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Tuesday, 17 February 1987
Page: 122

Senator TEAGUE(10.54) —Following two days of articles in the Australian Financial Review concerning the Centre of Policy Studies at Monash University, in Question Time today the Minister for Education (Senator Ryan) tabled the report from the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission of the review of special research centres and in particular announced the Government's decision to stop funding one of the nine special research centres, that is, the Centre of Policy Studies at Monash University. The Minister made a tabling statement and urged interested senators to read the CTEC report and with it a longer appendix which she tabled at the same time. I have been able to read those documents and I wish to speak briefly about them because I am not happy with the contents and the generalised summary that the Minister gave of them during Question Time this afternoon.

Last September, following the expectation that centres of excellence-that is, the special research centres-would be reviewed towards the end of the six-year period of their funding, the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission, through the Chairman, Mr Hudson, appointed a steering committee to conduct that review and nine assessment panels to assess the nine centres of excellence. These assessment panels were appointed in September 1986 and were required to report to the steering committee by the end of October 1986. The steering committee, considering the panel's findings, finished its report on 28 November and the Government has had it in its possession for some two and a half months. The procedure was that the panels, made up of peers of those researchers gaining the special supplementary moneys for research, would examine the work of their colleagues to see whether funding should continue. Eight of them will, as a result of the Government's decision, have continued funding but the Centre of Policy Studies will not. I believe that this decision is unsatisfactory.

I cannot say that the Minister's statement in the Senate today was misplaced. She did say that there were expert panels, that there was a due process for evaluation and that there was a CTEC recommendation not to give funding to this Centre. But all of that having been said, I make it clear to the Senate that the Minister did not say that the panel that looked at the Centre of Policy Studies in fact recommended a continuing grant. That was, on a reduced basis, one-fifth of that received in the last year of funding, 1986, and nearly one-half of its original funding for the first year. The panel, four persons in number, whose names are set out in the report-Professor Groenewegen, Professor of Economics at the University of Sydney, who is the Chairman of the Panel; Professor Brennan, of the Faculty of Economics at the Australian National University; Professor Marceau, Head of Public Policy Programs at the ANU; and Mr Wallace, a reader in Economics at Flinders University-made the recommendation that there be continued funding of $100,000 in 1988, $100,000 in 1989 and $100,000 in 1990. Moreover, they recommended that the matters to which they drew attention should themselves be reviewed so that funding could in prospect be increased yet further for the triennium 1991 to 1993. This was not brought to the attention of the Senate; neither were the assessments or conclusions made by the panel and then by the steering committee.

Because those assessments and conclusions are themselves highly contentious and on the face of it barely plausible and because in my view they do not directly relate to the terms of reference of this special research centre, I have a number of questions that I would like to place before the Minister. I mentioned to Senator Ryan that I would be raising this matter. Unfortunately, she is not here tonight. However, I ask the following questions of her and the Government. Why was the Centre of Policy Studies not given any right of reply on this vital assessment after six years of work? In effect, in 1986 the Centre is terms being cut out of a grant of some half a million dollars for the next triennium. Why was there no right of reply? In fact, why has no copy been given by the Government or by CTEC to the Centre of Policy Studies? I believe that, had there been such a right of reply, many of the inappropriate evaluations would have been shown to be contrary to the terms of reference of the special research funding. In fact, I am not convinced that the criteria that are set out by the panel and by the steering committee are appropriate. For example, the Minister chose to quote three accusations in the statement she made today. Firstly, she made the accusation that the Centre of Policy Studies had gained insufficient outside publication of its articles in refereed journals, despite the fact that the Centre has an enormous number of publications of its own which are seen as being of worth by many in the community and, indeed, by many of its clients, including the Economic Planning Advisory Council, the Reserve Bank of Australia, State governments, international governments such as New Zealand, and so on.

