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Thursday, 27 November 1986
Page: 3928

Mr O'KEEFE(9.15) —Mr Deputy Speaker, earlier this week in the Parliament Madam Speaker drew to our attention the fact that there is a responsibility on members of this Parliament to behave in a way that attracts public support. I must express my disappointment at the way in which the honourable member for O'Connor (Mr Tuckey) has conducted himself during this debate. (Quorum formed). Before I was interrupted by the calling of a quorum I was expressing my concern at the behaviour of the honourable member for O'Connor. I make the observation that he must have looked at the polls and is cracking under the pressure. In this debate we are looking at an issue which, as my colleagues the honourable member for Bendigo (Mr Brumby) and the honourable member for Calare (Mr Simmons) have said-they are both fellow members of the country task force of the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke)-is controversial and of great interest in the community in general.

The first thing I want to do in my small contribution to this discussion is assure people that the matter has been thoroughly considered by members of the task force. In reaching our decision we have taken account of a number of the key issues. I think it is fair for me to say that I entered consideration of this matter opposed to the introduction of plant variety rights and I had reservations in particular areas. I was concerned that we should not undermine the independence of Australia's food producers. It is self-evident to us all that we must not become subservient to chemical companies and that our food production must remain independent and in our own hands. That is a matter of national significance; so, we took that into account. I was also concerned that there should not be a concentration of food resource development or production around those who can best afford to get into plant variety development. In other words, we have a nation of small farmers and small food producers who must be protected from major interests that could swallow them up. We were concerned to address that issue.

We were also concerned to address the question of non-chemical food production. Many people in our community are concerned about food, health and nutrition and they are worried, as many of us were, about protecting the ability of people to have access to wholesome, fresh food that has not been influenced, contaminated or controlled by chemicals, whichever way one chooses to look at it. We also had to look at another argument-the continuing claim that, through the introduction of plant variety rights, in some way we would become substantially more productive.

I do not mind looking at the question of our becoming more productive but I think our farming community has to give serious consideration to one thing. Often in this House we hear members who claim to represent this sector saying that our farmers are the most productive in the world. I happen to agree that there is a lot of substance in that. Our farmers may be the most productive in the world as my colleague the honourable member for Bendigo has often drawn to our attention, but we also have to remember that these are the same people who operate in what they call the free enterprise environment. If we were really to apply the old free enterprise adage we would say: `If you can't sell it, don't grow it'. We have in the world at the moment, in a number of major commodity areas, an over supply of production. So it is not valid for honourable members to enter the plant variety rights debate and argue that the introduction of plant variety rights will make us more productive and somehow that will give us a better response in the world markets. We have to take it a little deeper than that.

I must say that those arguments about volumes and productivity particularly in the major areas do not impress me. I agree with what the honourable member for O'Connor said about China and Asia. There are those, for instance, in the National Farmers Federation who claim that we have the potential of becoming the food bowl of Asia. I want to dispel that view. What the honourable member for O'Connor recognises and said is true. People in those countries are embracing a new approach to primary production. In the mass production and big volume areas they will be producing enormous amounts. As developing countries they have to earn export revenue from somewhere and, as we did a century ago, they will be relying in the future on those sorts of products to generate that export income.

To my mind this is where we go to the heart of the PVR issue. We must use plant variety rights to develop specialty products and products that will hold their place in the export world. In my electorate, the Tullamarine airport--

Mr McVeigh —They grow a lot of wheat there.

Mr O'KEEFE —The honourable member interjects and says that people grow a lot of wheat around Tullamarine airport. Let me tell the honourable member, who claims to represent farmers, that he does not have his geography right. They do not grow wheat around Tullamarine airport, not much anyway; but they grow apples, vegetables, horticultural products and specialty products and that is the issue that I am addressing.

Mr Cunningham —They grow plenty of oats.

Mr O'KEEFE —As my colleague the honourable member for MacMillan, has said-he is the Chairman of the Prime Minister's country task force, and I might say that he does a fantastic job-they grow plenty of oats. We get plenty of oats from them.

Having addressed this issue with what I believe is a fair degree of healthy cynicism, I think we have been able to focus on the real issue. We need to have export potential, and be able to compete against Californian oranges and chillies and avocados from other countries and all these specialty products that generate high income from short-run production on. Through the efforts of the Minister for Aviation (Mr Peter Morris) and the Victorian Government it is clear that the Tullamarine airport will provide us with a gateway to the world for the export of fresh food produce, cut flowers, and a whole range of plants and specialty issues that we are tackling.

