Senate debates

Monday, 18 March 2024


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

12:37 pm

Photo of Sarah HendersonSarah Henderson (Victoria, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Education) Share this | | Hansard source

I was saying that the government must remain accountable for the expenditure of taxpayers' money and that, if this ARC Board goes on a frolic of its own and starts irresponsibly approving improper expenditure, which is most improper in itself, the taxpayer will suffer. I make the point in relation to this irresponsible proposal to remove ministerial discretion on ARC grant programs that ministerial discretion exists for most programs across government. This discretion ensures that taxpayers' money is spent on projects which align with the national interest and on things that will advance Australia as a nation. So, despite protests by the government that it is taking the so-called politics out of the ARC, what it is actually doing is removing itself from any accountability in relation to a very large amount of funds which are spent in the name of the taxpayer. This is not only lazy and unacceptable but most improper.

The government and the Greens have concocted a ridiculous narrative claiming political intervention by the coalition, and I just want to reiterate that the coalition objected to just 32 grant decisions since 2005—just 32. Many of these grant decisions included excess travel costs to international destinations. The projects, by their very nature, did not make it clear how they would advance Australia's interests. So, for example, I will refer to a $200,000 project titled 'Classical love in modern times: transformations in the keystaging profession in colonial Korea'. There was $124,000 on a project titled 'Queer career: a cultural history'; and $161,000 on a project called 'On beauty and ugliness as persuasive tools in changing China's gender norms'.

I'm not disputing that there may be some merit in this research, if a researcher wants to fund this research him or herself, or an institution wants to fund this research. But this is not the type of research which should be funded by the taxpayer. The absolute sheer hypocrisy of this government in running this pathetic narrative, claiming they're taking the politics out of the ARC, when in fact the minister is preserving his right to approve grants concerning tens of millions of dollars—they are the projects which give him the opportunity to cut the ribbon, to make the big announcements. I mean, it is absolutely pathetic. And it is a reflection of this pathetic government, pathetic in so many respects, pathetic in safeguarding taxpayers' money. So removing ministerial discretion is just absurd, and regrettably the Greens played into the government's hands in not even calling out this hypocrisy.

The Australian Research Council receives more than $1 billion in funding each year, with nearly $900 million distributed through grants. We are talking an incredible amount of money. Taxpayers have a right to know where their money is going, and to expect the government of the day to ensure it is spent on projects which will support the Australian people. That's a key issue here. The government has absolved itself from its responsibility. Hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayers money will now be outsourced to a so-called independent board. Where are the safeguards to stop the board going on a frolic of its own? Say there's an application for a research program of $500,000 that involves $400,000 of international travel and accommodation with dubious merit. This weak and pathetic minister now puts himself and the government in the position where he can no longer intervene. That is an absolute disgrace. The taxpayers of this country deserve better than that. The government doesn't even have the temerity to produce the ARC financial sustainability report, which it's also trying to keep secret—another shocking example of this completely appalling government.

12:43 pm

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

I rise to speak to the Australian Research Council Amendment (Review Response) Bill 2023. The Greens have been pushing for this change, to get rid of ministerial intervention into ARC grant applications, ever since I came into the Senate five years ago. Because an independent, well funded, robust research sector is essential. This bill is a welcome step in a move towards a more independent ARC. The Greens will be supporting the bill and attempting to improve it. As a former researcher and academic, ensuring a thriving, publicly well-funded research community free from political interference is close to my heart and something I have long worked on.

We know that research independence and academic freedom are critical to our collective public good and to a thriving democratic culture, yet far too often in recent decades we have seen that independence and freedom undermined for political reasons or the juvenile hatred of the arts and the social sciences, as was the case with the coalition government. Some may not remember that the ARC was previously governed by a board when it was set up in 2001 as an independent statutory body. Yet in 2006 the coalition government abolished the ARC board, a move that undermined research in this country. There is no other way to describe it. At the time, the NTEU rightly emphasised the importance of the ARC board as a buffer against the political whims of the government of the day—the exact opposite of what the coalition, the opposition, is trying to tell us today.

Since the board was dismantled, researchers have continued to raise deep concerns about political interference, which has become an increasing reality over the years. We know that, on at least six occasions, at least four ministers have intervened and rejected over 30 research proposals. All four of those ministers have been Liberal ministers. So it's no wonder there is a lot of huffing and puffing going on on that side of the chamber today as this avenue for ministerial intervention is finally removed. These proposals are recommended for funding by the ARC following a rigorous and expert peer review process, and that's the way it should be. It is ridiculous that politicians with next to no research expertise have been making captain's calls about the value of research in total contradiction to the ARC's extensive and expert processes of peer review. How dangerous and damaging for our research and our research community!

