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Thursday, 5 December 2002
Page: 7240

Senator BROWN (10:12 AM) —It is simply not good enough for the minister to sit there mute and silent on a legitimate question like that. I have watched this debate unfold. I came here with the wish to support this legislation, but I had a concern that the embryo testing system was going to be at the service of commercial interests first, rather than the humanitarian interests which we are all told the system is essential to service. We have here an exclusion on the commercial interests—no doubt, for the benefit of the companies that are going to be involved in the experimentation. There is not an exclusion clause here to protect other aspects of the whole chain of events that are involved in such experimentation.

I have asked the minister for a simple explanation as to why this subclause should be kept. Senator Harradine has moved that it be removed. This committee has every right to say, `Let's have the argument from the minister defending the subclause being there.' We are a house of review. We are here to protect the public interest and, above all, to ensure that there is transparency in what government and government appointed committees do. Where you move to make some of the outcomes of the government committees secret, you need a darn good explanation as to why that secrecy should be supported by the Senate. I have asked the minister to give us an example. We know the commercial-in-confidence record of governments around the country. I am frankly disgusted that the commercial-in-confidence explanation is used all the time to prevent public access to matters which affect the public every day.

It is simple enough, for example, under freedom of information around this country, to have a minister prevent the public from getting a whole range of information which is legitimately theirs by the simple mechanism of saying those three great words, `commercial-in-confidence'. We are into a very important matter here. I have asked the minister for some explicit examples to warrant this part of the legislation—the end of clause 29 and the whole of clause 30, which Senator Harradine has drawn our attention to—giving legitimacy to throwing a veil of secrecy over the workings of the committee and the licensing system, through the mechanism of commercial-in-confidence. I do not have faith in that.

I am asking the minister to please give me an outline of where the line would be drawn on this commercial-in-confidence mechanism. We have a total right to know that. We have every right to know that. I do not want leave it to some committee under pressure from some drug company further down the line to say, `We cannot put that out because it is commercial-in-confidence and the drug company will threaten us under this law if we release that information to the public.' Our job here is to protect the public interest and therefore the committee. What the minister is doing here is promoting the commercial interest through law to be able to cut across the right of the public to know. It is very important that the minister respond to this question, give us examples and draw a line on commercial-in-confidence. She uses the word `legitimate'. What does `legitimate' mean? It is not defined here. There is a very big responsibility on the minister to define what she meant by `legitimate', so that we can clearly know what we are voting for in terms of Senator Harradine's asseveration that there should not be such commercial-in-confidence, as against the minister's asseveration that there should be. It is very clearly up to the minister to tell us what she means by `commercial-in-confidence' and, indeed, `legitimate commercial-in-confidence' so that we can make that determination.