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Senate Estimates: CSIRO Membership to Australian Forest Products Association

Estimates & Committees
Lee Rhiannon 7 Jun 2012

Economics Legislation Committee

Estimates hearings, 28 May 2012

Full transcript available here

Senator RHIANNON: Dr Clark, how much public money did CSIRO pay to become a member of the Australian Forest Products Association?

Dr Clark : I think our membership to date is $7,000 to $10,000.

Senator RHIANNON: So that is the total amount that has been paid?

Mr Whelan : Senator, my understanding is that the membership fee was approximately $9,500. The organisation has only been in existence for a year. That would be the total sum we have spent on membership of that association.

Senator RHIANNON: Dr Clark, can you outline what other industry groups you are paying or have paid to be a member of?

Mr Whelan : There would be a wide range of industry associations that CSIRO is a member of. Where we have an equity interest, a shareholding in that association or we have members appointed to the governance boards of those associations, we maintain a central register of them. I can provide you details from that register if you would be interested.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you very much. Do you have it here?

Mr Whelan : I do.

Senator RHIANNON: Could you table it now?

Mr Whelan : I would be happy to do so.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you very much. Mr Whelan, I understand you are a member of the Minerals Council of Australia?

Mr Whelan : We may be, Senator. It is not on that list, but we may be.

Senator RHIANNON: So if it is not on that list, does that mean it is not a conclusive list?

Mr Whelan : Yes. It does mean it is not a conclusive list. As I gave you in my answer earlier, where we have an equity position in an organisation, or we have members who are on the board of governance of an organisation, we maintain a central register. Where we are not in either of those two capacities, the decisions about membership are made at a business unit level. With respect to the Minerals Council of Australia, I imagine the decision regarding membership would have been taken in our minerals and resources research group.

Senator RHIANNON: Can you supply the committee with a list of the groups that CSIRO is a member of?

Mr Whelan : I have. As a member of. Where we are not in an equity position and we are not on the board of the entity?

Senator RHIANNON: Yes.

Mr Whelan : I would have to take that on notice, Senator.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. I want to ask about the Minerals Council of Australia. Dr Clark, how much did this cost? What does it involve?

Mr Whelan : My understanding is that the membership fee is approximately $10,000 per annum. I think we also sponsor a conference each year or a session at a conference each year for approximately $5,000.

Senator RHIANNON: Are you in support of the Minerals Council of Australia’s advertising blitz against the mining tax that comes under the title ‘Australian mining: This is our story’? It has been a huge campaign. I think it may have run to about $17 million. That is one figure that I saw associated with it.

Mr Whelan : By virtue of CSIRO being a member of an association, it certainly does not imply that we support any or all of its public comments. Nor does an association have the capacity to speak on CSIRO’s behalf. So CSIRO has not expressed an opinion with respect to the detail you have just communicated.

Senator RHIANNON: But would you not acknowledge that it looks like that? If you go to the website, you see that they have YouTube videos and a feed flash, obviously, when you spend so much money on it, and there is your name on the home page as one of the organisations.

Mr Whelan : To the best of my knowledge our name is not on the home page of the Minerals Council of Australia.

Senator RHIANNON: Well, it is on the home page of Australian Mining: This is our Story. It lists all the organisations.

Mr Whelan : Who are members of the Minerals Council of Australia?

Senator RHIANNON: I think you are an associate member.

Mr Whelan : We are. That is correct, Senator.

Senator RHIANNON: But the first thing you come to is all the names. There is CSIRO with a campaign that is targeting the government’s own mining tax.

Dr Clark : As Mr Whelan has outlined, CSIRO’s membership of an organisation does not in itself mean that we endorse all the views of that organisation. For example, I am a member of the Academy for Technological Science and Engineering in Australia. As a member, I have services. I get value for that. That particular group advises and comments on a number of policy issues. So, as Mr Whelan has outlined, our membership does not endorse all the views of that organisation. We join some of those organisations for the benefit we have in connecting with the industry players and the members. Our investment in the minerals sector is through our flagship, which represents the largest investment in minerals research in the world. We actively work with many of the members.

Senator RHIANNON: But can you appreciate that it may worry the public and undermine the perception of the objectivity of the CSIRO that your organisation is seen to be supporting a lobby group which is actively campaigning to the tune of millions of dollars on the mining tax and against carbon taxes? Here is another one—the proposed carbon pricing scheme. It comes out in Minerals Week 2011. There we have a considerable attack on the government’s response to climate change, saying it will destroy jobs. So how can you really argue that you are distancing yourself from these arguments when it is such a substantial part of the work of that organisation?

