Almost a quarter of scientists, researchers and workers at Australia's premier science institution will lose their jobs under the federal government's present public service jobs freeze.
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Science cuts savaged
Labor MP Amanda Rishworth says the Abbott government is behaving as though 'they know it all' with cuts to the CSIRO and the scrapping of advisory panels.
The blanket staff freeze across the public service threatens the jobs of 1400 "non-ongoing" workers at the CSIRO and could paralyse some of the organisation's premier research projects, with a ban on hiring, extending or renewing short-term contracts effective immediately.
The impact of the freeze on the CSIRO follows fears expressed in the scientific community about the Abbott government's failure to nominate a dedicated science minister out of his cabinet or ministerial team. The concerns have been heightened by subsequent decisions, including the closure of the global warming advisory body the Climate Change Commission, and revelations on Thursday that Australia will not be sending its Environment Minister, Greg Hunt, or any ministerial stand-in to international climate change negotiations starting on Monday in Warsaw.
The freeze is part of the Abbott government's plan to cut 12,000 jobs from the public service.
On Friday, the government also confirmed the immediate dismantling of a number of government advisory bodies, expert panels and national steering committees, covering diverse areas including ageing, legal affairs, ethics and animal welfare. Federal cabinet this week signed off on the changes, which will see a dozen "non-statutory" bodies axed altogether, and several more amalgamated with other bodies or absorbed into existing departmental functions.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott repeatedly promised before the election that a Coalition government would dramatically reduce the size of the bureaucracy and would do away with thousands of regulations said to be clogging the economy.
"There are currently more than 50,000 Acts and legislative instruments, many of which are a handbrake on Australia's ability to get things done," Mr Abbott said.
The bodies scrapped are: Australian Animals Welfare Advisory Committee; Commonwealth Firearms Advisory Committee; International Legal Services Advisory Committee; National Inter-country Adoption Advisory Council; National Steering Committee on Corporate Wrongdoing; Antarctic Animal Ethics Committee; Advisory Panel on the Marketing in Australia of Infant Formula; High Speed Rail Advisory Group; Maritime Workforce Development Forum; Advisory Panel on Positive Ageing; Insurance Reform Advisory Group; and the National Housing Supply Council.
On Friday, the head of the advisory panel on positive ageing, Everald Compton, said his group had only six months of important work to go - and was not expensive.
"A few hundred thousand dollars a year, a couple of hundred thousand I think it is," he told ABC Radio. "We run a lean, mean operation. We don't go anywhere that we don't have to. We're not causing a financial disturbance in the government."
Mr Compton said that the group was on brink of presenting government with a blueprint on the legislative and financial changes that were needed over the next 25 years to turn ageing "into an asset rather than a liability".
"I find it a little hard to understand why, when we're so close to finishing something that we've had some years of work in, that it's chopped off and that the government does not appear to want a report on how ageing is going to hit Australia."
On Friday, Mr Abbott denied that his government was responsible for any potential job cuts at CSIRO.
"We haven't made any cutbacks to the CSIRO. The management of the CSIRO and the employment of staff inside the CSIRO and the management of contractors for the CSIRO is a matter for the CSIRO itself," he said.
At the CSIRO, staff leaders fronted their bosses on Thursday, demanding answers on the fate of the workers on contracts, which can often last up to 24 months.
CSIRO has an unusually high proportion of “non-ongoings” with 990 “term” workers and about 440 casual staff among its 6500 headcount.
"It's going to be a huge problem," said one staff member, who wanted to remain anonymous.
Staff were told last week of the decision, which will hit the organisation's 11 research divisions and 11 national research flagships, as well as critical support for frontline scientists.
In an email to staff, CSIRO chief executive Megan Clarke said: "I announce an immediate recruitment freeze covering the following: External recruitment; and, entering into any new, or extending existing term or contract employment arrangements."
Catriona Jackson, the chief executive of Science and Technology Australia, the peak lobby for the nation's scientists, said she was "concerned that cuts to the public service may fall disproportionately on scientists".
West Australian federal Liberal Dennis Jensen, himself a former research scientist at CSIRO, said the suggestion that the government had an anti-science bias was incorrect.
But he admitted the failure to have a dedicated science minister worried him.
"That does concern me," he said.
"If somebody wanted to raise a concern from one of the Cooperative Research Centres, often a bridge between academia and industry, then who would they write to? Do they write to the education minister or the industry minister, I think that is the major problem, that the focus and drive of a single minister is lost."
Assistant Treasurer Arthur Sinodinos told Sky News on Friday that only 500-600 support staff could go at the CSIRO but argued the new government needed to be able to choose where it allocated and prioritised resources.
''The new government has to have a capacity to do that,'' he said.
A CSIRO spokesman said the number of jobs under threat had been exaggerated by the staff association.
The spokesman said that no more than 550 casual and “term” workers were facing contract renewals this financial year.
CSIRO's executive and senior staff have been frantically seeking explanations from government as to how the edict is to be interpreted.
Labor has come out swinging against the cuts.
Acting Labor leader Tanya Plibersek told reporters in Sydney that its CSIRO research had a real impact on the choices and decisions that Australians made, pointing to its famous Wellbeing Diet.
She added that it also did important research underpinning industry developments and scientific breakthroughs.
Finance spokesman Tony Burke labelled both moves as an ''unprecedented attack on expert opinion''.
''Not only has Prime Minister Abbott refused to appoint a Science Minister, he has now fired a quarter of the nation’s CSIRO scientists and researchers – endangering Australia’s future as a smart, innovative nation,'' Mr Burke said in a statement.
Labor's spokesman for the environment, climate change and water, Mark Butler, said he wasn't surprised that scientists were being sacked by the government, say Mr Abbott does not respect scientists' work, particulary on climate change.
''And I don't think it's a coincidence that the experts being sacked by this government have previously pointed out the serious flaws in the Coalition's direct action con,'' Mr Butler said.
''If the government consulted independent scientists and researchers instead of Wikipedia, they would know their direct action policy will do nothing to tackle pollution and will end up costing households more.
''The government is sacking the experts and shutting out anyone who doesn't agree with them. It's a disgraceful act.''