The Un­flap­pable Finkel

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - by Anna Krien

Aus­tralia’s Chief Sci­en­tist Alan Finkel has an un­canny abil­ity to be at once open and in­scrutable. When I meet him at his of­fice in Mel­bourne’s CBD, I won­der if it is the de­sign of his face that achieves this: his wide-set blue eyes, high cheek­bones, eyebrows sprout­ing in thin arches, re­ced­ing grey hair swept back. I find my­self think­ing of Aus­tralian artist Pa­tri­cia Pic­cinini’s com­puter-gen­er­ated seascape, Swell, an ocean that rolls and heaves around its au­di­ence, and yet, dis­con­cert­ingly, whose sur­face never breaks. There is a dis­tinct lack of chaos in Finkel’s fea­tures, which is not to say he has mas­tered the po­lit­i­cal poker face. More that there seems to be an im­pen­e­tra­ble layer to his per­son: a qual­ity made par­tic­u­larly enig­matic against the back­drop of Aus­tralia’s cli­mate wars. “Some­one should give Alan Finkel a diplo­matic post­ing some­where,” said the Guardian’s Katharine Mur­phy on ABC TV’s In­sid­ers in Oc­to­ber. This was in the week fol­low­ing Prime Min­is­ter Mal­colm Turn­bull’s an­nounce­ment of the Coali­tion’s en­ergy “game changer”, the “na­tional en­ergy guar­an­tee”. In other words, the clean en­ergy tar­get – pro­duced in June as a part of the Finkel re­view to bring the na­tional elec­tric­ity grid into the 21st cen­tury, de­signed af­ter con­sid­er­ing more than 390 sub­mis­sions, af­ter con­duct­ing more than 120 meet­ings, and con­sult­ing world­wide – was dead. It was to be buried along­side an emis­sions trad­ing scheme, the Car­bon Pol­lu­tion Re­duc­tion Scheme, the Car­bon Pric­ing Mech­a­nism (the lat­ter known as the car­bon tax), and a briefly floated (48 hours) emis­sions in­ten­sity scheme. Aus­tralia is run­ning out of palat­able mar­ket mech­a­nisms to en­cour­age in­vest­ment in the elec­tric­ity sec­tor while low­er­ing emis­sions. It has been a down­ward slope – af­ter 15 years of po­lit­i­cal in­ep­ti­tude and ar­ro­gance from all quar­ters, we now have at the fore the na­tional en­ergy guar­an­tee: an eight-page idea that is dispir­it­ingly low on re­duc­ing emis­sions, put to­gether in four weeks by the newly formed En­ergy Se­cu­rity Board. Ever the states­man, Turn­bull de­ferred to these “ex­perts”, but few me­dia out­lets wanted to hear what the board had to say. Out on the lawn of Parliament House it was Finkel’s thoughts they scram­bled for, and if there was ever a mo­ment to dip his toe into the muck of pol­i­tics, this was it. Finkel didn’t. “What we now have, and for the first time, is strat­egy,” he told gath­ered jour­nal­ists. On In­sid­ers, Mur­phy de­scribed the chief sci­en­tist’s re­sponse to the na­tional en­ergy guar­an­tee as “gra­cious”, while jour­nal­ist Laura Tin­gle sug­gested it was more than that, be­cause Finkel saw merit in the mech­a­nism. Ei­ther way, it was clear Finkel was a bet­ter per­son than the rest of us. Since Oc­to­ber 2016, when Finkel was ap­pointed to lead the in­de­pen­dent re­view into Aus­tralia’s elec­tric­ity mar­ket, it seems al­most ev­ery­one has been try­ing to get the chief sci­en­tist’s mea­sure. Is he pro-coal or pro-re­new­ables? It ought to have been a no-brainer; af­ter all, when the prime min­is­ter in­tro­duced Finkel as the incoming chief sci­en­tist a year prior, it was widely known he drove an elec­tric car and lived in a home pow­ered by re­new­ables. Yet still no one seemed quite sure where Finkel stood. Some­how he man­aged to stay above the fray. When the fi­nal re­port of the Finkel re­view was re­leased in June 2017, there was a sense that surely now his hand would be re­vealed. Yet, among the 50 rec­om­men­da­tions to se­cure af­ford­abil­ity, re­li­a­bil­ity and lower emis­sions, his al­le­giance proved just as elu­sive.

“My an­swer on re­new­ables is un­changed,” Finkel tells me.

