Peter Van Onselen: Joining me now as promised off the top of the program, he’s the Minister for Education as well as Training, Senator Simon Birmingham joining me live from Adelaide. Thanks very much for your company.

Simon Birmingham: G’day Peter. Good to be with you.

Peter Van Onselen:  Let’s just go straight to your portfolio area vis-à-vis innovation. There’s a fair bit of overlap between you and Christopher Pyne, of course the former Education Minister. Help me understand what some of these changes are in terms of the nature of assessing research by university academics. It sounds like you’re trying to move away from the sort of old-fashioned approach of top-tier journal read by five of your colleagues but nobody else; fascinating piece but not really of much consequence thereafter. You’re trying to, what, get it more engaged with the community; more engaged with impact. How do you do that?

Simon Birmingham: Well that’s right Peter. So there’s a couple of points here. The first is that we had a piece of work being undertaken by Dr Ian Watt, the former head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, about the way in which Australian Research Council grants were allocated and structured. We’ve proposed some different reforms which have largely been adopted in the innovation statement released last week, which in part seeked to simplify the structure so that rather than having as many different categories of types of grants as there were, they’re going to be simplified into a couple of streamlined categories with extra funding provided to help with the transition of that. 

But importantly then, in that simplification process there’s a shift from a focus on areas like publication as a driving force behind research funding, to in fact engagement with industry and business, and ultimately from that a hope of commercial outcomes. And that’s critically important, because what the international benchmarks show is that by OECD standards Australia has some of the best research outcomes in the world. We are well regarded in terms of publications; we’re well regarded in terms of what it is that our researchers deliver. But when it comes to collaboration with industry, and when it comes to commercialisation of that research into real business outcomes, we’re amongst the worst performing among OECD countries. 

Peter Van Onselen:
 Well can I ask you a question on that? I mean just- let me give you an example from my own time writing. I’ve on occasion – I think I’m doing it again for next year – done the political overview that CEDA puts out as part of its glossy profile for the year ahead. They do it in the economic space, they do it with business, and they do a political overview as well. I’m sure you’ve read them from time to time over the years. Now, at a university level that doesn’t apparently count for anything. I’m happy to do it for the good folk at CEDA, Stephen Martin – Professor Stephen Martin. He’s good enough to come on my program, so I’m going to do this piece for him no matter what the uni says, but apparently that just doesn’t count for anything in terms of a university research output for an academic. 

What does count, as you would well know, is all the stuff that goes off into journal articles rather than a piece like that. Now, that piece will get read by more people because it’s distributed right throughout CEDA’s roster, but the scholarly piece in the journal article will be read by a hell of a lot less people but counts for so much more in academics. I mean that’s one isolated example, but is that the sort of thing where you’re trying to make sure the universities take that kind of thing into account? To incentivise academics to be more engaged?

Simon Birmingham: Well look, indeed. I mean, not wanting to sort of take your particular example, because exactly how the university will react to that is something that is really a matter for them in terms of assessing the worth of publication, or the merits of a particular engagement strategy. But we are looking to develop some good new benchmark measures for the Australian Research Council to be able to assess exactly how it is that universities form, and therefore their academics and researchers, in engagement with industry so that we can measure it. Because we know that universities respond in quite a quick and adaptive manner to different benchmarks that are published around their performance. But then also to structure some of that grants funding for research undertakings so that it is better geared towards those areas where universities are engaging with industry. 

Now, importantly we expect that industry and business has to step up to the plate here too. So one of the changes announced in the innovation statement last week is that rather than simply having designated grants rounds from the Australian Research Council, there will now be a rolling process for these grants. So that when a business wants to capitalise at the right time in their cycle with a partnership with a university and seize potential funding to support them, they’re able to put those applications through and have them assessed through the proper processes, rather than potentially having to wait six, nine, 12 months for the next grants round to come around. 

So it’s about making sure that we’ve got more funding there for research, which we’re doing; clearer, simpler incentives for universities and business to navigate; that it can be done in a more timely and responsive way, and ultimately that it shifts that incentive away from the old publish-or-perish type activity, to one in which there is real incentive there for engagement with external bodies. Importantly not just with business, because there can be great, of course, public policy benefits, health outcomes and the like from research undertakings that ultimately will have significant economic benefits, but might first be seen in their benefits in terms of other types of policy outcomes too.

Peter Van Onselen:  Alright, let me just move off your portfolio specifically for a moment and ask you about MYEFO. These figures, the ongoing blowout in debt in this country, it’s become a bipartisan problem hasn’t it? I mean, quite understandably in Opposition you guys railed against the debt blow out by the Labor Party. They tried to argue the GFC was an excuse, but you guys didn’t buy it. Now you’re trying to argue that the excuse is that you inherited problems from the Labor Party. Well, you’ve been in Government now for well over two years, yet there’s these massive debt blowouts and no surplus anywhere on the horizon. You’re as bad as each other, you lot.

Simon Birmingham: Well no, I don’t agree that we’re as bad as each other, because the difference is that the Labor Party was unable to keep its spending in check. Whereas what we’ve done, as evidenced by the most recent MYEFO, is to keep Government spending in check, is that where there’s been any growth in Government spending, to make sure we find savings to offset that [indistinct] …

Peter Van Onselen:  [Interrupts] But you’re not doing it enough. Even the head of your audit commission, Mr Shepherd, he takes the view that you guys are letting bracket creep do the heavy lifting rather than any substantive changes.

Simon Birmingham: Well I disagree with that. And of course, we have, as everybody knows, struggled to get certain savings measures through the Senate, but we continue to work very hard on the savings objective and task there. Of course, what’s eroded the budget position is on the revenue side of the equation where we’ve seen commodity prices collapse, world economic growth not being at the level that was forecast. So while we’ve offset any new spending and made sure that we keep spending by Government under control, revenue hasn’t recovered to the extent that was expected, and that of course has deteriorated the long-term budget position. 

Ultimately we know that it’s a slow and steady process of addressing the budget; that you have to be absolutely disciplined to keep spending in check in the future and look to seize every savings opportunity you reasonably can while simultaneously growing the economy, because that’s the only way you will manage to successfully grow revenue in the future without putting a heavier tax burden on individual people or Australian businesses. So that’s the big task ahead of us. How you keep that spending in check, which we’re very disciplined and determined to do, unlike the Labor Party when they were in Government where spending ballooned, while at the same time having a real focus on growing the economy, which is what the innovation statement is about. It’s what competition policy driven by the Harper reforms is about. It’s what discussions around tax reform and federation reform are about, as to how we make sure we create the most competitive circumstances for the Australian economy in which to grow in the future. 

Peter Van Onselen:  Alright, let me now ask you about the front page story on The Australian newspaper today, Simon Birmingham, about the head of ASIO having background conversations- or in the background conversations with Liberal MPs who are apparently none too happy about it and have expressed that to the foreign editor Greg Sheridan. Your reaction?

Simon Birmingham: Well look, I think they’re matters that are best responded to by the Attorney-General. And of course, we expect that all of our national security agencies put the national security interests of the country first. That is really the prime responsibility of Government before everything else, is to ensure the security of the nation and the safety of our people, and we take those responsibilities very seriously. But for any particular issues and incidents I would suggest that’s best handled by the Attorney-General. 

Peter Van Onselen:  Alright, we’ll let you go there then. Senator Simon Birmingham, appreciate your time. Have a good Christmas. Thanks for your company as always.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you Peter, you too, and to all of your viewers.

Peter Van Onselen: Cheers.

Senator Birmingham’s media contact:      James Murphy, 0478 333 974

                                                                       Nick Creevey, 0477 644 957

Department Media: