Malcolm Turnbull : Right Man, Wrong Process

In the last election, it was with a heavy heart that I voted Liberal.

It’s not that I am fundamentally incompatible with an Australian “conservative” agenda, after all liberal is supposed to be pro-business (and I am pro-business) but I also didn’t see the appropriate level of commitment to major issues like climate change and the environment, same-sex marriage and immigration. Anyhow, my general attitude towards the role of government in business is “stay off the pitch” and Australia is a country that is remarkably successful despite decades of mediocre policy around key business drivers like taxation and economic diversification.

As such, a “pro-business” party is a bit of an oxymoron in this country, anyhow…

I never cared much for Abbott. Although not a lightweight by any stretch of the imagination, he just doesn’t epitomise what a modern Australia needs to be vibrant, successful and competitive. But he was a hell of an improvement over the K-Rudd infighting and Labor party shenanigans, and his steady, resolute demeanour at least implied the potential of a period of government stability, free of intra-party political wrangling. Of course, we don’t vote for the “man”, we vote for a government, but I think leadership truly matters. To be clear (in case you forgot) as a country we didn’t vote for the ALP because we felt that Kevin Rudd had established a toxic culture in his party. Therefore to offhandedly dismiss “leadership” and “personality” as disconnected is naïve and frankly incorrect.

I admire Malcolm Turnbull. He’s smart, he’s accomplished. He has a trait that very few senior figures in politics have these days, namely a stellar track record of doing anything other than politics (Mrs. Turnbull is no slouch either). Just about any advanced economy these days suffers from the pervasive mediocrity of the career politician, individuals that have accomplished little of note since they first took office in a student politics club at university. Well, other than perhaps foster their sense of self-importance and entitlement to rule. The formula of a modern politician is that of a nanny bureaucrat, incapable of even remotely envisaging the concept of “nation building” because he/she has never created, built, innovated or produced anything, let alone a vision of how to make a country great.

This is not Turnbull. Not by a mile.

The problem is that in carrying out the latest palace coup, the only possible message the Australian Liberal Party can send to the populace is “we are no better than Labor”. In fact, it is worse than this because it also suggests a particular contempt for voter perception of party political infighting given what we went through during the last election. This latest development just highlights a true lack of recognition in Australian politics that a government is elected to serve the Australian people, not expend its energy on petty political infighting.

So, instead of focusing on the critical issues that face our country, we will have yet another week dominated by intrigue, media attention and one-upmanship. It was always going to be a quiet week in Parliament but with such enormous issues facing our economy and the urgent need to consider Australia’s role in key international issues, this leadership change only illustrates – to Australians and the world – how insular, irrelevant and undemocratic we really are. It also means that instead of directing our resources toward things that matter, we will undoubtedly spend billions more in political machinations that add zero value.

Right man for the job. Wrong process of getting there.

Tragic but not unnecessary : Bali 9

I want to state two things up-front.

1) I don’t believe in the death penalty.

2) I hate double-negatives, though they serve their purpose sometimes.

Today was a landmark day for international relations with Indonesia following the execution of the “Bali 9” for smuggling heroin. I stayed up late tonight watching the grief and sadness of family, friends and the general community, following the execution of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. My condolences to their loved ones – what a horrible turn of events. I personally think Indonesia did an appalling job of managing communication and process around this awful situation. So much confusion, drama and false hope created.

Typically Indonesian.

The truth is, I am extremely fond of Indonesia and it holds a special place in my heart. I have visited it many times for business and pleasure, from Java to Bali, Flores to Komodo, Labuan to Gillies. I was married to my wife in Indonesia because it was a unique country that enabled Russians and Australians (and a few Canucks) to visit without visas and a lot of immigration hassle. It has stunning landscapes and awesome marine life, it has beautiful and diverse people. It has amazing culture and cuisine.

