Senate debates

Tuesday, 11 February 2020


Australian Research Council Amendment Bill 2019; Second Reading

12:01 pm

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

Today we have before the chamber the Australian Research Council Amendment Bill 2019. Labor do not oppose this bill; however, we do have significant concerns with the government's track record in this space.

The bill before us applies indexation of funding for the Australian Research Council to the existing appropriation amounts for approved research grants between 2019 and 2022. It also inserts a funding cap for financial year 2022-23 by amending the Australian Research Council Act. However, let's not pretend that this government is in any way committed to higher education and Australia's global competitiveness in research and development in our nation. Time and time again, this government's track record has been to undermine Australian universities as well as research and development in this country.

Under the coalition we have seen some $328½ million ripped from university research. Universities Australia, the peak body for Australian universities, has forecast that government investment in research and development in Australia is set to reach its lowest level as a share of our economy in four decades—that is, just half a per cent of GDP in 2019. Senators—through you, Madam Deputy President—that is lower than the level of investment that we had as a nation in 1978. Despite the forecasts, last year's midyear update cut $328½ million from research funding. Universities Australia said at the time that such deep cuts to university research were 'a ram raid on Australia's future economic growth, prosperity, health and development'.

We also know, as has been well debated in this place, that ministerial vetos have been used to restrict funding for research that doesn't support the education minister's world view. Political interference in independent, peer-reviewed grant processes is absolutely unacceptable. The ARC has a rigorous process for coming up with its recommendations on research funding, and it should not be interfered with. Ministers should rely on expert advice for the awarding of these grants and should have no role in picking and choosing which individual grants should be funded. I also note that the current government has started delaying the announcements of these grants to suit local political announcements so that they can do this with local members. This is unreasonably interfering with universities' and academics' control over these grants and their independence.

Labor, on the other hand, is very proud of our record in this space, supporting universities in their research and their education roles. We can't separate this debate about funding for the ARC from the more than $2 billion that has been ripped from Australia's universities. This has seen some 200,000 Australians denied the opportunity of a university education. We used to have a system that was demand driven and this government reduced it to a cap—a cap that is only just starting now to return to population growth; it doesn't even closely meet demand. Labor went to the election with a strong plan to invest in our universities that would have seen thousands more Australians get the chance to get a degree. That means thousands more Australians—many, many more clever Australians—involved in the kind of research that an advanced economy like ours needs.

We know that Australia will need an additional 3.8 million university qualifications by 2025. Yet when it comes to our higher education system, we have seen this government's policy, time and time again, has been simply to cut and cut. This flows through not just to opportunities for Australians but also to our nation's research outcomes. These cuts have come at a time when our ranking and spending globally on research and development is falling. The latest growth expenditure in research and development as a proportion of GDP has decreased from 1.88 per cent to 1.79 per cent according to the latest data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. The total human resources devoted to business R&D is still well below what was devoted when the government took office. In 2013-14, total person years of effort was almost five per cent lower. In other legislation before this place, in the R&D tax incentive bill, we can't see any improvement in these figures. Business R&D spending has hit 0.9 per cent of GDP, falling below one per cent of GDP in previous data. It's simply not good enough to have this downward overall trend in research and development under this government's watch—one that stakeholders can see could be exacerbated by the very legislation before us.

Recently the Australian Institute of Company Directors detailed in their report that Australia's total gross domestic spending on R&D is currently ranked 21st within the OECD, and that while the global trend is for national business expenditure on R&D to grow, they say—and the figures are there—that Australia's has fallen. Our investment levels are below countries such as South Korea, Israel, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Singapore. We are close to the bottom of the OECD rankings for collaboration between industry and researchers and, according to the OECD index of research and development investment by government, Australia sits at 107, having fallen from 114 in 2017-18.

Good quality research and development in this country is absolutely critical to our success as a nation. It's critical to the sustainment of so many different industries as our economy navigates periods of really fast innovation. It leads people to conclude that this government cannot be trusted with education and cannot be trusted with research and development. On the other hand, I'm really proud of our track record. We uncapped university places in 2008, when we were in government, and I can proudly tell the chamber that by 2016 the number of students from poorer backgrounds was up by 55 per cent. Indigenous student numbers had jumped by 89 per cent, enrolments of students with a disability had more than doubled and enrolments of students from country areas had grown by 48 per cent. By 2016, an extra 220,000 students had had the opportunity of a uni education. Many of these students were the first in their family to attend university.

Two hundred thousand more students: that is about the same number, according to modelling, who have missed out under this government's watch. This has a direct impact on the skills our economy needs to innovate and to conduct research and development. The Australian Industry Group said that 75 per cent of businesses it had surveyed are struggling to find the qualified workers they need. That is a great shame, because we know that a great education is a ticket to a lifetime of opportunity for individuals and a ticket to a wealthier and more productive nation. It is a ticket to world-class research that benefits everybody. A university education transforms the lives of individuals and is one of the best investments that any government can make. It has the power to close the gap in just one generation and has a spillover effect on our whole community. Investing in maintaining our world-class universities is good for all of us. Maintaining the independence and integrity of the Australian Research Council is good for all of us, as is funding it properly. We're extremely disappointed that the government chose to tie funding for national disaster relief to education and infrastructure funding last year. When the government moved to abolish the Education Investment Fund, this stripped universities of much-needed capital support for their research.

