Anti-science Abbott has undercut our future

Nadine Flood is National Secretary of the Community and Public Sector Union

Tony Abbott is in the hopelessly compromised position of leading a government that firmly believes governments cannot actually achieve anything useful.

This dark contradiction is apparent in many areas but particularly in the Government’s disdainful approach to public sector science.

The Abbott Government’s first Budget cut CSIRO funding by $111 million and directly cost 489 jobs. This figure has now risen to around 1,100 jobs – one in five scientists gone. While Australia slashes science spending, developed and emerging economies invest heavily in science.

For more than a year the Government refused to even have a science minister, a move which highlights their disregard for fact and evidence, their lack of concern about climate change, their shoddy approach to public policy and their vacuous culture war.

The cuts to CSIRO are a serious threat to Australia’s communities, prosperity and security.

With the mining boom largely behind us, our economic future depends on science, innovation and education. With genuine investment in public science and technology, we could drive productivity and jobs in new fields. We know that advanced sciences already contribute $145 billion a year to the economy, or roughly 11 percent of GDP.

We know too that decarbonising the economy will require a massive investment in public expertise and infrastructure (which our ‘Infrastructure Prime Minister’ is busily dismantling as we speak).

This ransacking of our national brains trust is the epitome of short-term gain for long-term pain.

And science cuts are just the start. Health, education, social security, climate change, the environment, public policy, international development – there is virtually no part of Australia’s social democratic settlement that the Abbott Government has left intact. Cutting 17,000 public sector jobs suggests a government intent on austerity at the expense of achievement.

The Coalition’s culture war against science illustrates a deeper problem – the Government’s impoverished conception of the state.

Its Commission of Audit, comically subtitled ‘Towards Responsible Government’, was created supposedly as an ‘independent body to review and report on the performance, functions and roles of the Commonwealth government’ – but it was explicitly directed to assume that small government is better, and its Commissioners dutifully found a long list of things to cut.

In a nutshell, the Coalition treats government as a problem.

The Abbott Government believes that government involvement in people’s lives undermines independence and encourages people to be a drain on the public purse. A strong role for government is an impediment to the market – which, according to this Government, should rightly be at the centre of everything.

If you cannot win that argument, framing the national economic conversation as a ‘budget emergency’ requiring the remedy of austerity is a handy add-on. Now the budget emergency has vanished, but the lazy and shallow austerity politics continue.

Highly effective in opposition, Abbott in power offers little, and (apart from scaring people witless on national security and the defense of so-called ‘traditional’ marriage) he doesn’t really want to.

Abbott’s lack of a positive agenda on science in particular – and the proper role of government in general – is a great opportunity for Labor, if we are bold enough to recognise it.

People are concerned about jobs and their economic future.

Our opponents argue the best way to address these concerns is to simply move government out of the way by cutting back and let the market resolve it. Conservatives are fond of saying that if enough people want something the market will deliver it.

They argue that if the Government guts the CSIRO and vacates the scientific field the private sector will fill the gap. But we know that there are limits to what you can achieve with private sector collaboration and market solutions.

Advances in innovation and technology drive economic growth and government-funded basic research is foundational to that outcome. Public science can take a longer-term perspective than investors who need a short-term return. Publicly-funded scientists can think more broadly than those working in the private sector. As a result, they produce surprising answers to questions we didn’t even know we needed to ask.

This is not just a theoretical argument about the role of government. There is a growing public appetite for governments to help citizens navigate a rapidly changing world with growing economic insecurity.

Most Australians, according to a range of polls, say that there is plenty they want government to do. Governments must mitigate inequality and support people, jobs, skills and public services. Government must defend the democratic framework that allows markets to be balanced against other forms of social organisation.

Investing now in science, education and innovation is just one example of what governments must do to position Australia to meet future challenges. But because this work costs money, we must abandon the Liberals’ obsession with budget cost cutting. It’s time to give more serious thought to revenue.

The choice Labor faces is clear.

We can accept the conservative small government frame and be happy to tinker around the edges, while the market lets rip.

Or we can articulate a positive argument that government is an essential actor in enabling the jobs and prosperity of the future. Investing in innovation, education and science would be one good place to start.

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