Coalition Attacks on Academic Freedom and Independence - Speech, House of Representatives


On Christmas Eve last year we saw a familiar pantomime playing out, of the Liberals again vetoing Australian Research Council grants. This sad and tired pantomime played out first under the Howard government, when Brendan Nelson knocked off nearly a dozen ARC grants. It then happened in 2018-19, when Senator Birmingham and the member for Wannon, Dan Tehan, as education ministers, knocked off another eleven Australian Research Council grants. And now we’ve seen the coalition do it a third time, with the decision of the member for Fadden, Stuart Robert, as acting education minister, to block six humanities research projects from receiving funding.

Let’s be clear about what it means to win an Australian Research Council grant. This is a process that involves several rounds of rigorous peer review from internationally determined experts. Those researchers who put their time into preparing for Australian Research Council grants do so often during summer, giving up their holidays in order to prepare documents, knowing that there is probably only a one in five chance that they will make it through that highly competitive process. I’m aware of this; as a former professor at the Australian National University, I was fortunate to win three Australian Research Council grants and to serve as a reviewer for Australian Research Council grants.

Now, these are referred to as ‘grants’, but make no mistake. This isn't like the minister stepping in through some dodgy colour-coded spreadsheet process. This isn't like the minister stepping in after a public servant has spent a few hours or even a few days looking at which grants might be supported. This is a highly rigorous academic selection process after which it is utterly bizarre to have the minister stepping up and knocking off grants.

I pay tribute to the anonymous @ARC_Tracker account on Twitter, which has very carefully documented the problems we've seen under the Coalition. It has documented the significant delays in the announcement of Australian Research Council grants and documented the way in which those applying for grants have been left at the political whims of the government. The Australian Research Council, at least in this instance, did not connive with the minister's decision. One of the worst things about the 2018-19 decision was that grant applicants were led to believe that their grants had been knocked off on the basis of merit, that they had failed through the competitive selection process. The Australian Research Council did not at the time come clear with those unsuccessful grant applicants and say, 'Look, your peers put you top of the pile, but the minister knocked you off.' At least this time it was very clear what had happened when the minister stepped in.

The knocking off of ARC grants is akin to the Minister for Sport funding a sporting competition with prizes at the end and in which the rules are very clearly set out, then coming along as people are walking up to the medal ceremony and saying: 'No, I don't like this silver-medallist. I'm knocking off the silver-medallist and I'm allowing the bronze medallist to step up.' That is what it is like to override it. That is why we have seen an open letter signed by 139 current and former members of the Australian Research Council's College of Experts, protesting against the decision, pointing out that the six projects that were knocked off satisfied 'a rigorous multistage selection process' and that the ministerial decision to override the recommendations for funding 'undermines this process'. We've already seen at least two members of the College of Experts resign in protest. As the statement notes, the government has failed to uphold standards in line with the Haldane principle which holds that, ‘while governments need to establish funding guidelines, decisions on individual research proposals are best made through independent peer review and government ministers should not decide which individual projects should be funded’.

Australia is, as far as we know, unique among advanced countries in allowing the minister to knock off research grants. This doesn't happen in other countries, and that's because other countries don't see this as being like handing out money to local sporting clubs. They see this as having a rigour and an independence that means that ministers should not step in and override the process. The Morrison government claims it wants to protect academic freedoms. In fact, it commissioned a 2019 review of freedom of expression and intellectual inquiry into higher education. Minister Roberts's decision to veto ARC grants is a clear breach of a core principle of academic freedom. The veto of those grants is extraordinary. What did they knock off? They knocked off research projects exploring modern-day China. They knocked off a project on Shakespeare, one of whose key investigators was President of the Australian and New Zealand Shakespeare Association. So those who say that they're interested in the classics are knocking off grants for researching Shakespeare. Those opposite who talk about the importance of understanding China are knocking off grants for research into China.