It was ABC TV’s Q&A host Tony Jones who fi­nally just came out with it later that same month. “Alan,” he said. “Are you gen­uinely tech­nol­ogy neu­tral? Does it mat­ter if it’s coal or wind or so­lar, as far as you’re con­cerned?” It was with an al­most in­cred­u­lous look that Finkel sur­veyed the tele­vi­sion au­di­ence and his fel­low pan­el­lists, who in­cluded the en­vi­ron­ment and en­ergy min­is­ter, Josh Fry­den­berg, and the shadow cli­mate change and en­ergy min­is­ter, Mark But­ler. “I think,” Finkel replied, “I’m the only gen­uinely tech­nol­ogy-neu­tral per­son in the room, per­haps.” The fol­low­ing day, I watched Q&A again, press­ing pause on Finkel. I stud­ied his face, look­ing for clues as to what he was re­ally think­ing. “Je­sus, he might be right,” I mut­tered. “My an­swer on re­new­ables is un­changed,” Finkel tells me. We are perched on a mez­za­nine over­look­ing a busy cafe. He has a hot choco­late in front of him. “I’ve had the same po­si­tion all the way through. The fo­cus shouldn’t be on re­new­ables or coal, the fo­cus should be on at­mo­spheric emis­sions and car­bon diox­ide.” He goes on to say how it has been a strug­gle to el­e­vate the nar­ra­tive. “Isn’t that just se­man­tics?” I ask at one point. “No, it isn’t,” Finkel replies. “Why not?” I ask, “if we know coal is linked to emis­sions, then why can’t we—”

“You’re do­ing it,” Finkel in­ter­rupts. “I’m not!” I say, start­ing to laugh. Or am I? What is it I am do­ing? Finkel ex­plains how as a busi­nessper­son he had to con­stantly reimag­ine the out­comes for his com­pany, con­stantly re­think and renew the endgame. It was the same here. “What does the gen­er­a­tion in­put mat­ter, if the out­come, at­mo­spheric emis­sions, are low­ered?” It seems rev­o­lu­tion­ary to fo­cus only on car­bon diox­ide – not on an ar­bi­trary build of re­new­ables or the malev­o­lent machi­na­tions of fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies. It strikes me as al­most im­pos­si­bly Zen. Af­ter the Finkel re­port was re­leased, there were ac­cu­sa­tions that Finkel and his team had wa­tered down the sci­ence and the ur­gency to curb global warm­ing to en­sure its po­lit­i­cal palata­bil­ity. It was an al­le­ga­tion from the trenches. But the re­view was never meant to be a sci­en­tific pa­per. It is a care­fully crafted tool; of course its users, im­ple­menters, had to be con­sid­ered. Finkel is, af­ter all, an en­gi­neer.

You could ar­gue that Turn­bull’s ap­point­ment of Finkel as chief sci­en­tist, fresh from knif­ing for­mer leader Tony Ab­bott, was one of the last truly Turn­bul­lian things he did.

It was Oc­to­ber 2015 when Turn­bull in­tro­duced Dr Alan Finkel to gath­ered me­dia. Clearly ex­cited with his ap­point­ment of Finkel as Aus­tralia’s next chief sci­en­tist, the newly crowned PM opened up ques­tions to the floor only to in­ter­rupt jour­nal­ists with ques­tions of his own – and why not? An en­gi­neer, neu­ro­sci­en­tist, Sil­i­con Val­ley en­tre­pre­neur, for­mer uni­ver­sity chan­cel­lor, phi­lan­thropist, pub­lisher and co-founder of Cos­mos and Green Life­style magazines, and the key driver be­hind a new sec­ondary-school sci­ence pro­gram, Finkel is cer­tainly a man af­ter Turn­bull’s heart. He even has a ticket booked to go to space on Vir­gin Ga­lac­tic’s first com­mer­cial flight. I ask Finkel what he was like as a child and he smiles. “Shy.” He re­calls the clas­sic ’50s child­hood, play­ing on the street, build­ing bil­ly­carts, read­ing sci­ence fic­tion. He grew up in the Mel­bourne sub­urb of Caulfield; his Polish par­ents had im­mi­grated sep­a­rately, his mother be­fore World War Two and his fa­ther, who ran a clothes-man­u­fac­tur­ing busi­ness, af­ter the war. The youngest of three, Finkel says his sis­ter liked to look af­ter him, while his brother, Ron, who is the brains be­hind and chair of Project Rozana, an in­ter­na­tional or­gan­i­sa­tion that fo­cuses on im­prov­ing the Pales­tinian health-care sys­tem, liked to ar­gue with him, teach­ing him how to ar­tic­u­late his thoughts. In 1974, their fa­ther died of can­cer. Alan was 21. “Were you close to him?” I ask – and he pauses. His re­sponse is care­ful. Yes, he says, in that he shared his fa­ther’s values of work­ing hard and not giv­ing up. In the early ’80s, af­ter liv­ing in share houses and do­ing his post­doc­tor­ate in elec­tri­cal engi­neer­ing, he fell in love. In 1983, Finkel fol­lowed his girl­friend – now El­iz­a­beth Finkel, a bio­chemist and award-win­ning sci­ence jour­nal­ist – to San Fran­cisco. From there, he drove south to Sil­i­con Val­ley. In an ABC Ra­dio in­ter­view, Finkel re­called that he didn’t know any­one in those early days and had no idea how to run a busi­ness. Sil­i­con Val­ley was a flat, stark and ster­ile place. He rented a space in a fac­tory and started up Axon In­stru­ments, a one-man op­er­a­tion. A sig­nif­i­cant per­son from those early, lonely days in the val­ley was Ed­die the lo­cal post­man. The two got to talk­ing, shar­ing their sto­ries. “Then one day,” Finkel says, “he came in and … I was out the back, wear­ing a white lab coat and work­ing on some elec­tronic equip­ment.” Finkel showed Ed­die what he was do­ing, ex­plain­ing that he was mak­ing new high-tech in­stru­ments to study the hu­man brain. “And Ed­die said, ‘Oh Alan, the peo­ple next door are do­ing the same thing.’” Finkel says he jumped off his chair and grabbed Ed­die by the col­lar. “‘Ed­die, Ed­die,’ I said, ‘I flew all the way from Aus­tralia, I’ve in­vested my life and you’re telling me the peo­ple next door are do­ing ex­actly the same thing?!’” The neigh­bours turned out to be as­sem­blers for a com­pany that pro­duced in­stru­ments sim­i­lar to Finkel’s – a part­ner­ship was struck up, and 20 years later Finkel sold Axon to an Amer­i­can firm for $190 mil­lion. It was a piece of luck, Finkel re­calls, and one, I’d add, that re­quired tak­ing the time to chat to the post­man. You could ar­gue that Turn­bull’s ap­point­ment of Finkel as chief sci­en­tist, fresh from knif­ing for­mer leader Tony Ab­bott, was one of the last truly Turn­bul­lian things he did – which is not as much of a stab as it sounds. The re­al­ity is Ab­bott and his sup­port­ers ex­ist, as do the Na­tion­als and One Na­tion – and peo­ple vote for them. Finkel tells me his re­view made a point of us­ing com­modi­ties and tech­nolo­gies in its mod­el­ling that were “real” – that is, here and now, while trans­form­ing the grid so other ad­vance­ments can be slot­ted in with­out too much fuss. You could say a sim­i­lar ap­proach needs to be taken with the politi­cians in­volved: fol­low­ing the Finkel re­view, busi­ness jour­nal­ist Alan Kohler wrote in the Aus­tralian that both sides of this ar­gu­ment need to give way. “The pro-coal Ab­bott gang needs to ac­cept a pol­icy that makes coal-fired gen­er­a­tion pos­si­ble but not prob­a­ble, while the pro-re­new­ables gang need to ac­cept a pol­icy that makes coal pos­si­ble, not im­pos­si­ble.” Pol­i­tics is, as is of­ten said, the art of the pos­si­ble. If both sides ac­cept this, Kohler con­tin­ued, “then in­vestors will de­cide what gets built”. But he couldn’t re­sist the quip: “And it won’t be coal.” And so, with three years to go in his post, Finkel con­tin­ues to bal­ance be­tween be­ing ex­act and suc­cess­ful in­side Parliament House. Although now “I’ve lost my foil,” Finkel says to me with a wry smile. He’s re­fer­ring to the re­cently de­parted One Na­tion se­na­tor Mal­colm