When you lock someone out of an education you lock them out of a job. But when you block research you damage Australia's international competitiveness and undermine growth in skilled, well-paid jobs. We on the Labor side in this place call on Simon Birmingham to explain, which he has not done, his decision when, as Minister for Education and Training, he sought to overrule the ARC's recommendations. Ministers in general should be called on to publicly explain when they veto an ARC recommendation, which is still possible under the current act but should not be possible at all. Simon Birmingham, when education minister, vetoed 11 research projects that were specifically recommended by the Australian Research Council. There was no public announcement of these decisions, but the decisions came to light at Senate estimates in evidence given by the Australian Research Council. Senator Birmingham was asked to justify his decisions and said simply that the 11 projects were not in the national interest. He did not say what he meant by that. The 11 projects that Senator Birmingham decided were not in the national interest included research into the social impact of shutting down the Australian car industry, research into responses to climate change by the MCG and other sporting venues, and a comparative study of Indigenous politics in the United States and Australia.

We know that when Minister Tehan took over from Senator Birmingham he defended his predecessor's intervention. He announced that grants would now be subject to a new national interest test. This completely overlooks the fact that applicants were already required to submit an impact statement setting out their project's compliance with national priorities in science and research and explaining how it would maximise economic, environmental, social and/or cultural benefit to Australia. So we have Dan Tehan's new 'tick a box' form of notification of ministerial intervention. This does not go far enough. Ministers must be prepared to front up and explain their decisions. The Australian Research Council was also subjected to political interference under Minister Brendan Nelson when he vetoed 10 projects in the humanities and climate change research area. It appears that climate change denial is a longstanding tradition among Liberal Party members and that that denial knows no bounds even when it comes to important research on climate change.

The government has politicised university research grants even further. I note that Australian researchers have accused the coalition government of delaying the announcement of grants for political advantage. Researchers have had to comply with embargoes of up to a month until the grants are formally announced by Minister for Education Dan Tehan, often through a press release with a coalition MP. We've even seen MPs from the coalition in lower house seats make research announcements in Labor or Greens seats. That's pretty extraordinary. Universities Australia has complained about the logistical challenge to universities in satisfying the dual requirements of maintaining an embargo on the grant whilst pursuing activities in relation to the operation of the grant. I call on the government to take that issue seriously.

Today in the chamber— (Time expired)

12:16 pm

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

I rise to speak on the Australian Research Council Amendment Bill 2019. This bill merely indexes the Australian Research Council's funding to keep pace with inflation. That's not good enough; frankly, it's pathetic. We need to make sure that our best minds are given the resources that they need to help us face the twin crises of the climate emergency and rising inequality. At the last election, the Greens' fully costed education and research package would have delivered a $2.5 billion boost to the Australian Research Council, the National Health and Medical Research Council and the cooperative research centres over the next decade. That is exactly the kind of funding we need to move into the future and tackle the climate emergency.

Instead of following our lead in funding and the research to build a more equal and just society, the government has, time and again, disrespected researchers and cut research funding. Take, for example, the $130 million per year that has been cut from research block grants since MYEFO in 2018, or the $6.7 million cut to Australian Research Council funding, or indeed the $6.7 million taken from the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy. And that's not to mention the freeze on Commonwealth student places, and stagnant funding for undergraduates that is blocking the pipeline for future researchers.

This government's disrespect for research goes well beyond their funding cuts. We've seen it in former Minister Birmingham's veto of 11 Australian Research Council grants in humanities, which typified the Liberals' willingness to violate academic independence to please their conservative mates. When I joined the Senate, the first bill I introduced in here was to remove the education minister's power of veto over research grants. I remain absolutely committed to the work of our academics and researchers—work that is free from any government interference.

We saw this government's disrespect for research just last year, when Minister Tehan left researchers in painful limbo by deciding on their grant applications but refusing to announce the decision because he wanted to squeeze the announcement for political juice. He made a mockery of the Australian Research Council's independence and disrupted the lives and work of researchers by announcing grants for early career researchers in a piecemeal way in coordinated media opportunities with MPs in press releases, instead of the usual practice of announcing them all at once so that researchers can get on and do their work. This prevented researchers finalising funding deals or seeking feedback and moving on to other research if their applications were unsuccessful. Even more shamelessly, the education minister shut some local opposition and crossbench MPs out of announcements in their electorates and allowed government MPs from nearby electorates to do this.

This government is not satisfied just with rorting the sports grants program. It is not satisfied with splashing $100 million of cash in marginal coalition electorates through its sports infrastructure fund. This government is not satisfied by funnelling $150 million into swimming pools also in marginal coalition electorates. On top of this sports rort, you went ahead with a research rort as well. In the light of this ridiculous politicisation of vital research processes, I foreshadow that I will be moving an amendment to protect researchers and to protect the independence of the Australian Research Council by requiring that the minister publish decisions approving research expenditure within 21 days of the decision being made and stipulating that the minister must not make an announcement on recent expenditure with any other member of parliament. I do urge the opposition and the crossbench to support this amendment, which is a step towards the independence of the ARC and their research grants.

