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Second reading, Australian Research Council Amendment (Review Response) Bill 2023

The Australian Research Council Amendment (Review Response) Bill 2023 amends the Australian Research Council Act 2001 to make changes to the purpose, governance, oversight and budgetary arrangements for the Australian Research Council. These changes follow an independent review commissioned by the Albanese government in 2022 and its final report, Trusting Australia’s ability: review of the Australian Research Council Act 2001. It’s certainly clear that Australians cannot trust this government, including in relation to research. We saw a shocking decision by this government, as revealed in the last MYEFO statement, when it cut $102 million to university research. For this government to be standing up and spruiking its track record on university research when it, under the cover of darkness, has axed two research programs delivered by the coalition is absolutely disgraceful. I think that this government has a lot to answer for.

Of course, we all know that the Labor Party, before the last election, went to the people of Australia promising to lift investment in research to three per cent of GDP. At the moment, it’s about 1.7 per cent or a little bit more than that. Since the election, we’ve heard absolutely nothing about that commitment as well. This government stands up and talks about its track record with research when it has slashed $46.2 million from the Australia’s Economic Accelerator program, which is a very important program. It’s part of several billion dollars of investment in the university sector by the former coalition government to ensure that great ideas are commercialised and that research does not sit in the bottom drawer. It is appalling that the minute this government had its first chance it slashed that program. It also cut $56.3 million by cancelling the Regional Research Collaboration Program, a really important program to support research collaboration in the regions. It’s just one more example of the way in which this government has turned its back on the regions.

So the government is starting this debate on the back foot, and I have to say that this bill, regrettably, puts forward amendments which also undermine the ability of the minister, no matter who the minister is, to do his or her job. That’s because the bill establishes the ARC board, which will be responsible for providing advice to the minister on grant guidelines for all national competitive grants programs, rather than the Minister for Education. So what this bill does is to remove ministerial discretion, except on security, defence and international relations grounds. This will mean that, as to grants for discovery projects, linkage projects and fellowship projects, which account for a large part of the ARC’s expenditure, the minister will have no discretion. This is an enormous amount of money we are talking about. In 2022-23, total expenditure was some $895 million. The reason the coalition is so concerned about removing ministerial discretion is that the buck stops with the minister and with the government. It’s a really important part of our system of responsible government, of parliamentary democracy. Outsourcing these decisions to an unaccountable board is a very, very dangerous step forward.

The government, to make things worse, is saying—as Minister Clare said in his speech the other night at the Universities Australia Gala Dinner—that the government is taking the politics and the politicians out of ARC decisions. Well, that, in fact, is not true. While ministerial discretion is being removed for a large number of grants, the minister is retaining his ability to approve grants for other designated research programs, including Australian Research Council centres of excellence, grants approved under the industrial transformation training centres and grants approved under the industrial transformation research hubs. So this is absolute gross hypocrisy from this government, because this government has not removed the ability for the minister to step in and make decisions—and that is appropriate, because we know that, in years gone by, a very small number of ARC projects rightly needed to be overturned by the minister. It was a very, very small number of projects. In fact, when in government, coalition education ministers intervened in very few projects; in fact, just 32 projects have been rejected since 2005. It is important that this ability is retained with the minister.

We saw an example of improper expenditure, which we highlighted in the last estimates. The Department of Education was holding meetings in high-end restaurants—spending thousands of dollars of taxpayers’ money meeting in restaurants, which is an absolute disgrace! Through the hard work of the opposition, we shamed this government into changing its hospitality policy so that there is now, appropriately, a cap on expenditure and so we can no longer see this gross waste of taxpayers’ money.

What this bill’s proposal means is that, as to an ARC research project—which might include $250,000 of travel to Europe, for no rhyme or reason, or tens of thousands of dollars built into a research project in relation to hospitality—the government and the responsible minister would have no ability to step in and say, ‘That’s not appropriate.’ I am not suggesting that the vast bulk of ARC research projects do not have merit but, where there is inappropriate expenditure of taxpayers’ dollars, it is critical that the government remains accountable.

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