Australian Research Council Amendment Bill 2021

House of Representatives 10/02/2022

Mr KHALIL (Wills) (13:05): Federal Labor is supportive of the Australian Research Council Amendment Bill 2021 which indexes approved research grants and provides funding for the 2024-25 financial year. Whilst these amendments are standard and uncontroversial, the government’s continued treatment of the Australian Research Council is anything but.

My electorate of Wills is home to a high number of researchers and academics. They continue to share their frustrations with me about the government’s interference with their sector. Delays to grant announcements are of particular concern. Last year the government deliberately delayed announcements about university research grants until Christmas Eve. This was less than a month before grants were scheduled to commence. Up to 5,000 researchers had no certainty when it came to their jobs and research projects.

Furthermore, political interference by successive ministers demonstrates the government’s concerted effort to politicise research in this country. In this round of grants the then acting education minister vetoed six humanities grants because they clearly didn’t suit the government’s agenda. You might ask: who was this acting education minister? It was none other than the member for Fadden, who is known for his fantastic oversight of other government programs such as robodebt! I’m sure if the member from Maribyrnong were here he would be nodding his head at the great job that the member for Fadden has done and the track record he has! He is just one of several Liberal government ministers who have vetoed Australian Research Council grants. Then Minister for Education Tehan intervened in 2020. Senator Birmingham personally vetoed $4.2 million of grants back in 2018. Of course, they are all following in the footsteps of Howard government ministers who did the same thing.

Unlike the Liberals, federal Labor have never vetoed Australian Research Council grants because we respect impartiality in the grants process. We know that proposals can take months and months of planning, and then, in the way that this government is doing it, can be denied with a flick of a pen. This is reprehensible interference. It’s not only harming our research sector but damaging our international reputation. How can we attract the best researchers, scientists, educators, students and other professionals when the system is anything but fair or transparent? How can we retain all of those people? It’s another example of a government that says they are committed to jobs—they talk about jobs a lot—but everything they do within their power actually jeopardises thousands of jobs. Don’t get me wrong, the grant processes should be rigorous, and that is why if elected a federal Labor government would be guided by a rigorous Australian Research Council peer review process in approving applications. We support academic freedom and believe that Australia should be a world leader in research.

Unfortunately, under this government 7,000 research jobs have been cut in the past two years. That’s 7,000 people without work as a direct causal effect of this government’s policies. How can this exodus of talent be of any surprise when surveys show more than half of our researchers consider moving overseas upon completing study? We need to be investing, not interfering, in academic institutions like universities. They are not just important social hubs but economic ones—driving innovation, fostering new businesses and industries, helping to educate and train people for their jobs. So many people in my electorate of Wills understand that the Morrison government has left our universities behind. When it did finally come to the table with JobKeeper, after a lot of advocacy by the federal Labor opposition, it deliberately left universities out. This has meant 40,000 jobs have been cut, 40,000 jobs that were not important enough for this government to save—academics, tutors, admin staff, library staff, catering staff, ground staff, cleaners, security and many more. These are all real people—so many faces and names I know in my own community who worked in the sector, who have families and responsibilities. They are all now out of work.

And yet, even as education is our biggest service export, this government is only trying to make it harder for Australians seeking an education. Thousands of Australian students are now paying double for courses because of changes made by this government, who originally planned to cut university funding overall. Surprise, surprise, just like in its grant interference, these changes hit humanities and other disciplines that this government ideologically takes issue with. But, unlike this government, we will support universities. We will deliver up to 20,000 new university places under our Future Made in Australia Skills Plan. Sectors such as engineering, nursing, technology and education generally will all benefit as we help fix areas of skills shortages. Of these places, we will prioritise opportunities for marginalised and underrepresented groups.

I know how important this is. Education made such a difference to my sister and me. My parents worked hard and sacrificed much when they came to Australia. They did overtime in their jobs. Mum and dad were educated. Dad was a lawyer in Egypt. When he came to Australia, he couldn’t continue in that field. He ended up working at Australia Post. He gave up much of his career to put food on the table for us. He and my mum always insisted that we get a good education. We didn’t have a lot, growing up as children of migrant parents in public housing, but that lesson was always drummed into us: get a good education, because it opens up the door to opportunity for you, and this country will give you that opportunity. So I worked hard, doing the night shift at the local service station, working as a cleaner, doing all sorts of jobs, to get through university. But access to education meant that, with that hard work, I could have a successful career and give back, in public service, to the country that has given us so much—like so many other Australians who have been given opportunities through education.

As a federal MP, I want to make that a reality for every Australian, including those from regional, remote and outer suburban areas, First Nations Australians and people who are first in their family to attend university, often from a migrant or culturally diverse background. Federal Labor will work with universities to determine how our $15 billion National Reconstruction Fund can support meaningful projects that create jobs and opportunities. Unlike the Liberal government, we will support researchers, academics, students, support staff and everyone else who is passionate about making Australia a world leader in higher education. We will continue Labor’s legacy of supporting a world-class education system, one that attracts the best and the brightest, with access for all Australians, to give them that door of opportunity that they can open and fulfill their potential.