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Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation

Speeches in Parliament
Peter Whish-Wilson 17 Mar 2016

Senator WHISH-WILSON

I thank Senator Carr for his interest and his experience on this matter, and I thank the minister for his response to my question yesterday. The issue is much broader than the use of private emails. We actually have to put this in context.

I do want to say, before I frame this up, that the big issue for us is that the Senate had put in an order for production of documents. The Senate had put in an order for production of documents on all correspondence relating to the so-called restructure or reprioritisation within CSIRO. Through you, Minister, we were advised prior to the Senate committee hearings in Hobart and Melbourne that it would not be possible for CSIRO to comply with the order for production of documents because of the amount of time, effort and diversion of resources by CSIRO that it was going to take to provide that information. At the Senate inquiry hearings we heard from senior executives at CSIRO that they had actually provided that information and that they were willing to comply. We now understand from a letter you have written to us, Minister, that the CSIRO will be able to comply by 17 March—of course, two weeks later than we requested. I understand now that it has been extended again to 30 March.

This is not just an issue about the ethics and legality of senior management at a very important organisation, how this pertains to the reputation of the organisation and, of course, the morale of the staff within the organisation. This also has ramifications for us in the Senate and the job we need to do. If the issue were that the OPD could not be complied with in time because private emails were being used and we did not actually know what the correspondence was in the first place, that is of course very concerning. I raised the issue in the Senate inquiry on how the correspondence had occurred—whether it had been phone conversations or private email—and I was actually genuinely surprised when senior management said that they had been using private emails.

Just to quickly put this in context, this whole process that led to the announcement of 350 jobs going at CSIRO—100 of those being in Oceans and Atmosphere in Hobart—has been a total shambles. It has destroyed CSIRO's reputation in climate science, in public-good science more broadly and I think across the board. It has been noted and condemned all around the world, as I said in my question yesterday, including by editorial. It has led to what was referred to by senior scientists in CSIRO as a toxic culture within the organisation.

No consultation occurred between CSIRO management and senior stakeholders, all of whom rely on critical work and inputs from CSIRO. To top it off, the CEO, who is on only a two-year contract—and we have not found out why it is only a two-year contract yet; I understand that five years is the standard at CSIRO—has made comments publicly that have led to the devaluation of the work that a number of these career scientists have contributed not just to CSIRO but to all of us in this country. In fact, many of these scientists were ringing the bell on climate change decades ago, before it was recognised, and they are now being told they are not needed anymore.

To rub salt into the wounds, Senator Brandis, the spin that has been put out by CSIRO management is that the science is in and we need to focus on mitigation and adaption. Guess what. The committee has heard 100 per cent of the evidence from the most venerable scientists in the world that their work is used for mitigation and adaption, so either someone has got this completely wrong or it is complete BS. Either way, it does not sit well with one of Australia's proudest organisations, which it was noted in Senate question time we are celebrating today.

This needs to be fixed. This kind of process cannot occur again. The damage that has been done to CSIRO is going to take a long time to reverse and change. The best way to do that is to be fully compliant with the order for production of documents so we can assess this process, to reverse these cuts to the best climate scientists in the world and to increase funding to this critical area of public-good science. I really worry about the message we are sending to young scientists early in their careers that the only science that actually matters in this country is science that generates short-term commercial returns. A lot of these scientific projects are 20 or 30 years in duration and are absolutely critical to how we manage risk in our economy, in our climate and in our communities. In fact, the value impact of this work will go into the hundreds of billions and trillions of dollars. It is very short-sighted that a process has been put in place where we cannot get information on how these scientists were even valued in terms of their contribution or how this decision was made. I am looking forward to getting that information as soon as possible.

Senator IAN MACDONALD

I indicate to Senator Nash that I will not keep her long. I just want to congratulate CSIRO on the wonderful work they have done for Australia over many years. I want to congratulate the current management of CSIRO on the way they are now directing the work of that august organisation towards the things that really matter.

I have sat in this chamber for years, hearing Labor and Greens people indicate that the science of climate change is settled. It is a mantra you keep hearing from Labor and the Greens. If that is correct, why are we wasting Australia's rare taxpayer dollars on science that 'is already settled'?

