Australian Astronomical Observatory (Transition) Bill 2018

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Mr HAWKE (Mitchell—Assistant Minister for Home Affairs) (12:45): It is a privilege to sum up the Australian Astronomical Observatory (Transition) Bill 2018. I want to thank all honourable members for considering the bill and for their comments—even the reference from the member opposite to Star Trek and Star Wars. Being a bit of a sci-fi nerd, I very much appreciate your final comment there. The bill gives effect to the government's 2017-18 budget measure maintaining Australia's optical astronomy capability. In doing this, we open up a new and exciting chapter of astronomical discovery and technical innovation for this country.

A flagship element of this farsighted budget measure is that the Australian government has entered into a 10-year strategic partnership with the European Southern Observatory from 11 July 2017. For Australia's astronomers this changes everything. ESO is the world's foremost optical astronomy organisation—a multinational collaboration of 15 member states and host nation Chile. It offers its participants access to the world's leading-edge infrastructure, unparalleled research cooperation and collaboration, and strategic industry opportunities.

Australia, as a strategic partner, is now an integral part of the ESO story. Our astronomers have long told us that this type of stable, long-term partnership is absolutely essential to their ability to engage in the biggest questions of science and influence the technical innovation that goes into and comes out of world-class instruments. Australia's astronomers have lost no time in making the most of their new access. In a recent competitive call for ESO observing time, Australian-led research proposals enjoyed an impressive 38 per cent success rate. That includes over 300 hours on the world's most advanced optical telescope, the eight-metre diameter very large telescope at Paranal. This is a remarkable achievement for Australia's inaugural observing period. It confirms the strong international standing of Australia's astronomers.

In addition to access to the best telescopes in the world this partnership also provides Australians with professional opportunities at ESO through jobs, fellowships and scholarships. It allows for Australians to influence the frameworks and direction of ESO through participation in its strategic governance structures. Australian research institutions can develop new optical technologies and instruments for ESO telescopes. Australia has unique strengths in this field. We have the expertise and innovation the rest of the world wants—in our robotic fibre-optic technologies, control instrument systems, software, astronomical data pipelines and archiving systems. Australian based companies and institutions can now tender for work at the ESO's Cerro Paranal observatory. Engagement with ESO will help Australian companies expand their capabilities overseas, not only in astronomy but also in space stations and other spin-off technologies that will define our world in decades to come.

The ESO partnership heralds a new era of optical astronomy in our nation as we prepare for global investments and even larger telescopes that will see further into our universe. To meet this new challenge and demand, we are consolidating our optical astronomy efforts nationally. This bill provides a roadmap for that. From 1 July 2018 the key scientific operations of the Australian Astronomical Observatory will transition from the Commonwealth to the research sector. The Australian Astronomical Observatory will cease to exist in its current form, and the secretary of the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science will retain important optical astronomy powers under the Australian Astronomical Observatory Act 2010 to ensure a sound legislative basis for future government support of Australian optical astronomy initiatives.

Responsibility for operating the Anglo-Australian Telescope will transfer to the Australian National University, acting on behalf of a consortium of universities. This consortium will operate the telescope at Siding Spring Observatory in Coonabarabran in New South Wales until at least the end of its extended operational life in 2024-25. This extended operational life of the telescope will provide ongoing access to Australian researchers, international consortia and the next generation of home-grown astronomers and engineers. It will also continue to benefit businesses and tourism in regional Australia.

The Australian Astronomical Observatory's renowned optical instrumentation capability will transfer to a second consortium led by Macquarie University, in partnership with the ANU and the University of Sydney. This consortium will continue to develop and deliver world-class instruments to overseas observatories, strengthen research industry collaboration domestically, connect the national instrumentation effort and drive the commercialisation of optical astronomy innovation in adjacent industries.

The government has worked hand-in-glove with the astronomical community here, particularly in the lead-up to the new consortium—the ANU, the Macquarie University and Astronomy Australia Limited—to ensure a positive transformation of our domestic capability. The efforts of those involved have been concerted, positive, dedicated and far-sighted. This kind of government and research sector partnership will continue to ensure a strong, sustainable foundation for future discovery that can be shared with all of our citizens. I especially acknowledge the patience, cooperation and professionalism of the staff at the Australian Astronomical Observatory in this period of considerable organisational change. The deep expertise, decades of hard work, innovation and resilience provide a strong foundation for the work to come. The government's optical astronomy measure will strengthen our research and industry opportunities in the coming decade. It will extend the legacy of the Australian Astronomical Observatory and our global reputation. I commend the bill to the House.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.