Each Member State, regardless of size or contributions, has one vote on Council. Voting follows fairly standard protocols, but one interesting addition is the ‘ad referendum’ vote. Such ‘ad ref’ votes are provisional positive votes that need to be confirmed in writing prior to the next Council meeting. This mechanism allows representatives to refer votes to decision-making bodies in their Member State on matters where they do not hold an absolute delegation (e.g. forward budget decisions). Some critical issues, such as the admission of new Member States, require the unanimous support of all existing Member States.
ESO Council is supported by key committees including the Finance Committee (FC), the Scientific Technical Committee (STC), the Users Committee (UC) and the Observing Programmes Committee (OPC). The Australian representatives on these committees are appointed by the Australian government through the Department of Industry (and with the advice of its ESO Coordinating Committee) and currently are Janean Richards (FC; COO, Dept of Industry), Michael Ireland (STC) and Caroline Foster (UC); a number of Australian astronomers serve on the OPC.
Council meetings are attended by members of the ESO Executive as well as the members of Council. This means the Director General (Xavier Barcons); the Directors of Administration (Claudia Burger), Science (Rob Ivison), Operations (Andreas Kaufer), Engineering (Michèle Péron), and Programmes (Adrian Russell); the Heads of Finance and Legal & Administrative Affairs, and the leaders of key programmes (ELT Project, ALMA Support Centre).
The Australian representatives sit in on most items of the Council agenda but are excluded from discussions relating to sensitive matters (mainly financial and staffing decisions) restricted to Member States or relating to ELT or ALMA, as per the partnership agreement. On the whole, however, our experience has been that ESO Council has been very welcoming to the Australian observers, with a clear bias towards including us rather than excluding us, even for quite detailed briefings regarding internal ESO matters and updates on ELT and ALMA. As observers we do not have a vote, but we can (and do) participate in the discussions and are consulted and listened to on matters that affect Australia’s enjoyment of its strategic partnership.
Overall, we have been positively impressed by the functioning of the ESO Council. Although its size and multinational composition mean that it proceeds in a somewhat stately manner, it is composed of capable and committed individuals who, while representing their national interests, also clearly recognise and respect the greater good of the partnership and are rightly proud of ESO’s successes as the largest observatory in the world.