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What We Learned in the Election Campaign

By Ian Lowe

The election revealed a bipartisan lack of understanding of the role of science in innovation and of the coal industry in the fate of the Great Barrier Reef.

It’s relatively unusual for scientists to be keenly interested in election results, but CSIRO scientists will have been watching closely on 2 July as Australians’ votes are counted. Earlier in the year, hundreds of jobs were lost in CSIRO as the CEO demonstrated his hostility to public good science.

In the election campaign, Opposition leader Bill Shorten promised to reverse the cuts in CSIRO funding and provide extra money for research related to climate change, a particular target of the recent sackings. “A Shorten Labor government will invest $250 million in CSIRO to reverse the Liberals’ cuts and ensure the future of key national science infrastructure,” he said. Shorten emphasised that this funding would be additional to the $50 million promised earlier in the campaign to CSIRO, money earmarked for research on climate change and its impacts on the Great Barrier Reef.

His statement recognised that 20% of CSIRO jobs had been lost after the 2014–15 Budget cuts. Shorten said that the 2016 round of redundancies have undermined our national research capacity “in critical areas like climate science, manufacturing and food security,” and argued that a well-resourced CSIRO is critical for Australian innovation. That should have persuaded scientists to take off their white coats and start handing out ALP election material.

Apart from that specific intervention to promise a restoration of CSIRO’s funding, there was little discussion during the election campaign about the role of innovation. There was the usual heavy emphasis on relatively minor economic issues, and the word “innovation” was used quite often by the leaders of the two major parties, but there was little sign they understand the significance of science and research.

The Coalition seemed to think that reducing taxation for business would provoke them to invest in innovation, while the ALP specifically said they would end the incentive for research spending by private sector corporations. Given the abysmally low level of private sector research in Australia, reducing it still further should hardly have been a priority.

The discussion of climate change was an insult to voters’ intelligence. The widespread coral bleaching in the northern end of the Great Barrier Reef (see Directions, p.44) was clearly linked to climate change. The central and southern sections largely escaped the bleaching event. Those sections are impacted by run-off from agricultural activities, so the Coalition’s promise of using $1 billion to clean up the water flowing into the reef lagoon was welcome. There is no doubt that the quantities of nutrients and sediment reaching the ocean can be significantly reduced by actions on rural properties.

But it wasn’t new money – simply a shift from another area. It would also do nothing to address the biggest threats to the reef systems – climate change and acidification of the ocean – both a direct result of fossil fuel combustion. Supporting expansion of the coal industry while funding measures to save the reef is like tipping petrol on a house fire while waiting for the fire brigade to arrive. Both major parties were so desperate to appeal to voters in marginal Queensland electorates that they were supporting proposals for new coal mines, with the promise of a small number of short-term jobs in rural areas outweighing the inevitable damage to the Reef and other natural areas.

The most interesting discussion in the pre-election period concerned the National Broadband Network. The Abbott government attacked the previous ALP government’s plan to provide a fibre NBN, opting for the cheaper alternative of using existing Telstra copper cables for local distribution from a series of nodes. That obviously saves money in the short term, but the Opposition argued that it will cost more in the long term as the ageing copper network inevitably requires more maintenance. Malcolm Turnbull had been the Minister responsible for the network before he displaced Tony Abbott as Prime Minister, so he had actively promoted the policy of “fibre to the node”.

The critical point of the debate was the claim by Shorten that the lower maintenance bill and increased volume of business would counter-balance the extra capital cost of a fibre network. The difficulty for the voters was that the greater capital cost could be clearly established, but the potential savings are uncertain.

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.