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Nov 08 2013

Tony Abbott cuts out Australia’s brain

Australia’s new Liberal/National Coalition Government, led by Prime Minister Tony Abbott, today announced an immediate freeze on recruitment and contract renewal across almost all areas of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), the nation’s main scientific research agency. Because CSIRO has a large proportion of “non-ongoing” staff, the freeze threatens to cut 1,400 jobs, almost a quarter of the body’s scientists, and could paralyse major research projects.

The move comes just weeks after Business Advisory Council chair Maurice Newman complained that CSIRO “continue to propagate the myth of anthropological [sic] climate change and are likely to be background critics of the Coalition’s Direct Action policies”. It is part of Abbott’s plan to cut 12,000 jobs from the public service, despite having claimed before the election that the cuts would be achieved through “natural attrition”. Science and Technology Australia CEO Catriona Jackson says she is “concerned that cuts to the public service may fall disproportionately on scientists”.

(CORRECTION 18 November: It turns out the above claims about CSIRO cuts were exaggerated. According to ABC Fact Check, the job losses will not amount to a quarter of the CSIRO and appear not to be due to a directive from the new Government. This rather pulls the floor out from under my rant in this blog post, but I remain concerned about the Government’s attitude to science.)

On the same day, the Government has announced a decision to scrap not one, not two, but 12 expert advisory bodies: the High Speed Rail Advisory Group, National Steering Committee on Corporate Wrongdoing, Advisory Panel on Positive Ageing, International Legal Services Advisory Committee, Commonwealth Firearms Advisory Committee, Advisory Panel on the Marketing in Australia of Infant Formula, National Intercountry Adoption Advisory Group, National Housing Supply Council, Insurance Reform Advisory Group, Maritime Workforce Development Forum, Antarctic Animal Ethics Committee, and Australian Animal Welfare Advisory Committee. The Government says the work of all these bodies will now be done by the relevant government departments.

Reportedly, nobody from the Government has been available for comment about today’s cuts. In any case, it’s not like there’s any science minister to ask. In a press release, Abbott justified the cuts with his usual argument that businesses are being crippled by bureaucracy, but the reality is that a government that cuts research spending and expert advice is cutting out its brain.

A government needs independent sources of advice. Having multiple independent advisory bodies is part of a healthy democracy, not bureaucratic duplication. Transferring their functions to departments is likely to result in the department merely telling the Government what it wants to hear, particularly considering Abbott has already sacked a number of public servants with differing views to the Government.

We already know Abbott is trying to silence expert voices on climate change. The first casualty was the Climate Commission, an independent body which communicates climate change science to the public – but it was fortunately reinstated in the form of the crowd-funded Climate Council. Abbott also intends to abolish the Climate Change Authority, an independent body which periodically reviews climate policies, whose functions will also be transferred to a department (Environment). And at the last minute of the election campaign, the Coalition announced it would cut $900 million in research grants which they believe to be “futile”, including research into art about climate change.

These are examples of a broader agenda of climate deregulation. Next week the Government will announce cuts to the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, and there is speculation that the cuts could be much worse than previously feared.

The Government has also recently announced that Australia will not send a minister to the COP19 climate talks in Warsaw next week. There is no climate change minister to go to the talks. Environment Minister Greg Hunt will be staying home to repeal the carbon tax, because “international negotiations are a matter for the Foreign Minister”. But Foreign Minister Julie Bishop will not go either, because she will instead be attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting and the Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations. Not even a parliamentary secretary will attend. And the Government has cancelled briefings on what position will be taken by the bureaucrats who will be representing Australia. Greens deputy leader Adam Bandt quips: “Instead of sitting in his office reading Wikipedia, Greg Hunt should be in Warsaw tackling global warming and talking to the world’s experts on climate change.”

Before the election, I identified a number of tactics which I believe the right-wing uses to manipulate the perceived political centre in their favour. Two of the tactics I named were:

  • Starve the beast: Defund your opponents, or change the rules to restrict what they can legally do. This strategy can be seen in right-wing attempts to restrict the activities of organizations that are either left-wing (eg. trade unions) or perceived as being so (eg. scientists).
  • Echo chamber: Create your own media universe insulated from reality. In the US, conservatives have built what Rachel Maddow calls “the alternate self-contained right-wing media universe”, in which there is no global warming, the world is less than ten thousand years old, and Obama is a socialist with a fake birth certificate. They are also constantly fighting to have schools indoctrinate children in the same propaganda.

Today’s cuts make it clearer than ever that this Government intends to starve scientists and silence dissent. The Government doesn’t want anyone to question the wisdom of its program of climate deregulation, or its recent decision to approve Australia’s two largest coal mines.

We’ve seen a similar strategy from the Harper government in Canada, the former Bush administration in the US, and the former Howard Liberal government in Australia. Under Howard, CSIRO scientists were ordered not to speak to the public about the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Howard also installed Maurice Newman on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation board, who pressured them into screening a denialist “documentary”.

But no matter what Abbott does, he can’t wish away the reality of climate change. In the long run, shutting out reality will not end well for anyone.

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