Secondly, the Centre was criticised for not having developed post-graduate training or opportunities for post-graduate or post-doctoral studies. The Centre was required by the terms of the special research grants not to spend one cent of that money on post-graduate training, yet this is one of the three specific criticisms that the Minister makes for the cessation of the Centre's grant. Thirdly, the Centre is accused by the panel-and the Minister took this up today-of not having developed a sufficient database in the applied economics area, although it has been involved with tax, social security and aviation policy and many other areas of applied economic research. I would refute all three of those accusations or evaluations on the grounds that they are inappropriate. Yet no right of reply was given to this Centre and its grant has been discontinued.

This leads on to a further question that must be asked. I ask it without prejudice; I ask it because all of us must examine whether or not there was a bias in the original intentions of the Government or, indeed, of CTEC in the way in which this evaluation took place. It is a well-known fact that Mr Hudson, despite his involvement with this Centre as a private person some years ago and despite his close association on a personal basis with a number of its key people, has in the last 12 months been most vehemently outspoken in his criticism of it and that those criticisms were voiced by him before this evaluation took place. It is true that Mr Hudson excused himself from the steering committee meeting in November when the panel's recommendations and findings were presented. However, informally and around the edges of that formal decision process, I ask the Minister whether she can give us some plausible guarantee that there was not undue bias and influence by a person ill-disposed towards the Centre. Similarly, I know that it is well known that members of the present Hawke Government were ill-disposed towards some of the work being undertaken by the Centre of Policy Studies. In a `Yes, Minister' style of canning a disagreeable body, does one not appoint persons who one knows will be rivals, will be seeking to be critical of a peer? Again without prejudice, the question must be asked: Were one, two, three or four of the panel members disposed to be critical of a colleague who had been given more opportunity than they themselves?

I come now to some specific questions. In the middle of all that evaluation process I asked a question in Senate Estimates Committee D of the Minister for Education concerning the Centre of Policy Studies and some controversy that was then under way because of the known attitudes of the CTEC Chairman and some members of the present Government. That question was put clearly. I have before me, as it was tabled during the proceedings of that Estimates Committee meeting on 14 October, a copy of a letter from the chairperson of the Committee, Senator Margaret Reynolds, to the Minister for Education, passing on that question and asking that it be answered by the Minister before the Estimates Committee report was to come before the Senate. That was not done and to this day the question is still unanswered. I just wish to read it into the record:

Has the Minister received a letter from the Executive Director of the New Zealand Business Roundtable, Mr Roger Kerr, until recently a senior NZ Treasury officer, which refers favourably to the work done for the NZ Labour Government by Professor Michael Porter of the Centre of Policy Studies at Monash University?

If she has, could she please table this letter before Estimates Committee D brings its report to the Senate?

The reason I asked that question was not just to establish a wider clientele for the Centre's applied economic research but also to point out that even a Labor Government had highly commended as useful the applied solutions that were prepared by the Centre for the Economic Planning Advisory Council, for the Reserve Bank of Australia and for State governments. Indeed, a major undertaking published in part in the Australian last week arising from the Centre concerned tax policy, and a number of us have already begun to use option V, option T and option U as objective statements of options that are before the public in the present situation of considering tax reform. I regard the Centre as professional and as having understood its original terms of research, and in the light of that and of all these unanswered questions and the over generalisation of the Minister's statement today, I believe that there is before us the view that this amounts to a political decision which jeopardises some of the sound applied economic research resources that we have in this country.

There was criticism in the public at large that of the nine centres of excellence, the special research centres, seven were related to medical research and only one related specifically to the whole area of social sciences-non-natural scientific research-faces the end of funding. When that decision is linked with more than the smell of its being based on a political predisposition to find expert reasons for canning the Centre, I find that quite unsatisfactory. Had the panel been able to say more honestly that the Centre was succeeding so well that it was getting so much private money and so many private contracts that the Commonwealth would no longer fund it because it could look after itself, that might have been more acceptable. Instead of that we have this series of half-baked criticisms that have not convinced me and I do not believe will convince a wide range, indeed even a majority, of our peers in our universities and colleges. Those of us who cry academic freedom or who wish to see a more accountable process that would ensure academic freedom should place all these questions before the Minister.