Dr Clark : Yes, I can appreciate that.

Senator RHIANNON: You appreciate that it could worry the public?

Dr Clark : Yes. I can understand the issue of considering those perceptions, and we do.

Senator RHIANNON: And when I spoke with the minister last week, also about this matter, he said that the acting ombudsman is currently undertaking a review of their memberships and that that will soon be completed. Do you know when that will be completed?

Dr Clark : Yes, we do.

Mr Whelan : There are two reviews. The first review is with respect to CSIRO’s policy framework as it relates to memberships and sponsorships. The second review, which I think you were talking about in the context of that question of the ombudsman, is about CSIRO reviewing its membership of the Australian Forest Products Association. With respect to the latter, we indicated when we took up membership of that association last year—because it was a merger of two existing organisations, and we were a member of one—that we would review our membership after a year’s membership. That year is up in June. So in June we will be reviewing whether we will continue to be a member of that organisation. With respect to the review of memberships and sponsorships policy, I expect that to be completed by the third quarter of 2012. So some time between July and September we will complete that work.

Senator RHIANNON: In responding to a story on ABC radio, a spokesperson from the CSIRO in February 2012 said that it is a member of a wide range of interest groups. He said that it is appropriate to maintain close links with all sides of a debate. Are you a member of groups such as the Australian Conservation Foundation or Greenpeace or any environment groups?

Mr Whelan : Senator, we are involved in a wide range of groups right across the industry and community spectrum. We do a significant amount of sponsorship for—

Senator RHIANNON: Can you give me some examples?

Mr Whelan : I would have to take the detail on notice, Senator.

Senator RHIANNON: I think you can see where I am going here. You are aligning yourself not just with industry groups but industry groups that are very critical of government policy and spending millions of dollars to push their position.

Mr Whelan : I will give you some specifics, Senator. We are a member of the Reef and Rainforest Research Centre. We are a member of Bio 21. We are a member of the Australian and New Zealand Council for the Care of Animals. We are a member of Astronomy Australia. We are a member of the Australian Solar Institute. I am trying to look for some that might go to the issues you are talking about. We are a member of the Global Research Alliance. We are a member of the Global Foundation. We are a member of CEDA. We are a member of Plant Health Australia and Animal Health Australia. With those latter two, our membership is shared with the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry.

Senator RHIANNON: But it is not coming through that there is a balance there, Mr Whelan.

Mr Whelan : We are a member of an association where it is relevant to the research that we are conducting and where membership of that association gives us access to particular industry insights. It is not always going to be a matter of bringing balance to a portfolio of memberships that drives CSIRO’s membership of an organisation.

Senator RHIANNON: Mr Whelan, can you outline the approval process the CSIRO follows to determine if it should join a lobby group like AFPA or the Minerals Council?

Mr Whelan : As I indicated in an earlier answer, if the membership of the association or organisation requires CSIRO taking an equity position or requires CSIRO members to be on the governing council, then those membership proposals are reviewed by the equity management group within intellectual property and licensing. They make a recommendation and prepare appropriate materials for the chief executive.

Senator RHIANNON: It is just those ones where you are a member.

Mr Whelan : I will keep going. If it is not the case, then those decisions would be taken by the relevant chief of division or flagship director responsible for the body of research and the relationship with that organisation.

Senator RHIANNON: What tests do you apply or do those people apply who make those decisions to make sure membership of these bodies does not breach the CSIRO’s code of conduct?

Mr Whelan : Firstly, any officer who contributes to the efforts of that association is bound to do so within CSIRO’s code of conduct, publications policy and public comment policy. As a general rule, they do not contribute to the writing or development of submissions by those organisations. CSIRO is a member of those organisations to try to gain access and insight into the industry’s needs to make sure that the research we deliver helps to meet those needs.

Senator RHIANNON: But considering there is controversy around this—there has been a complaint, which has been now featured in the media, questioning whether CSIRO is standing by its impartiality and its objectivity by doing this—have you considered that you could gain that interaction with these organisations in the normal ways of requesting meetings and informal networking? Have you considered that you could conduct your work in that way and, therefore, CSIRO’s good name would be not damaged?