I introduced a bill in 2018 to remove the ministerial veto over ARC grant approvals to bring an end to this destructive practice. This was one of my first bills in the Senate, because ensuring our research remains untainted by political ideology and influence is a cause that holds deep significance for me. I said it then, and I'll say it again, because it's just as true now: no minister should be able to dictate which research projects are funded and which ones are not. The true test of academic freedom is that it must be free from political interference, no matter who is in government. It should be based on an independent and rigorous assessment process. We need to trust our peer review processes. Researchers work incredibly hard applying for an ARC grant, but overall success rates still remain below 18 per cent, and that surely calls for more research funding. Academics deserve to be supported in pursuing research with independence and freedom and without fear that their work might be stopped or curtailed by the government of the day for political reasons.

For years, researchers have continued to raise the alarm. So frustrated have some in the research community been that members of the ARC's own college of experts have resigned in protest of the ministerial veto power. In 2022, the presidents of Australia's five learned academies together stated:

When the integrity of Australia's research system is compromised by perceived, or actual, political interference, there are real costs to the research sector and indeed the nation—as trust is eroded and the relationships researchers have with industry, the Australian community, and international partners are damaged.

In the 2022 Senate inquiry on my bill, more than 85 per cent of the 80 submissions supported the removal of the veto power. During that historic inquiry, researchers and academic groups raised deep concerns that the ministerial veto power was damaging academic freedom and having a chilling effect and causing self-censorship in the research community. Stakeholders told us that political interference disproportionately impacted First Nations researchers and threatened the integrity of the peer review process, and many high-profile researchers and academics raised serious concerns that political interference undermined Australia's international research reputation.

While Labor and the coalition failed to support my bill, despite overwhelming support for this much needed reform, my work and the work of the research community secured a unanimous recommendation out of the bill inquiry for an independent review of the ARC. This became the first comprehensive review of the ARC in over 20 years, since the introduction of the ARC Act in 2001. And I am very proud of my team and so many in the research community that I worked alongside to secure recommendations from this review to end ministerial veto power, which is what this bill implements today.

After rejecting my bill in 2018, it is welcome to see that Labor has finally accepted the need for the ARC to be given autonomy to make decisions over research grants. I welcome the establishment of an ARC board that will have responsibility for deciding whether to fund the bulk of the research projects. Peer review and research experts should make decisions on research funding, not politicians. And I congratulate the research community who have pushed long and hard for this change. This is a big win for everyone who has worked to end political and ideological interference in research, and it has been a privilege to work with so many of them.

This bill also makes headway in transparency of the minister's role in funding decisions by requiring publications of any directions that the minister gives to the ARC. Back in September 2022, my order for the production of documents revealed that ministerial direction had led to revisions to the national interest test statement in more than 60 per cent of the applications, affecting applications in the Discovery Indigenous 2023 scheme at nearly three times the average rate. The changes made by this bill will give us greater insight into decision-making of the ARC and will, again, hopefully lead to less political interference. The ARC review and this bill are an opportunity to get things right, once and for all, and for that we do need some improvements in the bill. I will be moving committee-of-the-whole amendments to make this bill stronger, and we have negotiated agreement with the minister's office on some of these amendments.

On matters of political interference, the ARC review recommended the minister retain a veto power on ARC research funding for reasons of national security, but unfortunately this bill goes a bit further. This bill empowers the minister to not approve and to terminate research funding for reasons related to the international relations of Australia. The Greens and many in the research community are concerned that this could provide the minister a much wider discretion to intervene in decisions of research funding. These concerns are shared by the Council for the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering and others. The breadth of the international relations power is particularly concerning because, in determining whether to veto research funding for international relations reasons, the bill explicitly notes that the minister may regard any matter they consider appropriate. We think this is too broad a discretion and it presents a risk because this bill makes it an object of the ARC to include supporting Australian universities to conduct research and collaboration with international partners, so this could become a hinderance to that collaboration. The Greens want to narrow this ministerial discretion, and we will be moving an amendment to that effect.