At a time in which we have massive discontent with democracy among young Australians, we have the minister knocking off a grant for research into the School Strike 4 Climate. Whether you agree or disagree with the School Strike 4 Climate—and I was one of those who joined those marches—surely it is worth understanding the discontent of young people, understanding the frustration that they face about this government's complete failure of leadership on the issue of climate change. Tony Abbott may be gone from this place, but this government still has Tony Abbott's climate targets, still has the climate targets of the man who called climate change 'absolute crap'. We had a grant for research to explore the School Strike 4 Climate that would have shed light on young people's attitudes and potentially had proposals for greater community engagement in the climate debate and strengthening our democracy. If there's anything that all of us in this place should be united behind it's strengthening our democracy. When there are young people up in the gallery, members on all sides wave to them. We're pleased to see school groups in the chamber, and I can't wait for them to come back as the restrictions lift. Yet when it comes to understanding the views of young people about climate change, the Morrison government wants to stick its head in the sand.

We've had a range of senior figures within the academic establishment speaking out. Barney Glover, the Vice-Chancellor of Western Sydney University, said that it was facile to suggest that any of the vetoed grants weren't in the national interest. Nobel laureate Brian Schmidt, the Vice-Chancellor of the Australian National University, said that it was inappropriate to intervene to remove grants 'unless the grant rules were not followed'. There's no suggestion in this case that there was a failure by the applicants to follow the grant rules, so the government is again simply knocking off grants in its own political interests.

One of the grants was to do with religion, and we were in here until after five o'clock this morning debating the issue of freedom of religion. You'd think the government would want to better understand issues surrounding religion. But, no, it's knocked off a grant for research into religion and done so at a time when these issues are of significant importance. We've had Christine Parolin, the executive director of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, saying:

Having researchers second guess whether their work will be rejected by the minister of the day after passing a rigorous assessment process of their peers, is no way to support a research system in a liberal democracy.

The anonymous @ARC_Tracker account said:

It undermines, insults and wastes the precious time and thorough considerations of 200-strong College of Experts assembled by an independent ARC.

Professor Barney Glover, in talking about climate activism, said:

Surely we want our best social and political scientists to explore the phenomenon. And what could the Minister possibly find objectionable in a liberal democracy supporting freedom of speech and extolling the virtues of academic freedom.

We've seen from this government a decision which has been described by the former Labor frontbencher Senator Carr as 'McCarthyism', pointing out that it subverts research that was recommended by the Australian Research Council. There are some $800 million of grants that are allocated through the Australian Research Council, and the meddling is utterly outrageous. Labor has said very clearly that, were an Albanese Labor government to be elected, our education minister would never exercise that veto. It never happened when Senator Carr was the minister for education and it wouldn't happen under minister Plibersek. The member for Sydney, were she to become education minister in Australia—and that would be a great day, indeed—would never veto an Australian Research Council grant.

The member for Sydney, Tanya Plibersek, recognises that the Australian Research Council is an independent Commonwealth body. She recognises that political interference undermines the support of the academic community for the Australia Research Council process. And she recognises that the attacks on the independence of the Australian Research Council are just part of the government's attacks on universities. We've seen cuts to university funding and we've seen jobs lost. Universities such as Curtin University and the Australian National University have literally been decimated, losing more than one in 10 of their staff.

During the pandemic, the government changed the rules three times to prevent public universities getting JobKeeper assistance. That's one of the reasons why so many universities lost jobs. But, at the same time, casinos got JobKeeper, and $20 billion of JobKeeper went to firms with rising revenue. Private universities, such as Bond University and New York University's Sydney campus, got JobKeeper. But public universities were left out, and the Commonwealth assistance that was extended to universities was far less than the hit to their revenue from the government closing the borders and shutting off access to overseas students.

International education is our fourth-biggest export industry, and yet it's being undermined by this government. Their Orwellian-named 'Job Ready' graduate program does nothing to improve the opportunities for young people. It drives up the cost of an arts degree so that it's now comparable to the cost that US students pay to study at a typical university in the United States. An Australian student can pay $58,000. And we know, because debts are paid through the HECS system, that students simply don't change their course choices when fees go up or down for particular courses. Instead, what happens is that this merely adds to the debt burden of young Australians.

The government's attacks on universities and attacks on research are nothing short of outrageous and should be condemned by this House.


Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.