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Thursday, 27 November 1986
Page: 3922


Mr SIMMONS(8.42) —The Plant Variety Rights Bill is designed to establish a national scheme which will allow plant breeders to apply for a grant of proprietary rights over any new variety which they may develop. I join the honourable member for Wakefield (Mr Andrew) in congratulating the Government on this important piece of legislation. It is interesting to reflect on the reasons why this or a comparable Bill was not put through the House before 1983 when the Fraser Government lost office. The honourable member for Wakefield attempted to put up all sorts of strange reasons for the Government's alleged delay in introducing this important piece of legislation. When bringing down landmark legislation such as this Bill it is important to make sure it is correct. I accept the point made by the honourable member that, although there will be some losses in the interim period, it is far better to tolerate those losses than to go down the other track which could cause all sorts of other problems.

The introduction of PVR has been a fairly controversial and widely debated issue within Australia ever since it was first mooted in the early 1970s. Unfortunately, at times the debate has been clouded with ideology and a certain amount of emotional rhetoric, and people have not let the facts get in the way of a good story. The introduction of PVR has been recommended by a whole variety of responsible organisations. There have been recommendations by the Industries Assistance Commission on this topic following separate public inquiries into rural research in 1976, and in respect of apples and pears in 1985 and vegetables and vegetable products in 1986. One can also go back to the inquiry by the Senate Standing Committee on National Resources in 1984. Also, a report on PVR has recently been completed by Professor Alex Lazenby following his investigation into the adequacy of plant breeding in Australia. He also recommended the introduction of PVR legislation in this country.

An interesting publication has been put out by the Department of Primary Industry which no doubt has been seen by most honourable members who are interested in landmark legislation. That booklet attempts to put in a simplified form a number of straightforward questions and answers in which many people will be interested on the subject of plant variety rights. I would urge members to make sure that this publication is available through their electoral offices and to draw it to the attention of relevant organisations. Indeed, I am sure that has already been done by rural members. It is a useful booklet and contains an interesting synopsis of plant variety rights both within and outside Australia. It traces the history from 1876 when the German Patent Act was introduced and when plants became first eligible for patents.

If one looks at some of the sagas dealt with in the booklet, one sees that in 1976 there was a working party of the Standing Committee on Agriculture in Australia which recommended PVR for this country-and in 1976, of course, Labor was not in government. Later in 1976 an IAC report recommended PVR legislation. In 1981 the Plant Variety Rights Bill was introduced into the House of Representatives and was open for public discussion. In 1982 the Plant Variety Rights Bill passed this House and the Senate referred the Bill to its Standing Committee on National Resources. Most honourable members are familiar with the rest of the history from then on.

During this debate, which at times has engendered a certain amount of ideology and emotional rhetoric, in the community, people have lost sight of the principles of plant variety rights legislation. I wish to reflect for a few moments on some of those important principles, because we should not lose sight of those principles when we are examining important landmark legislation. One important principle is that the participation of breeders is voluntary. The grant of a right would be given only where a new variety can be clearly distinguished by one or more important characteristics from any other known plant variety. All plant species would be potentially eligible for inclusion in the scheme, but species or genera to which the scheme is to apply at any time would be declared by regulation by the Minister for Primary Industry (Mr Kerin) on advice from a broad-based advisory committee. Ownership rights-a very important issue-include the right to collect royalties, including those from other persons who grow and sell protected varieties under licence for commercial purposes. Nothing in the Bill will prevent the retention of seed of protected varieties for sowing of crops or sale for human and animal consumption. Protected varieties will also be freely available for research purposes and to plant breeders for use in breeding programs. The protection of a right, once granted, will be the responsibility of the owner of the new variety, through the normal legal processes. Finally, there is the important principle that appeals against decisions on registration can be made to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. We must not lose sight of the principles on which such legislation is based.