The Greens are proud to support Australian researchers. This amendment will give certainty to researchers and prevent the government playing public relations games with their future and with our future. I do urge the Senate to support it.

12:21 pm

Photo of James McGrathJames McGrath (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Australian Research Council Amendment Bill 2019. One of the great achievements of this government—there have been many great achievements—has been its investment in science, research and innovation, something that I believe the Australian people, especially those from Queensland, recognised at the last election. Queensland is renowned for having people who basically are brain boxes. We're a lot smarter than the rest of the country, and that was recognised at the last election—sorry, cabinet minister from New South Wales—when 23 out of the 30 seats in Queensland returned a Liberal National Party member. Queensland understands and respects how this Liberal National Party government spends funds and makes sure we are the guardians of the taxpayer funds, because it is not the government's money. It's not the Greens' money.

I heard Senator Faruqi before talking about how she would like to spend more money. That's nice, because that means Senator Faruqi and the Greens want more taxes and they want to tax the people who work hard and who make sure that Australia drives forward. We on this side of the chamber, the Liberal National Party, make sure that the taxpayer funds are spent appropriately. In 2018-19 the Liberal-National coalition government committed $9.6 billion of taxpayer funds to the areas of science, research and innovation. Now, that mightn't be much to the senators from the other side, because they're very good at wasting money—they're in the Guinness book of records. There are photos of the shadow cabinets and previous cabinets of Labor administrations that have been world record breakers at wasting money, but $9.6 billion is a lot of money. We've got to make sure that that money is spent appropriately, cautiously and in the right area.

It gets even better for the research sector. Over the next four years, the Liberal-National coalition government will invest $12.4 billion in education. That's not 'million'; it is 'billion'. That is a lot of money. That includes $8 billion through research block grants provided to universities and $3.3 billion in funding provided through the Australian Research Council. This government understands the importance of research and understands the importance of science. It's why, since 2013, for example, we've been prioritising STEM in terms of making sure that element of schooling is focused upon. Minister Andrews, a former engineer and the minister in one of these spaces here, is pushing forward to make sure we get more young people, especially more young women, into these areas. We're also making sure the money is going into these areas.

This goes to an earlier point I was making. You cannot spend these record amounts of money, these billions of dollars, unless you are looking after the economy. You can't all go to some Swiss bank, get a MasterCard out and say, 'We'd like to borrow a couple of billion dollars, $3.3 billion, to fund the Australian Research Council.' We can't keep going overseas and borrowing money off people; we have to make sure we live within our means in Australia. That's why our government in Australia, this Liberal National Party government, understand we have to live within our means, to make sure that there are low taxes, because we believe people are better judges to make sure the money they worked hard for is spent by them, and that the taxes raised are spent appropriately. We make sure business is encouraged to employ more people, to invest in business and grow. We want to encourage people to start their own businesses, so they can get out there and earn money.

We don't want to have the Labor and Greens approach of having a drone-like economy where people are constantly sanded down and all they're seen as is just cash cows for left-wing projects. We understand the majesty of people, the majesty of innovation that can happen in Australia with freedom. That comes from having a government who understands that low taxes work. When you get the money in, you invest it wisely. We already heard here today that the Greens want to spend more money and more money and more money. That's nice. There's no such thing as free money. There's no such thing as a nice international bank that's going to send lots of cheques over to the Greens and say, 'Here you go; spend all this money.' The money the Greens want to spend comes from taxes and will come from increasing taxes on hardworking Australians.

We've also supported a further $2.2 billion investment in world-class research, equipment and facilities through the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy. The government invests in research because we recognise its role in securing a strong and prosperous economy. The Australian Research Council supports a wide variety of fundamental and applied research projects. I'll be brutally honest: sometimes they put investment into projects where I raise one or two eyebrows and probably roll my eyes, but I understand the importance of the research sector. The government is supporting the next generation of researchers as well as Australia's current generation of excellent researchers through the research funding schemes of the Australian Research Council, with around $770 million of funding allocated to the council this year.

This is not the government's money. I keep stressing this. This is taxpayer money. On this side of the chamber we want to make sure that taxpayer money is being spent appropriately. We don't want to see an equivalent of 'cash-for-clunkers'. We don't want to see an equivalent of the pink batts scheme. We don't want to see an equivalent of what Labor did in their last term, sending out cheques to dead dogs and things like that. We want to make sure that taxpayer money is being spent appropriately.