The problem is that Indonesia has a huge rich-poor divide and a massive drug problem that not only has major domestic impact, but it is a major global trafficking hub. Whilst Indonesia’s policy of death to drug traffickers is primarily reflective of domestic health and criminal issues, countries like Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand enforce an important regional deterrent for the worlds largest source of both cultivated and synthetic drugs. As tragic as this situation is, the people executed today knew that when they engaged in their illicit acts, they were risking a death sentence. It was right there on the landing card. Even Rodrigo Gularte, who was known to be bipolar and schizophrenic (but not of sub-par intelligence), would have known and understood that drug trafficking commands a death sentence.

I do think a firing squad is a bit extreme as far as capital punishment goes, and it is my personal opinion that only God (or whatever force/deity/philosophy you subscribe to) is entitled to take a life. Having said that, it is hard to make a strong argument that a life sentence in an Indonesian jail is either humane or a reasonable burden for a country to undertake that has much more serious problems of poverty and development. Why should some reckless Aussie criminal that blatantly and knowingly broke the law divert resources away from Indonesians? It’s a tough one.

Three sad things happened today:

1) Families lost their loved ones, probably through disproportionate punishment.

2) Global condemnation will likely considerably increase the pressure on Indonesia (and countries that have similar policies) to eliminate such punitive laws. Aid will be cancelled, tourism will wane and ambassadors will be recalled. The risk is that political firepower will dangerously reduce these deterrents, simply to assuage electorates.

3) Australia has damaged its relationship with on of its most important neighbours – perhaps its most important neighbour. When situations like this happen, you don’t recall your ambassador, you keep your ambassador firmly in place and make damned sure the avenues of communication are wide open. This is necessary not only for the families of those who have been executed, but to ensure that the lobbying process is seamless between now and the next tragic event. Only a stupid, unsophisticated, f*cking asinine populist government would do such a thing. I would expect this of Tony Abbott, but I would have expected better of Julie Bishop who is marginally somewhat less of an idiot.

Carr is absolutely correct to condemn this decision.

The component of all of this that has not been properly acknowledged by our mainstream media and government is that these (mostly) men were part of a drug syndicate that was hell-bent on making money out of the wanton destruction of Australian society. They tried to bring almost 20lbs of heroin into Australia with a street value of about $4m bucks. These people wanted to bring drugs (and not for the first time) to this country that would ultimately destroy 1000ds of families and undoubtedly result in plenty of loss of life. These were not nice people.

Now that doesn’t mean that execution is the right remedy, but these are not heroes no matter what their conduct was in their final hours. These are BAD people and i will not personally mourn for them. Their families yes. The Bali 9 – no. No matter how much airplay you give a cute Catholic priest with a charming Irish lilt (like Charlie Burrows) it’s hard to make a case that these people should be forgiven and even somehow deified.

To avoid this situation in the future and protect its citizens from a barbaric firing squad, Australia needs to do one simple thing. Let’s form a treaty with Indonesia that any Australian citizen that is arrested in Indonesia for serious drug possession (and I am not talking a bit of weed late at night on Kuta Beach) will be extradited to Australia and will serve a full life sentence in Australian prison, without any chance of an early parole. We already have plenty of precedent for this – we certainly treat asylum seekers badly, locking innocent people up for years at a time without cause. Australia also has (appropriately) tough extraterritorial laws regarding pedophilia that nobody gets too enraged about. If we can seriously punish some sweaty fat bloke for shagging a 14 year old Thai girl in Pattaya Beach, then we can punish a misguided individual who thinks its ok to sell millions of dollars of heroin to our friends, family and children.

Send Paul Grigson back, Julie. Start the process of saving face and respect Indonesia’s sovereignty through action, not just words. Make a proper deal with Joko so that this doesn’t ever happen again.

 

Australia should stash the world’s nuclear waste

There aren’t too many topics that polarise discussion or incite more emotion than nuclear energy. For the nuclear industry, the events of the past few years have nothing short of remarkable. Between (tragic) disasters, the military nuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and Iran, Germany’s abandonment of nuclear energy in the wake of Fukushima, and the planet’s overall growing energy needs – nuclear technology has had a lot of airplay.

