Minister for Science Karen Andrews (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

Science Minister Karen Andrews appeared to break ranks with many of her Coalition colleagues this week, urging Australia to stop wasting time debating whether climate change is real.

“Every second we spend discussing if climate change is real is a second we don’t spend addressing these issues,” Andrews told the Nine newspapers.

Andrews’ statement comes after Scott Morrison’s government has faced weeks of public fury over its perceived sluggish management of the bushfire crisis ravaging Australia, and its failure to put together a substantial climate policy. 

The prime minister attempted to save face this week by signalling the Coalition wants to “evolve” on climate change, but there is still plenty of division (and plenty of staunch deniers) within the party room.

But regardless of whether Andrews’ words were a challenge to the party room dinosaurs or an opportunistic whitewashing of the Coalition’s record, the previously low-profile minister is now squarely in the spotlight. 

The unwanted MP

Like many MPs, Andrews had an unspectacular life before politics. Raised in Townsville, she trained as a mechanical engineer. Then, after a stint in the Victorian oil industry, she worked as a consultant in industrial relations.

Andrews’ conservative political ideology was cemented through years of fighting against workers in industrial disputes. In the mid-1990s, Victorian premier Jeff Kennett — who was locked in a battle with unions over his public sector privatisation drive — hired Andrews to help negotiate with the health sector. 

But it was the state’s health minister Marie Tehan, mother of federal education minister Dan Tehan, who Andrews cited her as a key influence in her decision to enter politics. In 2004, after starting an industrial relations consultancy with her husband and moving to the Gold Coast, Andrews joined her local Liberal Party branch.

In 2009, she won preselection for McPherson — a safe LNP seat on the Gold Coast. But many in the party hierarchy never wanted her there in the first place.

When an electoral redistribution turned his electorate of Dickson notionally Labor, Peter Dutton, the Coalition’s ambitious young health spokesman, sought to parachute into McPherson. Despite the backing of party leader Malcolm Turnbull, John Howard, and virtually every senior Coalition politician, Dutton suffered a shock defeat to Andrews.

Dutton, whose hopes as a “future prime minister” were being prematurely written off, said Andrews’ gender and her ties to the community contributed to his defeat. Andrews, a party member since 2004, was state women’s vice president and chair of the McPherson federal division council — she’d had years to build a strong local support base.

Senior Liberals did not take the result well. Turnbull, was “deeply, deeply troubled” by the potential loss of Dutton. Prominent MPs lined up to support their colleague. According to another spurned candidate, Coalition men “cried like babies” when Andrews won. 

Rumours swirled through the media that her victory was the result of a sinister “Nationals plot” and a reflection of disharmony in the Queensland LNP (which had formally merged just a year earlier). But despite considerable pressure from the top to stand aside for Dutton, Andrews refused to budge. She was elected the next year. 

Opportunist or realist?

As an MP, Andrews has lived through a series of cabinet reshuffles. She was assistant minister for science, then vocational education, before taking up her current portfolio. Beyond that, she’s made few headlines since the tumultuous circumstances surrounding her preselection.

Her maiden speech largely focused on the need for better infrastructure on the Gold Coast. She has more investment properties (five across Queensland, NSW and WA) than any lower house MP. At one point, she was criticised for her office’s high turnover of staff, and her perfectionist management style. 

But in light of her recent words, it’s Andrews’ actual record on climate change that deserves more scrutiny. Unlike many of her Coalition colleagues, Andrews has repeatedly been unequivocal about the reality of climate change. She’s also talked openly about the climate-related risks to the Great Barrier Reef — a topic some Coalition MPs struggle with.

Yet Andrews’ actions tell a slightly different story. While an opposition backbencher, Andrews was one of the loudest voices calling for the repeal of the Gillard government’s carbon tax. And, in one of her first interviews as science minister, Andrews endorsed coal as a cheap, reliable future source of energy.

In a Sky News interview last year, she appeared not opposed to the possibility of nuclear power. And this week she confirmed the government would continue using Kyoto carryover credits to meet its 2030 emissions targets — a cheat-code roundly criticised by other parties as a move against the spirit of the agreement.

Andrews’ repudiation of the denialists may have cleared the low bar we’ve set for Coalition MPs on climate change, and signalled a slight rhetorical shift among party ranks. But whether those words amount to anything more remains to be seen.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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