Senate debates

Tuesday, 11 February 2020


Australian Research Council Amendment Bill 2019; In Committee

1:15 pm

Photo of Kim CarrKim Carr (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

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?

1:24 pm

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Minister for Trade) Share this | | Hansard source

I'll attempt to answer the couple of questions in Senator Carr's speech. In relation to the $12 million Special Research Initiatives, I can advise Senator Carr that that funding is from within the Linkage Program. In relation to the grants that are cited in newspapers today, I understand that all grants were awarded in accordance with policies and guidelines, including adherence to the Defence Trade Controls Act. In relation to matters of collaboration, I would note that collaboration is an important part of successful research, including to maximise the impact and reach of that research, but of course emphasise that safeguards exist and are applied in relation to collaborative partners with whom such research is undertaken in collaboration.

1:25 pm

Photo of Mehreen FaruqiMehreen Faruqi (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I move the Greens amendment on sheet 8831:

(1) Schedule 1, page 3 (after line 11), at the end of the Schedule, add:

4 After section 51


51A Announcements about approval of expenditure on research programs

(1) The Minister must, within 21 days after making a determination under paragraph 51(2) (b):

(a) make a public announcement of the determination; and

(b) cause a copy of the announcement to be published on the internet.

(2) The Minister must not make an announcement under subsection (1) together with any of the following:

(a) another member of parliament;

(b) a candidate in an election for the Senate or the House of Representatives.

(3) An announcement made under subsection (1) is not a legislative instrument .

(4) To avoid doubt, subsection (1) applies in addition to subsection 51(3).

(5) In this section, member of parliament means:

(a) a senator; or

(b) a member of the House of Representatives; or

(c) a Minister of State who is not a senator or member of the House of Representatives; or

(d) a person who is taken to be the President of the Senate under the Parliamentary Presiding Officers Act 1965 and who is not a senator or member of the House of Representatives; or

(e) a person who is taken to be the Speaker of the House of Representatives under the Parliamentary Presiding Officers Act 1965 and who is not a senator or member of the House of Representatives.

In moving the amendment I would just like to say that this is a pretty straightforward amendment. It will give certainty to researchers and it will prevent what we have seen happen recently. It will prevent the government from playing a public relations and political game with the process and also with our future. We already know from the history of this government, from sustained funding cuts to Minister Birmingham's veto of liberal arts research and Minister Tehan's politicisation of the grants announcements, that the government has time and again disrespected researchers and, frankly, made a mockery of the ARC's independence. It was quite interesting to hear Senator Van in his speech on the bill talk about bipartisanship, when we know that is the exact opposite of what the government did recently when it completely politicised the announcements for ARC grants by locking out crossbench MPs, as well as opposition MPs, from taking any part in making announcements. We do need to make sure that our best minds are given the resources and the independence that they need to do their work and to help address some of the crucial problems that we face, problems such as the climate crisis and problems such as rising inequality. I commend the amendment to the Senate.

1:27 pm

Photo of Louise PrattLouise Pratt (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Manufacturing) Share this | | Hansard source

Labor does not support this amendment, but we understand the importance and intent of Senator Faruqi's amendment in seeking to remove the politicisation of the announcing of ARC grants. We've long held concerns about the politicisation of the ARC grants process, and I would really like to commend the work that Senator Carr has highlighted, showing how the work of the ARC has been undermined by the government. He has exposed many issues around the transparency of ministerial vetos of grants and the delay of funding for the ARC, despite grants having been ticked off and been ready for announcement. We have sought a briefing from the department—I'd like to thank Minister Birmingham and Minister Tehan for organising that. We understand and note the minister's comments that outline the administrative changes that have been undertaken and further note this is the information provided to us in the briefing that we received and that these arrangements were changed last year. The department has advised Labor in relation to Senator Faruqi's amendment that it would have unintended consequences and could delay announcements unnecessarily. As a result, we're not supporting the amendments today.