The bill also empowers the minister to specify in regulations new designated research programs under which the funding for individual research projects is decided solely by the minister and not by the ARC board. While these regulations would be disallowable, concerns have been raised with me that this risks the minister taking sole decision-making power over a wide range of funding decisions on individual grants. These concerns have been expressed by universities, by university peak bodies and by researchers. Research funding should be decided through a rigorous peer review process and research expertise, not by the minister of the day. I will be making some amendments to make sure that this very broad decision-making power at least is not without greater oversight.

There are also concerns about political interference and delays in relation to whether funding rules are disallowable. The current situation is that ARC funding rules, also known as grant guidelines, are prepared by the ARC and approved by the minister. The funding rules are tabled in parliament but are not disallowable. This bill would change that and make funding rules disallowable. Many are concerned that this introduces a new form of political intervention and risks delays to research funding. To avoid the risk of delays, I will be moving an amendment to retain the current situation where funding rules are not subject to disallowance.

Ending political interference in the ARC is key to a thriving and independent research sector, but so is sufficient funding, which the government has so far failed to address in response to the ARC review and also in the Universities Accord. Research funding in Australia is abysmally low compared to other OECD nations, with both Labor and coalition governments having failed to fund vital, fundamental research. Australian research has so much potential, but this will never be fulfilled without substantial and sustainable long-term public funding. As many universities and researchers have urged, the government must significantly increase overall research funding and ensure that the cost of implementing this bill does not reduce existing research funding. University funding is so vital if we are to solve the complex and wicked problems of the climate crisis, inequality, global justice and health emergencies—among many others.

We must also urgently address the job insecurity, precarious work and casualisation which are rampant in universities, but are also rife across the research sector. We cannot allow our universities to continue operating off the exploitation of staff. Only one in four researchers are employed on a continuing basis. It is worse for women, with only one in five women employed on an ongoing basis. A whopping 80 per cent of researchers are on fixed term contracts of less than three years in length, and a third of the workforce has been on rolling fixed term contracts for over six years. In addition, PhD stipends sit below the poverty line, pushing students to the brink in a cost-of-living crisis. Researchers deserve secure, well-paid jobs, and PhD students should have a generous, liveable research stipend and full entitlement to paid parental leave. While addressing job security requires a whole-of-sector approach, the ARC are one of the largest funders of research and they must play a role in this. We will be moving an amendment so the ARC supports ongoing jobs.

Lastly, decision-making bodies in higher education should be democratically elected and diverse, including the ARC. The Greens welcome the bill's initiative to help ensure the ARC board reflects underrepresented groups. It is particularly important that the bill requires a First Nations person to be on the board at all times. We would like to strengthen the minister's obligation to ensure a diverse board and increase the size of the board so its membership can be more diverse.

For far too long the research sector has been plagued by political interference, underfunding and job insecurity. This bill is a welcome step to address some of these issues, but there is still work to do. The Greens and I will continue to work to ensure more public funding for an expanding and thriving research sector with diverse and democratic governance where researchers have academic freedom, secure jobs and fair pay.

12:58 pm

Photo of Matt O'SullivanMatt O'Sullivan (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Australian Research Council Amendment (Review Response) Bill 2023. The coalition has always recognised the importance of quality research. It's important for the future of our country to have research in important areas that will advance Australia's standing on a global stage and that we have proper and targeted investment. The coalition's track record on this is something that I'm very proud of. The coalition has always recognised the importance of high-quality research. We have always prioritised cutting-edge, innovative research which advances our nation, meets our national priorities and supports our economy and society. Our research sector is absolutely vital in ensuring that Australia remains globally competitive. However, every dollar spent on research by the taxpayers of this country should be in the national interest. It should always, not just occasionally, be in the national interest, because taxpayers work hard for their money and they expect that any money that is spent by the government should in the national interest.

Responsible government is a fundamental tenant of our parliamentary democracy. Government has a legitimate role to play in determining funding to reflect policy decisions while ultimately remaining accountable to the Australian taxpayers. This brings me to the problem we have with the bill. It undermines parliamentary democracy, it undermines the primacy of this place and the Australian people, indeed, in electing government, who then appoint ministers responsible for the decisions of government. This bill does away with ministerial responsibility when it comes to the expenditure of good, hard-earned resources and puts it in the hands of a board, rather than ministers being completely and ultimately responsible for funding decisions and for directing funding towards grants that researchers will use. The coalition is opposed to this bill because it removes ministerial discretion on grant funding decisions.

