View from The Hill

The trendy conservative

Former academic Brett Mason is uniquely qualified to be shadow minister for universities and research. AAP/Alan Porritt

Brett Mason, opposition spokesman on universities and research, has one of the lowest profiles on the Coalition frontbench. Yet in terms of his own portfolio, he is among the most qualified in the shadow ministry.

The former academic rarely makes the news bulletins. In the response to the recent tertiary cuts, the opposition face was Christopher Pyne, the senior spokesman in the education area and a Coalition attack dog who is close to Tony Abbott.

With a MPhil from Britain’s Cambridge University and a PhD from Griffith University Mason, 51, lectured in criminology at Queensland University of Technology before winning a Senate seat at the 1998 election. His tertiary sector experience also includes a stint on ANU’s council in 2000-04, the university where he did his under-graduate study in arts and law (he’s qualified as a barrister).

“Crime and deviance was my specialty. I once said, I lectured in crime and deviance – the jump to politics was a short one.”

But why has hardly anyone in the general community heard of him?

“A stakeholder a few weeks ago described me as self-effacing”, Mason says. Then comes the booming laugh that frequently punctuates his conversation, followed by “I probably am”.

“I’ve never felt it necessary to push myself, in that sense.”

But he admits there’s a bit more to it. “In politics some people develop more slowly. I’ve been a later maturer all my life.”

He now enjoys politics much more than a decade ago. “It took me a lot longer than some to settle in, to come to terms with what politics was about, how to deal with the party, with colleagues. Particularly coming from academic life and working for the United Nations for a while [he was a human rights lawyer in 1992-93 with the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia].

"I hadn’t had a hurly burly life.” He admits he’s still more comfortable writing an op ed than appearing on television.

But he’s not shy in the Senate, where in debates his projection is so loud – legacy of his academic lecturing days - that Senate clerk Rosemary Laing once told him it was hurting her ears.

Within the Liberal party Mason is on the right. One party colleague describes him as a “conviction politician”; there is general agreement that he has strong views and is prepared to stand up for them.

In the last days of Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership, Mason (who was shadow parliamentary secretary for education) was among the first of the frontbenchers to quit in the battle over the emissions trading scheme.

The issue cost Turnbull his leadership but according to one participant, Mason wanted to change the policy rather than the leader. Mason himself says: “I wasn’t anti-Malcolm. I was concerned the policy was electoral suicide. I didn’t have any gripe against Turnbull. He was very good at higher education.”

He’s aligned with a right wing group of senators that includes frontbenchers Mathias Cormann, Scott Ryan, Mitch Fifield and Michaelia Cash, as well as the controversial former frontbencher Cory Bernardi, whom Mason admires because “he doesn’t cut his opinions to fit the latest political cloth”, although “I’m not as conservative as Cory”.

Mason describes himself as “moderately conservative - I think my instincts are conservative”. On gay marriage, the test social issue of the moment, “I still remain uneasy”.

But in the party battle over the ETS, he saw himself as “mainstream… I always thought I was representing the party members’ views, particularly here in Queensland.”

With Mason, appearances don’t quite tell the story. Fellow Queenslander Barnaby Joyce, the Nationals Senate leader, describes him as “great fun” and a “good mate of mine”, while Bernardi says going to Mason’s Brisbane warehouse apartment “in a funky part of town” is “walking into a hip pad. It’s Brett to a T. A trendy conservative.”

The flat is filled with books including a signed copy of Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative, and there is memorabilia of Richard Nixon, a special Mason interest, with a framed Time cover of the one-time president on a wall. (His Canberra office has a Nixon doll; touch him and the famous voice comes out).

Mason’s mild manner also can be deceptive. When on the receiving end of offence or his integrity is questioned, he can be volatile. A decade ago he threatened to punch Kevin Rudd’s lights out. He declines to go into detail other than to say it was over a matter of “moral relativism”. “I haven’t had any trouble [with Rudd] since,” he says, adding, “never take politeness, even diffidence, as a sign of weakness”.

