Politicians and their courtiers have so many bad habits: cheating, putting pork in the keg, breaking promises, taking out the trash. All are commonly understood, except the last – Friday night, maybe Saturday, and there is a press release from a department or agency revealing bad news. Maybe just a pager, maybe just a sentence. But news outlets have deadlines and the end of Friday has passed bedtime.

Normal weekends are bad enough, but last Friday hit Christmas Eve COVID, so there was a good chance some shameful announcements would be missed in the avalanche of everything else. And so it was that last Friday hundreds of Australians received some very bad news.

Stuart Robert took out the trash on Christmas Eve.Credit:Alex ellinghausen

Once again, universities suffered from political interference, this time from Acting Minister of Education Stuart Robert who decided to reject six approved research projects. The rejected grants, he said, “do not demonstrate value for taxpayers’ money or contribute to the national interest.” All were in the humanities: two on the climate, two on China, two others on literature.

This is not the first time that the minister has tried to take out the trash. Who could forget the time when Robert was forced to repay $ 721 million to the victims of Robodebt? This too was dropped late on a Friday. Here’s what happened this time.

Every year, thousands of Australian researchers apply for funding through the Australian Research Council (ARC), the only organization in Australia that gives money for all kinds of projects. The applications are Herculean work and there is so little money that only 20 percent of grants are funded. You have to be smart, skillful, and cunning to be successful among the 200 Expert College members. Jobs depend on these grants, but more importantly Australia’s future rests on the results of these grants.

This Friday night drop was Robert’s first show of strength in his portfolio of actors since Alan Tudge deposit the pole – Robert has shown that he alone will decide what is in the national interest and how it will be funded. He used a ministerial veto despite absolutely no qualification to judge any research or even what constitutes the national interest. The last time it happened back in 2018, the entire CRA should have resigned in protest. This time a highly regarded math teacher resigned from the ARC College of Experts. Andrew Francis of Western Sydney University tweeted: “Resignation is the only way I have to indicate my anger at this situation, and to send any signal.” And is the university sector responding as one? Only the excellent but necessarily anonymous @ARC_Tracker serves as a national forum for the anger and grief felt by many members of the community.

There must be some poignantness to Robert in his rejection of two research projects on China. Just five minutes ago, his misunderstanding of what our relationship with China should look like put him in hot water. Malcolm Turnbull let him go from the ministry after Robert took a “private” trip to Beijing to oversee a mining deal involving major liberal donor and meet Chinese vice minister. It sounded like self-interest, so he had to leave.

Now that Australia’s relations with China are dangerously bad, Robert decides Australians don’t need research that could improve them. I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t want to learn more about one of the denied grants: Stories from China under Xi Jinping: Popular Tales. It might help our winegrowers at least.

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