Australian Astronomical Observatory (Transition) Bill 2018


Peter Khalil: It’s a great pleasure to talk about this bill because it’s about space—’to boldly go where no-one has gone before’. That’s what Australian astronomers and scientists have been doing for decades, reaching out to the stars, with their eyes, their ears and the instruments that they use, to ask the most deep and meaningful questions that human beings have always asked. Are we alone? What’s out there? What are these wonders out there in the universe that light up the sky? All of us have looked up at that sky, particularly on those clear starry nights in Australia, as kids and adults. We’ve all dreamed those dreams about other worlds and other places in our universe and asked those fundamental questions that go to the very meaning of life and our place in it. Therefore, the work that Australian astronomers do, both amateur and professional, is so important, not just for the scientific community but for humanity as well.

We know that this bill will abolish the Australian Astronomical Observatory and allow for its function to be transitioned to two consortiums to manage. The legislation will also give effect to the 2017-18 budget measure, access to world-leading astronomy infrastructure, which saw Australia sign up a strategic partnership with the European Southern Observatory. In terms of optical astronomy, the scientific community has been asking government for a number of years to explore entering into a partnership with the European Southern Observatory in order to gain access to the La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, which is quite significant. Until recently, this access has been beyond the fiscal capability of the Australian government. But recently the ESO approached the Australian government with an offer of a 10-year strategic partnership at a cost of $119 million. Access to the telescopes at the observatory in Chile will give Australia’s optical astronomy community access to the eight-metre telescope they have long been asking for. However, all of this all requires changes to the existing act that will close down the Australian Astronomical Observatory.

I want to state clearly that Labor will support this legislation, but we will do so somewhat reluctantly. We support the views expressed by those in the astronomy community that the best way to expand Australia’s optical astronomy industry is through a partnership with the European Southern Observatory.

Although approval or otherwise of this legislation will not necessarily impact on the government proceeding with the ESO strategic partnership, which has already been signed and funded through the 2017-18 budget, Labor does understand that this legislation is part of the process of partnering with the ESO and that, therefore, our support is necessary. Furthermore, failure to support this bill will result in the Anglo-Australian Telescope, the AAT—not to be confused with the Administrative Appeals Tribunal—and the Australian Astronomical Observatory, the AAO, in North Ryde, being unable to transfer to the university sector, resulting in their closure in July 2020 and the loss of up to 53 jobs.

We reluctantly support this bill because it is a stopgap and not a solution. This bill does not resolve the funding cliff that has long bedevilled many areas of scientific endeavour in this country but pushes it out by another 10 years. It should also be noted that, when the ESO strategic partnership expires, the Commonwealth will need to decide whether to become a full member of the ESO, seek access for Australian science to another telescope or discontinue this area of scientific leadership our country has long enjoyed and excelled at. It will be a real shame if Australia ever discontinues this area of scientific leadership, because currently the Commonwealth works to maintain Australia’s position of leadership in astronomy.

The Department of Industry, Innovation and Science has two broad groups that manage Australia’s astronomy assets in partnership with the research community. There is the Australian Square Kilometre Array Office, which is managing our engagement with the construction of the Square Kilometre Array, SKA, part of which is being built in Western Australia and the other half in South Africa. This will become the world’s most advanced radio-telescope observatory. Then there is the AAO, which since 2010 has managed to access the Anglo-Australian Telescope and maintained our instrumentation capability based in North Ryde, Sydney.

This legislation will abolish the AAO as a division of the department on 1 July 2018 along with all AAO governance structures. It will allow the transfer of necessary assets to external entities, in this case the two university based consortiums. Firstly, there is the one led by the Australian National University, which transfers operations of the AAT to a consortium made up of several universities, led by the ANU, across Australia, including but not limited to Monash University, the University of New South Wales, the University of Queensland, the University of Tasmania and the University of Western Australia. The second consortium is with Macquarie University and the Australian Astronomy Limited consortium, which takes responsibility for the establishment of a national optical instrumentation capability and for the further development of the world-class instrumentation functions of the Australian Astronomical Observatory.

When it was constructed, the Anglo-Australian Telescope was the most advanced in the world. Its construction and operation granted the nation’s scientists access to an advanced facility and allowed the development of advanced scientific and industrial techniques in Australia. While it is now 44 years old, the Anglo-Australian Telescope is still an important part of the nation’s research infrastructure. Labor is relieved that the assets of the AAO will be maintained for the next seven years; however, their future beyond that date is still not resolved. The question of what happens beyond that date is key, because maintaining and strengthening Australia’s position at the front line of astronomical research requires access to world-class facilities. The next generation of these facilities needed to make the next major discoveries about our universe are of such a scale and complexity that they require multinational partnerships to fund and build. That’s just necessary to do that kind of work.

Australia needs to ask itself what it wants from optical astronomy. Does Australia want to lead the industry? Do we want to be at the front line of research? Do we want our scientists to make discoveries about our universe? The partnership with the ESO gives Australian optical astronomers access to one of the most advanced telescopes in the world at the La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile. But it leaves us floating in a vacuum after it expires. Australian astronomy has already begun the transition from a national research infrastructure portfolio of midscale Australian-owned facilities to partnership in multinational billion-dollar landmark facilities.

We are playing a critical role in two of the world’s biggest billion-dollar astronomy projects: the Square Kilometre Array, which will be partly built in Australia with local industry and regional engagement; and the new Giant Magellan Telescope, which will be the first in a new class of extremely large telescopes, for which Australia is building key instrumentation. Both the GMT and the SKA present an extreme leap in telescope size. The last time a size leap of this scale happened we actually discovered planets around other stars outside of our solar system. We discovered the supermassive black hole in the centre of our galaxy and evidence that the universe is accelerating.

The future is bright, but there needs to be sustained maintenance of effort and long-term security for our scientists. The Commonwealth-European Southern Observatory partnership provides for maintenance of effort for the next 10 years, but there is no certainty beyond that. Before 2028 the Commonwealth will again be obliged to decide whether to become a full member of the ESO or invest in the new GMT, which will be online by that time. So, at best, this is a medium-term stay of execution. Yet again Australian science is faced with replacing one funding cliff with a new funding cliff. So what does Australia get as a result of prolonging the inevitable funding cliff? The cost to the Commonwealth of this partnership is $119 million over the decade from 2017, or $26.1 million over the forward estimates from 2017-18 to 2020-21.

Improved access to these facilities has been a common refrain amongst astronomers for many years. Australia in the era of global astronomy: The Decadal Plan for Australian Astronomy 2016-2025, produced by the Academy of Science, calls for access to eight-metre-class optical astronomy infrastructure, which is currently not available in Australia. The same plan calls for maintenance of effort in terms of support for Australian domestic capability, including supporting the Australian Astronomical Observatory and its capabilities.

The legislation that we are debating proposes to off-load the main government astronomical assets, the AAT, near Coonabarabran in New South Wales, and the AAO instrumentation, onto the Australian university sector. This is being done ostensibly to save the budget $26.1 million over the forward estimates. In reality, it’s pretty much a sleight of hand—moving the burden of maintaining these facilities from the Department of Innovation, Industry and Science onto entities funded by the Department of Education and Training. This transition doesn’t come without a cost. It’s expected that a small number of jobs will be lost in the transition—four to five at the Anglo-Australian Telescope and up to nine at the North Ryde instrumentation laboratories.

There is some irony that, at a time when the government is seeking to cut university funding by $2.2 billion over the next four years, it expects universities to stump up the cash to keep these key astronomy facilities operational. We hope that they are able to remain operational, because Australia has developed a longstanding and globally recognised expertise in astronomy and we don’t want to lose that leadership. We have some of the best skies in the world for astronomical observation, and our continent faces 25 per cent of space. Many people have heard of the northern lights—otherwise known as aurora borealis—but, in our own southern skies, we can bear witness to the wonders of aurora australis, the same phenomenon but in the Southern Hemisphere.

This abundance of sky is not lost on Australians, as we are a nation of keen amateur astronomers. Earlier this year, the country was captivated with a super blood moon, where we were treated to the three lunar phenomenon all at once: a blue moon, or a second full moon in the same calendar month; a blood moon, where the moon is in full eclipse causing the usually white moon to become red or a ruddy brown; and a super moon, where a full moon coincides with the closest distance that the moon reaches to earth in its elliptic orbit. Social media lit up when this happened that night, with people sharing their photos of the moon. Those who had less than ideal weather also posted about their disappointment that they could not actually see it. Everyone had an interest.

That was not a one-off, either. We saw this when the ABC, in partnership with the Australian National University, led a Guinness world record attempt for the most people stargazing recently. This was to break the world record for the most people simultaneously observing the moon in the night sky through a telescope or binoculars. It was broadcast on ABC’s Stargazing Live, which has returned to our screens due to outstanding success last year—a real demonstration of how much Australians are engaged in and passionate about science and particularly astronomy.

I would say that, on that basis, the evidence is pretty clear that Australians love astronomy. We have so many talented astronomers and we have many young people who look to the stars for inspiration. Yet, with this bill, we’re presenting the astronomical community with a funding cliff—which has only been postponed—that not only affects our current scientists but also creates a level of uncertainty for any bright young mind that would look to the skies to help provide answers for our place in the universe. In some sense, we’re hampering our ability to produce expertise. Even though Australian astronomy is world-leading and inspires thousands of Australians through citizens, science and activities, like the annual ABC stargazing, it is not backed up by the federal government with this bill. Providing a pathway where our scientists can have access to the best research infrastructure in the world is absolutely essential, but it should not come at the cost of outsourcing the existing infrastructure to a university sector that is already copping a $2.2 billion cut from the coalition government. It is an example of the government continuing to gut Australian science and the Department of Innovation, Industry and Science. We support this legislation, but we make a clear note of the cul-de-sac of uncertainty and cuts that this government has led us to.

I started my speech by talking about the fundamental questions that we ask when we look up to the night sky: are we alone? What’s out there? What are these wonders of the universe that we dream about as kids and as adults? Astronomy is very much a part of our lives because it helps us ask those perennial human questions about who we are and our place in the universe. I will finish with a well-known farewell: ‘Live long and prosper!’