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Tuesday, 7 June 1994
Page: 1393

Senator FERGUSON (3.52 p.m.) —I rise to speak in support of my colleague Senator Panizza and to support Senator Coulter's amendment. This motion has been brought about by the concerns of scientists and others which have been expressed to Senator Panizza, Senator Coulter and many other members of parliament who have an interest in rural research in Australia.

  I was absolutely astounded to hear some of the minister's comments yesterday in response to Senator Panizza and in anticipation of what Senator Coulter would say when he tabled his amendment. Senator Cook said:

The people who are proposing this motion are not friends of science or the CSIRO because it is inherently disruptive and is based on assertion and allegation.

I might not agree with all the political judgments of Senator Coulter—

Senator Robert Ray —Name one!

Senator FERGUSON —I would not agree with a lot of things that Senator Coulter says, but there is nobody in the Senate who has a greater interest in the science community than Senator Coulter; nobody has a greater knowledge of the science community, particularly in relation to the work being done by the CSIRO. It is only natural that a person of Senator Coulter's standing has particular contacts with people in science. A lot of effort was put into making sure that the wording of the amendments moved by Senator Coulter was well thought out and would be in the best interests of the CSIRO, the science community and the people involved in rural research, which is what we are most concerned about.

  In his speech yesterday Senator Cook went on to say that he was concerned that persons from the CSIRO should not be talking to members of parliament; if they did so, then someone else should be present to take notes. Yesterday Senator Coulter likened this practice to something we would expect to find in Stalinist Russia. It was further suggested yesterday that perhaps somebody from the minister's politburo had to be on hand to make sure that the people who were involved in discussions with parliamentarians were passing on the right thoughts.

  I was astounded by the minister's reply yesterday. I was astounded to learn that people elected to this place cannot have discussions with appointees to these positions without fear or favour. I was concerned when Senator Cook, referring to senators on this side of the chamber, stated:

They come from agricultural Australia. What we are seeing here is politicians on the backbench of their party pursuing their own self-interests. . . I could say to Senator Panizza that he may want to drag the CSIRO into this debate in order to enhance his political reputation and serve his own precious little self-interest group in the community.

If I were Senator Panizza I would take offence at that. I support Senator Panizza because those of us who know him well and have seen his actions in this place know that he is not one who is inclined merely to serve small interest groups. Senator Panizza supports what he believes is to the general benefit of the Australian community, and in particular the agricultural community of which he is a part. Over the years Senator Panizza has seen the agricultural community make a tremendous input into the economy of this country, particularly by way of exports. I thought it was particularly unfair of the minister to accuse Senator Panizza of only pandering to self-interest groups when we all know that Senator Panizza only does what he believes is right.

  I cannot understand why the minister is so concerned about a full and frank inquiry being conducted into the CSIRO. A lot of questions require answering. A Senate inquiry would enable people to put their cards on the table and discuss things that are of concern to the CSIRO. CSIRO is held in very high regard by people who have benefited from its advice. The work that CSIRO has performed for this country for many years has been welcome and appreciated, and any cutback in its scientific work would be to the detriment of those people it is designed to serve most.

  The amendments moved refer to the sources and adequacy of funding. We must bear in mind that we are not only talking about government funding; the rural industry itself puts a tremendous amount of money into the CSIRO. We want to make sure that CSIRO remains an effective organisation and that the people working within it feel free to say what they wish in public.

  I support the motion to refer this matter to a Senate committee. Senator Panizza and others have certainly been alerted by people in CSIRO and other contacts. I can only compliment Senator Panizza for the way he has raised this matter. I compliment Senator Coulter for his continuing interest in this particular issue and for his interest in the science community in general. I am sure that the passage of this reference to a Senate committee can only benefit CSIRO and the rural community, particularly with regard to research funding, and that is what we are all so concerned about.