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Questions of conflict of interest over Australia's Chief Scientist

Published by MAC on 2003-12-09

Questions of conflict of interest over Australia's Chief Scientist

Tuesday, 9 December , 2003

Reporter: Edmond Roy

DAVID HARDAKER: Questions are once again being raised about the potential conflict of interest over the role of Australia's Chief Scientist, Dr Robin Batterham.

Dr Batterham advises the Prime Minister on science policy, and at the same time he's a director of the resources and energy giant, Rio Tinto.

The Opposition claims the Government should clear up the questions surrounding Dr Batterham by allowing the country's Chief Scientist to appear before a Senate estimates hearing.

Edmond Roy with this report.

EDMOND ROY: The position of Dr Robin Batterham has been a bone of contention for some time now.

Last month, Greens Senator Bob Brown raised the matter in the Senate and questioned the wisdom of having an adviser to government policy on the payroll of a resources company.

ABC Television's 7:30 Report has now questioned the perceived conflict of interest, specifically in relation to the level of influence he has on government policy regarding carbon dioxide emissions.

Ric Brazzale from the Business Council of Sustainable Industries.

RIC BRAZZALE: If there is a potential for conflict of interest, then there's a risk that the broader community and a lot of other stakeholder groups will question any positions
that are put by the Chief Scientist.

EDMOND ROY: Rio Tinto, the report points out, is a major exporter of coal and user of electricity produced by coal-fired power stations.

Three years ago, Dr Robin Batterham, as a director of the Rio Tinto aluminium smelter, Comalco, signed an agreement with a US company named Maxygen. It was an agreement which dealt directly with carbon dioxide emissions and greenhouse gases, and involved a technology called carbon sequestration.

Shortly after Dr Batterham signed the deal, the Government handed over a $35-million interest free loan to the Rio Tinto Foundation, part of which was used for its work with Maxygen.

But speaking to reporter Andrew Fowler of the ABC's Investigative Unit, Energy Minister Ian Macfarlane dismissed any suggestions of a conflict of interest.

IAN MACFARLANE: Well, I don't believe that Robin Batterham takes information from, that he gains within the discussions that he has with Government, outside the office.

ANDREW FOWLER: But Maxygen was involved in looking at a way to deal with carbon emission problems, crediting plants that will be used in geo-sequestration.

IAN MACFARLANE: There are a whole range of companies involved in geo-sequestration.

ANDREW FOWLER: But he signed that when he was the Chief Scientist also working for Rio Tinto.

IAN MACFARLANE: I don't believe that Robin Batterham has a conflict of interest.

EDMOND ROY: That's not a view supported by Labor's Shadow Minister for Industry, Kim Carr.

KIM CARR: This is what really worries me, that the Government refuses to allow Dr Batterham to put his case, to answer the questions that I think should be answered by appearing before the Senate Estimates.

EDMOND ROY: Which means you have tried for him to appear before the Senate Estimates Committee?

KIM CARR: I have. I've raised a number of questions over a considerable period of time now, and the Government is blocking the attempts for the Opposition to get to the bottom of these matters. There may well be perfectly reasonable explanations for all the questions that have been raised. I'm not prejudging these issues, but I do believe it is now time that there be answers given, and the best place for that to happen is through the Parliamentary process at the Senate Estimates.

DAVID HARDAKER: Kim Carr, Labor's Shadow Minister for Industry, speaking with Edmond Roy.

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