Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Clever Country Confusion

By Simon Grose

Julia Gillard’s new ministry is not a coherent platform for science-based policy.

Responsibility for policy and funding across the science and technology sector has always been a tug-of-war, mainly between industry ministers and education ministers. Julia Gillard could have handled this tension creatively or constructively with her ministerial arrangements, but instead she has created a schemozzle.

It was simple for science policy wonks in earlier times, like when you had Brendan Nelson running DEST or John Button running DITAC. They ran “super ministries” with pronounceable acronyms that covered coherent groups of policy areas. Responsibilities were delegated through “junior ministers”, one of whom had responsibility for “science”, notably Barry Jones for Labor and Peter McGauran for the Coalition.

Now we’ve got Kim Carr running DIISR, Chris Evans running TESJWR, and Peter Garrett running SECY.

After losing a Parliamentary Secretary support position, Carr now shares his department with the Minister for Small Business, Senator Nick Sherry, who is not in Cabinet and is also Minister Assisting the Minister for Tourism, Martin Ferguson.

Gillard could have made Sherry a functional link between two Cabinet members whose portfolios cover a lot of science and technology, an opportunity wasted because his responsibilities have little to do with science. As a former Assistant Treasurer under Kevin Rudd, Sherry is now picking up the crumbs of two lesser ministries and is unlikely to be super-motivated.

Evans and Garrett share a department, and both are in Cabinet. Their sole junior is Jacinta Collins, who as Parliamentary Secretary for Schools and Workplace Relations has her first executive gig after almost 10 years as a Senator.

The biggest issues involving science face the CCEE Minister (Climate Change and Energy Efficiency), bringing Greg Combet to Cabinet with former lawyer Mark Dreyfus as his Parliamentary Secretary.
Also managing a swag of science-based policy is former DAFF Minister Tony Burke, now running SEWPC (Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities). His support for this huge agenda is new Parliamentary Secretary for Sustainability and Urban Water, South Australian Senator Don Farrell, a lawyer and former union official.

Of all those mentioned, Carr is the only one with a track-record of commitment to their portfolio areas. He has formal responsibility for science policy, but he has no junior Science Minister to bring it all together. Nor is there a strong or integrated mechanism for this responsibility to inform policy and funding across other portfolios.

The potential for such a mechanism lies in expanding the role of the Chief Scientist, which became a full-time position under Rudd but has not gained commensurate authority or autonomy under Carr and incumbent Penny Sackett. Carr would be happy to increase his influence across government policy, and the new schemozzle of ministerial responsibilities and personnel gives him a chance to do so. It could even result in better policy, not to mention making life simpler for science policy wonks.