Overall, I’m a big fan of nuclear energy because I think that it has technologically evolved to the point where it truly could be safe (socially safe is an entirely separate matter…). In the past couple of decades, a lot of ancillary advancement in construction technologies and material science have also been made that could really supercharge the nuclear industry and change the footprint from a Chernobyl or a Fukushima, into something much more compact and urban. Alongside other renewable “green” energies, nuclear energy could – if we chose to – start to displace coal and other hydrocarbons for electricity supply within a decade.

But I also agree that that the waste is a problem … though only to an extent.

Why this caveat? Well I remember a lecture I attended a few years ago where it was suggested that if you were to accumulate the lifetime energy consumption (everything) of an individual living in the “west” (let’s say broadly, US, UK, Canada or Australia) and present it in the form of typical emissions from a coal power station, it would amount to something like 6,000 train loads of compressed (liquid) CO2. The equivalent in nuclear waste from your typical U135 reactor is a disc 15 centimetres in diameter and 2mm thick. When you put it into that context, it’s a hell of a lot easier to find a place to stash a little disc than a very very long train (by the way, I’d love it if someone could substantiate this comparison for me).

It’s a great visual. Surely easier to bury the “disc”?

Australia has a lot of uranium – although uranium mining isn’t yet really big business. According a few reports I have been able to find, Australia exports about 8,000 tonnes of uranium oxide a year – roughly 85% of it going to the US, EU and Japan in equal measure. This amounts to about a $1 Bn business a year, though because of shifts in German and Japanese nuclear policy and fairly “stagnant” US nuclear industry, growth rate is on the decline. I suppose to counter this, there are opportunities to sell uranium to countries like India and Korea (South).

The really interesting thing is that Australia has 30-50% of the world’s uranium reserves alongside places like Canada and Kazakhstan. However, Australia has some attributes that make it rather different than other countries with a lot of uranium in the ground. It has a stable (if slightly dysfunctional) government, it is isolated, it is sparsely populated, it is mostly incredibly geologically stable and … drum roll… it is still comparatively proximal to the growth markets for which nuclear material could be transformational (i.e China).

As such, there is a real opportunity to take a more vertically integrated view of Australia’s uranium future. I personally believe that Australia could export enriched uranium products (and perhaps even one day thorium too – has a lot less problems in some ways) that are further up the value chain than just ore. For example, we could manufacture advanced ceramic composites that enable uranium to be stabilised and transported without needing coolants. However, what I really think is that Australia should repatriate the world’s nuclear waste and process, store and manage it.

This is obviously not a new idea and environmental groups have furiously rebuked he idea in the past. However, it really is a debate that should continue to be actively explored for a whole variety of very positive reasons that would possibly leave most conspiracy theorists and even some “big picture” environmentalists scratching their heads for a good reason to object. I am going to broadly segment these justifications into economic, technological, defence, environmental and moral categories.

Economic Justification

Building a nuclear management facility, probably somewhere in a remote corner of northern Australia, would be a major infrastructure project with few peers. Building and operating such a facility at the scale required to support the potential growth of the nuclear industry would be a major undertaking, probably able to justify the establishment of a community that would rival Darwin and possibly even eclipse it (not hard, it’s only a couple of hundred thousand people).

The revenue for managing nuclear waste could be enormous – most countries with nuclear energy or research capabilities have thousands of tonnes of transportable (i.e. stable) nuclear waste that is currently suboptimally stored. More importantly, if Australia could move up the value chain of processing and re-processing nuclear material, we might choose to implement a total “lifetime” (not the isotope lifetime, but rather the energy utility) strategy for disseminating nuclear material. Why export a few thousand tonnes of unrefined uranium when we could “lease” energy in the form of small pre-assembled nuclear cores with incredible energy densities that could be safely shipped around the world and then returned for reprocessing at the end of their production/service life?

