Ministerial veto of Australian Research Council funding for research on Student Climate Action and Democratic Renewal damages research and innovation, young people and democracy.
By Philippa Collin, Michelle Catanzaro, Stewart Jackson, Judith Bessant
Vibrant democracies need ongoing generational renewal . The mass and sustained mobilisation of school students for climate justice reveals that many young Australians want a more participatory and inclusive form of democracy. Since 2019 our team of Australian-based researchers has investigated student motivations, forms of organising and participation in climate activism in order to better understand their expectations of democracy. This research can help inform educators about the civic norms and practices of the new political generation, particularly as they teach contemporary civics.
However, on Christmas Eve 2021, our research team learned, via Twitter, that our proposal for Australian Research Council funds to carry this research forward had been ‘Recommended to but not funded by the Minister’. The only justification provided is that the project was either ‘not value for money’ or ‘not in the national interest’.
We have written in more detail about this government interference and rejection of our research here. This continuing pattern of Ministerial vetoes (there have been 32 since 2005 by Coalition governments) should concern all Australians because they are censorial, unjust, a blight on academic freedom and limit discovery and innovation. Political interference of this kind damages research integrity, healthy research cultures and our international reputation, collaboration, funding and ultimately our ability to foster a healthy and just society and planet. This was fiercely argued by most of the submissions to the recent Senate Inquiry on a Bill currently before Parliament to remove the veto power.
The veto on our research also sends a powerful message to young people that research on their concerns and their political participation is not important. It tells them that it is ‘not in the national interest’ to understand their concerns or how they are seeking to tackle policy problems. It communicates that young people are not important to the renewal of democratic cultures, institutions and processes as citizens now and into the future.
Yet research and educational practice show that youth participation in policy-making, service design and civics education is not only desirable, but essential if we are to foster democratic cultures, communities and active citizens who feel recognised and respected. In both civics and climate change education, co-designing the curriculum and syllabuses would significantly address the learning needs of children and young people - those who teach them and create policy that impacts them. At a time when top-down governance and policy responses have become a problematic norm, our aim was to do research with young people in ways that can directly inform the civics curriculum through ensuring young people see themselves - and their civic and political actions - in the content they study. This could also support professional development for politicians and their staff about ‘youthful politics’ and contemporary civic and political practices
Our experience is just one case demonstrating why all Australians, and not just academics, need to be free from arbitrary, unjust and politicised interventions by politicians who have forgotten why they are in power: namely to serve the people and uphold due process. Restoring the integrity of Australian universities’ ability to undertake research unfettered by political censorship in all its guises is in the national interest. We need full transparency – and legislation that ends such capricious Ministerial veto. And, in the case of our research, to respect the democratic rights of young people.