Australian and New Zealand Perspectives

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Although they maintain their distinct identities, Australia and New Zealand are linked closely and together are often referred to as Australasia. Both countries claim to be "knowledge societies" and to value science and technology highly (if somewhat uncritically). Yet an apparent lack of understanding in government of the long-term character of scientific and technological development contributes to a perception among scientific and technical professionals that they have little political influence. Extensive corporatization and privatization of publicly-owned infrastructure during the 1990s was aimed largely at retiring government debt, while governments in both countries failed to provide effective support for the development of information- and sustainability-based technologies. However, early in the new century there were encouraging indications in New Zealand of government engagement with sustainability issues (Geddes and Stonyer 2001, Laugesten 2002). In Australia commitment to environmental/sustainability issues varies among and across the three tiers of government (federal, state/territory and local).

Historical Background

Australia and New Zealand had very different traditional cultures. Australian aborigines can demonstrate a continuous hunter-gatherer occupation of 40,000 years; in contrast, the Maori reached New Zealand as recently as 1000 to 1200 c.e., bringing with them a distinctive Polynesian cultural tradition. Australia became a British colony in the late eighteenth century, and New Zealand in the mid-nineteenth century. Invasion and settlement brought European religious and moral doctrines and European technologies designed to dominate the indigenous populations and exploit the natural environment.

Unfortunately, the colonists of both countries disdained indigenous knowledge and technologies. Only in the last quarter of the twentieth century did political activism lead to a broader appreciation of the depth of indigenous cultural and spiritual links with the land. There is increasing recognition that these values enrich the societies as a whole and in particular suggest important approaches to the search for sustainability. However, unresolved questions of reconciliation and compensation still constitute a major fault line in both societies and pose fundamental ethical dilemmas for their governments. This inevitably colors other ethics discussions on a host of issues related to ownership and custodianship of the land, including the use of natural resources and environmental degradation. As its population reached 20 million early in the twenty-first century, Australia became multi-cultural. New Zealand, with a population of 4 million, remains bicultural, with distinct Maori/Anglo (Pakeha) polarization.

As colonies and later as dominions within the British empire, Australia and New Zealand were until about 1950 major suppliers of food and raw materials to Great Britain and were captive markets for British manufactured goods. The colonial governments supplied essential infrastructure and took responsibility for funding science and technology, which tended to be applied and utilitarian, focusing initially on primary industries, particularly agriculture and mining. When multinational corporations set up substantial local operations after World War II, those operations were commonly "branch plants" with minimal research and development capability.

Although Australia and New Zealand have produced individual scientists and technologists who earned international acclaim, the technical culture in both countries was until relatively recently essentially derivative. Despite homegrown inventions and innovations, both countries were largely the recipients of technology transfer. While this tended to encourage a client-state mentality, valued local resources and technologies have been strongly defended, for example through resistance to the introduction of genetically modified crops.

While achieving rigorous academic standards, for many years the universities failed to provide an effective forum for broad ethical debate in science and technology. Higher education was based on British models, and into the second half of the twentieth century universities in Australia and New Zealand commonly looked to Britain for academic leadership. As in the rest of the "Western" world, scientific and technological advances were equated with social progress and the ethical focus was on gaining peer support, maintaining professional standards, and ensuring competent technical performance.

New Voices

Although the science and technology professions in Australia and New Zealand are well integrated into the global community, since the 1970s a distinctively Australasian voice has emerged, asserting that those professions must take a much broader approach to issues of ethical practice. There is growing awareness that science and technology involve social as well as technical practices (Johnston, Gostelow, and Jones 1999). Framing problems and choosing decision-making criteria increasingly are recognized as areas for professional judgment in which ethical choices are deeply embedded. For instance, in New Zealand Roy Geddes and Heather Stonyer (2001) highlight the ethical implications of setting national priorities and of deciding how far professionals should go in challenging government failure to provide adequate education and training in science and technology.

