HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [9.51 pm]: I rise to comment on a recent report titled “Consequences of information suppression in ecological and conservation sciences”, which refers to concerns that scientists, especially government scientists, are being gagged in public debate. The report talks about how more than 50 per cent of government scientists who responded to the survey said that they had been prohibited from participating in public debate and were very concerned about some of what the report articulates is occurring. I want to make sure that we hear from our scientists. I would vastly rather hear from them than from some of the correspondence that I receive from people who have absolutely no idea what they are talking about. We really need to make sure that we highlight what our scientists are saying.

The most recent round of research specifically looked at ecological science and conservation science. What we do know is that we require very clear communication of this science to our policymakers, decision-makers and the public. It is reported that more than half of the scientists in these fields have said that the communication about the work that they do is being suppressed in a number of ways, and that this suppression applies to not only communications for the public but also internal communications, including being prevented from giving a full account of the impacts of government policies to responsible ministers in governments right around Australia.

Government respondents to the survey said that they were most frequently constrained when they discussed the issues of threatened species, native vegetation, logging and also climate change—the latter, of course, being the least surprising to me. Federal and state governments’ responses to all four of these areas fall far short of what we can tell is needed, and that is even with the significant gagging of scientists who work in those areas. The comments from the scientists who responded to this survey were particularly disheartening. There were a number of quotes from them. One of them states —

“we are often forbidden (from) talking about the true impacts of, say, a threatening process ... especially if the government is doing little to mitigate the threat ... In this way the public often remains ‘in the dark’ about the true state and trends of many species.”

Another states —

“I declared the (action) unsafe to proceed. I was over ruled and properties and assets were impacted. I was told to be silent or never have a job again.”

Another states —

“(government) staff are rewarded or penalized on the basis of complying with opinions of senior staff regardless of evidence.”

Another one states —

... This means experts most able to comment on the details of big mining and construction projects are ... legally gagged from discussing these projects in public.”

Another thing that came out of this research was that many scientists in government and industry are self-censoring. They are just withholding the information that they know to be true; they are not saying. Members, this is not how our public service is meant to work, but it is no surprise that threats to jobs and careers will have a substantially chilling effect on the public communication of science. The research also showed that similar things are happening in the university sector, with the fear of upsetting university donors leading to similar unwritten policies and similar fears of payback if they speak out.

The scientists ultimately saw the biggest impact of this official and unofficial gagging of their potential contributions to the public sphere as being a lack of informed debate. The second biggest issue was that policies being made in their fields of expertise were being starved of relevant data. We know that we need to have the most up-to-date and accurate data when we are talking about threatened species, native vegetation, logging and climate change.

I found this report to be incredibly disappointing. Unfortunately, it did not come as a particular surprise. We know that it has been happening in Australia for decades. As far back as 2006, Four Corners did an exposé on what was happening with climate change policy and even then extremely well regarded senior CSIRO scientists were talking about being gagged; that is, they were not permitted to talk about the things that we needed to do to avoid catastrophic climate change or to provide their expertise to the public debate. In the same article, it was reported that industry experts were intimately involved in writing cabinet briefings and submissions. This was 14 years ago and at the time of that particular report, apparently it had been going on for quite some time.

This lack of expertise in the public debate is deeply problematic. It leaves far too much space for lobbyist spin to dominate. I wonder what we could have achieved even in just the last 14 years if our climate change policy had not been so comprehensively hijacked by industry. The Greens have always supported and encouraged evidence-based policy and decision-making. We think it is the only way that we are ultimately going to achieve our goal of ensuring that we make the best possible decisions we can. We need to have the evidence that our scientists are collating out there and available to the public, and that means that our scientists need to feel safe to publicly share the information that they know and the work that they have been doing. It will not be to the benefit of anybody if this information is hidden from any of us through any of the mechanisms that serve to stifle and distort debate. It was a very concerning report and one that we need to take note of. We are going to have to see some substantial changes to the environment that we create for our scientists so that they feel they can give fearless and accurate advice to our decision-makers.


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