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Thursday, 14 November 2002
Page: 6355


Senator CHRIS EVANS (11:59 AM) —Firstly, I indicate that the Labor Party will be opposing Senator Bishop's proposed amendment to the objects clause. We will be doing so because we accept the logic that the objects clause was determined as part of the COAG process and we think it adequately meets the objectives of the act. Senator Bishop's amendment, in the sense that it modifies the objects clause, is therefore not necessarily a useful addition. I formally put that on behalf of the Labor Party and indicate that there will be a conscience vote of Labor senators on that issue anyway.

I want to make a couple of personal comments which go to this debate. It is important that we actually concentrate on this issue. I am not sure that the objects clause is the way to do this. I have heard the strength of the argument put by Senator Bishop, and I think there is some strength to it and I think it is something that the Senate will want to grapple with. I would not deal with this issue in the objects clause, and that is a personal decision; Senator Bishop has done it there. From formal Labor advice and in my personal view, that is not the place to do that.

The debate has highlighted a concern that the COAG agreement has not been fully reflected in the bill. That is a difficulty for those who have argued that the bill ought to go through as is on the basis of the COAG agreement. This highlights a broader problem which we have a couple of weeks to rectify. We may well get a vote on this clause; but, as senators know, at 12.45 p.m. we will adjourn this debate. We will all come back refreshed in three weeks. The minister will have had a nice holiday in Bali, and she will be keen for the fray—even if she has got nothing to wear! I am assured the minister is doing important work representing the Australian government and the Australian people in a most important ceremony in Bali, and I wish her well with that.

The debate on this issue highlights that, in a long committee stage process in the Senate where a conscience vote applies, strength of argument—not our traditional process, which is based on where the numbers fall and which party has the numbers—will in the end win the debate. It is necessary in the committee stage of the debate, however uncomfortable that might be and however unusual it is for the government, to actually win the argument. While people are focusing on the conscience vote, they have to focus on the fact that the difference in this debate is that people have to win the intellectual argument. That is something that the government ought to give consideration to in the next couple of weeks: senators will be exercising conscience votes, they will be listening closely to the argument and they will want to be convinced.

I have not done the numbers but, judging from the indicative votes on the cloning bill—and I could be wrong in terms of the embryo bill, so I will not put this too strongly—there seems to be a small majority of senators inclined to support the legislation. But I do not think that that majority will hold on all occasions just because someone says COAG said this or because someone says the government wants it that way. We had an indication of that the other day with the 63 to 9 vote on a particular amendment. On that occasion, the official Labor Party view was to support the amendment. That accounted for some of those numbers, but it certainly did not account for them all. It was a reflection that senators who listened to the debate had not been convinced and voted accordingly. I am sure that that will be the case in the committee stage of this bill. I do not want to lecture or patronise anyone about this, but it is important that we understand that people will need to win the intellectual debate by the strength of their argument. I point out that I am speaking on my own behalf as an individual senator searching his conscience on this issue at the moment, but I do think it will be necessary for us to win discussions inside the chamber by strength of argument.

Therefore, I will not be supporting the amendment proposed by Senator Bishop. I do not think that is appropriate in the objects clause—that is a personal and party view. But I do think that Senator Bishop has raised an important issue about whether COAG's decision is fully reflected in the bill. He has also raised the concern, which has been expressed around the chamber—which I think is shared by all senators and, I am sure, is shared by Senator Patterson—that, to the extent possible, we limit the number of embryos who are impacted on by any research needs. There will be opportunities later in the process of the bill to come to those issues again. I am sure that Senator Bishop has the persistence to again raise these issues under a different heading. I gather there is some debate over whether it is applicable but, clearly, section 21 seeks to lay out the conditions that would apply. As Senator Bishop has pointed out, it does strike people as strange that there is nothing that gives effect to what seems to be the broad COAG agreement and the broad Senate view that, to the extent possible, we ought to be limiting the number of embryos who are affected by legitimate research needs. I say that again without my formal ALP hat on as a cautionary note and to reflect the view that, while people will want to give force to COAG decisions, they will not necessarily accept an argument purely on the basis that COAG decided it. Senators will want to exercise their own conscience and their own decision making powers.

Having said that by way of a personal interlude, I return to put on my Labor Party hat, which up to now has been consistent with the positions I have, without any concern, adopted. I have supported the official Labor Party position personally and have been very happy with the approach taken. But I do think we need to exercise caution about how the debate proceeds when we return in a couple of weeks time. We need to seriously address those arguments that have been raised on this issue and provide a serious response. The intervening period will allow that to occur, but obviously we will have similar issues on other amendments and we have to make sure that rigour is applied. I know that that will be the view of senators, and they have displayed that already. That is worth our taking on board. As I say, with my official Labor Party hat on and in my personal view, I do not think the objects clause is the place to do what is proposed by Senator Bishop's amendment. I do not support Senator Bishop's amendment, but I think he has raised a very important issue that will be the subject of consideration. If it is not carried here, I am sure it will present again in some other form.