Labor senators agree with many of the concerns that have been raised by stakeholders during the committee's inquiry, in particular the need to strengthen protections against political interference in the allocation of research funding. It is unacceptable that Coalition Government education ministers continue to undermine the integrity of Australia's research sector and politicise the grant process.
Labor senators have strong concerns about the way in which Coalition Government education ministers have arbitrarily exercised their power to veto grants that have been recommended by the Australian Research Council's (ARC's) peer review process.
However, Labor Senators support the principle of ministerial accountability in the expenditure of public funds and do not support the removal of all ministerial discretion from research grants administered by the ARC.
In light of concerns raised by stakeholders about the operation of the ARC in recent years, Labor senators support the need for an independent review of the ARC, but it should be much broader than the Government has indicated. Any review should go to the issue of the ARC's role in the research system, including the operations of the ARC.
Political motives for ministerial intervention
While Labor senators do not support this Bill, we do believe that the Australian Research Council Act 2001 (ARC Act) should be amended.
According to evidence received during the inquiry, Coalition Governments have used ministerial discretion under the ARC Act in 32 instances.
Ministerial intervention weakens confidence in researchers' ability to pursue topics of genuine interest and collaboration, and undermines Australia's international reputation. For example, the Group of Eight argued:
Without trust and rigour in the granting process, based on international standards that promote peer review as the basis for decisions, the Australian research system, its outcomes and participants will suffer reputational damage that will impact future collaborations and indeed Australia’s participation as a leader in the global research system.
In addition, Professor Anna Hickey-Moody raised the issue of research in the humanities, arts and social sciences being shaped through parameters set by the government of the day. Since 2017, 17 of 22 grants vetoed by the minister were for research projects in the humanities, arts and social sciences disciplines. Indeed, the President of the Council for the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, Professor Dan Woodman argued:
…I just want to restate, as others have, that the evidence today strongly suggests that the ministers have only deployed these powers in relation to applications from humanities and social sciences.
It is regrettable that the Coalition Government thinks there is political advantage to be gained in targeting the humanities in the way that they have. The role of an education minister should be to ensure that the ARC's grants processes are rigorous, fair and transparent, and the ARC has competent leadership and is functioning well. The ARC should then be allowed to do its work without political interference.
Retaining the ministerial veto
The ministerial veto contained in the ARC Act is a mechanism to facilitate the accountability of executive government. As the Australian Catholic University argued:
…it is ultimately the elected government which must account for the expenditure of public funds. The principle of responsible government is a fundamental tenet of Australia's Westminster system of parliamentary democracy. Under this principle, ministers are accountable to the Parliament, and ultimately, to the people for decisions taken within their areas of portfolio responsibility. This includes the actions of departments or agencies within their control. The absolute elimination of ministerial discretion over the allocation of public funds – as proposed by the Bill – would break this nexus between responsibility and accountability.
An issue canvassed with most witnesses and generally acknowledged as important in regard to the veto was the proposition that 'it is theoretically possible that information would be available to a minister that may not be available to the panel of experts or even the administrators at the ARC'.
Further, as the ARC points out in its submission, the effect of this Bill is not to remove the veto power, it is to shift it from the minister to the ARC Chief Executive Officer (CEO), thereby 'weakening Parliament's oversight and removing Ministerial privilege'. The Bill therefore fails to afford the protection from rogue intervention that the sector seeks.
Both the Department of Education, Skills and Employment (the department) and the ARC indicated that they were not aware of any legislation that requires a decision-maker, in this case the relevant minister, to make an administrative decision in accordance with the views or recommendations of a third party.
In the case of the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), the responsible minister can approve 'some or all or none of the grants recommended by the CEO' and that there 'is nothing in the [National Health and Medical Research Council Act 1992 (NHMRC Act)] that prevents a Minister from "exercising a veto" on any particular grant'.
However, the NHMRC Act also has an accountability mechanism. The Queensland University of Technology (QUT), drew attention to these provisions in the NHMRC Act:
If the Minister gives a direction under subsection (1), the Minister must cause a statement setting out particulars of, and of the reasons for, the direction to be laid before each House of the Parliament within 15 sitting days of that House after giving the direction.
Multiple stakeholders argued for similar provisions to be included in the ARC Act so that, when the minister chooses to use this power, the research community and broader public are advised of the reasons behind the veto of specific projects in a timely manner. Such an approach may overcome perceptions that the current exercise of the minister's veto power is 'opaque'.
While Australia has an admirable record of academic freedom, Labor senators remain concerned that the Coalition Government's use of ministerial veto has eroded both domestic and international trust in Australia's research sector. Although Labor senators do not support the removal of ministerial discretion to veto grants, it finds how ministerial power has been exerted previously to be unacceptable.
Accordingly, Labor senators support amending the ARC Act to include provisions stipulating the responsible minister must table, in Parliament, the reasons, evidence and advice received when choosing to exercise discretion within 15 sitting days should they decide to exercise discretion to veto an ARC recommended grant. This would bring the legislation governing the ARC in line with the requirements outlined in the NHMRC Act.
The Australian Government should amend the Australian Research Council Act 2001 to require the responsible minister to table, in Parliament, within 15 sitting days, the reasons, evidence and advice received when discretion is exercised to veto an Australian Research Council recommended grant.
Review into the ARC
Several stakeholders have argued the need for a broad review into the ARC's role and governance structure to ensure that it is aligned to the needs of the sector. Labor senators support arguments made by Dr Matthew Brown, Deputy Chief Executive of the Group of Eight, who advocated for 'an overhaul of the ARC'. Such an overhaul would amend the ARC's governance structure and reporting mechanisms and ensure transparency regarding issues of foreign interference and national security.
Further, in the hearing, Dr Brown pointed to the fact that the legislation governing the ARC has not been reviewed in the last two decades. Labor finds this deeply concerning, and supports the view presented by stakeholders that it is time to conduct a wide-ranging review of the role and governance of the ARC to ensure its independence and prevent any—real or perceived—political interference.
Labor senators also have strong concerns about recent commentary on the operations of the ARC. The ARC has confirmed it is building 'sensitivity files' on Australian researchers from foreign-owned and Australian newspapers and other sources that are then used to consider their research applications. Such administration practices do not inspire confidence. To ensure the integrity of our research system, transparency and proper process are needed on matters of foreign interference and national security.
As such, Labor senators support calls for there to be a broad review of the ARC, with priorities centred on a renewal of the ARC's governance framework, reporting mechanisms and internal administrative processes moving forward.
The Australian Government should undertake a broad review of the role and functions of the Australian Research Council with a particular focus on the governance framework, reporting mechanisms and internal administrative processes.
Senator the Hon Kim Carr Senator Louise Pratt
Labor Senator for VictoriaDeputy Chair
Senator Deborah O'Neill
Labor Senator for New South Wales