This bill—for anyone following at home—establishes the board, rather than the minister, as the accountable authority, with the ability to design and set grant guidelines and approve a wide range of grant funding decisions, including those for discovery projects, linkage projects and the fellowship programs, amounting to $895 million in expenditure in 2022-23. I am not talking about a small sum of money here but about nearly $1 billion in expenditure. It's not enough that this bill makes an exception for ministerial intervention for funding decisions made under defence, security and international relations concerns. The minister should always be accountable and responsible to this place and to the Australian people.

This bill effectively outsources the grant-funding decision to a board, whose members will be unaccountable to parliament. It's fair enough the minister would receive by way of a council or by way of a reference group or experts in the fields of the domains of research as to what projects, grants, should be approved and otherwise. That is perfectly acceptable. But to completely outsource the decision-making to a group of people who are not elected by the Australian people, who are not appointed by the Governor-General, is just unacceptable. They are a group of people who are not elected by the Australian people, who are not appointed by the Governor-General to serve as a minister of the Crown, so it's a bridge too far.

This bill outsources the grant funding decision to a board whose members will be unaccountable to parliament. This is inconsistent with the principle of responsible government and it is most certainly not in the national interest. Transferring the decision-making responsibility away from the minister to the board effectively suggests that it is the board, not the minister, nor the parliament, that is more informed about our national priorities than the elected government.

What is it that this bill is signalling here? Is it the case that the minister is not aware of what is in our national interest so they have to outsource it to another group? That's what you've been elected to do. When you put your hand up to be a member of parliament and to form a government, you are saying that you believe you are responsible, that you have the intellect, knowledge, awareness and capability to lead the nation, knowing what is going to be in the best interests of the nation. Outsourcing such significant expenditure of taxpayer money in this way is, to me, a significant diversion away from responsible government.

It's very, very disappointing and, I think, enlightening to see the priorities of this government. We're not talking about a small sum of money. If it was just a small grant program with maybe a couple of million dollars attached to it—that's still a large sum of money—then, sure, why tie up ministers and their staff and the department's resources with that low level of interaction? But we're talking about nearly a billion dollars in research. It ought to come across the minister's desk on every occasion. To outsource it in this way is irresponsible. It's another example of this government's utter failure to act in the best interests of Australian taxpayers.

The coalition's track record proves that we have always been a party of responsible government and sound decision-making. Those on the other side might like to kick up a fuss about this, but our track record speaks for itself. Of the thousands upon thousands of grant approvals that have crossed the desks of the coalition education ministers, only 32 have been rejected since 2005. Of the 600 Discovery Projects awarded in 2021-22, only six were rejected. That's a mere one per cent. In monetary terms, in terms of total expenditure, it's barely half a percentage point. The number also includes those projects rejected on national security grounds.

But let's not forget that those projects that were rejected were, frankly, rejected for good, sound reasons—for example, the absolute waste of taxpayers' dollars that would otherwise have been spent, if it weren't for the fact that it was rejected, on a research project that was going to look at 'beauty and ugliness as persuasive tools in changing China's gender norms' or on a research project that was going to look at the 'Soviet cinema in Hollywood before the blacklist, 1917-1950', which was originally entitled 'Red Hollywood: Communist style before the blacklist 1917-1950'. Thank goodness those projects were rejected. Thank goodness a minister who was accountable to this place, and accountable to the Australian people, rejected those projects. It couldn't be in the national interest to fund that sort of nonsense.

While these projects might, it is granted, have had some abstract academic research merit, they certainly didn't pass the pub test. How would these projects have advanced our national economic, social, environmental or cultural interests? I've got no doubt that, for good reason, the minister who was responsible at the time when those projects were put across their desk rejected them because they didn't meet that criterion. Each didn't advance our national economic, social, environmental or cultural interests. The proposals could not prove that they provided some kind of net benefit for the Australian community, so why should they, then, suck up funding from Australian taxpayers? They were rejected.

But we're now going to have a board that's not accountable to this place and is not ultimately accountable to the Australian people making decisions about the kinds of research programs that will be supported and funded and, in fact, writing the grant guidelines and setting the terms under which they're going to be awarded. That's completely irresponsible. Set up a board of experts across the various fields of research to provide advice to the minister, absolutely; there's no question about it. I don't in any way cast any shade over the merit of the people who are being selected here—I'm not sure who exactly they will be—but there should be accountability to this place, and the only one who is ultimately responsible is the minister. We're outsourcing this to an unaccountable group of people. It's unacceptable.