I remember my colleague the honourable member for McEwen (Mr Cleeland) commenting to me not long after the Chernobyl experience that one very big thing that is going for Australian food produce is that it is radiation free. There will be those opportunities, albeit from quite terrible circumstances, where we will need to be able to have the capacity to service those sorts of specialist needs at various times. Therefore, I have come to accept that Australian ingenuity and inventiveness exist in these areas as they do in other areas. I noted in the editorial of the Australian Financial Review of 21 November a comment that the lack of PVR legislation in Australia has led in the past to two serious consequences. It has discouraged our breeders, our nursery men and women and horticulturalists from investing the effort in developing genetic material because of their vulnerability to having their investment copied, and I accept that argument. The second consequence is that overseas producers who have developed extensive improvements in these areas are reluctant to allow those varieties to be grown in Australia because of the lack of protection. As a Government we have had to address those issues and accept them as valid arguments.

I have had several discussions with groups in my electorate which have written to me and expressed concerns. One of these concerns is very close to the heart of this issue. I wish to refer to a letter from Mrs Smith of Sunbury who represents a group in that area. She has made the point that in the view of the group that she represents it is possible to reduce or to reverse the advance of cancer by the use of a fresh, raw vegetable and fruit diet, grape juice and other wholesome, pure vegetable and fruit products. I totally agree with that, without claiming any medical expertise. In that respect I want to assure groups who are concerned about that sort of issue that we have gone to great pains in this legislation to make sure that the future for non-chemical, non-additive products is solid in Australia and that, as the growing market for pure health foods of that kind takes its hold, there will be protection under this legislation.

I go directly to the second reading speech of the Minister for Primary Industry (Mr Kerin) in which he makes it clear that the scheme will be voluntary and that it will be open to plant breeders to apply for and receive a right. It is also going to be supplemented by heavy investment by government in research and development. I think there is a little message for those who get taken in by the question of privatisation from time to time. I know that there is a view that vigorously maintained and funded research programs in the public sector which act as a barrier to monopolisation of plants rights could be set at risk if an alternative government introduced a privatisation policy and ran down the public sector effort in plant variety breeding. I think that is a very valid point. Those who want to preach the privatisation theory are going to have to come clean with their attitude towards public sector investment in plant variety breeding because those of us who have accepted this legislation, having come to it with this cynicism, want to make sure that that public sector investment exists as a barrier to commercial monopoly.

I also want to say that there are in the Minister's speech a number of clear statements about the long term operation of the legislation. It has to be seen that PVR introduced into Australia now does not mean tomorrow a bank of protected plant varieties suddenly coming on stream. We are starting a long time behind the rest of the world-we recognise that-and as such it is going to take time to develop in Australia the sort of PVR bank that we need. Our biggest asset, as I see it, from the introduction of this legislation is that the guarantees are in place that will enable our commercial trading partners and those interested in horticulture in Australia to now have the confidence to share and join with us. So PVR is not to be seen as an overnight panacea; it is a long term investment.

I now want to address a point made by a number of members of the Opposition. They have come into the House here to debate this Bill really in support of it, and I accept that and acknowledge it, but in the traditional knock for the sake of knocking attitude they have had to find something wrong. I suppose that is how they see their role. One of the complaints they have continually made is about the delay in the implementation of the legislation. I simply say this: In the Minister's second reading speech he makes it clear that when he came to office he was not satisfied with the content of the Bill. There were many concerns in the Australian community that had not been addressed by the previous Government and it was necessary to throw it open for broader consideration to satisfy those groups. That has been done and we have a far better Bill as a result. I make no apologies for the role of the Minister in that.

That brings me to my final comments. I endorse the comments of the honourable member for Calare (Mr Simmons) and the honourable member for Bendigo (Mr Brumby) and others on our side earlier in this debate. I commend the Minister for Primary Industry for the way in which he has handled this issue. He has shown strong patience. He has been prepared to consult deeply and fully with members of his primary and provincial affairs committee and other members from conservation and environment sectors of our committee system who wanted assurances. He has been prepared to throw the issue open for public debate. We have not been a government that sits behind a closed door and suddenly throws a piece of legislation on the table. We have been prepared to have the Lazenby inquiry. We have been prepared to allow everybody to debate the issue fully before we introduced it. A few weeks ago, early in November, I had the honour of opening this year's Harcourt apple festival.

Mr Gayler —You did it well, too.

Mr O'KEEFE —Yes, it was a wonderful event, as my colleague here says. There I came across new breeds of apples which are being developed without the support of PVR. So, we have not been sitting still waiting for it all to happen. Those producers in Harcourt and the Bacchus Marsh area, where we have heavy concentrations of apple production, welcome this legislation. At the same time I acknowledge that they have not stood still but are making their way. They see this as a positive development for them. I support the Bill fully and, in doing so, give an assurance to those many people who have made representations to me that the issues have been fully considered and that I am fully satisfied with the content and substance of this legislation.