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Wednesday, 17 October 1956


Mr CAIRNS (Yarra) .- It seems that the position taken up by the honorable member for Fawkner (Mr. Howson) stems from his failure, as he put it at the beginning of his speech, to understand the arguments of the Leader of the Opposition (Dr. Evatt). I would have been more satisfied of his failure to understand the arguments of the Leader of the Opposition had he spent some little time in his speech, when he was obviously looking for something to say, in showing how and why he failed to understand the arguments of the Leader of the Opposition. But he had nothing whatever to say on that matter, lt seemed to me that the arguments of the Leader of the Opposition were quite clear, and nothing that the honorable member for Fawkner has said has shown that they were not. quite clear. The honorable member for Fawkner went on to defend the position of the Government regarding this bill. He said that a point that the Opposition had lost sight of was that the requirements of the observatory had changed, and that this change arose from the fact that the observatory, from 1923 onwards, had been mainly concerned with solar observations and with the time service and, later on, with ionospheric investigations. In point of fact, the speech made by the Minister for the Interior (Mr. Fairhall) - another speech in which very little was said- -gave quite the contrary impression. The Minister said -

Its functions have been considerably enlarged over the years to include a lime service and ionospheric prediction added during the war years, whilst generally, its research work, particularly in the field of astrophysics, has developed considerably.

That is the first point that I wish to make. The development of research at Mount Stromlo has been proceeding for a great many years, and it has developed considerably. If the only question before the House was whether this development could continue satisfactorily, I do not think it could be said that Government supporters had made out a case for the transfer of control of the observatory to the Australian National University, and it is the transfer of control that we are discussing.

The honorable member for Fawkner went on to say that it is necessary to tie a research organization, such as the Mount Stromlo observatory will become, to another research organization. Perhaps the Australian National University is a research organization, but I remind the honorable member for Fawkner that the universities of Oxford and Edinburgh are not research universities - and they are two cases used to justify this bill - but they have observatories attached to them. It is all very weir to say that in the field of research it is necessary to have people working where they can make contact with other people working in the same field or in related fields. That is a very good point, but one has merely to spend a little time in a university to know that there is little association between one part and another, and hardly any discussion of common problems at all. In this connexion a great deal depends upon the individual, and if individuals working in one part of a university know that persons in other parts of it have problems similar to their own, they will make contact with those persons, even if it means travelling as far as from Mount Stromlo to the Australian National University. That, in fact, is precisely what has been going on since the university has been established in Canberra. A considerable volume of information and ideas has been exchanged between it and the observatory.

It is not the physical transfer of the Mount Stromlo observatory to the Australian National University that this bill proposes, but merely a transfer of control. The physical distance between the observatory and the university will be the same after the passage of this measure as it is now. The physical difficulties of travelling between the observatory and the university will still confront those persons who wish to make the kind of contacts that the honorable member for Fawkner and other Government supporters seem to think so important.

It may be true that the Mount Stromlo observatory in the future will become associated with fundamental research in astrophysics and in the study of cosmic rays, in which fields some work has already been done at the university. From that point of view it may be important that co-operation of the kind mentioned by Government supporters is necessary. My point is that this co-operation already exists, and will continue to exist while we have men who adopt the right attitude to their jobs. These contacts will be made, whether the persons concerned are 5 miles or 5,000 miles apart. From this point of view, there is no particular technical reason why the observatory should be part of the Research School of Physical Sciences.

The point I wish to emphasize is that no case has been made out in this debate for the transfer of control as such. Throughout the debate, our attention has been directed to arguments in favour of bringing research workers closer together. The honorable member for Fawkner showed that this problem covers a much wider field than the simple transfer of control of Mount Stromlo observatory to the Australian National University. He pointed out that the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization does a considerable amount of work in one or two related fields and, therefore, he has made out an equally valid case for the transfer to the Australian National University of part of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization as he has for the transfer of the observatory.

When we are considering the transfer of these activities to the Australian National University, we should remember that the growth of the university, on technical and general grounds which I approve, has been subject to a good deal of public and other criticism. From this point of view alone, it seems to me that wise government policy would permit such activities as we are discussing to be carried on by other organizations. The kind of transfer envisaged in this bill will naturally involve the university in greater costs, and the amount provided for it from time to time in Government Estimates must increase. If we thereby encourage the kind of criticism that has been widespread, we may well inhibit the development not only of the university but also of the observatory that will become part of it.

For these reasons, 1 believe that the Opposition was quite right in directing attention to this measure by opposing it. The argument that the transfer is necessary for co-operation in research was a distinct red herring. The measure has to be justified from the point of view of administration, and I suggest that Government supporters have failed to do so. The Minister himself, following a practice that he does not usually adopt, but which is habitually adopted by the Government of which he is a member, asked the Parliament to agree to this measure on the strength of the following sentence that was contained in his second-reading speech: - it was recommended by the former Commonwealth Astronomer, Dr. R. Woolley, now Astronomer Royal, and the Board of Visitors to the Observatory, that it was appropriate to transfer control of the observatory to the Australian National University for incorporation in the Research School of Physical Sciences.

That is all! Dr. Woolley and the Board of Visitors made a recommendation; therefore, the National Parliament should agree to the transfer of control of the observatory. That is all we are told. We are not told what was contained in the recommendation referred to. We are given no information as to why Dr. Woolley and the Board of Visitors arrived at this conclusion which, I understand, they reached five or six years ago. We are not told why this bill has been introduced only now if the reasons for it were valid then. We are told none of those things. We are not told whether any one at the Australian National University has recently moved to have this transfer brought about. We are simply asked, first, to agree to something upon the recommendation of Dr. Woolley, which was conveyed to the House by the Minister for the Interior (Mr. Fairhall). I know it is difficult for the House to control the spending of public money and to ascertain the reasons why proposals such as these are agreed to, but, I think, it is quite wrong for the House to be asked, for a reason such as that, to agree to this transfer, which may not be of great significance in itself from the stand-point of research or technical efficiency. 1 suggest that the Government is too often prepared to accept the views of some outside authority whose decision the Parliament is not given an opportunity to test. 1 think the House is too willing to accept the decision of the Prime Minister (Mr. Menzies), a gentleman who speaks dogmatically, but gracefully, as a reason for agreeing to something without further debate. I would mention, in passing, that, only this morning, we saw this happen in relation to defence. The House has a right to receive more information from the Government on these matters. When Government supporters were faced with the need to put a case in this matter, they did not put a very good one. You, Mr. Acting Deputy Speaker, made a comparison between a university and a government department. The Mount Stromlo observatory has never been a government department. The conditions of work and research at Mount Stromlo have been better than those in a great many universities in Australia, and they have been freer. Any one who may have applied for the position vacated by Dr. Woolley could not have had any objection on that ground. So, the case put on that point - the first significant point - when the Government was asked to state a case, is not very good. A lot of material which was prepared, no doubt, by those people who ordinarily prepare this material for honorable members opposite, was brought into the House in the form of a roneoed, or, perhaps, typed sheet, of which the honorable member for Canning and you, Mr. Acting Deputy Speaker, had a copy.







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