What this bill does is update the appropriation in the Australian Research Council Act 2001 with current indexation rates across the forward estimates. It is an annual exercise to ensure the council's funding is maintained in line with indexation. The Australian Research Council Act is the legislative basis that supports the financial operations of the Australian Research Council's research programs. It does this through special appropriation mechanisms which must occur each financial year. Each year the special appropriation funding caps—that is, sections 48 and 49 in the Australian Research Council Act—are amended. The funding caps are amended to reflect the latest agreed funding profile as established in the 2019-20 budget. That is a very important budget that we should always spend more time focusing on. It is a budget where Treasurer Josh Frydenberg laid out a very strong plan—building on the work of previous treasurers in this government—for how we're going to get this budget back into the black and, importantly, pay down the national debt that was racked up by the reckless spending of the previous Labor administrations. It is only by managing the economy carefully—by ensuring the guardianship of important taxpayers like pay-as-you-go taxpayers and businesses that grow and have income and pay company tax, and by making sure they have the aspiration to work hard and make their lives better and make Australia a better place—that the government can receive taxation income and spend that money in areas such as this.

Because if you do not have a well-run economy, if you do not live within your means, that will conclude with important programs like the Australian Research Council not being funded. If you look at what happens in the recent history of this country, Labor will get in and they will stuff the economy up. And that is a very analytical term: 'stuff the economy up'. You can look at the periods 1972 to 1975, 1983 to 1996 and 2007 to 2013. What happened in each of those Labor administrations? In fact, I might be back to pre-1949. When Labor get into power, they stuff up the economy or they want to do crazy things like nationalise the banks and nationalise the economy. They get in, they rack up debt and they increase taxes, and the resulting effect of this is that services suffer.

In my home state of Queensland, Labor administrations have been in power for decades and look what they have done. We've got hospital ramping again. We've got overcrowded schools. On a national level, we can see, for example, whether it is the funding that goes into the Australian Research Council program or the funding that goes into the Australian Army, Navy and Air Force, that under Labor spending as a percentage of GDP on our Defence went down to pre-World War II levels. That happened because Labor, the left and the Greens were not managing the economy. And what we're seeing here is that we are managing the economy and we are investing in research programs. This funding profile reflects the government's agreed policy. These amendments only impact administered special appropriations and they do not alter the substance of the Australian Research Council Act. As such, I recommend the bill to the Senate.

12:33 pm

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

Anyone familiar with the university sector knows that research funding is an increasingly contested matter. I'm not referring to the total amount of Commonwealth funding provided through the Australian Research Council, although that is a continuing issue. Last month, the education minister squeezed the funding a little further by sequestering $12 million for a special research initiative. I'll have more to say about that issue in the committee stages of the bill.

Today I want to talk about the importance of international collaboration for Australian universities. As I've argued before, such collaboration is essential if Australian scientists are to punch above their weight. Australia has neither the scale of physical or human capital nor a sufficiently large domestic market to engage the international frontiers of technology by itself. This country spends about $25 billion a year on R&D, compared with about $500 billion each year by the United States and China. Slightly more than half of our R&D spend is by business, but that's mostly on applications of existing knowledge. Universities are the main institutions in Australia for engaging in the discovery of new knowledge. Measured by articles cited in peer reviewed journals, collaboration with China and a range of other countries is increasingly important. In some areas, it's actually vital—in materials science, energy, engineering, and computer science. Collaboration with Chinese researchers has also led to life-saving breakthroughs in medical science. Possibly the most famous is the development of Gardasil, the vaccine produced by Professor Ian Frazer and Dr Jian Zhou. Now, I assume that no-one wishes that work had never been undertaken, but increasingly there are people who do want to obstruct research collaboration with China.

In parts of the defence and security establishment, there are hawks intent on fighting a new cold war. They have waged a muttering campaign against collaborations with China and have found eager acolytes in sections of the Australian media. The result has been a spate of stories thick with assertions that vilify and denigrate Australian researchers and their work. Doubt is cast on their loyalty to Australia. These stories, however, offer no evidence that any of these researchers have actually acted as cat's paws of a foreign power. Yesterday, for example, on the front page of The Australian, under the lurid headline, 'Security experts warn of military threat from Chinese marine project', doubts were raised about a five-year, $20 million partnership between the CSIRO and China's Qingdao National Laboratory for Marine Science and Technology. Those allegations were repeated again today. This joint project, the Centre for Southern Hemisphere Oceans Research, conducts research into ocean temperatures and currents and their role in climate change. The centre is headed by the highly regarded CSIRO researcher Dr Cai Wenju. The Australian report, however, hints that there is something sinister in the research collaboration because Qingdao University also conducts research into the development of satellite based lasers to locate submarines. The report does not cite any notifications of any breach of security by CSIRO or any notification of investigation of a possible breach. To my knowledge, none has occurred.

CSIRO responded to the report, with Dr Larry Marshall, the CEO of CSIRO, writing to The Australian. That letter to the editor was edited very heavily, to a form that one might say is doctored. I will quote from the letter that was actually presented to The Australian, not the one that appeared in the paper today:

To imply the Centre for Southern Hemisphere Oceans Research (CSHOR) poses a national security risk, without any supporting claims of fact, is alarmist and irresponsible reporting. With all CSHOR research outcomes available in the public domain, calls for greater transparency about this research are disingenuous.

Let me not be misunderstood in any way. I'm not suggesting that universities or public research agencies need have no concern about whether their research affects national security. But we should act with regard to evidence and proven fact, not ideologically driven assertions.

