Editorial
Killing reason

This is a government of hostage takers.

At Christmas it was Scott Morrison, then immigration minister, refusing to let go 1500 or so people he was keeping locked in detention, too many of them children, if the senate would not pass his amendments to the Migration Act and the Maritime Powers Act.

His deal with the crossbench was simple: sign me free from my international obligations and a suite of protections offered to asylum seekers, allow me to force vulnerable people back to the lands from which they have fled, and I will show a little mercy to some of those people I am imprisoning unfairly. It worked. The amendments passed. The lives of a few were traded for the right to mistreat many others.

This week, Christopher Pyne waved the government pistol at the nation’s scientists. Pyne’s deal is just as simple: allow me to deregulate the university sector, pushing up the cost of degrees and perhaps forcing the poor from education, or I will kill off the research sector.

Some $150 million earmarked in the budget for projects funded by the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Scheme will be lost, Pyne says, if the senate again rejects the higher education reform bill he failed to get up last year. No funding is guaranteed beyond June 30.

Pyne describes the money as “consequent upon the other offsets, the other savings measures, which are in this reform bill. Because that’s how these matters are handled.”

These institutions are not unimportant. They are the basis of much research in this country. Already, they have been forced by Pyne’s actions to give staff provisional notices of termination. The uncertainty has seen some scientists leave for positions overseas. A coalition of the country’s leading research bodies has warned 1700 jobs could be lost across 27 research infrastructure facilities. All manner of innovation projects would cease.

In a public letter, this coalition pleaded for funding that was not contingent on the government’s education reforms. “If this doesn’t happen, the locking of lab doors, the mothballing of world-class facilities and the retrenching of specialist scientists and research staff will inevitably begin soon.”

Pyne was unmoved. He has explicitly ruled out considering this funding separate to his reform bill. “If the reform bill goes down, the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Scheme and the Future Fellows will end. And it will be on Labor and the Greens and the crossbenchers’ heads if that happens.”

Of course, government spending must be accounted for. Budgets must find balance. But linking popular programs – sensible programs – to the passage of unpopular ones is worse than cynical. It is pigheaded.

Speaking to the ABC on Thursday, Pyne invoked the Nobel laureate astrophysicist Brian Schmidt. “I agree with Brian Schmidt. I want to keep these research programs going, and Labor and the Greens are blocking that in the senate.”

Professor Schmidt had made the case for continued funding. Presumably this is the point with which Pyne was agreeing. But Schmidt also called the linking of funding to other budget measures hazardous. It would be useful for the minister, gun in hand, to listen to that sentiment as well.

“This is not the way a grown-up country behaves,” Schmidt said. “It’s very childish and it’s having a profound impact to something that is going to increase the productivity of the nation.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 7, 2015 as "Killing reason". Subscribe here.