Mr Whelan : I do not accept that CSIRO’s good name is being damaged. CSIRO is held in high regard by the Australian community. The last time we did a survey of who is the most trusted science and technology organisation in Australia, more than 88 per cent of Australians named CSIRO as their trusted source of science and technology information. So I do not accept the proposition that CSIRO somehow is not trusted in the community, because it is engaged in a wide range of industry and community engagements.

Senator RHIANNON: I will ask the question again. I appreciate you have answered in terms of the good name, so that is useful. But I go back to the main part of the question: have you considered for CSIRO the option of conducting its interactions with these organisations in terms of meetings and the usual informal networks rather than going down the track of joining them?

Mr Whelan : Yes, Senator. They are factors that the relevant delegate, when they make that decision, would be taking into account. Does the spending of resources by CSIRO on being a member of that organisation justify the returns? On each occasion, the individual delegate has to make that judgment call. So the factors you are referring to would be factors taken into account by that delegate.

Senator RHIANNON: I have now received the list of organisations. Thank you for tabling that. Could you also take on notice how much money has been spent in total to belong to these organisations irrespective of equity, governorship or just ordinary membership?

Mr Whelan : We are happy to do so, Senator.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you very much. Since joining AFPA, what scientific projects has CSIRO commenced in partnership with AFPA? What funding has each project received from CSIRO?

Mr Whelan : Senator, I do know we do a wide range of research in the forestry sector, so I suspect there is a considerable amount of research I will have to go and review. I would have to take the detail on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: At this stage, you understand that there is interaction?

Mr Whelan : CSIRO has been doing research in the forestry sector since 1926. This is the peak forestry and paper products body in Australia. I would imagine that a significant body of the research we conduct in that space would be of interest to the association.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you very much. I was interested in the support the CSIRO has provided to AFPA. I am interested in any other payments—use of vehicles, use of facilities, equipment or staff. Could you take that on notice as part of your response to that question?

Mr Whelan : I can give you a response. It would be unusual for CSIRO to provide vehicles to an industry association. It would not be unusual to have members of an industry association possibly conduct a meeting on CSIRO premises. I am not going to be able to account for those separately if that has happened. As a general rule, I would imagine that memberships and sponsorships of relevant conferences would be the main contributions we make to those organisations, so I will look to answer your question on that basis.

Senator RHIANNON: So you can take that on notice?

Mr Whelan : I will.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you very much. You mentioned the two reviews. I want to fully understand the process there. So the review of actual AFPA membership was something you had already determined that you would do?

Mr Whelan : We made a decision to do that at the beginning of this financial year. The relevant delegate in this case is Dr Jeremy Burdon. He is the chief of the division of plant industry. He made the decision to be a member of the association. He will conduct a review in June 2012.

Senator RHIANNON: Was the decision to undertake that review made when you first joined or was it made at the time of the complaint?

Mr Whelan : No. It was made when we first joined, Senator. The context for it was that this was the merger of two peak bodies. We had been a member of one of those peak bodies. We formed the view that we would continue to be a member but we would see how the association went in our engagement with it over the period of the first year’s membership. That expires in June this year.

Senator RHIANNON: So with the wider review of memberships and sponsorship policy, did you decide to undertake that in response to the particular complaint about membership of the AFPA?

Mr Whelan : No, Senator. We have been looking at our policy framework steadily over the last four or five years trying to improve it. We had identified a potential gap around memberships and sponsorship policy. We had commenced reviewing our framework for that prior to that complaint.

Senator RHIANNON: When you say ‘gap’, do you mean a gap in public perception or a gap in policy?

Mr Whelan : A gap in policy. So at the moment the primary guidelines for a delegate here are effectively the equivalent of the Commonwealth procurement guidelines. So there is a value for money test guided by CSIRO’s public comment and publications policies. It struck us that there may be value in providing specific policy guidance to delegates around decisions on membership and sponsorship. So we have been reviewing the need for that. We have not formed the view that we will have specific membership or sponsorship policies, but we are conducting a review of that. As I said earlier, I expect the outcomes of that review to be implemented in the third quarter of 2012.

Senator RHIANNON: Will these reviews be made public?

Mr Whelan : Senator, CSIRO is an open and transparent organisation. If you would like a copy of those reviews, we would be happy to provide them to you.

Senator RHIANNON: But will it go on the web?

Mr Whelan : No. It would not. It is an internal working document. If there is ultimately a policy statement made, it would sit on CSIRO’s intranet. If a member of the public wanted to have access to it, there would be no reason to withhold it from them.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you very much. Thank you, Mr Chairman.



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