This groundswell of broader ethical awareness draws on worldwide developments in the scientific and technological communities, making the identification of distinctive local inputs and key national figures problematic. One person who stands out in this area is the Melbourne-born utilitarian moral philosopher Peter Singer, recognized for his courageous and challenging work on globalization, medical ethics and bioethics, and human relationships with the rest of the animal kingdom (Singer 2003).

The international partnership between New Zealand ethicist Alastair S. Gunn at the University of Waikato and U.S. civil and environmental engineer P. Aarne Vesilind also needs to be mentioned here. Their first book (Vesilind and Gunn 1986) was an important and timely contribution, not least because it argued that environmental ethics were relevant to the whole profession, and not only to environmental engineers. Two of their three books have been translated into Japanese and one into Chinese. Gunn has also been working with colleagues at the University of Malaya on an Internet site to provide ethics resources for technology professionals in Asia.

In Australia, Sharon Beder at the University of Wollongong is another public champion of ethical concerns, particularly within engineering. She has led a move away from paternalistic views of the public and toward greater transparency of professional action (Beder 1998). Until the 1980s government agencies in Australia that supplied major services and public utilities, including energy, communications, and water, were staffed mainly by engineers who prided themselves on doing the best they could with the resources allocated by the political process. Criticism of either the process or its outcomes was seen as bringing the profession into disrepute, and the profession's code of ethics was used to suppress internal dissent. Beder successfully challenged that limited approach to professional responsibility. By the 1990s the engineering profession in Australasia was looking outward and moving toward a clearly formulated emphasis on sustainability as a key ethical value.

In 1992 the Institution of Professional Engineers New Zealand (IPENZ) decided to revise its code of ethics. Gerry Coates argued that the new code should be values-rather than rules-based, provide high rather than low levels of guidance, and offer real ethical leadership for the profession. A key question was the extent to which technical and scientific professionals should be involved in political decision making. The change process took ten years and included extensive debate on the community-oriented values of sustainable management and care of the environment. However, respect for nonhuman life forms was considered too radical for inclusion at that time, and the revision did not provide guidance on the hierarchy of the values that were asserted (Coates 2000).

In Australia and New Zealand medical research became an important area of scientific and technical activity during the twentieth century. Since World War II there has been a worldwide strengthening of ethical guidelines and controls for research involving humans and animals and increasing awareness of environmental issues. The Australian National Health and Medical Research Council, a major channel for government funding, has exercised significant ethical leadership (National Health and Medical Research Council 2001). The Royal Society of New Zealand is also important in coordinating scientific and technical activity; its Code of Professional Standards and Ethics underscores legal and other constraints on professional behavior.

In both countries there is a powerful network of broadly based ethics committees in universities and research establishments that have a general commitment to ethical practice. There is frank debate in areas such as human stem-cell research, and ethics committees veto projects that do not satisfy their guidelines. However, globalization of research and pressures for economic returns promote increasing commercialization and public-private collaboration, and the traditional ideal of openness is under challenge.

Ethical issues have been highlighted in Australia since the late 1980s by dramatic business failures. Broad concerns have emerged about accountability and about the inward focus of much of the ethical debate in the professions, and the authority and influence of professional bodies have declined. Statutory anticorruption bodies and mechanisms such as commissions of inquiry appointed to look into specific problems or disasters now provide more effective sanctions against unethical behavior. In the public sector reliance on legislation and regulation remains fundamental.

Advancing Practice

By the 1990s ethics-focused research and guidance centers were emerging. With a focus on leadership rather than enforcement, Sydney's St. James Ethics Centre has an international reputation. Its executive director, Simon Longstaff, presents ethical practice in terms of building relationships, developing a well-informed conscience, being true to oneself, having the courage to explore difficult questions, and accepting the costs of ethical behavior. The center provides a framework for discussions that emphasize the recognition of the interests of stakeholders and the impacts of decisions. Developing involvement and avoiding polarization in ethical decision making require structure, space, and time (Taylor 1998). One facility provided by the center that is believed to be unique is a confidential ethics counseling help line for individuals.