In their early years in the Senate Mason and George Brandis, a moderate and now shadow attorney-general, formed a political duo, much like on the Labor side Wayne Swan and Stephen Smith operated in concert (and were dubbed the glimmer twins). Latterly Brandis and Mason fell out, in a massive clash over their respective positions on the 2010 Queensland Senate ticket. Mason felt he had been betrayed by Brandis.

Mason ended up in third position. After he scraped home on preferences from the Australian Sex Party, veteran National Ron Boswell told him to immediately do two things: ring his mother, and go to church and ask forgiveness. Mason is Catholic but not a regular church goer – but he did pay a visit to St Patrick’s in Fortitude Valley, Brisbane.

Although some see him as more academic than politician and less effective for that, respect for Mason stretches across the political spectrum. Chris Evans, recently retired from the Senate, who was tertiary education minister, says: “we worked constructively on a couple of issues. He’s a decent person, interested in public policy. The sector regards him as hardworking and interested”.

QUT vice-chancellor Peter Coaldrake recalls that when he chaired Universities Australia “we got significantly augmented indexation of university costs through via legislation. I know he worked with Evans on that. I suspect he assisted with the passage of TEQSA [Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency, the university regulator]. We needed a national regulator – it sends a good signal internationally.”

“He was constructive,” Coaldrake says, adding that in policy on universities, “it’s good to have the partisan fault lines minimised rather than accentuated”.

Mason says that as shadow minister he has made very few promises to vice-chancellors (incidentally, in another twist, his ex-wife, Natalie MacDonald, is deputy vice-chancellor at La Trobe) except that a Coalition government would be consultative and consistent.

It’s clear the Coalition in office would not reverse Labor’s cuts, and Mason can’t promise that there would not be more.

Mason says that as minister his aim would be “to mainstream higher education in the economic debate”.

“Universities are not finishing schools for young ladies and gentlemen anymore. They are increasingly engines of economic growth through research leading to innovation and productivity”.

At the same time, “the universities still have a role in looking for a better society, advancing the virtues of civility, inquiry, curiosity”.

He sees as a priority the need to stem the decline of Australia’s education industry. “Promotion of Australian education abroad is still not quite hitting the mark. Competition is fierce from Britain, US and Canada. The high dollar doesn’t help. We have to do more to sell our wares.”

“The Australian public probably don’t appreciate what, in a national interest and economic sense, international education means to our country, our economy, our diplomacy.

"Australia is a super power in international education. It’s probably better at education than at sport, but how many Australians would know that?” He says there are suggestions that Australia’s diplomatic missions are not doing enough to sell education services.

The export industry had lost $2.5 billion since 2009. “There would have been a hue and cry if this had happened in any other industry”.

He warns that Australia “can’t go back to the mercantilist approach to higher education of the Howard and early Labor years”.

The decoupling of education and immigration and education which has happened since must remain, but there is more tweaking to be done.

“In the Howard years we became a little too commercial in higher education by too readily linking education and immigration.

"The Labor government sought to decouple them. I agree with that, but perhaps it went too far.

"The issue now is to better facilitate education by allowing students to stay on and work after they finish their degree, and to allow high quality private education providers to assess visa applicants, as public universities do today. There is a tension.”

On the touchy issue of the TEQSA, which registers and assesses the quality of higher education providers, he says that it only commenced in January last year and he would want to assess its performance before deciding on changes.

“TEQSA monitors quality and standards of undergraduate teaching and degrees. We believe it’s very important for Australian universities and their standings overseas, as well as the students that qualify, that quality and standards be maintained”. But “it may be being a little heavy-handed. It may have to be fine tuned in its approach to public universities.”

Pyne recently floated the idea that “there would be real benefits if government policy encouraged some universities to maximise their opportunities for research and for others to focus more on teaching”.

Mason isn’t an advocate for two streams. But “I am interested in driving diversity in the sector. If that meant there were more private providers with the status of university colleges providing top quality undergraduate education, that would be a very good thing”. He mentions Campion College in Sydney, billed as Australia’s only tertiary liberal arts college, as an example.

He believes MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) will enhance the educational experience but is confident they will never replace universities, or even be a cost cutting measure. “They’re great for imparting information but as yet not quite so good as face-to-face discussion in small groups. I still believe the best form of education is not so much the lecture but the small group.”

Spoken like a true academic.