I also wish to deal with the recommendations by Professor Alex Lazenby, who brought to this inquiry a wealth of knowledge. He is a well respected academic, and I first remember meeting him when he was Vice-Chancellor of the University of New England in Armidale. He subsequently embarked on other careers before moving to Tasmania. Professor Lazenby recommended the introduction of legislation for plant variety rights as a broad based scheme to include all crops. He concluded that the benefits to Australia would considerably outweigh any possible adverse effects. As my good friend and colleague, the honourable member for Bendigo (Mr Brumby) said during his speech, at times we lose perspective. I do not believe that we should lose perspective on this sort of legislation. We should look at the legislation, then look at the sorts of checks and balances that we build into the legislation and try to protect the interests of those people who have a valid concern about the introduction of plant variety rights. At the same time, we should not lose sight of the important benefits of plant varieties legislation.

Professor Lazenby also talked about the need for the maintenance of a strong public program producing finished varieties. These were to be guaranteed long term funding at least as high as the present level. They were to be supported by strong government funded basic research and technology and the development of new varieties in minor crops. There were a whole series of other recommendations made by Professor Lazenby, and I found it a most interesting report. I hope that those people who have taken a keen interest in the whole concept of PVR legislation and who have not already done so will take the time to study the Lazenby report on the introduction of PVR. As I said, at times it is too easy to let the facts get in the way of a good story and we have seen a lot of that during this debate both in the Parliament, unfortunately, and in the wider community. We should also keep in mind that we are not a lone country in the introduction of plant variety rights legislation. A large number of countries involve themselves in PVR schemes. These represent a wide variety of political systems-Austria, Argentina, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, the Federal Republic of Germany, Israel, Japan, Switzerland, the United States of America and the Soviet Union. A whole range of countries have looked at this important aspect of plant variety rights legislation.

The other important aspect that was touched on by the honourable member for Wakefield was the impact of plant variety rights on the less developed countries of the world. We have heard people talking before in this chamber about the problems of international trade in the context of a country such as Australia, which has a tremendous dependence on agricultural commodities, achieving a reasonable trade balance. Time and time again people have said-and this is absolutely true-that, while the green revolution which was talked about for many years, is a great thing in terms of humanitarian principles of social justice, it has certainly harmed the great trading nations of the world. Again, I would refer people who are interested in this subject to the second reading speech of the Minister for Primary Industry on the Plant Variety Rights Bill because this question about the impact of plant variety rights on less developed countries is addressed.

Another question which has been raised is whether PVR will improve access to overseas protected varieties. Australian agriculture is based on plants derived from other countries and, while we have well established and active breeding programs in Australia for major crops, we are still quite dependent on overseas programs for many industries, particularly in horticultural crops. Representing the electorate of Calare which includes the largest apple growing area in Australia, I am very conscious-


Mr Gayler —And you represent it very well too.


Mr SIMMONS —Thank you very much. I am very conscious of the importance of plant variety rights in areas such as Orange where apple growing is a very important part of the economy. Varieties developed overseas are increasingly protected by plant variety rights and are not available to Australian growers in the absence of PVR protection in this country. In other words, if we as a nation wish to use new varieties of horticultural crops and plants, we need to safeguard the rights of other producers overseas and make sure that they have the same protection in Australia. Thus, PVR will also assist the overseas registration and sale of developed varieties.

This is an important piece of legislation and it is a bit sad that there are not many other members of Parliament here to participate in this debate. I am sure that those members from rural electorates are conscious of the importance of this legislation and its impact on their areas. There are very few rural parts of Australia in which this legislation will not have an important impact. To some extent it disappoints me that the so-called protectors of people living in rural Australia, some of the agrarian socialists in the National Party of Australia, are not represented in larger numbers for this debate. I assure the house that there is very strong support for this legislation from myself and many of my colleagues in the powerful and influential primary industry committee of our Party. I join the honourable member for Bendigo in congratulating the Minister for Primary Industry on the passage of this important legislation. It has been widely debated in our committee; we have looked at the Lazenby report; we have looked at all sorts of concerns that have been expressed within the community; and we have made sure that, in the general debate on plant variety rights, people have had an opportunity to make an input. While acknowledging the points made by the honourable member for Wakefield that delays cause inevitable cost problems for those who see natural benefits in plant variety rights, I think it is important to get the legislation correct. In this important Bill we have achieved that and I certainly join with other speakers in commending the Government for this most important landmark legislation.