Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Rare Stability for Science in Government

By Ian Lowe

The return of the Coalition government has paused the merry-go-round of Science Ministers.

The unexpected return of the Morrison government saw the reappointment of The Hon. Karen Andrews to Cabinet as the Minister for Industry, Science and Technology. Andrews has a degree in mechanical engineering and worked in the energy industry before becoming a politician.

The technical academies welcomed this unusual experience: a minister who is responsible for science and technology and has a technical qualification. President of the Australian Academy of Science, Prof John Shine, noted Andrews’ strong and ongoing commitment and advocacy for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). “We look forward to working with Minister Andrews to implement the STEM measures announced in the Federal Budget in April, including $3.4 million in new funding to support women in STEM,” he said.

Shine was referring to the Budget announcement of new funding for the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) initiative, which is led jointly by the Academy of Science and the Academy of Technology and Engineering. He said that his Academy “will work across the ministry to encourage an evidence-informed approach to policy development”.

In principle, they should get a warm reception from the Minister. I went back to the Hansard record of Andrews’ maiden speech. As an engineer, she said she understood “the need to maintain a sound theoretical approach… and to balance the issues of costs, benefits, safety and quality”. She went on to say her judgement would have been questioned if she had recommended any project being undertaken without a thorough cost–benefit analysis “and, if I had proceeded to implementation without a rigorous analysis, I would have lost my job”.

On the other hand, she is now in a Cabinet that shows little sign of being committed to rigorous cost–benefit analysis. There certainly hasn’t been any such study of the only serious Commonwealth project to reduce Australia’s future greenhouse gas emissions, Snowy 2.0. The Energy Minister, Angus Taylor, had his title expanded after the election to Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction, perhaps because he assured the ABC’s Barrie Cassidy that national emissions are being reduced, while data eventually released by his Department show a steady upward trend.

Most pundits attributed the Coalition’s election win to the seats they gained in Queensland. The arithmetic is correct, as the ALP won the majority of seats in the rest of Australia. The Opposition’s equivocation on the proposed Adani Carmichael coal mine clearly cost it support in Queensland. Although the State Labor government has a strong program of support for solar energy, fulsomely acknowledged in his June visit by former US vice-president Al Gore, it seems to have been spooked by its analysis of the national election. The first of the two environmental approvals needed for the Adani mine to proceed was hastily given in early June, despite scientific warnings that the plan to protect the endangered black-throated finch is inadequate. Soon after, the final approval for groundwater management was also given, meaning that there would be no further legal hurdles for the project.

Experts remain divided about whether the mine will actually go ahead. University of Queensland economics professor John Quiggin is very sceptical. He notes Adani has scaled back its original proposal to build a 388 km rail line from the mine site to the Abbott Point wharf, now proposing a 200 km link to the Aurizon railway from Goonyella. But there is no agreement with Aurizon for that project. He also points out that the project does not yet have the insurance it would need to go ahead.

The most serious obstacle, however, is financial. To commission the mine would cost about $2 billion. At current coal prices, it is very hard to see how that investment would be recouped, which is why Adani has been unable to obtain finance through the usual channels. It is possible, Quiggin writes, that Adani might choose to finance the mine development from its own resources, but that would be a huge gamble. He worries that political pressure to support the promised jobs in regional Queensland will lead to public funds being tipped into the project. With the likely number of ongoing jobs now down to about 70, that would be a very poor investment.