Australian Research Council Amendment Bill 2021

House of Representatives
10 February 2022

I rise to speak on the bill before the parliament, the Australian Research Council Amendment Bill 2021. Labor supports this bill. As we have heard, the purpose of the bill is to amend the Australian Research Council Act to apply indexation to approved research programs, as well as to insert funding for the 2024-25 financial year. The Australian Research Council is an independent Commonwealth body. It funds both primary and applied research through the Discovery program and the Linkage program.

The legislation is essential to support the ongoing operations of the ARC. Obviously Labor supports this work; that's why we are supporting the bill. But, whilst I make those introductory remarks, I also want to speak strongly in favour of the second reading amendment. I wish to raise my very real concerns about how the government is treating the Australian Research Council. It has been subject to unjustifiable delays to grant announcements and to political interference from government ministers, and the important work that its researchers do has been completely devalued.

I also want to place on record my growing concerns regarding the lack of support—the fact that this government seems incapable of adequately supporting Australia's universities during the pandemic and the serious harm that has on our world-class researchers. I thank the member for Sydney for the work that she's done in advocating on behalf of the sector. I think all members on this side of the chamber are at one in that we've either heard concerns from or had contact with numerous people in the sector who are basically at the 'break glass' point.

Last year, the government delayed the announcement of important university research grants until—are you ready for it?—Christmas Eve. Talk about taking the trash out on a quiet day! This, of course, caused enormous uncertainty for the 5,000 researchers whose jobs and projects relied on the funding. Then the acting minister—we need to point out that we still have an education minister that has been stood down. We've forgotten about the fact that the minister is not around or not doing their job because of serious allegations. And, even when the minister is here, the education minister seems completely obsessed about only one thing: curriculum—about what's being taught or culture wars at university.

You don't actually hear the government, the Prime Minister or the education minister talking about the value of higher education. It's nonsensical during question time sometimes. It's like listening to a weird Liberal Party branch meeting in which motion after motion is moved or to a Young Liberals or ALSF conference about who can be more right wing in attacking the university sector. Somehow, some members of the government believe that the university sector is a hotbed of communism—that it's trying to indoctrinate young people and trying to take over the world. If it's not that; it's the weird view they have about curriculum being taught in schools. I've said this before: if the government is so concerned about curriculum at schools and the correct right-wing ideology is not being followed—they have been in government nine years. What are they doing? It is just ridiculous. We never talk about education outcomes in this place. We never talk about the impact of cuts to higher education. We just continually see the government on these weird culture wars, trying to whip up hysteria without tackling what not funding our higher education sector means for our nation.

Let's get back to Christmas Eve, when the then acting minister made the decision to veto six of the recommended projects, seemingly because they were not in line with the government's agenda. These applications take a huge amount of time and work from researchers over the course of months, and this government basically has slammed the door in their face. This is a government unafraid of repeating its own mistakes. As I often say, the government is never afraid to miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. In this government, back in 2019, Senator Birmingham personally vetoed $4.2 million worth of grants from the Australian Research Council, simply because they did not suit the government's political agenda, or maybe they just weren't to his current views at the time. This behaviour was described by universities and researchers—let's take the politics out of this; let's hear what the sector said—as 'reprehensible' and that it undermined the impartiality of the grants process. This kind of political interference does very real harm to Australia's world-class university research sector. It damages our international reputation and makes it harder for universities to retain and recruit staff, putting thousands of jobs at risk.

The Minister for Education and Youth has a responsibility to make sure that the ARC's grant processes are rigorous, fair and transparent and to make sure the council is competent and well run. I firmly believe that the minister should be approving grant applications that are recommended by a rigorous Australian Research Council peer review process. I will be strongly supportive of Labor's commitment if we are privileged to be elected. Academic freedom is key to a functioning and free society, and I am horrified that the government has seemingly chosen to disregard it in favour of their own personal political ends. Their attitude towards research and their reluctance to invest in it has made Australia an unwelcoming place for researchers and the important work that they do.

I want to focus at some of my remarks now on the practical side of demonstrating to the House and to the Australian community what this government has done to the sector, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. If there were ever a sector that needed government to support them, it's the university and higher education sector. Seven thousand jobs were lost, as we heard from the member for Moreton. Departments were shut down. Research institutes have closed. Sadly, this is another chapter in the government's neglect of research. A 2016 survey of medical researchers found that 83 per cent of them had thought about leaving the profession altogether, while another found that over half of our early career researchers had thought about moving overseas. It publicly said that we were looking at a brain drain in this country. Since then, we have seen this played out, with talented researchers leaving our shores in droves.

