Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

It’s Not a Party, Don

By Simon Grose

A key Labor reformer pads up again in the Department of Innovation.

How did it come to this? Just weeks after being appointed Secretary of the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, Dr Don Russell scored an extra gig as head of a the government’s response to BlueScope Steel’s production and jobs cutbacks.

As Principal Advisor to then-Treasurer Paul Keating from 1985 to 1993, Russell can claim a chunk of credit for fundamental economic reforms that pushed Australian manufacturing to be globally competitive. Now he’s running a scramble to shore up productive capacity, jobs and votes as a major industry buckles under the inexorable weight of the high Australian dollar, which renders it globally uncompetitive.

Russell didn’t have to return to the Canberra fray. Serving as Ambassador to the US after his time with Keating, he worked in investment banking there and back home before settling in as chair of NSW State Super.

And the fit with his Minister, Senator Kim Carr, is not naturally comfy. Carr’s ideological and instinctive approach to his role is to protect and pick winners (which turn out to be losers, car manufacturing looming as the prime example).

The flakey political and policy performance of Labor governments led by Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard would have been increasingly gruesome for Russell to watch from the Sydney CBD.

As a major shaper of the Hawke–Keating reforms that made the Australian economy stronger than ever, he could see that legacy was in jeopardy. Someone had to step up, not only to defend that legacy but to conjure a surer political pathway for Labor.

He’s not alone. Former Treasury Secretary Ken Henry, who worked under Russell in Keating’s office, is slipping back into the game as a special adviser to the PM. In the Cabinet are Stephen Smith, a long-serving Keating staffer, Craig Emerson, who served as economics adviser to Bob Hawke when he was PM, and Simon Crean, who was a Minister under Hawke and Keating. It is likely that Russell’s appointment was imposed on Carr by Gillard, at the urging of Emerson in particular.

While they struggle through daily political turbulence, their eyes must be set on not only winning the next election but also gaining a clear majority in the House so they don’t have to pander to pork-seeking Independents and the populist protectionism of the watermelon Greens.

If they can pull that off they can look forward to a rewarding end to their careers consolidating the gains they engineered almost two decades ago. Emerson would covet Carr’s job, working with Russell running the department for a while before he maybe moves up to head Prime Minister and Cabinet. Smith and Crean would both fancy a stint as Treasurer, not to mention the top job.

It’s all there to do boys. Good luck.

Simon Grose is a Director of Science Media (sciencemedia.com.au).