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Thursday, 14 September 2006
Page: 61


Senator CARR (12:57 PM) —I wish to speak briefly on the Intellectual Property Laws Amendment Bill 2006. While Labor support the bill, we feel the need to point out just how long a time it has been between the period in which the Howard government announced it was seeking to take some action in this matter and the presentation of this legislation. We say that the Howard government is characterised by its complacency and neglect when it comes to making Australia a more attractive environment for innovative companies.

Labor understands that appropriate intellectual property arrangements are critical to creating an environment which supports Australian innovation and the commercialisation of Australian ideas. These arrangements must strike the appropriate balance between protecting the rights and returns of innovators and facilitating an open and competitive market. The amendments contained in this bill will improve the intellectual property regime, enhance efficiency and maintain an appropriate balance between innovation and competitive outcomes. But they are long overdue.

The amendments made by this bill give effect to some of the outstanding recommendations of the Intellectual Property and Competition Review Committee, which produced its final report in September 2000. It took six years to get to this point. I cannot for the life of me understand why it took so long. I have had a keen interest in this matter for some time. When I had responsibility for these issues as shadow minister these were questions which were at the forefront of the manufacturing industry in this country. There were demands being made right across the country for action to be taken with regard to these questions, yet this government failed to respond to a report of this importance for some six years. The bill gives effect to some outstanding aspects of the March 1999 report of the Advisory Council on Intellectual Property on its review of the enforcement of industrial property rights. So it has taken 7½ years for the government to act on that particular report.

The bill proposes to: broaden the springboarding regime for pharmaceutical patents; clarify the rights of a prior user in the granting of patents; add a competition test to the compulsory licensing of patents; allow for exemplary—in fact, punitive—damages to be awarded in patent infringement actions; amend provisions relating to the revocation of trademarks and public access to trademark files; and make minor and technical amendments to the Patents Act 1990, Trade Marks Act 1995, Designs Act 2003 and Plant Breeder’s Rights Act 1994.

Intellectual property rights and arrangements are an important issue as, for many Australian companies, IP is not just their only asset but their only product. As a nation, we have significant weaknesses in the commercialisation of Australian ideas and innovation, and the intellectual property regime in this country ought to have been strengthened some time ago. The reality is that the Howard government is anti research and anti innovation. The latest OECD figures make the point, with regard to research and development, that in 2003 Australia ranked 18th of all OECD countries in terms of investment in research and development as a percentage of GDP.

Where Australia spends 1.65 per cent of its GDP on research and development, other OECD countries are up around three per cent. Our major industrial competitors in the north of Asia and the north of Europe leave us for dead on these issues. In today’s Age there is a report on page 8 quoting Monash University Vice-Chancellor, Professor Richard Larkins, as saying:

Everything that is happening is pointing to Australia being more and more of a research and development and high tech backwater.

According to the Age, government figures responded to this criticism by arguing that the strong local economy meant it was not as important to keep up with international research standards. I find it an extraordinary proposition that the spin doctors in the government would say that this is not important. It is an amazing proposition. The same article says:

Eminent medical biologist and former Australian of the Year Gustav Nossal said that industry investment was well behind overseas levels.

The article went on:

But Sir Gustav said the Government also needed to increase its funding and continue to encourage business investment through tax incentive, start-up grants or “plain old jawboning”—talking up the importance of science.

So, at every level, criticism is coming forward of the government’s appalling performance on these issues. In fact, I would argue that there is no better evidence of the Howard government’s failure to secure Australia’s economic future than its failure to invest in research and innovation, which drives productivity.

Intellectual property rights and arrangements, both legal and financial, are a key lever in the pursuit of better commercialisation outcomes and thus, by extension, are an integral feature of the broader innovation debate. They are critical to high-skilled, high-wage jobs in manufacturing in this country. This bill does make the situation a little better but it fails to deal with the fundamental problem—that it has taken the government the better part of seven years just to get this far. Such a lag in the implementation of important legislation is simply unacceptable and it is symbolic of this government’s complacency and neglect.