However, the onus remains on the government to do the right thing and stop announcing research grants for political purposes. We note that Senator Van announced a research grant in January for research into hail. This was only days after a hailstorm swept through the ACT. Another announcement coincidently followed bushfires. The government announced this ARC grant while you were scrambling for something to make you look reputable in the government's response to bushfires. This grant had been approved many months earlier. So, if the government does not stick to its commitments, we will be here to call it into account. The government needs to implement these commitments and be seen to do it forth rightly. We will be working with all interested parties, including the Greens, on depoliticising the grants process.

1:30 pm

Photo of Kim CarrKim Carr (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

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)

1:40 pm

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Minister for Trade) Share this | | Hansard source

I will deal with a few issues here. I note Senator Carr's remarks at the end there. As I said before, the government recognises the important role collaboration plays in maximising the impact of research projects and ensuring the success of those projects; but it should be done against strict guidelines, safeguards and practices, including in relation to sensitive matters.

Senator Carr commented that, when he was the minister, he always provided extra money for any decisions or special initiatives that were undertaken. I would make the passing observation that, when the Labor Party were in government, they provided extra money lots of times and for lots of things. That's why the budget ran a prolonged and consistent deficit that has taken much effort to bring back into balance. Sometimes you have to make decisions about what you can do within existing resources, too.

I will turn to grants, and some of the comments that have been made about me, in a second. But, firstly, I will deal with the amendment and the question that is before the chair. I thank the opposition for their indication that they will not support the Greens' amendment. Nor does the government. As has been canvassed here, the minister is the responsible and ultimate decision-maker on grant funding under the ARC Act and is accountable to the parliament and Australian taxpayers for the use of funds.

Minister Tehan has declared an intention is to improve the public's confidence in taxpayer funding to university research whilst also being focused on promoting the benefits and outcomes of grant funding, including through transparent and wide-reaching announcements that raise awareness of such valuable research. The minister has made some commitments and taken some action in that regard. On 19 October 2019, in response to representations from the sector, the minister asked the ARC to notify applicants—in practice, mostly universities—of their successful and unsuccessful outcomes under embargo in advance of any formal announcement by the government. This is a similar practice to what occurs at the National Health and Medical Research Council with its grants program. This embargo process ensures administering organisations are advised of their outcomes very soon after the minister has approved the grants, and in advance of any official announcement, so that they can share their outcomes with the research team and partner organisations within their applications. That provides universities, researchers and their collaborators with certainty about the outcomes of applications sooner than ever before, allowing successful researchers to commence their research projects, maintain their partner organisation commitments, undertake recruitment and proceed with employment contracts. Equally, it allows unsuccessful researchers to proceed with alternative plans for their research careers, including preparing applications for new ARC scheme rounds or seeking alternative sources of research funding and/or employment. This is part of our commitment to ensuring taxpayer funding for research addresses our domestic challenges, whether they be in in health, social cohesion, environment, economy or security, and drives ideas that help to facilitate growth.

I note that some have reflected upon decisions I made back in my time as minister for education. I will again place on the public record the research grants that I declined to approve—because I did note, in Senator Ayres' contribution in particular, that I don't think his characterisation of those grants bears factual analysis or reality. The grants that I declined to approve were—I'll just read the titles and funding amounts—Rioting and the Literary Archive, $228,000; A History of Australian Men's Dress 1870-1970, $325,000; Beauty and Ugliness as Persuasive Tools in Changing China's Gender Norms, $161,000; Post-Orientalist Arts in the Strait of Gibraltar, $223,00; Music Heritage and Cultural Justice in the Post-Industrial Legacy City, $227,000; Greening Media—

Photo of Kim CarrKim Carr (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

That's the car industry. That's the auto industry.