Secondary industries could also spring from this activity. Waste can be recycled into useful isotopes for medical and industrial use, in massive demand the world over, but particularly growing Asia. So this is not just about exporting energy and importing waste, it’s about generating major secondary industries that could easily eclipse today’s miniscule uranium ore exports. One could even envisage actually turning this into a comprehensive nuclear technology offering that includes services – such as healthcare (yep – not all radiation is bad, some of it very effectively fights cancer).

Technological Justification

No matter what aspects of such a project you consider, it is going to involve huge technology development and will drive a massive investment in R&D. But not everything is going to have to be invented from scratch – it will also leverage considerable existing advanced expertise (by global standards) in mining, drilling, construction, etc. In some regards it’s a bit ideological, but Australia could use some nation-building projects that are truly transformational and that could tie the “second speed” economy to the “first speed” economy in a way never seen before. In my view, building cars (especially not Fords) and submarines are not examples of such a project.

This could be.

This kind of a massive scale project would touch just about every area of science and technology, would motivate both imported and home grown innovation and would even drive capacity through some of the toys we have (like a synchrotron) that are currently a bit idle and directionless (we shall see if ANSTO’s management of the synchrotron improves things). From a science policy vantage point, it would force Australia to look very closely at the buy vs build model for innovation and productivity in a way that the country has never done before, and much more closely ally ourselves with major research initiatives in other parts of the world. It could be a boon for attracting talent.

By the way, it’s all very well to be critical (as I often am) that our politicians don’t understand innovation. But to some extent, our politicians don’t understand innovation because relatively little home-grown innovation (as opposed to technologies purchased from abroad) has ever impacted the economy. As such there isn’t much of a case study to learn from. This could be changed.

Also, don’t just think about a nuclear processing facility as a bunker in some remote region of the country. Think about it as the industrial core of a super high-tech “nuclearopolis” in the Torrid Zone. Don’t build a compound, build a community that would be within spitting distance of places like Singapore, Malaysia and China – build an international airport (or put in place a bullet train to Darwin a couple of hours away). Sure the actual processing facility needs to be super-secure, etc. but the industry that could spring up around something like this could be incredible. In fact, I would argue that building a civilian infrastructure around it is possibly a fundamental part of making it secure.

Lastly, infrastructure. To make something like this secure is not just about barb wire, retinal scans and security patrols (and not just a defence matter, as per the next section) but about making the project self-sustainable. It will need energy itself – imagine solar farms, food and water too. It will require advanced construction and transport infrastructure can survive often harsh climates. It will require new strategies for urbanisation based on completely different ideals of industrial safety – standards, incidentally, that don’t just apply to nuclear materials, but may also be relevant to other types of advanced technologies as well, such as nanomaterials, specialty chemicals and biotechnology products. There could be lots of synergies for other industries.

Defence Justification

I have often written about the “shift” in power from the North Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific – no doubt part of the “Asian Century” that is clearly of fundamental importance to Australia’s future. That we allow a greater US military presence in Australia in the face of an “awakening” China and perhaps also India, is evidence of this shift (however you may feel about it).

Australia’s northern coastline is particularly difficult to patrol – partially because of sheer expanse but also because the expenditure for larger scale security is probably hard to justify on economic grounds. Certainly, we never quite seem to spot asylum seekers or an off-course Chinese oil tanker until it is a bit late and they are washed up on a coral reef somewhere. My understanding is that in the event of a (entirely hypothetical and kind of ridiculous) invasion from, say, Indonesia, the military strategy would essentially be to abandon most of the country and retreat a few tanks and aircraft to the bottom right corner – a rough hypotenuse from Sydney to Melbourne (again, if there any experts reading this, correct me – but it seems logical).