Responsible government is a simple concept. Responsible government equals responsible spending of taxpayer dollars; it's straightforward. This government is proving to have no idea—in fact, they're extremely uncomfortable with the idea. They would remove this layer of accountability from a government body that is responsible for allocating millions of dollars in taxpayers' expenditure.

Perhaps it's merely a diversionary tactic from Labor to distract from yet another broken promise of this government. The Prime Minister has broken his promise to the Australian people across a number of fronts since the election, and here is another example of where the government are not being true to what they promised the Australian people. For example, in 2022, before the election, there was a promise to lift expenditure research to three per cent of GDP. This seems to be heading the same way as all the other promises. The Prime Minister said that his word was his bond and that the government would stick to the stage 3 tax cuts. Obviously, the Prime Minister backed away on that. He misled the Australian people on that one. Here we go. They've promised to lift research expenditure to three per cent of GDP, and this promise is headed in the same direction. They are more than halfway through their term, and we've yet to see a single cent delivered on this promise that they would lift research—a promise, that was made to the Australian people.

We must have targeted research that is advancing the national interest. It is critical to our prosperity and the future of this country that we have good research that is advancing our national interests, across various aspects of the economy. It is critical that we have effective research. We're more than halfway through this term, and we're yet to see a single cent spent by this government on extra funding or to get anywhere near that three per cent of GDP. They're a long way off. Instead, more than $102 million was cut from the research sector. So there was a promise to increase it, and the last MYEFO update in December showed that $102 million was actually cut. Two significant research projects had their funding slashed. Australia's Economic Accelerator program had $46.2 million cut from it, while the Regional Research Collaboration Program had $56.3 million stripped from it. 'My word is my bond,' the Prime Minister said. I wouldn't take that to the bank. That's because, as we're seeing across so many areas of this government's and the Prime Minister's decision-making, they don't follow through with what they say that they will do. They're not true to their word. They mislead the Australian people. They're quite happy to do that continuously. Here we have another example of that.

I wouldn't take the Prime Minister's commitment or his word to the bank any time. That is not a bond that you want to rely on. It's just another show of blatant hypocrisy from the Albanese government. The government ought to reconsider its position on this bill because they are taking decision-making and accountability away from a minister that can come into either this place or the other place and be accountable to the parliament and give an account of every decision that they make. Instead, we're outsourcing it.

1:13 pm

Photo of Slade BrockmanSlade Brockman (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I too rise to speak on the Australian Research Council Amendment (Review Response) Bill 2023. It's always a pleasure to follow my colleague from Western Australia Senator O'Sullivan. I too wish to go through some of the issues Senator O'Sullivan raised, particularly to challenge some of the straw men that Senator Faruqi raised in her contribution earlier—the idea that those on this side of the chamber are somehow anti arts and anti arts research. This is just an absolute nonsense. I stand here as the holder of an honours degree in history—something I am very proud of. In fact, my dissertation probably qualifies in the slightly wonky, slightly nerdy category. It was looking at the political historiography of the American Revolution. So it's not something that's everybody's cup of tea, and I understand that, but I do absolutely value arts research. It is something that is highly valued.

But what we have here is an organisation that has direct responsibility for looking at how government research dollars are spent. Government research dollars are not the only research dollars within the funding pool of research dollars; there are other sources of funding, including philanthropy and including university direct grants. What we have here through the ARC is a set of grants that must always be about the priorities of Australia as a nation and making sure that limited dollars—and it is a limited dollar pool; it can never be as much money as everyone would perhaps like it to be—are spent in a way that is in our national interest. It's a broad definition of 'national interest', as Senator O'Sullivan read it out, but it is important that, through that process of spending taxpayers' money, there are suitable accountability mechanisms and we do not merely say that handing this off to an unelected group of five, six or seven people is an acceptable outcome.

The fact is that in these decision-making organisations there can be groupthink. There can be small circles of people, particularly in certain niche research areas, where the peer group is so small that any idea of independence disappears out the window. If you have a small group of unelected people making decisions in this space, you do risk undermining the confidence the Australian people will have in our research system. Rather than enhancing it, which is supposedly what those opposite want to do, you actually risk undermining it, because things of questionable value will slip through.

