contravention of the Haldane principles, which have been established in our political system, I might say, for well over 100 years. Of course, this is a circumstance we haven't seen since the last occasion when this happened, when Minister Brendan Nelson sought to do similar things.

When I was minister, we established a practice whereby, if the ARC's recommendations were not accepted, there was to be a public declaration setting out the reasons why ministers should reject the grant. Little did we know that that convention, which had been agreed on a bipartisan basis, was to be rejected. These actions were taken in secret, and the scholars were not to be informed. In fact, the ARC appears to have been instructed not to do so.

We now know that the government have further sought to cover up this disgraceful performance by seeking to impose new conditions on research grants in this country, by the establishment of what they call a national interest test. The current application process already has built into it a national interest test. People seeking to secure support from the ARC are required not only to demonstrate how their projects meet the requirements of a peer review by demonstrating their competence, their capability and their contribution to new knowledge but also to meet the national science and research priorities. They also have to demonstrate economic, social and cultural advantages to the nation. These are the terms that Minister Tehan outlined when he spoke on these matters on Radio National only recently. So what's redundant about those arrangements that the minister feels the need to impose yet further restrictions on the grant and, in fact, to delay the current round of grant applications? Some $300 million worth of grants are being delayed until after Christmas—in fact, until February—leaving a high level of uncertainty for those who are seeking the grants, many of whose jobs depend upon access to this money and many of whom won't know whether or not they are to be employed.

On top of that, the minister, as part of this assault on the university system, has now sought further impositions of national interest by declaring a national security provision, notwithstanding that there is a current review put in place through various defence arrangements to see how effectively the Defence Trade Controls Act is working. Not one example of breaches of those national control provisions or the legislation supporting them has been demonstrated through the processes of this parliament. Not one example has there been of the operations of our research agencies in regard to those arrangements. Yet the Department of Defence brings forward new proposals to have unparalleled overreach powers in regard to the capacity to search, seize and suppress research, and to do so without a warrant and without judicial processes. That would be undermining the processes that were established in 2015, which provide that balance between the needs of the security agencies and the needs of our researchers to ensure that they're able to work in collaborations with international research agencies.

On top of that, we now have a situation where the government has sought to claim that it's funding regional students by taking money out of the research budget. For instance, it's funding students at Berwick, claiming that it is a regional campus. It's in suburban Melbourne, some 37 kilometres from the CBD. It just happens to be in a marginal seat. The government is now taking that money out of the research program, costing the Group of Eight universities alone some 550 jobs. We've got the situation at Caboolture, another suburban campus which the government claimed was a regional campus, where money was paid to the University of the Sunshine Coast to take the facility, and money was taken off the Queensland University of Technology, in terms of their grants, not once but twice. Now the government are faced with the reality. When they have frozen the funding arrangements for regional universities, the consequences become clear. And what do they do? They launch an attack on universities themselves.

Today, the minister made further claims there is no research undertaken by the ARC on education. He made assertions that that's the case, when it's demonstrably untrue in terms of what the ARC has actually done. Furthermore, given the fact that this government closed down the Office for Learning and Teaching, which was the body that did the bulk of the education research in this country, it is profoundly ironic that the government should seek to assert that it's the universities themselves that are at fault—for government policies. Is it any surprise the government doesn't want to release documents?

What we've got now is a renewal of the culture wars against the university system in this country. We've got a government that commissioned a review into free speech. What, the IPA don't get enough of a say in this government that they want to impose their desire to get more right-wingers up in universities? We know, of course, that the knuckle-draggers have seized control of this government—the philistines that seek to demean researchers that have an international reputation. This government claim that it's acting in the people's interest, when in reality we know what this is about. It's an attempt to appease the shock jocks and the most backward elements of this coalition. It's a contemptible approach seeking to undermine the fundamental principles of the way in which our university system works—a mechanism that actually undermines the quality of our university system and our capacity, through our research system, to develop new knowledge, new technologies and new jobs, and to keep us at the cutting edge.

This is a government that seems to have stopped listening, dominated by a party that stopped listening about 10 years ago. They continue to repeat the mistakes that we saw in the Howard government, and in their last, desperate throes— (Time expired)

Question agreed to.