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Thursday, 27 November 1986
Page: 3931

Mr CONQUEST(9.36) —I, like many other members of this Parliament, have received many letters from horticulturalists, nurserymen and growers of a variety of crops supporting the introduction of a plant variety rights scheme. I suppose that Eric and Connie Bauer, founders and principals of the world renowned Bauer Gerbera nursery situated in Bundaberg in the Hinkler electorate, were probably the first people to draw to my notice the need for plant variety rights legislation in Australia. A lot of enthusiasm was expressed in the letters that I received, which has persuaded me to research the subject and to read the report of the Lazenby inquiry. I must say that I certainly had to go to the Oxford Science Dictionary to research some of the words mentioned in the Lazenby report. I talk, of course, of germplasms, cultivars, taxonomy and various other matters raised in the report.

The matter of plant variety rights is extremely important to the district I represent, which is a very big producer of vegetables and horticulture of all kinds, particularly in the Bundaberg area. Whilst some people here this evening have been complaining about the hardness of tomatoes on the market today, I can assure them that the growers of these products are aware that they have to have market acceptability for their fruits and that, if they do not ensure that they put some flavour into tomatoes, somebody else will; and what with plant variety rights and other varieties coming into Australia they will probably have to meet competition from other types of vegetables.

In August I had an opportunity to visit the Asian vegetable research development centre in Taiwan and I was most impressed with the work carried out there. It is an organisation international in its composition. It was formed by the Rockefeller Foundation initially and on its board has members from all over the world. It is carrying out a lot of research into vegetables. In the Bundaberg district also in recent months we have had the opening of a research centre for the State Department of Primary Industries. Further down the track, after it establishes itself in various agricultural pursuits that are taking place and in the soil problems of the Bundaberg district, it will be addressing itself more to research into various vegetables.

I noted that the Lazenby inquiry received some 23 submissions and that some of them expressed doubts and concerns about the introduction of plant variety rights. I am sure that those who have read the reports and the letters from those people who expressed concern would also have taken time to do some research to see whether they were well founded. Whilst there can still be some concern, I am certainly assured that the plant variety rights legislation has the necessary safeguards and that the overwhelming evidence provided in the report is that the safeguards in the legislation will serve to allay the fears that some people may have in regard to this type of legislation. The Plant Diversity Protection Committee also said that the sole detailed report dealing with the effect of PVR is that of Butler and Marion in 1984, which received little mention in the Lazenby document. The Committee quoted from Butler and Marion as follows:

There is no evidence that the Plant Variety Protection Act has triggered large investments in plant breeding research and development, nor of large improvements in either techniques (i.e. plant breeding) or in plant quality.

So one may ask how the Minister for Primary Industry (Mr Kerin) reconciles his observations against the contents of Butler and Marion's 1984 report.

I recognise that the Minister says that it is essential that Australia maintain a strong public plant breeding effort for our economically important crops to ensure we continue to have varieties well adapted to Australian farming conditions and plant products suited to our principal markets. However, he did introduce a warning to some commodity groups when he said:

. . . we just cannot afford the cost of public breeding programs for our minor crops and that we will continue to be reliant in this area on genetic resources from overseas and the programs of private breeders. This is particularly the case in our horticultural industries.

If Butler and Marion's report is relevant to Australia, those growing these minor crops to which the Minister referred will see little or no benefit from plant variety rights, which is contrary to their expectations as they have expressed them in letters to me. I hope that the Minister will keep horticulturalists in mind should he consider the expansion of public plant breeding effort. Robert Bell is one who is concerned that there is probably no crop grown in Australia, with the exception of wheat, which has a seed market big enough to make it worthwhile for new commercial breeding to be carried out here, as royalties would not cover costs. Australia could become integrated into a world-wide marketing system of large corporations which would be granted patents, such as has happened with industrial patents. I am aware that the Minister referred in his second reading speech to `the large number of relatively small, often independently owned businesses in the seed trade' however, I wonder whether they can survive if the big companies do move in. Small Australian nurseries and seed merchants may survive but perhaps only by depending on licences and contracts from these companies.

Another point raised by the Free Access to Seeds Committee is directly related to the small breeder. Its concern is that small breeders may be unlikely to gain from PVR because the infringement of rights can be stopped only by taking the infringer to court. Of course small businesses lack the financial resources of the big companies to fight lengthy and expensive legal battles. So, plant variety rights may be seen to protect the strong to the detriment of the weaker, little battlers we have in the smaller industries throughout Australia particularly, naturally, in these agricultural areas. We will need to keep our eye on that to ensure that the small businesses are not disadvantaged and that, if that is seen to be so, some remedial action is taken by the Government to help those businesses out.

I mentioned earlier the horticultural and large vegetable growing area around Bundaberg. It is extremely important to understand the need in such areas for diversity. We all know that there has been a downturn in the sugar industry and, as a result, many cane growers have turned to vegetable production. This has not been without some trauma for other areas. For instance, the Bowen district was devastated by the higher production of tomatoes in the Bundaberg area, which is now the largest producer of market tomatoes in Australia. I understand that the Lockyer Valley has also felt the effect of the growth in this industry. So, it is quite clear that, if we are transferring the problems of the sugar industry to other areas, we have to look for a larger market, and that involves exporting. I believe that some of the varieties being established at the Asian Vegetable Research Development Centre in Taiwan could be brought over here, integrated into our agricultural pursuits and we could make a determined bid to capture export markets. Therefore, we can all gain. At least one port in Queensland is looking to see whether it can establish a facility to which vegetables from throughout Queensland can be brought and containerised, using new containers with new methods available to convert containers with the objective of encouraging shipping up the east coast of Australia and into the Asian market. We suffer at present from the fact that most of the shipping from Asia comes down the east coast of Australia and goes back via Western Australia; so, of course, Queensland is disadvantaged in the transport of its fruits. We do need to have shipping come up the east coast of Australia and into those Asian markets; we do need to have a variety of fruits that will carry, that will maintain their flavour and that will arrive in those Asian markets in an acceptable condition.

I believe that the plant variety rights legislation will enable us to bring into our markets certain overseas strains. That is important. At present we cannot get them in, in most cases because they are not protected by any legislation. It is a pity, as mentioned by the honourable member for O'Connor (Mr Tuckey), that this legislation lapsed with the change of government. It was about to be introduced and, over the intervening period, Australia has lost a tremendous amount of money that it could otherwise have gained from export markets.

As I have mentioned, I am certainly in favour of the Bill. Concerns have been raised by certain people but, the overwhelming evidence shows that the legislation will be beneficial. We give notice that the Opposition will be closely monitoring the operation of PVR and will certainly react to any unintended consequences which may manifest themselves and which can be expected with new legislation. I have much pleasure in supporting the Bill.