This country already has stricter regimes on research collaboration than the United States. I'm not aware of any reports of scientific report of fraud as has occurred in the United States. The Defence Trade Controls Act 2012 was introduced under the former Labor government in response to concerns that it was too easy for other nations and perhaps non-state actors to obtain sensitive materials from this country. The act regulates access to technologies placed on the Defence and Strategic Goods List, which are reviewed annually. The defence department is in contact with universities and industry to ensure their compliance. Since the act was introduced there has been no reported breach by an Australian university. The operation of the act has been independently reviewed by Dr Vivienne Thom, a former Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security. In her report of October 2018, she rejected calls for tougher restrictions on technology transfer.

In November last year, the education minister announced new guidelines agreed to by the universities for vetting international research collaboration. Media reports with headlines such as 'Rooting out campus spies' announced the new vigilance measures. Universities will have to work more closely with security agencies, upgrade their cybersecurity and 'identify staff who have international financial interests or affiliations with foreign institutions'. I ask: are these the staff that are campus spies that are supposed to be rooted out? The media reports don't say. Of course, they do cite alleged instances of dangerous collaborations, and the most frequently mentioned is the facial recognition technology involving the Chinese surveillance of the Uygur minority in Xinjiang. According to the reports in The Australian, an artificial intelligence company formed by a University of Queensland professor is alleged to have used this surveillance. In the Australian report the weasel word 'alleged' is used. I repeat: because there have been no reports of breaches of the defence control act by any Australian science agency, I find it strange that The Australian's report is not able to provide any context to understand the manner in which this research is undertaken.

It's important to state that this country has no homegrown tech giants, such as Google. Here university research is essential in creating artificial intelligence knowledge. AI knowledge is the key to the technologies of the fourth industrial revolution, which is transforming the world's workplaces. Australia's leading collaborator, by far, is China. The implications of ending this collaboration should be clear.

In another report in The Australian, a University of New South Wales computer science professor is said to have 'co-authored research with Chinese generals linked to Beijing's nuclear weapons program'. If that were true, it would be a clear breach of the Australian defence export control act. No reports have occurred.

Why is this happening? Because the global geopolitical environment has shifted substantially in the past five years and much of this has been focused on fears, particularly in the United States, about cyberwarfare and industrial espionage. The Trump administration has been seeking stricter restrictions on science and technology exchanges with the Chinese, and there have been very willing advocates here in Australia for such a position, and one of those is ASPI, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. ASPI has launched the China Defence Universities Tracker, a website dealing with the defence and security links of more than 160 Chinese universities and research agencies. Just what the tracker will do that is not already being done by the defence department and the Australian universities under the Defence Trade Control Act is not clear to me. But what is clear is the source of the funding: ASPI acknowledges that it's the Global Engagement Center of the United States state department. The Global Engagement Center coordinator is one Ms Lea Gabrielle. She's described on the United States state department website as a former US navy fighter pilot who later trained with the CIA and was assigned to the Defence Intelligence Agency. So, while ASPI has not found any Chinese spooks yet, at least one other spook is in plain sight.

ASPI is registered under the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme and has disclosed that it is receiving state department funding under the requirements of the scheme, but no details are provided. Of course, there's nothing in ASPI's annual report for 2018-19. It merely says that income of $448,000 'has been received in advance for sponsorship of ASPI programs for the financial year 2019-20'. So the US government's funding of nearly $450,000 for this tracker report has been withheld from the readers of ASPI's annual report. So much for full disclosure and transparency! Just imagine if other organisations tried to make their public records so vague. If it's fair to scrutinise and to challenge the funding arrangements of researchers in Australian universities and science agencies, surely it's fair to subject ASPI's funding arrangements to the same level of scrutiny. ASPI receives core funding of $4 million from the Department of Defence but takes in more than double that amount in commissioned and sponsored income and earnings from other events. The money that the Global Engagement Center provides to ASPI's China Defence Universities Tracker is an example of that supplementary funding.

ASPI has other sponsors—the French aerospace and defence manufacturer Thales, for example, which has had a long involvement in this country. This is a company I have had a longstanding engagement with as well. It is a very fine company operating in this country. Thales is also an investor in China, including in the development of the air traffic control management system for Beijing International Airport. Mr Jerome Bendell, Thales Group's vice-president for North Asia, says:

The Group is a committed, and key partner in China's journey to becoming a more digitalized and innovative country.

There's nothing wrong with that, of course. But it is puzzling that ASPI hasn't made much more of it, given the way it treats our science agencies and universities. It berates Australian researchers for collaborating with Chinese partners but ignores the fact that some of its own sponsors do the same. It's a simple proposition.

We have seen a report in today's AustralianI'll say more about this in a moment—of the ARC providing grants of over $250 million over the past five years to Australian researchers and Chinese collaborators. Nothing about that was done improperly. It is totally consistent with government policy. This selective use of these so-called collaborations has now become all too common. Just because it's selective doesn't make it right. We should make it clear: if you're going to play to this level of scrutiny, then ASPI is entitled to be scrutinised in exactly the same way.