Building a nuclear processing and storage footprint in the northern part of Australia would have some interesting implications for defence and the globe’s vested interest in Australia’s security. Presumably our various multi-lateral defence agreements currently cover most contingencies but actually having something worthy of defending on our northern border (sorry Darwin) does change the game a bit. One could even envisage a deep-water port where military vessels would actually dock to recycle nuclear materials – putting Australia on the map as part of a combined military supply chain and nuclear deterrent without actually having to establish a nuclear deterrent domestically. I am not suggesting, incidentally, that this be open purely to allies – rather it could also be a way for Australian to strengthen its ties with ASEAN/China too.

Clearly, if a lot of nuclear material is going to get shipped around S.E. Asia through the usual (already very congested) shipping channels, this is going to require some increased security as well. If defence treaties could be expanded to make patrolling our northern boundaries an international responsibility in order to secure and protect Australia’s nuclear processing infrastructure, this could have a dramatic impact on our ability to patrol and secure our northern frontier, essentially leveraging an already growing international presence in our backyard.

The bottom line is this – Australia is not really economically important enough to go to war over. I do believe that in the event of an act of aggression there would be an international response – and I am also one of those optimists that believes we increasingly live in a world where the “battle” can be based on dialog, rather than unleashing destruction. But I don’t think anyone is ever going to protect our country holistically, because it basically can’t be done. Therefore we need to create an international incentive for our northern maritime border to be absolutely secure.

Environmental Justification

Unlike Abbott, who thinks that it is ok for us to turn a blind eye to our responsibilities to improve the globe’s carbon footprint despite being a major coal exporter, I actually think that we have a case here of “those who can, should.” The plain fact of the matter is there are a lot of coal power stations in China that are going to burn Australian coal (for which we have something like 800 years of reserves based on projected energy consumption). If we could lower the global cost and risk of nuclear power by building infrastructure to manage waste materials, we could provide a real alternative.

And we should do it. Environmentalists should get up to speed on the technology and start practically understanding what the global impact is of our coal export industry.

Incidentally, for those people who think that building windmills and solar farms are the entire solution, the reality is that we need constant energy supplies to “reinforce” the bursty and intermittent output of most renewables, in most parts of the world. Advancements in energy storage technology can partially solve this but that has huge cost as well – at least with current technology.

So I personally feel that taking a step back and looking at this from a global (i.e. planetary) vantage, this could be of huge environmental benefit for the world. It would also take a lot of wind out of the sails of the hydrocarbon industry and would likely drive more momentum towards renewables and a “carbon neutral” energy landscape. Especially, as I have previously said, there is no technological reason why small nuclear installations cannot be made perfectly safe.

Looking at it from a local/domestic environmental perspective, I concede that the issues are more complex. Most of the areas where you would want to geographically do something like this are highly sensitive ecosystems. I am quite certain that Native Rights would also (appropriately) come into the picture at some point, just as they have with most mining projects in Australia. Not an environmental issue, per se, but certainly important.

But then let’s also be clear. We have already proceeded with Ranger and Olympic Dam and these are major projects. Some of our larger deposits might actually be places where the kind of infrastructure I am proposing could be co-located. We needn’t necessarily enlarge the environmental footprint to build this sort of facility, though I concede that if we wanted to build an urban environment / tech ecosystem around it, that would have additional impact.

It’s a tough one.

I think, however, that providing the risks to nearby populations can be managed, food chains are not compromised, etc. it should be considered. I suppose if one wanted to go on the “sell” you could argue that in order to properly secure such a project, large buffer zones of land should be formalised as protected and uninhabited reserve. Perhaps this is an opportunity for environmentalists to cordon some very large national parks as part of a deal. Certainly, I’d like to see a bunch of nuclear terrorists try and trek through croc-infested mangrove swamps!