Roberts, the coalminer turned self-ap­pointed NASA in­ves­ti­ga­tor who was claimed by the dual-cit­i­zen­ship saga. No doubt the Queens­land se­na­tor en­vi­sioned a greater role for him­self (in his first speech to parliament, Roberts likened him­self to Socrates), but “Finkel’s foil” is an apt de­scrip­tion. At a Se­nate hear­ing in June 2017, Roberts turned his foren­sic gaze on the chief sci­en­tist. “Isn’t the sci­en­tist’s first duty to be scep­ti­cal?” he queried, clunkily try­ing to set a trap. In his usual un­flap­pable man­ner, Finkel con­curred. “I think all the sci­en­tists I know have a healthy de­gree of scep­ti­cism. But healthy [he leaned for­ward] is an im­por­tant word there; you have to have an open mind [he ges­tured at his ears] but not so much that your brain leaks out.”

“You have to have an open mind [he ges­tured at his ears] but not so much that your brain leaks out.”

There was a fleet­ing twin­kle in Finkel’s eye. It was like see­ing a fish swim to the sea’s sur­face – an inkling of the depths – then skit­ter away, care­ful, in­scrutable pa­tience re­turn­ing. Arthur Sin­odi­nos, the min­is­ter for in­dus­try, in­no­va­tion and sci­ence, had had enough of Roberts’ NASA the­o­ries. “That’s a very se­ri­ous al­le­ga­tion against a group of peo­ple who helped pro­pel us to the moon,” he said. “Have you raised this is­sue with the US ad­min­is­tra­tion, with the FBI?” Later in the day, it was Sin­odi­nos again who summed up the mood. “We re­ally are in a very Kafkaesque world,” he mut­tered on the way to a tea break. “I need a bis­cuit.” Kafkaesque was a good way to de­scribe the times. Finkel, who used to make up sci­ence-fic­tion sto­ries for his two young sons when they went for walks, may well be not only the sole “tech­nol­ogy-neu­tral” per­son in the room but also the best placed to find the door for the rest of us. Open­ing that door, how­ever, is a dif­fer­ent beast. For the ques­tion re­mains: as the na­tional en­ergy guar­an­tee is fur­nished with de­tails – and if the states come on board and La­bor chooses to sup­port it – just how long will it have legs in­side the Coali­tion? M

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.