Published online 14 September 2010 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2010.466

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Australia's 'rainbow coalition' focuses on climate

Carbon pricing set to top agendas for the minority Labor government.

Julia Gillard and cabinetAustralian prime minister Julia Gillard and her cabinet came to power backed by key support from Greens and independents.TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP/Getty Images

Australia's minority Labor Party government — forged through an unusual alliance with the Greens and independents — could be a good thing for science and climate-change policy, observers suggest.

Left with a hung parliament after national elections, prime minister Julia Gillard finally secured enough support to form a government last week, when two conservative independent members of parliament (MPs) from rural New South Wales gave her their support in addition to backing from another independent from Tasmania and a Greens MP from Melbourne.

"One of the few overlapping areas of interest in this 'rainbow coalition' is climate," says John Connor, chief executive officer of the Climate Institute, an independent research organization based in Sydney. "We are cautiously optimistic that this is a better platform for taking action on climate change than it would have been if either of the major parties had secured a majority."

Under Gillard's predecessor Kevin Rudd, the Labor government came to power in 2007 promising to introduce a carbon-emissions trading scheme. But Rudd later decided to delay it, a move widely seen as a factor that drove a national swing against Labor. Opposition leader Tony Abbott has meanwhile repeatedly described the trading scheme as a "great big new tax on everything".

The two crucial independents from New South Wales, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, have both said that Labor's policy on climate change was a big part of their decision to back the party. Windsor had said that greater focus on renewables could be a real advantage for rural areas.

Building a strategy

In a deal with the Greens party, which will have nine seats in the Senate when that is formed in July 2011, and thus will hold the balance of power in the upper house, Labor agreed to set up a cross-party climate change committee to develop a strategy for pricing carbon emissions.

"This is the most optimistic time in Australian climate politics for more than a decade," says Richard Denniss, executive director of the Australia Institute, a left-leaning think tank based in Canberra. "In both the upper and lower houses of parliament there is a majority of politicians who accept that climate change exists, but also that we need a price on carbon."

There was more good news for science politics at the weekend when Gillard announced her reshuffled cabinet, says Anna-Maria Arabia, executive director of the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies in Canberra.

The reshuffle saw incumbent climate change minister Penny Wong, a senator for South Australia, move to the finance portfolio. Her junior minister Greg Combet, MP for Charlton in New South Wales, was promoted. Wong's move was "neither a positive nor a negative for the climate debate", says Arabia, but Combet, a former trade-union official, was "a great appointment".

"He will be able to work across the parties and most importantly get the support of the public. This is an area that has been neglected in the past. The public needs to be taken on a journey," she says.

An education in diplomacy

The government seemed at first to have created a gap of its own with the reorganisation, particularly in the context of higher education. Representatives of the country's universities were baffled when the reshuffle left Australia without a minister whose title indicated a responsibility for education. The minister in charge of higher education policy, Chris Evans, initially had a portfolio called 'Jobs, Skills and Workplace Relations'.

Peter Coaldrake, the chair of Universities Australia in Canberra, said in a statement that he was "both disappointed and mystified" by the omission, but by Tuesday Gillard had agreed to bridge the gap — making Evans officially the Minister for Tertiary Education, Jobs, Skills and Workplace Relations.

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"The result was excellent," says Coaldrake. "It is very important that education, research and science are part of the nation-building agenda and I think the government recognized that."

Kim Carr, senator for Victoria, has stayed on as Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research. "He is certainly passionate about the agenda," says Arabia, "and having continuity is good."

Carr needs to focus on getting Australia's research workforce strategy right, and on boosting the country's research and development spending, says Arabia. Currently, Australian spending on research and development is less than the 2.3% average for the 33 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which Australia joined in 1971. "We can't fall further behind." 

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