I do worry about shipping nuclear waste to Australia. A nuclear “spill” in our oceans might be 1000ds of times more catastrophic than an oil spill. I guess we’d have to understand that more, though the advantage of heavy isotopes is that they tend to … er… sink. Although now outlawed, a hell of a lot of nuclear waste has been dumped into the oceans – including by even more nefarious organisations than governments. This may not be such a big deal and may even, in the final analysis, make shipping oil look positively dirty.

Moral Justification

For me personally, the moral justification and the environmental justification are strongly entwined. However the most compelling argument is that if we are not willing to be part of the solution for managing nuclear waste, then we shouldn’t be part of the problem of creating it in the first place. I do think that there is a moral argument to being part of a global proliferation of safe, carbon-neutral energy and I think that our regional economic stability depends on it.

I personally struggle more with the idea that we are a major coal exporter without obviously attaching some sort of environmental premium (penalty?) to it, than the fact that we might want to store nuclear waste in Australia. I actually have less problem with exporting uranium than coal but I’d rather that we attached an equal environmental imperative. I remember a few years ago seeing vast coal trains in northern Queensland and questioning of myself what it meant in terms of Australia’s contribution to global warming. For anyone who thinks that our footprint is purely domestic consumption, they are morally misguided. Every brick of coal we export to China has an impact too, we just (conveniently) choose not to count it.

The question is really whether the moral justification actually undermines the business case. When we agree to sell uranium to, say, India and we require as part of the pricing structure for our exports that the waste be repatriated, do we simply no longer make ourselves cost effective as a uranium exporter? Or does the attraction of being able to safely stash everyone’s nuclear “trash” have a stand-alone market opportunity compared to the cost and risk of our prospective client’s domestic storage. Very interesting question that I will have to leave to the experts.

What I do know is that there are other countries who are thinking about doing this – for some of the same reasons. Mongolia also has some stable geology, some great mining expertise and comparative remoteness/low population density. But it’s also a young (though promising) democracy, is proximal to a lot of countries undergoing turbulent change and still carries some of the hallmarks of its corrupt communist legacy. Is that really the place we should be wanting to store nuclear material from a global security vantage? I suspect not.

Parting comments

I don’t think this is a slam-dunk by any means, and not without issues, but I think it is something that should be seriously considered and properly studied. Maybe I lack imagination but I can hardly think of a larger scale project with the opportunity to super-charge Australia’s economy but also create something of enormous international importance at the same time. I do, to an extent, believe in “nation building” projects and I’d like to see a focal point for R&D expenditure that actually did something of value to the economy. I also really like the idea of a northern technology frontier that has the potential to unify our “two speed” economy and increase our regional development relevance, particularly to fast-paced economies in Australia’s backyard.

Let us not forget that it was amidst enormous opposition that the second generation OPAL reactor went ahead after the decommissioning of Lucas Heights. There were lots of practical reasons why such infrastructure can be justified (medical, industrial, research, etc.) but the primary reason was to ensure that Australia maintained its seat at the IAEA – the prerequisite to which, is a functioning nuclear reactor. Why was this important? Well, perhaps not next year and perhaps not in the next decade, but at some point the nuclear industry is going to have a proper renaissance and when the time comes to reconsider policy on peaceful nuclear proliferation, Australia will want to have a seat at the table.

My question is, do we want to wait until then, or do we want take a leadership position that could cornerstone an energy, technological – and economic – transformation?

Kevin Rudd, you sneaky bugger…

I’m aghast.

Three years after being ousted by the Labor Party, Kev is back. I suppose technically, having won the Labor leadership ballot 57-45, he is now – subject to the Governor General’s “blessing” – Prime Minister of Australia.

Again.

I have always been a Labor supporter but I will not vote Labor in the next election because they do not deserve my – or anyone’s – loyalty. A fundamental cornerstone of democracy is stable and functioning government that is there to serve the People, not to serve itself. The power struggles and infighting within the Party over the past three years has been nothing short of disgusting and the Government has dropped the ball on major issues as a consequence.

