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Thursday, 27 November 1986
Page: 3916


Mr BRUMBY(8.04) —As I rise to speak on the Plant Variety Rights Bill 1986 which is now before the House, it is a matter of some concern to all honourable members that one member of the Opposition is in the House on this most important topic of grave importance to primary producers, that is, plant variety rights. I would have thought that, even with the parliamentary session coming to a close, Opposition members would have shown more interest in this important piece of legislation which, over time, will be of considerable importance to Australian farmers. It is important at the outset to describe to members of the Opposition exactly what the purpose of the Bill before the House is. Its purpose is simply to provide a system of plant variety rights which will enable a proprietary right to be granted in respect of certain new plant varieties.


Mr Humphreys —There are no members of the National Party here.


Mr BRUMBY —We have one member of the National Party of Australia present in the chamber. About 30 Government members are in the chamber, one member of the National Party and one member of the Liberal Party of Australia. As I have said, this is an important piece of legislation. We have had a number of speakers so far in the debate. Of course, there have been excellent contributions by Government members, who have all spoken very persuasively in favour of this legislation.

The concept of plant variety rights is to grant a proprietary right to a breeder of new varieties of certain plants that gives the owner of the right the ability to sell the new varieties in the market. Such a right can most easily be compared with the principles that underline patent and copyright legislation and they also give protection to inventions. So, in that sense, there is nothing new or novel about plant variety rights, although, of course, people in the community have differing views about the nature of the benefits that plant variety rights might bring to consumers and producers. I emphasise that there is really nothing new in its concept. It is simply the same old concept of patent or copyright which has been around for so many years.

I think it is also worth while stressing that a system of plant variety rights exists in many countries. It exists in the United Kingdom, Japan, West Germany, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the United States of America and New Zealand. When we look at the history of plant variety rights we see, and I am sure that honourable members would be interested to know, that they were first introduced in the United Kingdom in 1964 and the first rights were actually issued in 1965. So, that country has really pioneered this legislation. Under the system in the United Kingdom, rights can exist for between 15 and 25 years and they can apply to agricultural crops, field crops, vegetables, fruits and ornamentals. In the United States, a country for which many Australians have a great affection, plant variety rights were introduced in 1970 and the first grants were made in 1973. In that country, the rights remain in force for 18 years and cover a similar range of plants to those in the United Kingdom. As I have said, that system came into force in 1973 and the first rights were issued four years later in 1977. In addition to plant variety rights being adopted by a number of countries, there is an international convention dealing with them. The International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants was signed in December 1961. It aims to ensure the international protection for new plant varieties which are developed in member countries and it also encourages new varieties.

I am pleased to see that the Minister for Primary Industry (Mr Kerin) is in the House tonight. He has been present throughout the debate. In many ways he has pioneered this legislation and guided it through the intricate committee system of the Government and the Parliament. He has brought before us this legislation which, as I have said, introduces plant variety rights in Australia. It also recognises some of the concerns which have been around for many years about this legislation and it addresses those concerns. I have heard that one of the concerns that people have about this legislation is that, for instance, home gardeners will not be able to continue to grow their tomatoes, peaches or whatever. This legislation specifically addresses that concern. I assure honourable members that no home gardener who grows tomatoes, apples, peaches, peas or beans will in any way be affected by this piece of legislation.

I have said that there are arguments for and against plant variety rights. I want to concentrate, of course, on the arguments in favour of plant variety rights. The major arguments in favour of the system are that it will encourage plant breeding in Australia as breeders will be able to recoup the funds necessary to create new varieties. It will also facilitate access to new varieties bred in countries that have a plant variety rights system and, very importantly, it will assist in the development of an export industry in Australia.

I have said that in recent years plant variety rights have been discussed in Australia. In many ways it is an understatement to say that. In 1976, the Industries Assistance Commission recommended that a system of plant variety rights be introduced. Despite that recommendation, the Opposition parties, which profess a concern for primary producers in this country, really did very little about that recommendation. In 1979, three years later, a draft Bill was circulated by the Department of Primary Industry for comment. Following consideration of various suggestions, a Bill was introduced in the House of Representatives in May 1981 to establish plant variety rights. The Bill passed the House of Representatives and was referred to a Senate standing committee. However, the Bill lapsed, following the dissolution of the Parliament in February 1983. That, of course, was when Malcolm Fraser called an election a year early and when there was a massive vote against him because he left this country in a state of economic chaos, with double digit inflation, double digit unemployment and a crisis in our rural industries. He was defeated at that election. The Senate committee reported in May 1984 and it recommended that a plant variety rights scheme be established.

