Tag Archives: ANU

Peter Doherty: why Australia needs to march for science

The Conversation

File 20170420 20063 140oya
March for Science events will be held across the world on April 22 2017. From www.shutterstock.com

Peter C. Doherty, The Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity

The following article is adapted from a speech to be delivered at the Melbourne March for Science on Saturday 22 April, 2017. The Conversation

The mission posted on the March for Science international website states:

The March for Science champions robustly funded and publicly communicated science as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity. We unite as a diverse, nonpartisan group to call for science that upholds the common good and for political leaders and policy makers to enact evidence based policies in the public interest. The March for Science is a celebration of science.

To me, it seems the reason concerned people across the planet are marching today is that, at least for the major players in the English-speaking world, there are major threats to the global culture of science.

Why? A clear understanding of what is happening with, for example, the atmosphere, oceans and climate creates irreconcilable problems for powerful vested interests, particularly in the fossil fuel and coastal real estate sectors.

Contrary to the data-free “neocon/trickle down” belief system, the observed dissonance implies that we need robust, enforceable national and international tax and regulatory structures to drive the necessary innovation and renewal that will ensure global sustainability and a decent future for humanity and other, complex life forms.

Here in Australia, the March for Science joins a global movement initiated by a perceived anti-science stance in Donald Trump’s administration.

Trump’s 2018 budget proposal

In the USA, President Trump’s proposed budget for 2018 incorporates massive cuts to the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

And, though it in no sense reflects political hostility and deliberate ignorance, British scientists are fearful that Brexit will have a terrible impact on their funding and collaborative arrangements.

How does this affect us in Australia? Why should we care? The science culture is international and everyone benefits from progress made anywhere. NOAA records, analyses and curates much of the world’s climate science data. A degraded EPA provides a disastrous model for all corrupt and regressive regimes.

Science depends on a “churn”, both of information and people. After completing their PhD “ticket”, many of our best young researchers will spend 3-5 years employed as postdoctoral fellows in the USA, Europe and (increasingly) the Asian countries to our north, while young American, Asian and European/British scientists come to work for a time with our leading scientists.

The proposed 2018 US President’s budget would, for example, abolish the NIH Fogarty International Centre that has enabled many young scientists from across the planet to work in North America. In turn, we recruited “keepers” like Harvard-educated Brian Schmidt, our first, resident Nobel Prize winner for physics and current Vice Chancellor of the Australian National University (ANU).

We might also recall that – supported strongly by Prime Ministers JJ Curtin and RG Menzies – the ANU (with 3 Nobel Prizes to its credit) was founded as a research university to position us in science and international affairs.

Not a done deal, yet

What looks to be happening in the US is not a done deal.

The US political system is very different from our own. The Division of Powers in the US Constitution means that the President is in many respects less powerful than our PM.

Unable to introduce legislation, a President can only pass (or veto) bills that come from the Congress. Through to September, we will be watching a vigorous negotiation process where separate budgets from the House and the Senate (which may well ignore most, if not all, of the President’s ambit claims) will develop a “reconciled” budget that will be presented for President Trump’s signature.

How March for Science might help

The hope is that this international celebration of science will cause US legislators, particularly the more thoughtful on the right of politics, to reflect a little and understand what they risk if they choose to erode their global scientific leadership.

There are massive problems to be solved, along with great economic opportunities stemming from the development of novel therapies and new, smart “clean and green” technologies in, particularly, the energy generation and conservation sector.

Ignoring, or denying, problems does not make them go away. Whether or not the message is welcome, the enormous power of science and technology means we can only go forward if future generations are to experience the levels of human well-being and benign environmental conditions we enjoy today.

There is no going back. The past is a largely imagined, and irretrievable country.

Peter C. Doherty, Laureate Professor, The Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reblogs

How unwritten rules shape ministerial accountability

The Conversation

Ryan Goss, Australian National University

Recent police investigations into the alleged actions of Mal Brough, before he became special minister of state, have led some to suggest that “Westminster tradition” demands Brough step aside. But what does “Westminster tradition” mean in Australia, and how does ministerial responsibility work?

The Australian parliament’s website says the:

… federal government is held responsible to both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

But how? And why?

Australia’s Constitution sets the ground rules for its system of government. But many things one might expect to be in it simply aren’t there.

The Constitution doesn’t spell out how the prime minister is to be chosen, for instance, or when they should be obliged to resign. There’s no reference at all to the prime minister in the document. And although the Constitution requires ministers to be members of parliament, there’s no mention of terms such as “responsible government” or “ministerial responsibility”.

Despite this, jurist Sir Isaac Isaacs described responsible government as:

… part of the fabric on which the written words of the Constitution are superimposed.

And in a landmark 1992 High Court judgment, Chief Justice Anthony Mason said:

… the principle of responsible government – the system of government by which the executive is responsible to the legislature … is an integral element in the Constitution.

But where do we find this “integral element”, if not in the text of the Constitution?

What are conventions?

