Interview on FIVEaa, afternoons with Alan Hickey
Topics: Victorian safe injecting room trial; New assessment measures for university research




Alan Hickey:                In the meantime, we’ll ask this next gentlemen, our guest, what he thinks of this, but just changing tack slightly, did you know that a department store is a significant site for the transformational dissemination of modernism and cosmopolitanism? Can’t even say it. Do we really care? Well, the University of Sydney is spending almost $1 million on finding out whether or not that’s the case, so it’s no wonder that the Federal Government is planning a clampdown on university research projects. Education Minister Simon Birmingham announced a tightening- he’s going to tighten up the purse strings today, and he joins us now.


G’day, Senator.


Simon Birmingham:    Hello Alan, how are you?


Alan Hickey:                Good. Look, just before we get to that issue, we’ve been talking about Premier Andrews in Victoria introducing a supervised, or commonly known as a safe injecting room, and we’re having the conversation whether it’s something we should have here. You heard part of that conversation. What do you think as a South Australian?


Simon Birmingham:    Look Alan, it’s not a policy that I am desperately enamoured with. My view is that the likes of the ideas that Steven Marshall and the State Liberals here have announced in terms of actually identifying problems in schools earlier, taking a tougher approach to identification, including, if need be, the use of detection techniques in terms of identifying drugs in schools, and really trying to then provide the identification and the help to nip these problems more in the bud at an earlier stage with people is essential.


Similarly, I guess, the Federal Government, we have proposed and are being blocked by the Labor Party in terms of trialling drug testing of certain welfare recipients. Again, that’s about identifying people, making sure there’s interventions to help them, help them kick the habit if that’s what it is, but also, of course, making sure that we’re not paying welfare to individuals to simply then go and use it to purchase drugs and harm their lives and make it harder for them to actually go and get a job.


Alan Hickey:                So on a state level, you’re happy that under the Liberal proposal of perhaps dogs going in and searching some state schools?


Simon Birmingham:    Look, that’s obviously at the final end, I guess, of an identification framework of the problem, but I think, yes, if you’re serious enough about identifying the problem, then of course you get on with the job of saying, well, what steps are necessary to find out how drugs are getting into schools, find out how they’re being distributed, stop that, and make sure that help is there for students or groups of students who may need it.


Alan Hickey:                Okay. Amusing email here from Ian from Kapunda. He’s saying safe injecting rooms in Richmond? What about safe photographic booths as well? A bit of a slight there on a topless premiership medal photo that’s been dominating the news in the …


Simon Birmingham:    That’s right. I definitely won’t buy into that one, Alan …


Alan Hickey:                No, I think we’ll leave that alone.


Simon Birmingham:    … aside from to say that I don’t want anybody mentioning the premiership to me. I’m still grieving.


Alan Hickey:                But for different reasons. Nothing to do with the photo.


Simon Birmingham:    Correct.


Alan Hickey:                Now listen, why we got you on was to have a chat about this clampdown you’re introducing about university research projects. Let’s kick off – what’s the most ridiculous research project you’re aware of?


Simon Birmingham:    Oh, that’s a bit of a dangerous invitation for me, but you see across a number of the tabloid papers today, they’ve highlighted research projects that certainly are sometimes obscure or abstract in their nature. Now, universities rightly undertake a whole lot of different research. It enhances our knowledge as a country, as a population across the world; areas of historical research are critical, and that includes more modern areas of history as well. So we can’t sort of dismiss things that don’t purely have a commercial outcome as being completely irrelevant, but equally, we are providing around $3.5 billion of research funding through different streams into Australian universities, and I think taxpayers want to know that in the main that’s not just going into publications for publication’s sake, but is actually aligned with things that will provide us with good economic outcomes, chances for Australian businesses to grow in exports, more jobs, or better services in terms of improved healthcare delivery, education delivery or the like.


Alan Hickey:               So will you be listing a new set of criteria they have to meet in order to get some of that funding?


Simon Birmingham:    The big reform we’ve committed to today is what’s called a new engagement of impact assessment. Now, what does that mean? Well, it’s about to what extent do universities engage with external partners, whether that is hospitals or healthcare providers on a social policy front, or businesses and industry on a commercial front, as partners during the research, and then to what extent do universities succeed in translating that research into commercial undertakings in the future, where they get some benefit flowing back through. What we’ll be doing is really getting universities to measure this, report on it, make it transparent, and then unis can be held better to account for whether they are, out of their research dollars, doing a good job, not just in getting research published, but ensuring that there’s a far better uptake of that research.


Alan Hickey:               Is this the thin end of the wedge though, Senator, of the Government getting involved in the areas of education that they perhaps should be keeping out of?


Simon Birmingham:    No, I think this is Government being responsible in the use of taxpayer dollars. We know that research as a nation is essential to our future to be a wealthy country, a country that maintains the type of standard of living that Australians expect to see, but that’s got to be high quality research that’s relevant to improving the economy and to improving the lifestyles of all Australians. That is really where we’re trying to change the incentives for universities, I guess. If you look at global data, we are ranked as one of the best countries in the world for publishing research findings out of our universities, but we are ranked quite poorly for turning that into innovation, commercialisation, and outcomes for the country. If we can better draw the link between those two, that findings are translated into outcomes, well that, of course, will make us a more prosperous country in the future.


Alan Hickey:               What about the point that this is perhaps a funding cut by stealth?


Simon Birmingham:    No, not at all. As I say, this is about measuring the way universities use their research dollars, making that transparent, and holding them to account. We hope from that that it changes the behaviour in universities. In terms of funding, over the next few years, research funding continues to grow by several hundred million dollars. It’s clear that we actually have a strong investment to date, as I say, around $3.5 billion and some $300 million extra going in over the next few years.


Alan Hickey:               Just finally, a bit of a bombshell in the Senate yesterday. You’re looking for a new president possibly after, of course, Stephen Parry declaring he might be a dual citizen. Did it come as a bit of a shock to all around?


Simon Birmingham:    Look, it obviously was a surprise. I guess last week the High Court provided far greater clarity to the way this part of the Constitution is interpreted and, as a result of that, Stephen Parry has obviously reflected on his own personal circumstances. Now, that’s unfortunate, not least of all unfortunate for Stephen if it is proven that he does in fact hold a dual citizenship, but really it is incumbent upon all MPs to be confident of their circumstances. I think we’ve seen a number step forward as this has become clearer over the past few months, get that sorted out.


As a government though, I have to say, you know, I’m here talking to you about how we drive our research dollars further; just a couple of weeks ago we released the National Energy Guarantee about how we intend to drive electricity prices down over a period of time and guarantee reliability in the system. They’re the things that people care far more about than, of course, the entrails of an individual politician’s citizenship. So we won’t be distracted from getting on with those important policy areas in energy reform and the like, notwithstanding these things that might pop up.


Alan Hickey:               Alright, good on you. Thanks very much, Senator Simon Birmingham, the Federal Education Minister and South Australian Senator.


Simon Birmingham:    Pleasure, Alan. Any time.


Alan Hickey:               Good on you.