Don’t axe Australia’s research grant veto powers: Senate panel

Parliamentarians clash on funding discretion and whether it should continue, but agree on need for ARC review

March 21, 2022
Executioner's axe
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An Australian Senate committee has urged parliament not to remove the education minister’s discretion over research grants, even though scores of academics, scholarly societies and universities want ministerial “veto” powers constrained.

The Education and Employment Legislation Committee has recommended against passage of a Greens bill obliging the minister to approve grants endorsed by the Australian Research Council (ARC). The committee, which is dominated by senators from the ruling Liberal and National parties, said the government’s “legitimate and important role” in determining the parameters for government-funded research was not limited to “guidelines and processes only”.

A ministerial requirement to “rubber-stamp” grant recommendations would “essentially override the basic principle of responsible government”, the committee reports. Such a move would also prevent ministers from blocking funds for projects with “due diligence or national security concerns” unknown to the ARC.

The report says vetoes are relatively rare, with just 1 per cent of recently recommended projects failing to secure ministerial approval. “On balance…the act in its present form serves the national interest by ensuring the minister remains accountable for the appropriate expenditure of government funds,” it concludes.

The committee’s Labor Party senators also supported the retention of ministerial veto as “a mechanism to facilitate the accountability of executive government”. But they backed an amendment to stop ministers exercising veto power “arbitrarily” to “politicise the grant process”.

The Labor amendment would require the minister to present the “reasons, evidence and advice” underpinning any decision not to approve grant recommendations within 15 parliamentary sitting days.

Greens senator Mehreen Faruqi, the bill’s author, condemned the committee’s “shameless” move “to retain unnecessary power over research funding” as a triumph of politics over policy. “Both the government and Labor have refused to concede their political power to interfere with individual research grants,” Dr Faruqi said.

“Despite an overwhelming majority of contributors supporting the removal of the veto, the committee majority have relied selectively on evidence provided by a very small number of witnesses.”

In a dissenting report recommending her bill’s passage, Dr Faruqi highlighted disagreement over whether ministerial veto applied to the ARC’s sister agency, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).

The NHMRC itself says its allocations are subject to ministerial discretion, echoing the view of the ARC and the federal education department. But legal opinions supplied to the committee contradict this interpretation.

Western Sydney University said the NHMRC Act was “ambiguous” on the question, with ministerial veto “not apparent from the legislation”. The University of Tasmania said veto power was inconsistent with a legislative clause limiting ministerial intervention in funding decisions to “direction…of a general nature”.

All three political groupings backed calls for a review of the ARC. Government senators said the review should take into account the directions already issued to the ARC in acting education minister Stuart Robert’s “letter of expectations” last December.

Labor said the review should focus on the ARC’s “governance framework, reporting mechanisms and internal administrative processes”. The Greens said the review should consider “the boost to public funding required to ensure the ARC can fund all worthy projects…as determined via peer review”.

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