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Thursday, 9 June 1994
Page: 1629

Senator FERGUSON (3.24 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 Panizza this day, relating to the administration of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation.

Although Senator Cook, the current Minister for Industry, Science and Technology, is not in the chamber I am pleased that a former minister in charge of the CSIRO is with us. Some people on our side of the chamber have been unkind enough to suggest that perhaps while Senator Schacht was in charge of the CSIRO his performance in that portfolio was not as good as one could expect.

Senator Burns —That is unkind.

Senator FERGUSON —It is very unkind. I did not agree with them, of course. But I would agree that the current minister has given us some answers which I find particularly disturbing. I will digress for one moment and say that Senator Schacht said previously, in reply to Senator Kemp, that Senator Kemp likes the current situation only so his wife can be a lady. I can tell Senator Schacht that I know Senator Kemp's wife; and she is a lady—and she needs no title.

  I was particularly concerned about Senator Cook's answers in relation to access to members of the CSIRO, particularly scientists. I was disturbed also to read the article that Senator Parer quoted from. We see that there is a restriction on access to members of the CSIRO by members of the opposition and other parliamentary parties, and yet the Acting Chief Executive of ANSTO, Professor Helen Garnett, said that her organisation had not been subjected to similar demands from Senator Cook. It seems quite clear from that statement that the instigation of these demands or restrictions must have come from Senator Cook. She says quite clearly that her organisation had not been subjected to similar demands from Senator Cook.

  What really disturbs me is that there are some people who are experts in the field who would like to talk to the scientists involved in CSIRO. I think of our colleague Senator Coulter, who has proved to this chamber and to people outside this chamber that he is an expert in many of the fields of science that are in question at this time. It is amazing that someone of Senator Coulter's expertise and knowledge in the field of science has to have a notetaker present if he wants to talk to a scientist in the CSIRO.

Senator Tambling —Who is probably not a scientist.

Senator FERGUSON —I take Senator Tambling's point. It is amazing that that restriction should apply, and it applies only to the CSIRO. I am sure it is not one that Senator Schacht would have put in place when he was minister. There has to be a certain amount of trust and understanding between people in these organisations and members of parliament and others who might wish to benefit from the knowledge of people within the CSIRO, and have some understanding of what their problems are and what they need to know.

  I am particularly concerned, because of the previous statements of Senator Cook, that some scientists currently feel threatened by those existing directives. I would like to think that the minister could give an unequivocal assurance that any submissions to the Senate inquiry into rural research by the CSIRO—particularly those that are individually prepared by scientists who feel that they have a contribution to make to the way that agricultural research is heading—would not be vetted or checked, and that absolutely no pressure would be brought to bear either by CSIRO management or by the minister to prevent scientists from making those submissions.

  In the light of the concern that has been expressed by many members of that CSIRO science community, in order for us to get proper information, CSIRO members, particularly the scientists, should feel that they can make submissions and contributions to this Senate inquiry without fear or favour, and without any fear for their job prospects or of what might happen to them should they present submissions or findings to this inquiry which may not suit the minister or even the heads of the CSIRO.

  I raise this matter in the light of Senator Cook's answers. Through his answers in this place, Senator Cook has probably aroused more fears in the scientists who may wish to make a contribution to this inquiry than he has allayed. I would like to be sure in my own mind that this inquiry can go ahead and get the best information available for the good of agricultural research throughout Australia.