This Government introduced a further inquiry into plant variety rights. We commissioned Professor Lazenby, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Tasmania, to report on plant variety rights. His report was exceedingly comprehensive. I have it with me here in the Parliament tonight. It is nearly 200 pages in length and it was delivered in February 1986. Importantly, it contained the following statement:

Having carefully considered all the arguments, my view coincides with that of the large majority of public breeders; on balance, the benefits for Australia stemming from a PVR scheme are likely to outweigh considerably any adverse effects which may arise from PVR. Further, it is neither desirable nor logical for Australia to stand outside the mainstream of developed countries in the hope of providing intangible benefits to Third World countries. Accordingly, I recommend that legislation for a Plant Variety Rights Scheme be enacted in Australia and that it should be framed such that no crops are excluded from potential coverage.

As I indicated earlier, following discussions with many concerned bodies, including the Australian Agricultural Council, State Ministers, consumer bodies and so on, this Bill was introduced by the Minister for Primary Industry (Mr Kerin) and it aims to outline this system of plant variety rights.

Briefly, the system under this legislation will work as follows: Breeders will be able to apply for the exclusive right to produce and sell, other than for sales that do not involve production of the plant, new varieties that form part of a genus or species declared by regulation to be covered by this Bill. The rights will last for 20 years and the Bill contains a public interest protection provision, which I think is an important provision. There are a number of main provisions of the Bill. I have mentioned the 20-year timeframe. I should also add that the Minister may, if he is satisfied that it is in the public interest, impose conditions relating to the assignment of the rights, the licensing of people to sell the variety, or other conditions.

During the debate that has taken place in earlier days on this Bill, some speakers have expressed some concerns about plant variety rights. I would like to address some of those concerns briefly, because I think they are adequately addressed by this legislation. One argument is that the introduction of plant variety rights will cause concerns for Third World countries. That concern is based on the belief that plant variety rights exacerbate the differences which increasingly exist between the agriculturally developed countries and the underdeveloped or Third World countries. It has to be said that there are differences, of course, between developed nations and Third World nations in terms of agriculture and in terms of trade; but the view that PVR somehow has hastened or will hasten that difference is very difficult, I must say, to substantiate in any way.

What we can say is that there can be little doubt that as better yielding varieties become available farmers in all parts of the world will replace their less productive varieties with more productive varieties. That needs to be emphasised. So, I do not accept the view that PVR will somehow affect or diminish agriculture in Third World countries. Moreover, I find the argument that Australia should divorce itself from mainstream activity in the world and that, because we do not have PVR, we will somehow be the saviour of Third World countries also very difficult to sustain.

There are a few other points that need to be made. It is also suggested that PVR will lead to the loss of older varieties. Many groups have argued that, by giving impetus to the production of high yielding varieties of a similar type, older varieties, often more variable and adapted to a wider range of growing conditions than many new varieties, would soon become unavailable or even extinct. It needs to be said, as Professor Lazenby said in his report, that modern plant breeders have selected high yielding uniform plants to produce high yielding and good selling crops. The big increase in food production achieved partly as a result of breeding bears testimony to their efforts. Whilst farmers appear to be content with this situation, some small and backyard growers are concerned that they may be prevented from growing older varieties.

Professor Lazenby said that there appeared to be a number of misconceptions in relation to that argument. He said that in Europe national lists of varieties that are sold commercially are drawn up by governments. As I indicated earlier, it is simply untrue to suggest that home gardeners or backyard growers will in some way be restricted from growing the varieties that they like and enjoy. They will always be able to do that, irrespective of whether there is PVR in Australia. I cite the argument that is around concerning some of the new tomatoes that one buys in the supermarket. I am sure that honourable members have seen them; they are sort of yellow-red. Sometimes, unfortunately, my family buys them. They are the tomatoes that one can bounce off the kitchen floor. They are very hard skinned. Those tomatoes will continue to be produced, irrespective of whether there is PVR. Home gardeners or small growers who wish to continue to grow the hand-picked, softer, plusher, riper and fuller red tomato that we have all come to enjoy in sandwiches and salads over the years will still be able to grow them, irrespective of PVR.