When Gillard came to power the Party made its bed. They should lie in it, even if the bed turns into a coffin.

But good ol’ Kevin told a different kind of “lie” many times and in different ways. He stood at the sidelines and coyly said he would not challenge leadership. He said it again and again. He said it with vehemence. He said it with a smirk on his chubby schoolboy face. He said it with convoluted and opaque sentences. He said it with crisp and staccato clarity.

How are we supposed to trust someone who flip-flops like this? Did he not know if he wanted to be PM? Was it a last-minute decision (perhaps brushing his teeth that morning)? Was he bullied into it by the ALP? Or did he just decide to mislead everyone because he thinks we are all plebeian enough to be wowed by some sort of 11th hour, white-knight-Kev-to-the-rescue charade?

If Kevin had any gravitas, if he had any sense of statesmanship, if he truly was a leader worth following – he would have not succumbed to the temptation of what will be a brief, transient and irrelevant epoch of leadership. Instead he should have declined the poll, supported Julia Gillard and been part of re-building the Labor Party post-election. But Kevin doesn’t care about his Party or his Country, he only cares about himself and this manoeuvre is nothing less than the brief ego trip of a weak man.

Australians should not vote for Kevin Rudd in August. Australians should not vote for the Labor Party in the next election. Although it pains me to say this (and my contempt for Tony Abbott is well known), we need a complete change of government and there needs to be a price to pay for this skulduggery.

Honestly, it’s enough to make you vote for Clive Palmer (joke… check out this parody). Certainly an honest day in Australian politics makes rebuilding the Titanic (a.k.a. “Clive’s Tugboat”) look like a cakewalk.

PS: I retract any nice things I have ever said about Kev in the past…

Apparently, the future is “Monoversities”

Last week I was back in Melbourne and in between catching up with my home life (playing with my little boy!), taking a breather from a brutal April travel schedule and trying to reconquer a mountain of unfinished work that tends to accumulate during travel, I made a trip down to Monash University to listen to the Hon Christopher Pyne MP talk about the “coalition” government’s vision for education.

As many readers will be aware, I care deeply about education. I think it is the cornerstone of building a better a world. It can lead to improvements in child mortality and health. It links to environmental sustainability. It is the driving force behind innovation and economic productivity. I’m a big fan of HSBC bank’s “in the future” advertisement series (genius) – one of the best and truest captions goes something like “In the future, education will be the best investment.” Profound stuff… and utterly true.

…but I digress.

Australia is heading into an election cycle and so I have been trying to understand what rubbish our politicians are trying to serve up this time around. By the way, I’ll throw out there that Australia has the WORST politicians in the world. It’s not that they’re particularly corrupt (though, Craig Thomson’s fraud and sex scandal suggests otherwise), it’s not that they’re xenophobic (though, according to Cory Bernardi, gay marriage is a slippery slope to bestiality); it’s just that they are mostly underwhelming, white and a bit liver-lipped. Our Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, deserves much kudos for being the first woman PM but I don’t have much positive to say about her or her party’s politics.

My mother always told me, if you can’t say anything nice – say nothing at all.

Sometimes lawyers tell me the same thing.

I will say one thing, however, and that is Tony Abbott is a buffoon. I can’t believe he’s Oxford-educated. His party seemingly has no policy other than to slander the Labour government. His budgetary ruminations don’t make sense (either in economic terms or basic accounting), his stance on climate change is irresponsible and he has no game plan for how to build a financial reserve to support Australia’s future infrastruture and economic diversification needs, other than “we can’t tax mining.”

Er…

I’d like to say, however, Mr. Pyne is a very polished guy. Charming. Gave a great speech, dammit I liked him… But to my dismay he reiterated a lot of opposition government mantras that I didn’t really want to hear (and don’t really believe) and he certainly upheld the party dogma of simply attacking existing policy, rather than formulating and proposing bold and clever new ideas. It’s also clear that an important facet of the party rubric is to wistfully hark back to the days of Howard government, obviously the last time that the country could have possibly been responsibly run…

But, what of education?