A healthy university system is the key to our economy—I fundamentally believe that—our democracy and our society. For conservatives who believe in institutions and the value of institutions, they've got a really funny way of showing it. They've got a really warped view of the way to support institutions in this country. We need to invest in research to invest in our future. New technology and breakthroughs just don't come out of thin air; we need researchers to discover them. Australia's investment in research and development falls well short of the OECD average. Universities are where some of our best minds go to learn the skills they need to help the future of this nation. Universities are one of our most important economic and social institutions. They drive innovation, they generate export income, they encourage new industries and new businesses, and they help educate and train the next generation of skilled workers. But, despite this, universities have been systematically trashed by this government. During the pandemic, the Prime Minister simply left higher education out in the cold.

I am privileged to represent one of the largest growth corridors in the nation: the greater Springfield area in the south-west suburbs of Brisbane and the Ipswich area. Within that lies the beating heart of the University of Southern Queensland's Springfield campus. I pay tribute to the leadership of Professor Geraldine Mackenzie, both to her outstanding leadership and to her leadership team at that campus. I have talked to parents and to students. There's not enough time today for me to talk about international students and the neglect that the government has shown there. Queensland's third-largest income generator is the dollars that come in from overseas students.

If there is one example that I want to leave the parliament with tonight of how the government really disrespected the sector, it is the fact that universities were deliberately excluded from JobKeeper. Casinos got JobKeeper, $39 billion was wasted on profitable companies, but universities were left out. We all know businesses with increasing profits got JobKeeper. We've all seen those stories. Australian higher education has suffered hugely as a result of that one decision to exclude universities from JobKeeper, with around 40,000 jobs being cut across the pandemic. Think about what that means, Mr Deputy Speaker. I listened to the member for Morton's contribution where he spoke about regional centres and regional Australia. When you take jobs out of regional centres, that has a multiplier effect. The government members in this chamber know that. You take out those jobs and it has supply chain issues, and it has huge impacts when it comes to the local economy.

The sheer scale of the livelihoods destroyed by this government is nothing less than shameful. Academics, tutors, admin staff, library staff, catering staff, ground staff, cleaners, security officers and so many others—all out of work. They all had bills to pay, and many had families to support. During the pandemic I've met with a number of families who—through no fault of their own, but due to the woeful neglect by this government—were simply cut out of the JobKeeper program. Thousands of these jobs were in regional Australia. This is Australia's fourth-biggest export industry and Australia's most successful service export. Surely this huge export income alone should have been enough to justify the government's support? But not once did we see one member of the government speak out on this. It is shameful the way universities have been treated.

The money was ripped out not only from universities but also, as I said, from the local economies—the cafes, restaurants, hairdressers and shopping centres that all of these international students would have been shopping in—and all the local students—particularly in regional centres, and would have supported. At the same time, the government also introduced legislation that more than doubled the course fees for thousands of Australians. So it was a double whammy. There was no support for the people who worked in the sector—no support for people who needed that support—and then the double whammy of the increased fees for thousands of Australian students. That legislation originally contained an overall cut to university funding, and it was also targeted at the disciplines the government dislikes.

The government have spent a decade trying to undermine, cut funding to and discredit our universities. When was the last time we heard a question in this place about the outstanding work of universities? It's never discussed by the government. The fact that today we've only seen one token effort by the government—they're not interested in this sector. Their attitude towards higher education is indicative of their attitude across the whole of government: do only what is in their immediate political self-interest and ignore the long-term—or even, in this case, the short-term—consequences of their failures and their neglect of the real issues facing our nation.

We on this side of the chamber have a concrete plan to rebuild the university sector. But, more importantly, we will show the sector the respect that it deserves, including the 20,000 new places under Labor's Future Made in Australia Skills Plan. This work will address the critical issue of skill shortages and future skill needs, by training Australians in jobs in critical areas like engineering and nursing—I know the member for Cooper will be a strong supporter of that—and by making sure that we have quality educators in our country. We also have plans to prioritise universities offering more opportunities for underrepresented groups, which will directly benefit so many of my local communities, those people who are first in family to study, people from First Nations backgrounds. We also want to work with universities, in partnership, on how our $15 billion National Reconstruction Fund can help translate brilliant discoveries and innovations into Australian businesses and, more importantly, provide Australian jobs. There's a core difference when it comes to universities, but our university and research sector know they can rely on this side of the chamber, because we want to work with universities to build our nation and to see more people employed. But we will clearly need a change of government for that to occur.