A third point that people opposed to PVR argue is that under PVR many private breeders will breed for chemical dependence. They say that plant breeding for pest resistance will decline because new plant breeders, who they argue will be petro-chemical companies, will see no good reason why crops should not be sprayed with poisons to protect them. Professor Lazenby again argues that that breeding for chemical dependence argument is not sustained. He says:

The suggestion that chemical companies will promote chemically dependent varieties is, in my view, mistaken. Much of the public breeding effort in Australia and overseas relates to developing pest and disease resistant varieties, thus reducing our dependence on chemicals.

I emphasise the words `thus reducing our dependence on chemicals'. He gives one obvious example, which is the development of sorghum midge resistant germplasm by the Queensland Department of Primary Industries. It has a character which has been taken up actively by the private companies and incorporated in their activities.

I have been told to keep my remarks to around 15 minutes tonight, so I should start to conclude. But this is important legislation and it is important that it is fully debated. I want to conclude by summarising some of the enormous number of identified benefits of plant variety rights. In doing that, I know that I have the support of the vast majority of members of this House. The Senate Standing Committee on National Resources in 1984 identified the following benefits of PVR. It said that PVR would provide access by Australian growers to improve varieties; that it would stimulate the overall level of plant breeding in both the public and private sectors; that it would stimulate plant breeding to improve the varieties of Australian native flora that were available for export; that it would assist the development of an export seed growing industry; that it would ensure the provision of a wider range of high quality produce for producers and consumers; that it would reduce covert and illegal introduction of patented varieties, with the consequent breach of quarantine risks; that it would stimulate research related to improving the genetic resistance of plants to pests and diseases; and, finally, that it would encourage reciprocal protection benefits between Australia and overseas countries.

They were the Senate Standing Committee's views on the benefits of PVR. Professor Lazenby in his 1986 report said that PVR would increase breeding resources; that it would facilitate the better use of germ plasm; that it would provide better access to varieties bred overseas; that it would ensure the better use of public, and total, breeding resources; that it would enable a better integration with breeding of basic research and new developments in technology; and that it would bring about a more vigorous and stable seed industry. That is what Professor Lazenby said, but there is more. The 1985 Industries Assistance Commission report on apples and pears suggested that PVR was the most appropriate means of improving access to overseas varieties and stimulating plant breeding in Australia. It said that other benefits were that licensing arrangements and patent laws considered inadequate for the apple and pear industry could be overcome by PVR, and that PVR would reduce the risk of breaching quarantine with its attendant danger of entry of disease. Finally, the 1986 IAC report on vegetables and vegetable products said that PVR would provide access to improved vegetable varieties currently denied to Australian growers, who are facing stiff competition from imports of processed vegetables which come from countries in which they are covered by PVR. It said that PVR would stimulate export activities and bring about an improvement in disease resistance and productivity.

I conclude by saying that, on balance, there is no doubt in my mind and in the mind of the Government that the benefits of plant variety rights far outweigh any of the disadvantages or concerns that have been expressed by groups in the community. The legislation has many advantages. I know it will be well supported in the House, including, I understand, by the Opposition. I only wish there were more members of the Opposition in the House tonight to take part in this debate.


Mr Tuckey —The only reason you are getting your legislation is that we are helping you.


Mr BRUMBY —No, that is not true. We would get this legislation through this House irrespective of how those opposite voted, but it is nice to see the Opposition supporting us on this. I again compliment the Minister for Primary Industry on his outstanding record in bringing reforming legislation before this House, legislation which will improve the position for Australia's farmers, horticulturalists and plant breeders. In the long term it will enable Australia to increase and expand its growing export industries, and we all acknowledge that the Minister for Primary Industry is the main person behind that. He has steered the legislation through many parliamentary committees, Caucus committees and difficult consumer groups, and it is now before the House. I support it and look forward to its passage through this House and the other place.