csiro scientist in laboratory
A scientist in the CSIRO's high-containment facility. (Image: AAP/David Crosling)

The Nationals have long been the most prominent anti-science voice in Australian politics. The Liberal’s junior Coalition partner, which has become the mining industry’s voice in Canberra, bears significant responsibility for placing a handbrake on climate action. 

The ego-driven coup which returned Barnaby Joyce to the party leadership was rationalised on the basis that Michael McCormack wasn’t vocal enough in his support for the resources sector. Sure. 

But that pro-mining identity has come hand in hand with a hostility to environmentalism amid the Nationals ranks. And it’s increasingly being expressed as opposition to science itself, with Nationals MPs and Senators going particularly hard after one agency: the CSIRO. 

It’s the organisation that Joyce falsely claims comes up with the plan for the government to reach net zero. But in reality, the Nationals don’t spend much time listening to the CSIRO, choosing instead to use it as a football in its endless culture wars over climate change. 

Canavan leads the charge

It’s no surprise Nationals Senator Matt Canavan has led the charge against the CSIRO. The former resources minister relishes his role as the party’s unrestrained poster-in-chief. Attacking the CSIRO fits well with his “trigger the greenies” political agenda. 

In March last year, with Australia reeling from a devastating black summer, Canavan used a Senate estimates hearing to accuse the agency of omitting evidence that the link between bushfires and climate change wasn’t established. 

Like so many estimates hearings, it was a gotcha moment manufactured for social media and Sky News, where host Paul Murray had Canavan on to snigger at the CSIRO. Except just hours later, another scientific paper clearly established the links between global warming and bushfires.

The agency’s response to questions taken on notice from Canavan (which are so often ignored because written replies lack the theatrics of estimates), made it clear the senator was quoting from a 2015 publication. Since then, the CSIRO said, significant scientific progress had shown a clear trend toward more dangerous conditions in spring and summer and an earlier start to the fire season clearly linked to anthropogenic climate change.

Cananvan has had a few more cracks at the agency lately. In the June round of estimates hearings, he questioned the organisation about research conducted on bats, and ties with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which has been the centre of conspiracy theories that the novel coronavirus leaked from a lab. 

The CSIRO, responding to questions on notice, say they have no links with the Institute over the last five years, beyond two papers co-authored by scientists at the agency and Wuhan. What research the CSIRO had done with bats contributed to critical work on the hendra virus. But Canavan, aided by News Corp reporters, has continued to push the claim the agency had worked with the Wuhan institute with bats, creating an air of suspicion around its research.

Less meaty matters

Perhaps the weirdest source of tension between the Nationals and the CSIRO centres on the issue of meat. When the agency published a report into bugs as a an environmentally-friendly meat alternative, Canavan was again on the attack.

“It really bugs me that the CSIRO waste so much taxpayers’ money on the fantasy that we will all stop eating beef and start munching on what ends up on our windscreens,” he told The Courier-Mail. 

Of course, whipping up a culture war around beef is red meat to the Nats’ base — they’ve recently managed to secure a Senate inquiry into the total non-issue of vegan alternative meat products.

This week, we got another classic example of this, as Agriculture Minister David Littleproud wrote a letter to the agency hitting out at their promotion of plant-based meat as part of National Science Week, on the basis that it was unfair to the meat industry. 

“It is entirely unacceptable for the CSIRO to be advocating, or being perceived to be advocating for these products over genuine meat products,” Littleproud said.