Interview: The Monthly

Monday, 08 January 2018

Dr Alan Finkel was interviewed by Anna Krien for The Monthly about the energy narrative and his role as Chief Scientist.

The full article is available below, as published in the December 2017/ January 2018 edition of The Monthly.

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.

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.

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 coal miner 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.”

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?

Last updated: Tuesday, 03 May 2022