Senator Kim Carr

You really do demonstrate your ignorance, don't you?

Senator IAN MACDONALD

I say what most Australians say. There is a science that, according to Labor and the Greens, is settled. We need those scientists to get on and work out how you can ameliorate the impacts of climate change, how you can build resilience and how you can build recovery. CSIRO management is quite right in directing its limited resources towards those things that matter, not to continue looking at the science, which Senator Carr and Senator Whish-Wilson keep thrusting down my throat as already settled. It is all settled, according to them.

I repeat that Australia emits less than 1.4 per cent of the world's carbon emissions.

Senator Hanson-Young

I can't believe Senator Sinodinos—

Senator IAN MACDONALD

Tell me I am wrong. Is that not right?

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT

I ask senators to direct their remarks to the chair.

Senator IAN MACDONALD

Through you, I ask Senator Hanson-Young: please tell me. Am I wrong? Does Australia not emit only 1.4 per cent of the world's emissions of carbon? It is a pretty simple question to ask the senator who is interjecting. Is there something wrong with that? Are my facts wrong? No answer, so I assume those facts are correct. Australia does emit less than 1.4 per cent of the world's carbon emissions.

Senator Hanson-Young interjecting—

Senator Wong interjecting—

Let's say we reduce Australia's emissions by 1.3 per cent of global emissions—that is, just about shut Australia down. Turn off the lights here and stop every vehicle moving in Australia. If we did that, what is a 1.3 per cent reduction in the world's carbon emissions going to do for what I am told the science is settled about, which is that the climate is changing? I know the climate is changing. It has been changing for decades, centuries, eons. But Senator Hanson-Young is always very quiet. Tell me the 1.4 per cent is wrong. Tell me what would happen if you did shut down Australia's 1.4 per cent? What would that do? No answer. These are such simple questions, and you never get an answer about them.

Senator Siewert interjecting—

I am delighted that CSIRO are now directing their research and their science to dealing with the changing climate of the world, not continuing to waste money on science which Senator Wong, Senator Carr, Senator Siewert and Senator Hanson-Young tell me and have been telling me for the last five years—interminably—is all settled. Let's use the money that we give to CSIRO to actually do something positive about climate change.

I know the facts always hurt in this chamber, particularly when they are incontrovertible, but there is no loss of employment in net terms at CSIRO. The same number of scientists and support people will continue to be employed. It is just that they will be directing their attention to things that really matter for the Australian people. That is, how you can address the issues of the climate, which we all can see is changing.

Senator SINODINOS

I will keep it brief. The first point I want to make, which is just a contextual point, is that CSIRO is an independent agency. There is a question here about the extent to which the government can be asked to or should interfere directly in the operations of the organisation. Ultimately, once the overall resources to the organisation have been delivered by government as a result of government's broader consideration of the role of the CSIRO within science policy or broader government policy, the disposition and allocation of resources within the organisation is a matter within CSIRO itself.

If the proposition that is being put up here is that we as a government have to make sure that government agencies observe the law and that boards of management are accountable for that, the way we do that is to say to them, 'You must observe the law,' and we hold them accountable for that. In relation to the issues that have been raised by Senator Carr and Senator Whish-Wilson, there is an inquiry already underway within CSIRO. There are consultations going on within CSIRO at the moment to clarify the very matters that are being talked about here, and the minister has made it clear that if there are further concerns they are best raised directly with CSIRO, which is an independent authority with full responsibility for these matters, and they can be held accountable accordingly.

Earlier this week my office approached Senator Waters's office in good faith to provide relevant documents from CSIRO, but she has decided to proceed with an order to produce documents anyway. That is her prerogative. I am quite happy with that. Those processes will continue. The government will play its role. But what I cannot do is sit here and say to the Senate that we will interfere directly to reverse resource allocation decisions which are the purview of the board and management of CSIRO. I will undertake to get back to the chamber about the other issues that have been raised, to the extent that they fall within the purview of government to do so. But I am not giving an undertaking to this chamber that we will change the resource allocation decisions within CSIRO. That is not our responsibility.

Question agreed to.

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