Ministerial discretion, as Senator O'Sullivan outlined very clearly, has been used on a merely a handful of occasions in the course of the history of the Australian Research Council. It is not something that was used on a daily basis. It was not something that was used to control, direct or interfere with the ARC. It was used on a very small number of occasions where clear issues were raised about whether particular research was of sufficient value to the Australian community to warrant—I ask all those listening to remember this—taxpayer funding of that research. The ARC is in a very difficult position because it's got to balance the nuts and bolts of practical research that can have a positive outcome on people's lives—things like health research that can make a literal life-or-death difference to people in this country and right around the world through flow-on effects—with studies in, perhaps, less immediately impactful fields such as the arts. So it is completely legitimate for ministerial discretion to be exercised in such cases where there is no obvious benefit to the Australian community through the research being undertaken.

Senator O'Sullivan read out some of the titles of those that had been rejected. Again, that is not to say these projects weren't—you know, somebody had a passion for these projects, and good on them for having a passion for these projects. The question is not that. The question is not whether individual academics had a passion for these projects. The question is whether these projects were of benefit to the Australian community. 'Spectacles, dress and second-wave feminism in the Philippines'—it's hard to see. I admit I haven't read the abstract of that research project, but, given that it went through a ministerial reassessment, I find it absolutely conceivable that a minister could determine that that project wasn't in the best interests of or didn't add value to the Australian community.

Again, that is not to say that project shouldn't go ahead. If a researcher has passion for it, there are philanthropic pathways to get academic research dollars and there are pathways through universities to get academic research dollars. That project could well have gone ahead. But did it pass that threshold test that we talked about of being of benefit to the Australian community? Remember, in a limited pool of funding, that project is going up against projects in the health space which can have real-life impacts, life-and-death impacts, on people. It's going up against projects in the industrial space which may see breakthroughs in technology that benefit not just Australians but people right around the world. So it is quite legitimate to say that ministerial oversight, which is in practice extraordinarily rarely used, is worthwhile keeping in the system. It is not good enough to say: 'Here's a billion dollars. We're going to hand this off to an unelected group of individuals with no parliamentary oversight.'

Senator Faruqi talked about removing the right of this chamber to scrutinise the legislative instruments associated with the Australian Research Council grant guidelines. I think that's an absolutely appropriate right for this chamber to have. If those grant guidelines were, for example, biased in one direction, then this chamber should not only scrutinise those guidelines but have the right to reject those guidelines. To say otherwise is to abrogate the power of this parliament. It's lessening the power and responsibility of the minister to do his or her duty in ensuring that taxpayers' dollars are spent in the most effective way possible for and on behalf of the taxpayers of Australia and the whole Australian community. I think that that is a path we should be very wary of going down.

Research and development, basic research, is of fundamental importance. Ensuring that we have the best possible system with appropriate checks and balances and appropriate ministerial oversight is absolutely essential. One of the great ironies of this bill that the government has put forward is that the minister has retained the ability to approve grants in other designated programs such as the ARC Centres of Excellence, the Industrial Transformation Training Centres and the Industrial Transformation Research Hubs. This has never adequately been explained to me: why is it good enough to retain that discretion in those areas but not in terms of the ARC grants, particularly when we have on the record examples—Senator O'Sullivan went through some of them, and I mentioned another one—of things that are hard to justify as adding value to the Australian community and there are limited research dollars available?

1:24 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1:39 pm

Photo of Anthony ChisholmAnthony Chisholm (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Education) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank senators for their contribution to the debate—some more than others, I would say, Acting Deputy President! The reforms in the Australian Research Council Amendment (Review Response) Bill 2023 will set up the ARC for the future. It modernises the ARC governance and bolsters its independence. Importantly, it will get political interference out of grant funding decisions and give researchers and universities confidence that their projects will be judged on their merits through the peer review process. These reforms come out of the recommendations of the independent review led by Professor Margaret Sheil AO, and I add my thanks to Professors Sheil, Dodds and Hutchinson for their work. It has led to a report and now a bill that all those committed to the advancement of Australia's research sector can be proud of. I thank the Senate committee for their inquiry recommending passage of the bill and Senators Pocock, Faruqi and Thorpe for their engagement.

Of course, the opposition have taken a different view. It's clear that they want to preserve the ARC as a political plaything for future Liberal ministers. The opposition on this bill is deeply concerning. Well, the days of a minister spiking a research project because they didn't like it will end with this bill—a bill that sets up the ARC to spur Australian innovation in the future and catalyse productivity in the years ahead. Once again, I thank senators for their contribution. I commend the bill to the chamber.

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (President) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the second reading be agreed to.