12:47 pm

Photo of David VanDavid Van (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Australian Research Council Amendment Bill 2019. I know I am not the first to declare in this place that the coalition government's strong record on science, research and development is on show for all to see. On this side of the chamber, we believe that Australia's science, research and innovation system benefits our national interest through generating economic opportunity and by improving the lives of its citizens. Science, research and innovation can support innovative businesses when linked with higher education by providing ideas, technologies, knowledge and skills that are necessary for innovation and value creation. Our investment into research and development is significant. The coalition government will invest $9.6 billion in research and development in financial year 2019-20. This includes significant national research infrastructure investments, establishing the Australian Space Agency and the ongoing funding of our national science agencies such as the CSIRO.

Our vision for an Australian society that is engaged in and enriched by science is set out in our National Science Statement. We laid plans to engage all Australians with science, build our scientific capability and skills, produce new research, knowledge and technologies and improve Australians' lives through science. We backed up the National Science Statement in the 2018-19 budget, through $2.4 billion in funding over 12 years in Australia's research, science and technology capabilities. This includes: $1.9 billion over 12 years in additional long-term funding for national research infrastructure to ensure our world-leading researchers and innovative businesses have the tools to develop and commercialise first-to-market products and services; $225 million of investment in satellite positioning capability to give Australians access to world-leading geospatial technology; a commitment to establishing a national space agency; and nearly $30 million to build Australia's artificial intelligence capability and support the responsible development of AI.

I am a strong believer in supporting the creation, translation and commercialisation of Australian ideas. In practice, this is done through wideranging investments in science, research, innovation and the commercialisation of new products and services. The commercialisation of science and research is not a new idea though, and I'm pleased to see that the 2018 National Survey of Research Commercialisation indicated that the Australian public research organisations are increasing their commercialisation and collaboration activities. The commercialisation of science and research is very much an integral part of the Australian Research Council, which was established in 2001.

As you would know, Mr Acting Deputy President Brockman, the ARC is a key organisation that advises the federal government on research matters and administers grants, managing Australia's significant investment in research and development. Through the ARC, the federal government supports a wide variety of fundamental and applied research projects. We've already made a significant investment in science, research and innovation. As I said earlier, in financial year 2018-19 alone, we committed $9.6 billion across all portfolios to research and development. High-quality research is an important contributor to securing an innovative, prosperous and sustainable future for Australia. The ARC amendment bill before us today updates the ARC Act 2001 with current indexation rates across the forward estimates. This is an annual and administrative exercise that ensures the ARC's funding is maintained.

Unlike Labor, the coalition government understands the importance of continuing research funding. Let's not forget that the last time Labor were in government they left a funding cliff for NCRIS. As part of Labor's last budget, the four-year forward estimates for NCRIS showed funding for only two years until 30 June 2015. It was indeed fortunate the coalition government was able to fix this funding cliff, saving thousands of research jobs.

In supporting this ARC amendment bill today, I want to highlight an ARC project that I had the pleasure of announcing on behalf of my colleague the Minister for Education, the Hon. Dan Tehan. This was just a few weeks ago at the University of Melbourne, in my home state of Victoria. The project received over $1.4 million in grant funding for three ARC linkage projects. I had the pleasure of visiting the university on behalf of the coalition government to meet the researchers who will be involved in a $540,000 project. This project will allow Melbourne university to work with industry to develop technology to accurately assess the performance of aluminium cladding, glass facades and skylights under severe hailstorm events. This will enable cost-effective design of more robust cladding solutions in the future. I think this funding has come at a critical time, following the recent hailstorms in Victoria and in other parts of our nation. I think we all remember a few weeks ago the photos of massive hailstones that appeared right across the nation. I have on my phone many photos sent by my friends whose places were damaged. I think, from memory, this place was also surrounded by hailstones. This research from this ARC linkage project will benefit homeowners, asset managers, insurers and the building and construction industry, and help save billions of dollars in economic loss from hailstorm damage. What I'm also hoping is that the outcomes of this research will also increase our export opportunities. As a player in this field of research, Australia can gain a competitive advantage in the global market.

I'd like to extend my gratitude to the University of Melbourne for hosting me for that visit. In particular I'd like to thank the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Duncan Maskell; Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research Collaboration and Partnerships) Professor Mark Hargreaves; and the Acting Dean of the Melbourne School of Engineering, Professor Jamie Evans, and, of course, all of his research team. In supporting this bill, I support the next generation of researchers as well as Australia's current generation of excellent researchers. It is important that our researchers are afforded bipartisan support for investment in partnerships between universities, industry and government to drive the commercialisation of research. It is only with greater collaboration between universities and businesses on research innovation and workforce preparation that we can ensure a prosperous and sustainable future for Australia. I commend this bill to the Senate.

12:55 pm

Photo of Tim AyresTim Ayres (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Labor won't oppose the legislation that's before the Senate, the Australian Research Council Amendment Bill 2019, but I do have to say we have deep concern about the position of the government in relation to the higher education sector and what, amongst some sections of the government and of the Liberal Party in particular, is an antipathy to higher education and to academic inquiry that mobilises sections of their base—driven perhaps in the wake of the Abbott period—and that I think has created a crisis of confidence in Australian universities. There has been a concerted campaign by figures within the government to belittle our higher education sector institutions and to diminish the regard for academic inquiry and deep research, and it has done enormous damage to the capability and national fabric of the country.

