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Driving with Clive

By Simon Grose

Science could be promoted to the front row of the political agenda by advising the under-resourced Senators who hold the balance of power.

In this column last November I lamented the lack of a science runner in the microparty preference-swapping stakes at the last election. Instead of the Motoring Enthusiasts Party, the Australians for Intelligent Government (I give AFIG) Party could have won a pivotal share of the balance of power in the Senate.

After seeing the results of that race, the stewards moved to ensure it was a one-off event. In a rare outburst of agreement, Coalition, Labor and Greens members of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters unanimously recommended measures to “provide a disincentive to the proliferation of minor ‘front’ parties… and remove the incentive to ‘game’ the system via preference deals”.

Bummer. But hey, this is a living, evolving democracy. You have to deal with what’s in front of you. And when it comes to science in federal politics, there are vacuums to fill.

The Minister with official responsibility for Science, Ian Macfarlane, hasn’t impressed with his perfunctory efforts to claim the space. His Parliamentary Secretary, Bob Baldwin, is big enough to fill a lot of volume but is more dead weight than bustling bull. And in its first 9 months the government hasn’t even managed to organise a meeting of the PM’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council, which has previously met at least twice per year.

Labor is trying to colonise the forsaken territory. Bill Shorten adopted Science as one of his responsibilities as Opposition leader, and Shadow Minister Kim Carr has been hyperventilating over the cuts to research funding in the Budget. All very shallow and predictable.

But there are other pockets of vacuum with powerful potential. The most successful politician of the 2013 election was Clive Palmer, who came from zero to now lead a posse of three Palmer United Party Senators plus Motoring Enthusiast Senator Ricky Muir, which effectively controls the Senate.

Palmer has been whingeing about needing more staff. Academies, universities, peak bodies and lobby groups should offer to lend bodies to fill those spaces. It would be a very interesting and potentially influential posting. They would learn a lot about politics and policy while providing some of the most evidence-based advice available to politicians.

As for Muir, the best person to take him under a wing is Chief Scientist Ian Chubb. Chubb is in touch with his inner hoon – he’s a V8 man when it comes to preferred means of travel – so he could talk Muir’s language.

Palmer is also a big car aficionado. In his last year or so as Chief Scientist, Chubb could do his best work for the research sector by sharing the back seat of Clive’s Rolls on dining tours of the Canberra hinterland and convince him to launch himself into the science policy vacuum.

Simon Grose is a Director of Science Media (