Senior representatives of the CSIRO Staff Association met with federal politicians in Canberra recently to discuss the impact of cuts to CSIRO and the important contribution that all publicly funded research agencies make to the Australian community.
Over two days, President Michael Borgas and Secretary Sam Popovski met with more than a dozen politicians including representatives from the Coalition, Labor, Greens, the Palmer United Party and key crossbench independents.
Meeting with the Minister
Arguably the focus of the trip, the meeting with Minister Ian Macfarlane also involved senior ministerial staff, a representative from the Industry department and Karen Andrews MP, co-convenor of the Parliamentary Friends of Science.
Minister Macfarlane described CSIRO as a unique research body, not replicated anywhere in the world and an organisation that he holds in the highest regard, pointing out many years of engagement with CSIRO from the farm gate to the cabinet table.
While acknowledging that CSIRO had suffered as a result of funding cuts from both sides of politics when in government, the Minister said he believed the current levels of appropriation would be sustainable and defendable when the expenditure review process for next year’s budget gets underway.
The Minister believes that CSIRO should at the heart of industry policy and aspires for the organisation to play an indispensable role – alongside skills development – in driving the development of industries and employment in the Australian economy.
Macfarlane also expressed his view that current structures – including oversight by the CSIRO board – had served the organisation well in terms of independence and that as a Minister he preferred not to involve himself in staffing matters, including enterprise agreement negotiations.
The Staff Association also met with former Science Minister Senator Kim Carr, who is currently assisting Opposition Leader Bill Shorten on science policy and playing an important role holding the Government to account on CSIRO through his work in the Senate and budget estimates.
Counting the cost of cuts
There was broad concern and offers of support for CSIRO employees in the face of heavy cuts to jobs and research.
Many politicians have already been active – both in Parliament and the media – in drawing attention to CSIRO cutbacks including Nick Xenophon, Gai Brodtmann, Richard Di Natale, John Madigan and Sharon Claydon.
Others expressed a desire to visit CSIRO sites in their electorates or duty areas to meet with staff and learn more about research at risk from ongoing budget cuts.
The recent report into the development of Northern Australia – and the new and existing opportunities for CSIRO jobs and research – formed a topic of discussion in several meetings.
Warren Entsch is the member for Leichhardt and leads the development of a White Paper into Northern Australia. He also chairs a joint select committee which recently released a report on the subject, following extensive public hearings and consultations. Entsch sees the role of CSIRO as crucial to the success of any planned development of Northern Australia, especially research into water and aquaculture.
The Staff Association also met with committee deputy chair Alannah MacTiernan, Townsville based Senator Ian Macdonald and NT stalwart Warren Snowden MP. All want to see an increase in jobs, investment and commitment to CSIRO work sites in Northern Australia.
The ongoing viability of New South Wales regional sites was discussed with National’s Senator John Williams, a long-time supporter of CSIRO science, especially livestock and agricultural research based in Armidale.
An upcoming Senate investigation into Australia’s innovation system provided an opportunity to discuss the role of CSIRO and other publically funded research agencies, alternative funding models and the Staff Association’s support for the Chief Scientist’s call for a national science strategy.
The inquiry is the work of the Economic References committee and the chair, NSW Senator Sam Dastyari said that a thorough examination of the role that science and innovation can play in job creation was a missing part of the current economic debate.
All representatives were encouraged to read the Staff Association submission to the inquiry, in particular those Senator’s who can participate directly in the inquiries activities including Kim Carr, Nick Xenophon, John Madigan, Richard Di Natale, Ian Macdonald and John Williams.
The warm reception and genuine interest in the current state of CSIRO is encouraging and some politicians freely suggested the names of colleagues to approach for future meetings.
With more than four weeks of parliamentary sitting dates before the end of session, the Staff Association will seek additional meetings in Canberra in the coming months.
Arrangements are underway to meet with a range of Western Australian politicians in the near future.
A special thanks must go to Stephen Jones MP for logistical and administrative support while in Parliament House.
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