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Minister for Trade) Share this | | Hansard source

I'll take Senator Carr's interjection because, yes, indeed, I noted that Senator Ayres described that about being the impact in relation to the car industry. I think that is misleading in what that research project was seeking to do. It did have a correlation to regions in which the car industry closed, yes, but it was far from looking at the economic, social or other broad impacts of closing the car industry. It was particularly narrow in its application. I'll continue with the list: Greening Media Sport, $260,000. I assume that's the project Senator Ayres was referring to when he said I rejected a project—

Senator Pratt interjecting

I will deal with that interjection in a second too, Senator. I assume that was the project Senator Ayres had in mind when he said I had rejected a project related to the response to climate change, which, again, I think is grossly misleading. I can assure the Senate that every research project that came across my desk that dealt with how we might reduce emissions, how we might support adaptation or any such measures received my approval, as did any dealing with Indigenous studies. And again I completely reject Senator Ayres's characterisation that any of the grants I did not approve related to Australian Indigenous studies; they certainly did not.

To finish the list: Price, Medals and Materials in the Global Exchange, $392,000; Legal Secularism in Australia, $330,000; Soviet Cinema in Hollywood Before the Blacklist 1917-1950, $336,000; Writing the Struggle for Sioux Modernity, $926,000; and The Music of Nature and the Nature of Music, $464,000. Having put those on the record and dealing with Senator Pratt's interjection, no, it was not the titles. Of course, information in terms of a proposal summary was provided and then, in considering—not approving—those, I sought further information at the time from the Australian Research Council before making a final determination on those matters.

My view, as I said at the time, is that those grants would have been inconsistent with the expectations of the broader Australian community. But in the end, as minister, had I approved them I would have to defend that use of taxpayers' money and I did not believe that that would be consistent with what the Australian community would expect. I want to deal, importantly, with a few of the consequences of that. In no way did not approving those grants make any change in the dollars spent on research. There was no change to the ARC budget as a result of that. For the grants that were not approved, those dollars would have been spent and will by now have been spent, no doubt, on alternative research projects. In no way did I direct where those alternative dollars should go to. I simply indicated that I was not willing to approve those particular projects.

I note arguments about why I didn't make the rejection of those projects public at the time. I have no doubt that, if I had gone out and made rejection of the grants public at the time, Senator Carr or others probably would have accused me of political grandstanding. I was seeking to make sure that in no way were we being seen to attack any part of the research community or undermine the credibility of the research grants process. In fact, I was seeking to uphold the credibility of the research grants process by ensuring that, as minister, the only grants I was seeking to approve were those that I believed would be consistent with the expectations of the Australian community.

1:49 pm

Photo of Kim CarrKim Carr (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Minister, of the grants you just read out how many were subsequently funded by your successor?

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Minister for Trade) Share this | | Hansard source

Off the top of my head, I can't tell you, Senator Carr. I acknowledge that a number were. I know that Mr Tehan has indicated that some of those grant projects came back with amendments to them. In the end it is a ministerial discretion and determination to approve recommendations, and Mr Tehan made those decisions according to the information that was put before him. Of course, you have reflected upon the fact that he has also developed the national interest test as an additional element in assessing such grants in the future.

1:50 pm

Photo of Kim CarrKim Carr (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I might say, Minister, that you made a political decision not to fund them and the subsequent minister made a political decision to fund them. If they were so horrific to you, why were they not horrific to your successor?

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Minister for Trade) Share this | | Hansard source

As I said before, my understanding is that Mr Tehan has indicated there were amendments to some of those grant applications. I've not gone back myself and sought to second-guess the decisions that Mr Tehan has made. They are, rightly, his decisions as minister. If additional information was provided and if amendments to the grants were provided, then of course it would have been entirely appropriate for him to make a fresh decision on those matters.

1:51 pm

Photo of Louise PrattLouise Pratt (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Manufacturing) Share this | | Hansard source

Minister, are you aware that men's fashion is historically understudied in Australia relative to women's fashion?

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Minister for Trade) Share this | | Hansard source

There are many questions that I've faced in this place, but that's taken them in a new direction! In the end, as I said before, my view was that the research projects proposed were not meeting with the expectations of the broader Australian community. I acknowledge that others could differ in their assessment.

Photo of Stirling GriffStirling Griff (SA, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the amendment moved by Senator Faruqi be agreed to.