There continue to be problems involving business ethics. In 2003 a royal commissioner reporting on the corporate culture that led to the multi-billion-dollar collapse of a major Australian insurance group, HIH, wondered if anyone had asked the simple question "Is this right?" The HIH demise highlighted problems with professional indemnity insurance. Some Australian states, in association with professional standards councils, have provided methods for limiting indemnity claims for professional groups that take specified steps to improve professional standards and protect consumers. Participating groups develop and adopt acceptable codes of ethics that are based on a model document that explains the nature and role of codes, describes their generic content, and outlines the development processes (Miller 2002). This approach encourages professional groups to acknowledge the non-technical aspects of problems; cross-disciplinary approaches are used to develop socially relevant project design criteria and address broad ethical issues.

One of the most promising developments has been a move toward exploration of the ways practitioners develop their own ethical frameworks. This work has led to programs that encourage and support students in recognizing, reflecting on, and dealing effectively with the ethical issues they encounter in practice (Johnston, McGregor, and Taylor 2000).

Ethical professional practice requires a broad awareness of social context, but this in itself is not sufficient. As Peter Singer pointed out, it is "clarity and consistency in our moral thinking [that] is likely, in the long run, to lead us to hold better views on ethical issues" (Singer 2003).


SEE ALSO Engineers for Social Responsibility;Institute of Professional Engineers New Zealand.


Beder, Sharon. (1998). The New Engineer: Management and Professional Responsibility in a Changing World. South Yarra, Victoria, Australia: Macmillan Education Australia. A widely used text and a good introduction to her work, much of which is available at:

Coates, Gerry. (2000). "Developing a Values-Based Code of Engineering Ethics." IPENZ Transactions 27: 11–16. Available from; includes the IPENZ Code of Professional Ethics.

Johnston, Stephen F.; J. Paul Gostelow; and Evan Jones. (1999). Engineering and Society: An Australian Perspective. 2nd edition. Melbourne: Longman. A comprehensive exploration of the history and the social, political and economic context of engineering practice in Australia. A U.S./global version was published by Prentice Hall (2000).

Johnston, Stephen; Helen McGregor; and Elizabeth Taylor. (2000). "Practice-Focussed Ethics in Australian Engineering Education." European Journal of Engineering Education 25: 315–324.

Longstaff, Simon. (2003). Hard Cases: Tough Choices. Sydney: St James Ethics Centre. Available, with much other material, from

Miller, Seumas. (2002). Model Code of Ethics Principles. Sydney: Professional Standards Council.

National Health and Medical Research Council. (2001). National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Research Involving Humans. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.

Taylor, Elizabeth. (1998). "Peeling the Onion: A Techno-prudence for Engineering." Proceedings of the Tenth Annual Conference and Congress, Australasian Association for Engineering Education. Gladstone: Central Queensland University: 311–314. Elizabeth Taylor is currently dean of the James Goldston Faculty of Engineering and Physical Systems at the University of Central Queensland.

Vesilind, P. Aarne; and Alastair S. Gunn. (1986). Environmental Ethics for Engineers. Chelsea, MI: Lewis. The latest collaboration by these authors, Hold Paramount: The Engineer's Responsibility to Society (Stamford, CT: Brooks Cole/Thomson, 2002), written as a novel, explores ethical dilemmas faced by Chris (gender undefined), a structural engineer, in his/her work.


Abrams, Louise. (2003). "Controlling the Direction of Research in Australia: An Ethical Debate. " Research Office, University of Technology, Sydney. Available from

Geddes, Roy, and Heather Stonyer. (2001). "Science and Technology: Participating in the 'Knowledge' Culture." Proceedings of the Sixth Annual Conference Australian Institute of Health Law and Ethics. Melbourne: June/July. Available from

Laugesen, Pauline, ed. (2002). "Creating Our Future: Sustainable Development for New Zealand." Wellington, New Zealand: Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. Available from

Singer, Peter. (2003). "Interview: Peter Singer." Heilpädagogik Online 1/03: 53. Available from

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Australian and New Zealand Perspectives

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Australian and New Zealand Perspectives