This deep loathing, this sort of nativist anti-intellectualism that is at the heart of Liberal Party branches, is often reflected in the kind of characters who come to this place representing the Liberal Party. It is often represented in what they say late at night on Sky television, but it does an enormous amount of damage to the institutions of higher education. Consistent with the government's approach to a range of national institutions that matter, playing to the base is so much more important for these characters than actually delivering for, and supporting, the kind of national institutions that make our country a great place to live and make our country prosperous and safer in the long run. To be fair, I don't see that language often used by those in the National Party—usually they recognise the role that universities, particularly those in country towns, play. But, of course, as with many other issues, the National Party is a tail that struggles to wag the Liberal dog on some of these questions, and it is missing in action. So we've got the party of Menzies at war with the higher education sector. We should be better than that

It does mean that Australia is slipping backwards. If we want to be a self-reliant, confident nation, academic inquiry and deep research matter—whether it's in the social sciences, science, engineering, architecture or any of the other fields where Australian universities have developed deep capability. It is a national act of self-harm to belittle higher education institutions and to diminish our universities.

When Minister Tehan took over from Senator Birmingham, he defended his predecessor's interventions into the ARC grants system and announced that grants would be subject to a new national interest test. This culture war proposition from Senator Birmingham, and now the current minister, ignores the rigorous process that the ARC grants system has employed, with thousands upon thousands of applications that have been approved, free from ministerial intervention, over many years. They have created enormous social benefit. They have sometimes created arguments that perhaps the Liberal Party would prefer weren't happening in the community or in our academic institutions. But that is the nature of independent inquiry. And ministerial intervention to pick and choose academics and projects diminishes the capacity for independence, diminishes the value of research and undermines the quality of Australia's research community.

The Australian Research Council has been the subject of political interference before, when the then Minister Brendan Nelson vetoed 10 projects. Vetoing projects in the humanities area for a cheap headline in The Daily Telegraph, vetoing research proposals that were approved by the ARC in climate change areas, might play well at Liberal Party branch meetings but it does enormous damage to our national capability in this area.

Senator Birmingham should explain his decision-making in this area. He should publicly explain. He should explain to the Senate, and not with glib words, the basis on which he intervened in this process. The then Minister Birmingham vetoed 11 research projects. There wasn't a public announcement about that decision; it had to be dragged out of the government at Senate estimates—just like so many efforts by this government to obscure its decision-making processes and to hide from the Australian public and the institutions that matter in this area. Senate estimates is the only tool that is available to the Australian people to get some truth about the government's activities.

When asked to justify the proposition that he had intervened to delete 11 of these applications—just like Senator McKenzie knocking off sports club grants because the government didn't like them—he did not offer a real explanation. Some of these projects were of enormous potential value. They included research into the social impact of shutting down the Australian car industry. We hear a lot of hot air from senators opposite about manufacturing and energy policy. I don't hear too many defences of the social and economic cost of 40,000 jobs in the Australian car industry being wilfully thrown overseas. A bit of publicly funded research in that area might have done the country so good. But we're not going to see that project, because the government claimed it was not in the national interest. In truth, it was not in the Liberal Party's interest that that research be done.

Another of those projects that were knocked off was research into responses to climate change. That was probably knocked off for the same reason—for narrow, venal self-interest. And a project on comparative studies of Indigenous politics was knocked off. The truth is that the minister has intervened in this process for narrow, political self-interest. These people are not capable of acting in the public interest. The idea that it is not in the national interest is a furphy that is really there for performances to the Liberal Party base.

The role of academic research is to speak truth based upon evidence—I know that is an anathema to many people on the other side of the Senate. The role of academic research is to speak truth based upon evidence, academic inquiry and independent analysis—to speak that truth to power. That doesn't work if what the government does, if what the executive does, is defund proposals that are potentially critical of government policy. Of course, the biggest expression of this is in the Liberal Party's hostility to academic inquiry in the field of Australian history. Former Prime Minister John Howard popularised the term 'the black-armband version of history' for historians—in particular, Henry Reynolds—who challenged the settler myth and the terra nullius myth of Australian history. It was a vicious, sustained attack, usually coming from Liberal Party supported circles in minor think tanks with scant academic qualifications, who made hot-take points in the Quadrant and whatever the other low-rent conservative publications are. Howard's nativist heirs in this area are launching the same attacks on academics like Bruce Pascoe, who is the author of Dark Emu. These publications should be judged on their academic merits. They should be the subject of robust academic and public inquiry and debate and criticism. I'm not here to say that they shouldn't be—I think they should be—but what shouldn't happen is direct political interference. What shouldn't happen is government diminishing the academy, diminishing universities and attacking educational institutions.

