Have you been wondering about "the significant opportunities for Australia in the 21st century" lately?
Gripped in the trance of Omicron, perhaps not. Never mind. Scott Morrison's government has been thinking ahead, at least in service to some cherished priorities.
In pursuit of various culture war opportunities, the pandemic-challenged government has proved remarkably energetic. Whether it's championing "religious freedom" (permitting religious schools to sack gay and lesbian teachers), suppressing superannuation industry proxy advisers who recommend environmentally friendly investments, claiming that Australian history teaching in schools is unpatriotically negative, or sparring with the ABC (over just about everything), the Morrison government has an enthusiasm for contesting political culture by promoting conservative values and private commercial interests. Indulging ideology is so much more gratifying than grappling with the messy business of climate change, housing affordability, or a chronically underfunded public health system.
The spirit of the culture wars permeates proposed reform of academic research rules. In mid-December the acting Minister for Education and Youth, Stuart Robert, issued a statement which outlined "significant opportunities" that the Australian Research Council, which recommends research funding for university academics, "will enact". The ARC had received "letters of expectation" from the government to "better leverage Australia's world-class university research sector to support Australia's economy and society".
The ARC is expected to adopt "a stronger governance structure" to "respond to the challenges of aligning research programs to national priorities". It's hard to dispel an impression that the stronger governance structure is the will of the minister, and the national priorities are his own: an impression strengthened by the unwanted Christmas presents Stuart Robert distributed on December 24, when he announced he had vetoed funding for six research projects that had been approved by the ARC's academic panels.
The applications that the minister found failed the "national interest" and lacked "value for money" were all humanities research projects. The rejected projects explored popular narratives in Xi Jinping's China and school student climate change activism. Stuart Robert evidently has a distaste for English literature, the focus of two of the vetoed projects. As Australia struggles in a tense relationship with our major trading partner, how is it not in the national interest to analyse the stories flourishing under the guidance of the Chinese President? Should Australians not be concerned about why school students resort to protest over the threat of climate change, and its impact on their future lives? Doesn't literature nourish the national soul?
Instead of cultural enrichment, the government seeks hard profit from university research. Robert's proposed reforms outline a new focus on "research commercialisation", with a greater role for industry in the design of commercially driven research projects. Presumably industry representatives will populate the new but unspecified governance structure indicated in the minister's statement. Commercialisation not only generates cash, it also stimulates an ideology of research privatisation, the public interest subordinated to the market.
Since the dawn of the 21st century, it has been only ministers in Coalition governments who have intervened in the ARC process to veto research projects. Labor senator Kim Carr decried the latest intervention as "McCarthyism". It's a timid echo of the Cold War. Conservative Coalition governments seem to prefer soft culture war targets, more likely to stir populist scorn than mobilise strong political or community support in their defence. But this intervention has attracted sharper resistance, including an open letter from ARC laureate fellows condemning the "heartless" Christmas veto.
Robert has rejected projects that conformed with application rules, established by the government and applied by assessment panels composed of experienced scholars from the relevant research disciplines. The vetoed projects endured a rigorous selection process that frequently leave applicants exhausted. Many applications fail the ARC's demanding standards.
The Christmas intervention sends a signal to the market: the value of money will drive research. In pursuit of this ambition, the Morrison government imposes demoralising interventions that may inhibit academic freedom, while boasting of promoting "significant opportunities" for world-class research. Such is Australian political culture in the 21st century.
- Dr Mark Hearn is a senior lecturer in the Department of History and Archaeology at Macquarie University.