Science And National Interest Held Hostage: Christopher Pyne's Higher Ed Threat

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Events move fast in politics, and noweher faster than in Christopher Pyne's troubled higher education portfolio.

For a fortnight, the government has been threatening Australia's science and research sector with draconian funding cuts if the Senate did not pass the government's university deregulation bill. 

Now it has backflipped on that threat, splitting the legislation into two bills. 

The latest backflip joins a long line of policy failures for this government, which has been unable to legislate a manifestly unpopular suite of education and health reforms. As with its hugely controversial GP co-payment, the government has sustained significant political damage for a policy it has not been able to implement. 

What was this all about? The government had threatened to defund the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy, a federal government program that funds whizz bang research facilities across the country. There are 27 of them: telescopes, databases, synchrotrons, supercomputers, laboratories and particle accelerators.

To say these are important facilities for Australia is something of an understatement. The Australian Animal Health Laboratory, for instance, provides Australia’s first-line defence against potentially lethal animal viruses like Ebola and Hendra. The state-of-the-art Australian Synchrotron is Australasia’s only facility of its kind. The Pawsey Supercomputer will analyse dazzling amounts of data from the Square Kilometer Array. The Australian Biosecurity Network will help protect our primary industries against invasive species. If this isn’t nationally important infrastructure, it’s hard to know what is.

And the cost for maintaining these centres? Just $150 million. That’s chump change in a higher education budget worth tens of billions. 

As a result of the looming funding cliff, many of these facilities are now in crisis. The 27 centres employ over 1,700 highly-trained scientists and technicians. Some have already left for overseas job offers, worried by the uncertainty. Others are hanging on.

Why was the government refusing to fund 27 critical research facilities? Because the Senate won’t pass Education Minister Christopher Pyne’s higher education reforms.

In other words, critical national infrastructure was being threatened because the Senate won’t agree to deregulate higher education.

The government was quite transparent about its hostage tactics with the bill. “The NCRIS funding is inextricably linked and if (the university package) fails it will not be able to flow,” Pyne told the Australian Financial Review’s Phil Coorey last week.

NCRIS is actually a Howard government program. With poignant irony, it was launched by Julie Bishop in 2004. Now several key labs and facilities are on the brink of closure.

Australia’s scientific and research community, already shell-shocked by the Abbott government’s full-frontal assault on science, was horrified. Les Field of the Australian Academy of Science wrote last week that the situation was “at crisis point”.

“Why would you mothball over $3 billion in cutting edge scientific equipment, for the sake of saving $150 million?” a bewildered Field asked.

On March 4, the National Research Alliance wrote a letter to the Prime Minister. The Research Alliance is a peak body which should be much better known than it is. But the body represents most of Australia’s science, research and higher education sector. Signatories include the sector’s chief lobbyist, Belinda Robinson, and Andrew Holmes, the current President of the Australian Academy of Science.

The letter lays out what is at stake if the government continues to hold the sector hostage to the Senate’s higher education negotiations.

The message is blunt: “The NCRIS facilities depend on secure funding to enable forward planning and efficient operation,” the 15 signatories write. “However with continued uncertainty over the 2015-16 operational funding included in the last budget, many of the NCRIS facilities are preparing to close.”

The bizarre spectre of some of Australa's top scientific facilities closing simply because the Senate would not pass the government's university cuts brought some unexpected critics out of the woodwork. Even Liberal backbenchers started to get nervous, such as maverick South Australian Senator Cory Bernadi. 

Last week, the Business Council of Australia’s Catherine Livingstone attacked the threat to research funding in a speech to a Universities Australia conference. “How have we come to this?” Australia’s top business lobbyist lamented. “How have we come to the point where a government feels it can use assets, publicly funded to the tune of $2 billion, as a hostage in a political process?”

There's considerable irony here: the Business Council of Australia was one of the most assiduous supporters of the Coalition in the run-up to the 2013 election. The Business Council of Australia’s last boss, Tony Shepherd, is the man that brought us last year's draconian Commission of Audit. That Audit recommended dramatic cuts to Commonwealth higher education funding: exactly the course of action Christopher Pyne has pursued. Perhaps the business lobby is regretting what it wished for.  

Will the newly split bills be able to pass the Senate? The funding renewal for NCRIS now looks a lot more likely. And not before time: on any analysis, it cannot be in Australia’s national interest to let these vital facilities close. Only a government this hostile to evidence and reason could use the nation’s top research labs as a hostage in Senate negotiations.

But questions will again be asked about the Abbott government's ham-fisted approach to Senate negotiations. As it has demonstrated time and again, this government struggles to negotiate in good faith on policy positions, preferring to threaten critics and play politics with vital infrastructure. When it comes to public policy, the punishment of ideological enemies always seems to take precedence over the values of prudence and reason that the Liberal Party once stood for.

It's hard to read this backdown as anything other than another big defeat for Christopher Pyne, whose dogged attempts to slash university funding and deregulate university fees have proved so unpopular with voters. 

Nor is this necessarily a win for the sector. Pyne is going ahead with a vote on university deregulation, despite all the signs that the reforms will be voted down in the Senate.

As the Greens' higher education spokeswoman Lee Rhiannon observed today, "after promising the Bill would be voted on by March, the Abbott government will now drag universities through more months of uncertainty." 

"Having lost several key votes in the Senate, the government’s plan to split the Bill is a last-ditch attempt to save face by avoiding a negative vote."

Few observes think that Pyne will stop trying, however. The government appears as committed to deregulating university fees as ever.

New Matilda

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