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Tuesday, 20 August 2002
Page: 3306

Senator HARRADINE (2:38 PM) —My question is to Senator Vanstone, the Minister for Family and Community Services. I refer to the fact that there has been a substantial increase in the number of persons with Alzheimer's disease and that in 14 years time it is estimated that Alzheimer's will be the biggest disease burden in women. I ask whether the minister agrees with the statement by Premier Carr:

There is a reasonable likelihood that embryonic stem cells will lead to some treatment sooner, particularly for disorders of the brain such as Alzheimer's ...

Wouldn't it be better for that money to go to research into the cure of the disease and substantial increases in support for carers of persons with Alzheimer's, particularly for those who—(Time expired)

Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Family and Community Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women) —Senator Harradine, I feel a bit uncomfortable answering your question, because I think you are giving me a free kick for my position on what essentially will be a conscience vote. Your question does not relate to my portfolio. It invites me to make an assessment about what I would do in relation to stem cell research. My views are very clear and I do not think it is fair that I take the opportunity if you are addressing the question to me in another context—

Senator Harradine —I asked about funding.

Senator VANSTONE —It was not clear to me what part of your question relates to my portfolio. Believe me, I would love a free kick for my views, but I just do not think that is fair to my colleagues.

Senator Harradine —Mr President, I have a point of explanation. I am saying: wouldn't it be better for that money which is supported to go to embryonic stem cell research to be used to give substantial increases in support for persons who are caring for husbands or wives or family with Alzheimer's?

Senator VANSTONE —Senator, if you have a magic wand and you can provide more money to any minister for their portfolio, they will say yes. More money for carers of any person with a disability would be like a dream. I only wish that we did have a situation where money grew on trees, but it does not. Let me steer clear of the sensitive issue of stem cells because, as I say, I do not think it is my right or privilege to have an individual kick on that. But I will say this: if you give me the choice between repairing the damage and finding a cure, I will go for the cure every time.

Senator HARRADINE —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Just to enlighten the minister, I ask whether she has seen the statement by Professor Peter Rathjen, who is involved in embryonic stem cells, who states:

It is ... nonsense that stem cells might be able to cure Alzheimer's. We do not even know what causes it.

I come back to the point: what is the government going to do and what is your portfolio going to do about the increased number of persons with Alzheimer's and carers of people with Alzheimer's? What action are you proposing this year over and above the meagre amount last year to deal with that very, very serious situation?

Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Family and Community Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women) —I have not seen the research you refer to, which goes back to stem cells. All I would say in response to that is that I think very few people, before they do research, know what the answers are, otherwise they would not need to do the research. It is a bit like saying to a kid, `You can't get into the pool till you learn how to swim.' The kid says, `How in heaven's name can I learn to swim if you won't let me in the pool?' My general preference is to let science find what it can. I do not think science is good or bad. Parliaments are in control of what you do with the science and parliaments need to take charge of that. As to the question of people with Alzheimer's, we have what I think is internationally regarded as a very fair system for carers. We would always like it to be more generous. I do not put carers of people with Alzheimer's in any higher priority than carers of people, for example, with an intellectually disabled kid or a physically disabled kid. If you are a carer, you need our assistance all the time. (Time expired)