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Monday, 6 June 1994
Page: 1297

Senator COULTER (3.06 p.m.) —I move:

  That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Industry, Science and Technology (Senator Cook), to a question without notice asked by Senator Coulter this day, relating to staff at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation.

My question referred to what I will call the suppression of CSIRO scientists, because I think that is the correct term. Let me first of all assure the minister, absolutely, that I have not approached one single CSIRO scientist in recent days for any information whatsoever. CSIRO scientists in Western Australia, Queensland, the ANU here in Canberra and all around the country have been coming out of the woodwork complaining to me—and, I think, the opposition as well—by expressing their concern about the absolutely shabby deal that this government is dishing up to the CSIRO at the moment and their concern that whole divisions and whole institutes of the CSIRO will be shut down if, in fact, something is not done, and not done urgently. So let me assure the minister that the scientists have been approaching me; I have not approached them at all. But, having said that, I feel I have a perfect right to approach any of them for any information at all, and I believe that they have a perfect right to speak to me if I do so.

  Secondly, let me describe to the minister exactly what happened this morning. A very senior scientist from the CSIRO rang up and told me that his more senior person rang him and said, `You are not to speak to any politician without one of Minister Cook's staff being present.' This senior scientist asked his chief, `Can I have that in writing?' He was told, `Of course you can't because it would be straight off the back of a truck.' The minister has simply spoken to senior people in the CSIRO—he did not instruct them, he just spoke to them. But he obviously spoke to them in such a way that it has instilled a considerable amount of fear in the hearts of very senior people in the CSIRO.

  This smacks of the very worst aspects of Stalinist Russia. Do honourable senators remember Lysenko, who had a particular and very peculiar theory about evolution? For years and years Russian science was suppressed because of directives that came down from on top as to what exactly Russian scientists could say. Scientists have to be free; they must not receive instruction from ministers.

  In the minister's reply, also, he clearly indicated that information must pass from scientists through senior CSIRO people and through his office because he is the responsible minister. Again, in view of his replies in recent days to questions on funding of the CSIRO, we know that the minister is filtering the information. We know that this minister is not giving a fair and accurate account to this parliament of what is happening to the CSIRO.

  That degree of filtering of information is again totally unacceptable with any government department, and particularly unacceptable with those statutory organisations which I understood had some degree of freedom with respect to the way in which they dealt with information. Is the minister saying that David Hill of the ABC, for instance, is not permitted to come to speak to members of parliament? Let me assure the minister that David Hill comes and speaks to the Democrats quite frequently. Do the minister or his colleague intend to issue another directive that David Hill and other senior people in the ABC cannot come to speak to us? I certainly hope that is not the case because, if it is, it certainly indicates that we are descending into the worst sort of dictatorship this country has probably ever seen.

  In conclusion, if the minister takes such a narrow view of the responsibility of scientists which says that scientists must have their information filtered through senior people in CSIRO and then filtered through his department, then I personally will undertake a campaign to see that the minister does not continue in that portfolio.