The value of research for the Australian community is immense. There is our scientific research capability in climate change and a whole range of areas. There is our research in agriculture, making sure that Australian farmers have got increasing productivity in an era of increasing drought, lower water availability and increasing evaporation. We need to reinvest in that capability where state governments have been pulling resources out of agricultural research. There's a role for the Commonwealth to be stepping in, because that underinvestment threatens the viability of Australian farms and Australian businesses over the coming decades: investment in health research, research into the future of our cities, research into the future of work and building collaboration and co-operation at work, research into the contribution of women in society and equal rights for women at work, research into the kinds of architecture and building processes that are going to make better low-carbon cities and research into foreign affairs and defence capability that's going to make Australia safer and build on our independence in our region. These are the things that build a confident, well-informed Australia.

I think what we're witnessing on the conservative side of politics is some confusion. On the one hand there's a strain of conservative politics that has always supported academic research, that has always been a part of these things; on the other hand there is the appeal to populism, the appeal to the Trump-era 'war on facts'. We can do much better than that. If we want an economy with increasing productivity, if we want jobs where work becomes better—better jobs, better relations at work—if we want Australia to enter a period of climate change resilience where we've got the technology and the capability to build Australian jobs, to lower Australian emissions and, indeed, reduce energy costs, if we want to have capability in terms of national security and big new ideas about the future of Australia's role in the world then we should be investing in Australian research. We should be building capability; we shouldn't be penny-pinching and, at the very least, there should not be political interference in the process of the ARC research grants.

Australia's economic growth has been the slowest since the GFC. That's got a little bit to do with our diminishing higher education capability. Wages are stagnant, household debt has skyrocketed, almost two million Australians are looking for work or for more work and the unemployment and underemployment rates are much higher than they should be. Business investment is at its lowest level since the 1990s recession. Productivity and living standards are going backwards.

A decline in educational standards and in our research capability has got just a little bit to do with that. We're seeing falling investment in research and development across the private and public shares of the economy. The total GDP expenditure in research and development has fallen from 1.8 per cent down to 1.79 per cent. That's public and private. We shouldn't rely upon corporate Australia to fund the bulk of our research. That actually is the government's role, to direct national priorities in research. Business investment in research and development has fallen to 0.9 per cent, 21st in the OECD, and bottom in the OECD on collaboration. And it's fallen to 107th in total expenditure. We could do much better than that, and we should. (Time expired)

1:10 pm

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

I am pleased to complete this debate in relation to the Australian Research Council Amendment Bill 2019, which means that funding caps within the Australian Research Council Act 2001 are consistent with past precedents.

This bill will ensure that the ARC can continue to support Australia's best researchers to undertake the highest quality fundamental and applied research and research training. The government continues to support efforts in this space in numerous ways. For example, in recent weeks the Morrison government has announced over $24 million in research funding for new ARC training centres and approximately $242 million for ARC centres of excellence around the country. We have also announced the 2019 Australian Laureate Fellows who will share in $54 million to lead their world-class research teams for five years. This funding underpins the research careers of hundreds of researchers, which in turn underpin Australia's position as a leading power among the world's scientific and knowledge economies. I'd note in relation to Senator Ayres's comments before that it is important—very important—that Australian industry and business are also major contributors and leaders in relation to research and development.

The State of Australian university research 2018-19: ERA national report, released by the ARC in March, found that Australia is increasingly performing above world standard in terms of research quality. The report found that Australia exceeds international standards in 11 broad disciplines, including technology, mathematics, medicine, engineering, and sciences relating to our earth and environment.

More broadly in other areas, I note that on 10 October 2019 the foreign minister and Minister for Women, Senator Payne, released the ARC's Gender and the research workforce report, which uses data from the Excellence in Research Australia assessment to give a new insight into Australia's research workforce. A key statistic out of this report analysed the ratio of men to women in the research workforce, which was 56 to 44 in 2018, a small improvement on the ratio of 57 to 43 in 2015 but denoting that further work remains to be done there. It shows that the proportion of male and female researchers varies greatly between research disciplines, with female researchers outnumbering men in just five of the disciplines out of the 22 that are measured by the report. It's through the work of the ARC that we know about this gender disparity, and it's through the ARC that we work to address it through initiatives such as the Kathleen Fitzpatrick Australian Laureate Fellowship and the Georgina Sweet Australian Laureate Fellowship.

Initiatives such as these show the significant role of the ARC in Australia's research landscape, which gives us both the insight and the power to create real change in our research sector. Thanks to the ARC, the impact of this research is also now known, since the release of Australia's first national assessment of how universities engage outside academia and how they work to translate their research into benefits for society. The Engagement and impact assessment 2018-19 national report, a critical initiative of our government, was released by the ARC in March last year and makes transparent the value to ordinary Australian taxpayers of the government's $12 billion in research funding. It's now possible to explore the data presented in this report, as well as the 240 highly rated impact studies; they are available through the ARC website. These studies paint a rich picture of how Australian research is saving lives, strengthening the economy and improving our quality of living.

Funding the ARC is part of our government's investment in the future of Australia, and, over the next four years, with the passage of this bill, the ARC will deliver over $3 billion in funding for thousands of research projects. This will help to underpin Australia's research strengths as well as ensuring many benefits are leveraged by Australian industry, for Australian jobs and across the Australian community. I commend the bill to the Senate.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.