The Turnbull charm offensive

James Riley
Editorial Director

Prime Minister Turnbull has announced his new Ministry, and in doing so continued his charm offensive. Referring to his Government as a 21st century one was yet another reference to how different it would be to the one that had been mired in the middle of the last century.

As part of that thrust he announced that Christopher Pyne would be the new Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science. The addition here is “innovation” – but it should probably be called a return. The second Gillard Ministry contained a Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research (Senator Chris Evans) and a Minister for Industry and Innovation (Greg Combet).

Christopher Pyne: to drive the Government’s focus on investing in science; promoting STEM education

The exact scope of any portfolio really isn’t known until the Administrative Arrangements Order is published. For example it is only by reading the order from December 2014 that you realise that as Minister for Industry and Science Ian Macfarlane had very few of the policy responsibilities that really matter in science, they are mostly in education.

Mr Turnbull also mentioned the data point that Australian industry’s collaboration with Universities is second lowest in the OECD. Other than touching on the importance of talking about it, we were left to believe that adding the word Innovation to the Minister’s title and moving Chris Pyne to the portfolio would make a difference.

Those who watched the debate on the Matter of Public Importance ‘The importance of planning for the jobs of the future’ on 26 May in the House of Representatives despaired when Government contributions thought red tape repeal days and accelerated asset write-off for small business were about jobs for the future.

When debate did stray into discussion of education, science and innovation the Government speakers also found the cupboard similarly bare. The next day in Question Time the Government tried to repair the damage with a “Dorothy Dixer” to Chris Pyne on STEM.

In classic Pyne over-reach he tabled a copy of the Digital Technologies curriculum to try to rebut the Opposition’s proposals for coding in schools. It was in response to that answer that Bill Shorten asked Prime Minister Abbott to commit to teaching coding in every primary school. Mr Abbott’s answer was:

He says that he wants primary school kids to be taught coding so that they can get the jobs of the future. Does he want to send them all out to work at the age of 11? Is that what he wants to do? I mean, seriously: we know from his modelling that he thinks kids go straight from the delivery room to school, and now he thinks that they go straight from primary school to employment. This is a Leader of the Opposition in deep trouble. He is in deep, deep trouble. He is floundering, he is drowning, and frankly this question time performance demonstrates just why he is in such diabolical trouble.

This answer was just one of the many examples of the former Prime Minister failing to adjust to a narrative about jobs and growth in a 21st century economy.

But the fault wasn’t his alone. Mr Pyne in tabling the curriculum failed to mention that implementing the Digital Technologies curriculum had been held up for his ideological review. He failed to mention that the review recommended that it not be a K-10 curriculum but a 9-10 curriculum; Digital Technology was to be “integrated into other subject areas” in primary schools.

Last Friday, in one of his last acts as Education Minister Mr Pyne chaired a meeting of education ministers that agreed to introduce “coding” from year five.

Mr Pyne was not successful in his other objective included in his answer to the Dixer, to make a maths or science subject compulsory in years 11 and 12. Instead all Mr Pyne could offer was that state and territory ministers would develop a national strategy to get more students studying STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects at school.

The meeting communique was more explicit, saying:

Ministers agreed on the scope for the drafting of a new national Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) school education strategy, framed by a focus on the long-term outcomes for students…A draft strategy will be presented to the Education Council for consideration by the end of 2015.

On Sunday Prime Minister Turnbull said that Mr Pyne’s new role would “drive the Government’s focus on investing in science; promoting Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematic education.”

This is a totally confusing move. Something that Mr Pyne can only be described as having failed at in the Education portfolio follows him to the new one.

A saving grace for the credibility might be that the former Parliamentary Secretary for Industry and Science, Karen Andrews, is now in the renamed position of Assistant Minister for Science. As an engineer Ms Andrews is one of only two members of the front bench with a qualification in a STEM subject. (The other is Stuart Robert who has a Masters of IT). Scott Morrison has a Science degree – but it is in economics and geography.

That Ms Andrews went on to spend more of her pre-politics career as an Industrial Relations consultant takes some of the gloss from that.

There may be others, because there is a smattering of Bachelors of Arts and it is hard to identify their subject areas – but most appear to be in politics.

Among the Cabinet of twenty there are eleven lawyers, eight with a business or economics qualification (including two of the lawyers), two with no university qualification and one lone BA (Senator Fifield) that appears to be in psychology.

A lot of focus is placed, rightly, on the gender diversity of our Parliament and hence Government; but the shortage of STEM practitioners should be equally of concern. C.P. Snow’s observation that the two cultures of arts and sciences are culturally determined seems to perpetuate.

The continued association of science with industry reflects the continuation of the Coalition mindset; the only good science is stuff that can be commercialised.

The Liberal’s commitment to science took a battering in the Canning by-election; “star” candidate Andrew Hastie refused to answer whether he was a creationist on the grounds that he wasn’t going to discuss “theological questions.”

Credibility on science and innovation requires policies and expenditure; until that happens the Turnbull pivot is just hot air.

This is the first in a two part series examining science and innovation in Turnbull’s new cabinet. The second part in the series looks at the Digital Economy and you can read it here.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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