Well, the good news is that the coalition government acknowledges that education and R&D is important to the economy. They believe that there have been too many cuts to education and research and that this needs to be addressed. I’m not sure which money pot they were thinking of pulling it from, but this was a fairly consistent theme in the speech. It’s clear that their policy wonks have recognised some of the problems with the allocation mechanisms of research grants and that it’s not very “egalitarian.” There was some waffle and rubbish about the fact that with only a 20% chance of getting a grant funded, academics waste too much time writing grants … whatever. Let’s just hope that whatever the more “efficient” system is that they come up with that our stellar politicians at least still make it a competitive, peer-reviewed process.

However, there were two issues in the Minister’s speech that slightly concerned me.

The first is that Mr Pyne suggested that it was ok for universities to become “segregated” into institutions that excel at research, and institutions that excel at teaching. Now, to some extent, I agree this is true. Or rather, I do believe that there are many vocationally-directed courses that don’t need to be taught by people with strong research backgrounds. However, we need to be very careful about the degree of separation between the two. There is no doubt that unless you have people who are aware of “best practice”, teaching loses efficacy. Similarly, if you have great research institutions but don’t inspire and develop the next generation, you also get stagnation. Considering the pace of knowledge, is it really wise to separate the two? Should we be forgetting that “University” is short for universitas magistrorum et scholarium – a “community” of teachers and scholars? Will we stop educating great people if we separate the two?

This issue reflects, at its heart, growing political momentum behind the idea that universities are just there to create a trained workforce. This is certainly an important deliverable to society, but it is far from the only one. The problem is that politicians see universities as either a consumer of public R&D budget, or a headcount allocation for tertiary education – and nothing else. This gross simplification helps to propagate the argument for instilling the teaching/research divide. Unfortunately, it fails to consider a very important part of our modern world, namely the interdisciplinary nature of knowledge and the equal (in my view) importance of teaching and research to enabling innovation. There is no doubt that our universities are ripe for systemic and conceptual overhaul, and disruptors (i.e. MOOCs, immigration/population movement) are going to drive completely redefine the university environment in the next decade, but I am not sure this is the redefinition it needs.

However, what is going to become ever more important is that universities are places where truly interdisciplinary thinking can be nurtured. Mr Pyne talked about eradicating universities that offer “everything”, creating institutions with a focused and limited repertoire rather than the whole “smorgasbord.” Instead, he’d welcome universities that choose to excel in particular areas, to build centres of excellence where resources around a particular discipline are concentrated. In concept this sounds like a nice, efficient idea – but is it really practical? As a fairly small country, I don’t mind if we only build one “cracking” petroleum engineering school or mining department. I don’t mind if we only have once “Institute for Advanced Energy Research.” In a way, it probably also makes sense to try and distribute these centres around as much as possible otherwise only one or two universities are going to end up getting the monopoly on public funding and that will lead to a lack of competition.

Unfortunately, I think that if a university is going to have an engineering school, it probably wants a law school, a medical school, education and arts… and vice-versa. Why? Thinking no longer happens in silos. We live in an interdisciplinary age. We don’t innovate in traditional “fields” anymore, we innovate where fields bump into each other and blend ideas from disparate areas of intellectual endeavour. From an intellectual hygiene vantage, I couldn’t imagine a university not being a place where people from diverse disciplines couldn’t readily interact. Replicating an MIT or a Caltech in science/technology MIGHT work, but even those institutions thrive through diverse research and teaching collaborations with other universities – usually proximal.

I’m not sure I want our universities to become “monoversities” quite yet…

So, despite the fact that I am now encouraged by my (new) belief that not everyone in opposition government is as underwhelming as their leader, for now there is nothing really apparent in coalition education policy that makes me think that there are refreshing new ideas just waiting to transform our university system.

Ho hum.