Senate debates

Wednesday, 4 August 2021

Statements by Senators

Australian Research Council

12:20 pm

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

The government's favourite newspaper, the Australian, advised us on 30 July that the Minister for Education and Youth, Mr Tudge, is worried about threats to free speech on Australia's university campuses. This time his ire was raised by the ANU Students Association, which allegedly stopped the ADF and an anti-abortion group from setting up stalls for the association's market day. Now, the facts are hazy. The ANU student newspaper Woroni reported that the group had been excluded, but the students association says that these organisations hadn't applied and therefore weren't excluded.

However, this lack of clarity did not worry the minister. He has threatened to cut funding from student organisations that try to suppress the expression of opinions they do not share. Mr Tudge acknowledges this may be difficult, because, if a student union is a legal entity separate from the university, it's not covered by the free speech definitions added to the Higher Education Support Act earlier this year. Nor can conditions be placed on direct grants, because student unions don't receive them. The Commonwealth does lend money to students to pay their amenities fees, and the government could consider legislation to attach conditions to these loans. If the minister goes that far, it will be because the government has resolved to invent what the review by former Chief Justice Robert French could not find—that is, a free speech crisis on Australian campuses.

This obsession with a confected crisis is a complete contradiction to a genuine threat to academic freedom that is of the government's own making. The Australian Research Council, which assesses the merits of application for research grants, has been co-opted into a smear campaign that questions the integrity and the loyalty of reputable academics. Now, some people believe that McCarthyism—that is, the casting of doubt without evidence on the loyalties of people in public life—was dead and buried in the last Cold War. Well may we wish that was so, but this label fits the way Australia's most important research funding institution has been browbeaten into putting supposed national security concerns ahead of academic excellence.

In the last round of Senate estimates, the Australian Research Council's CEO, Professor Sue Thomas, admitted that the Australian Research Council collects information on what she calls 'sensitivities', which could be added to the personal records of grant applicants. So, the ARC is now keeping dossiers on what they perceive to be the political views of applicants. Now, sources within the Australian Research Council rightfully describe these as the 'sensitivity files'. It's not only advice from the security agencies, but also scans of media reports and data from the dubious China Defence Universities Tracker, maintained by the Australian Strategic Policy InstituteASPI. In other words, a slanderous newspaper article and a software program run by ASPI—which itself has a disclaimer on the use of that tracker that warns it should not be taken as evidence of wrongdoing—can now be used to sway the judgement of the minister for education when authorising grant applications.

This process led to 18 applications being withheld for approval in the October 2020 round of research grants pending security agency advice. Ultimately, 13 of these grants were approved, but five applicants were vetoed without explanation by the then education minister, Mr Tehan, on his way out the door of his last day in office in that portfolio. Answers to questions on notice indicate that the announcement of the veto was made, as I said, on the final afternoon of the minister's tenure in that office. Mr Tehan has set a new benchmark for mopping up loose ends. How has it come to this? Hunting spies and traitors is not the Australian Research Council's job, and its willingness to dabble in that role can only contribute further to the baseless smearing of distinguished academics, many with global reputations, that has become such a repellent feature of recent news reporting.

On 24 August 2020 the Australian published the names of more than 30 researchers who were supposedly complicit in the economic espionage—I think those were the exact words they used—of this country. There was no substance to that allegation. In an answer to a question on notice the Australian Research Council has confirmed, 'All 31 allegations relating to researchers named on an ARC grant have now been resolved.' In other words, no breaches of national security were found.

In the same answer the Australian Research Council stated, 'Three issues relating to two researchers were identified and action taken.' This answer didn't explain what those issues were, but Professor Thomas's admission that the ARC maintains sensitivity files came after she answered no to a question that I routinely ask at Senate estimates: has any Australian university breached the Defence Trade Controls Act? If you think about the number of applications for support for travel made within this parliament, by members of parliament, which have required resolution, there would be considerably more than the number of issues raised through the Australian Research Council. The Australian Research Council's answer to the question was no, confirming that the strict procedures laid down in the Defence Trade Controls Act are working. Under the act, universities work closely with the Department of Defence to prevent the sharing of information with international collaborators if that work poses a risk to our national security. But you won't read about that in the newspapers, nor will a correction of these baseless smears be found in the Australian.

Despite these rigorous processes, those intent on inciting this new cold war continue to argue as if all collaborations are dangerous. This has led to the creation of ASPI's dodgy tracker and a spate of media reports that vilify prominent academics without providing a shred of evidence that they have engaged in anything that could be described as espionage, let alone treason. I remind the chamber that this is despite the fact that collaboration with international agencies is government policy.

All this has suited the agenda of sections of the government, which throughout its tenure in office has engaged in the undermining of Australia's higher education system. The coalition's attitude has been expressed not only through the funding cuts and bias about different types of research—which it says don't turn a quick dollar—but also through its campaigns against a confected free speech crisis that it has developed on various campuses. Nothing could be more likely to inhibit academic freedom and free speech than the knowledge that the principal research-funding body is collecting personal information on academics that a minister might use to support the rejection of a grant application. This is information that cannot be subject to refutation by the applicant, to due process or to procedural fairness.

This is the type of fearmongering attitude that prevailed in the heyday of McCarthyism in the United States in the 1950s. The ARC risks damaging its own reputation by becoming complicit in the scaremongering of the new cold war warriors. It's supposed to be a non-partisan body that makes recommendations on the academic excellence of research projects. Its attitudes and behaviour are not compatible with compiling so-called 'sensitivity dossiers' on some of our leading academics operating in Australia at the moment.