In many important areas of Australia’s system of government, much is determined by unwritten rules – or what we call “constitutional conventions”. Australia shares this characteristic with the UK’s Westminister system of government, on which Australia’s is partly based.

As British legal writer Sir Ivor Jennings put it, constitutional conventions:

… provide the flesh which clothes the dry bones of the law.

They are rules that help make the legal text of the Constitution work, and they can add some flexibility to constitutional arrangements by evolving over time.

Australia isn’t alone in relying on such conventions to make its Constitution work. Many countries have similar conventions to Australia’s; different legal systems also have different conventions. In the United Kingdom, for instance, it’s a convention that the Speaker of the House of Commons is truly independent of party politics – but there is no such convention in Australia.

As they are unwritten rules, it’s not always entirely clear when a constitutional convention exists, let alone exactly what it allows or requires. Unlike laws, constitutional conventions cannot be enforced in the courts.

So, when a convention is broken, the consequences are usually political rather than legal. Instead of being brought before the courts, a convention breaker is more likely to suffer political criticism, be the subject of popular outcry, or be punished at the ballot box.

But while conventions cannot be enforced in the courts, they’re understood by everyone involved to be important constitutional rules.

Why is it so?

When the Australian Constitution’s framers were drafting its text in the late 1800s, they thought certain things went without saying, given the way the system was designed.

That means Australia’s constitutional system is built on the assumption that all ministers will be responsible to the parliament and, through the parliament, responsible to the Australian people. But there’s no precise legal statement of how that assumption works, what it covers, and what happens if the ministers are not sufficiently responsible.

The general understanding is that ministers are accountable to parliament for their policy decisions, for the administration of their departments and for any relevant indiscretions. But these are unwritten rules: what does “accountable” mean anyway?

For some, it means the minister must resign upon the discovery of any misadministration or mistake. For others, accountability requires that the minister is obliged:

… to explain and to justify his or her conduct, the [parliament] can pose questions and pass judgement, and the [minister] may face consequences.

But there’s no authoritative view.

The reality is that political circumstances will determine what’s required of a minister, and the consequences for not meeting expectations. If a minister has the support of their party colleagues, for example, it’s possible that less will be required of that minister and that the consequences will be less severe than they might otherwise have been.

What chance reform?

A desire for greater certainty has led to some discussion in Australia – and elsewhere – of arguments in favour of codifying constitutional conventions and making them enforceable as a matter of law. This is certainly possible.

As recently as 1977, the Australian Constitution was amended to codify and entrench what had previously been a convention about filling casual vacancies in the Senate. The argument for codification may make most sense in the context of conventions about the Governor-General’s reserve powers, over which there was so much controversy in 1975.

But the risk of codifying conventions more generally is that we transfer power away from democratically elected representatives and towards the courts. If we legally require ministers to resign for poor administration of their departments, for example, a judge might have the final say about whether a particular minister should resign for a particular action. This may undermine the extent to which the people can control their government.

The question then becomes whether we prefer greater flexibility and democratic control over the government, or greater certainty and judicial control. But there may be a middle ground.

The Australian Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, for instance, offers a “guidance” document on those constitutional conventions known as caretaker conventions. These conventions affect how government operates during election campaigns.

The document is “neither legally binding nor hard and fast rules”, and cannot be enforced in the courts. But it offers clarity for those affected by the relevant constitutional conventions. Similar guidance documents on other conventions could provide greater certainty about the relevant unwritten rules.

But, as things stand, it’s incumbent on all of us, as citizens in a democratic society, to ensure that our representatives hold our government to account.


This article is part of a series on breaking political conventions. Look out for more articles exploring various political conventions in the coming days.

The ConversationRyan Goss, Lecturer in Law, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Brian Schmidt on amateur climate science ‘experts’

Brian Paul Schmidt AC, FRS, FAA (born February 24, 1967) is a Distinguished Professor, Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow and astrophysicist at The Australian National University‘s Mount Stromlo Observatory and Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics; and is known for his research in using supernovae as cosmological probes. He currently holds an Australia Research Council Federation Fellowship and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 2012. Schmidt shared both the 2006 Shaw Prize in Astronomy and the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics with Saul Perlmutter and Adam Riess for providing evidence that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, making him the only Montana-born Nobel laureate. In June 2015, his appointment as the next Vice-Chancellor of the Australian National University, commencing in January 2016, was announced.

‘As a Nobel Prize winner, I travel the world meeting all kinds of people. Most of the policy, business and political leaders I meet immediately apologise for their lack of knowledge of science. Except when it comes to climate science. Whenever this subject comes up, it never ceases to amaze me how each person I meet suddenly becomes an expert.

Facts are then bandied to fit an argument for or against climate change, and on all sides, misconceptions abound. The confusion is not surprising – climate science is a very broad and complicated subject with experts working on different aspects of it worldwide. No single person knows everything about climate change. And for the average punter, it’s hard to keep up with all the latest research and what it means.

More surprising is the supreme confidence that non-experts (scientists and non-scientists alike) have in their own understanding of the subject.’

Leave a comment

Filed under Quotations