Conservative government of men scraps science ministry

Australia’s 28th prime minister, Tony Abbott, has dispensed with a minister of science and a minister for climate change in a new cabinet he announced last Monday. It is the first time since the science portfolio was created in 1931 that Australia has not had a science minister.

But Abbott came under most fire from within and without his party for his cabinet’s ‘female-lite’ composition: only one woman among the 18 men and a total of five women in a ministry of 30, plus one female parliamentary secretary out of 12.

One of the most conservative of Tory politicians to head the country, Abbott convincingly won the 7 September federal election with a substantial majority in the House of Representatives.

The absence of women in the new government led Chris Bowen, acting Labor leader, to note that the cabinet of Afghanistan now had more women members than Australia’s.

Senator Sue Boyce, a member of the government in the upper house, said she was “shocked and embarrassed” to see there was only one woman in cabinet: “It is embarrassing internationally as well as nationally and it’s a permanent tarnish on what was a wonderful victory for us,” Boyce said.

Professor Les Field, secretary for science policy at the Australian Academy of Science, said the academy was “surprised and disappointed” that Abbott had not announced a minister for science.

Then again, as other commentators observed, Abbott had also dispensed with Labor’s ministers for early childhood, energy, disability, mental health, youth, status of women, and climate.

The latter was not surprising given that the new prime minister once described climate change as “crap” and was elected on a platform of scrapping Labor’s emission trading scheme, which Abbott had also labelled as a “carbon tax”.

One of Abbott’s strongest supporters and a close confidant, Christopher Pyne, was appointed Minister for Education. His portfolio presumably includes higher education, schools and vocational education although Pyne will have an assistant minister in the lower house and a parliamentary secretary for education in the Senate.

Careful responses

The main education lobby groups were careful in their comments about the new government and its ministry.

The chair of the innovative research universities group, Professor Barney Glover, noted optimistically that the new administration had “inherited valuable policy settings including demand-driven funding for undergraduate students and a research system that supported good research where it was found across the university system”.

“The Coalition’s policy statement, Real Solutions, identifies higher education as one of the five pillars of the Australian economy and commits to maintaining current funding arrangements, fixing regulation overload and addressing the infrastructure gap. Based on our discussions with government members we are confident that they will pursue these issues,” Glover said.

Universities Australia, the body representing public higher education institutions, “congratulated the new Abbott ministry, in particular Education Minister Christopher Pyne”.

Its chief executive, Belinda Robinson, said her organisation had enjoyed a constructive relationship with Pyne, whom she described as “one of the Coalition’s most energetic and experienced ministers”.

“While portfolio responsibility for universities has yet to be determined, a single education portfolio characterises education as a lifelong endeavour, a concept strongly supported by Universities Australia,” Robinsons said.

“Mr Pyne has oft-acknowledged the crucial role that university education and research play in securing Australia’s economic and social prosperity.”

She also quoted him as saying earlier this year: “I am certain a Coalition government and the universities can work together to be drivers of productivity and growth leading to a flowering of innovation and invention that raises the standard of living in Australia and improves the lot of everyone around the world.’”

But Robinson added that while there were advantages in bringing the strands of education together, there was also a risk of higher education policy being buried in such a large and diverse portfolio.

“It is essential the new government’s policy framework and ministerial representation enables the development of the best possible university education and research system to stimulate national productivity, promote global engagement and international competitiveness and foster economic growth and industrial diversity,” Robinson said, while hoping the “critical areas of science, research and innovation were not neglected”.

Issues of concern

Those involved with universities are now wondering if the Abbott government will implement Labor’s plans to cut federal funding per student, turn grants to students from poorer backgrounds into loans, and discourage self-funded postgraduate education.

Other issues announced by the previous government but yet to be adopted by Abbott’s team include: quality regulation; rationalising an overlap between regulation for higher education for all students and the particular requirements for international students; simplifying the research grants process; and “re-invigorating support for Australia’s international student capability”.

The latter includes putting in place a new Colombo scheme, announced by Abbott during the election, to encourage thousands of Australian students to study or do work experience in Asia.