Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Science Gets a Voice in Canberra

By Simon Grose

The alternative Prime Minister, Bill Shorten, can use science to win votes by creating a clever and clean energy country.

Bill Shorten’s decision to be “the first Labor leader to take science as their special responsibility” is a welcome challenge to the weary political dictum that there ain’t no votes in science.

With an Arts/Law degree from Monash, an MBA from the Melbourne Business School and a career as a Maurice Blackburn lawyer, union heavy and MP, he has no scientific background.

Setting himself as a champion of science is partly a reactive response to the new government’s decision to ditch a designated science portfolio. It also fits his larger political strategy to colonise constituencies that lack political champions, as he did with his advocacy for people with disabilities.

And it’s a fine platform for a new-generation political leader of the alternative Australian government.

Shorten’s job is to refresh Labor’s policies and set the political agenda. There is no better place to start than the focal point where science, politics and economics meet – climate change.

Economists recommend carbon pricing to force carbon emissions down. This pure economic theory has two practical problems:

  • it will only work if the price of carbon is set higher than politicians will ever dare; and
  • existing early-generation carbon-free energy technologies are weak, costly and unreliable compared with fossil fuel sources.

Like the government’s Direct Action policy, Labor’s carbon tax/ETS policy is not a solution to the atmospheric physics problem of climate change. Both are expedient solutions to the political problem of climate change. Labor’s is worse to the extent that its carbon price cascades to put Australia at a disadvantage in global markets.

A smarter policy would manoeuvre a carbon price to create a national advantage by creating next-generation renewable energy production, storage and distribution technologies.

Shorten first needs a simple way to price carbon. The GST on consumption is a neat existing proxy that raised $48.2 billion in 2012–13. The brave option would be to raise the GST to 10.5% and call the extra a carbon levy.

Shorten wouldn’t be that brave, but he could take 0.5% from the 10% and dedicate it to energy R&D, selling it to the states by spreading the funding around the country. By the 2016 election he would have at least $3 billion per year for the kind of large-scale renewable pilot projects that the failed $2.9 billion Solar Flagships program was supposed to have funded over several years.

Over a 3-year term that would see his government invest $10 billion in Australian products and processes to sell to the world to replace fossil-fuelled energy sources efficiently. One or two would actually work, creating high-end exports and jobs, and making a real contribution to reducing global carbon emissions.

That science would win votes.

Simon Grose is a Director of Science Media (