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Wednesday, 11 March 1998
Page: 1049

Mr MARTIN (10:00 AM) —At the outset, I again commend the Minister for Customs and Consumer Affairs (Mr Truss) for the way in which he has provided information to the opposition in respect of the Intellectual Property Laws Amendment Bill 1997 . Even though it is non-controversial—and, despite the title, at first blush is nothing that tests one's intellect—it is always good to know that the government is prepared to provide the opposition with the opportunity to get a full briefing on the issues surrounding it. Of course, that also goes to the fact that there is an amendment to be moved by the government today that picks up one of the concerns that I did have, which I will remark on in a moment. The fact that the government's people were providing information to us fairly late last night is something which we certainly appreciate on our side of the House.

The Intellectual Property Laws Amendment Bill 1997 has three major issues within it. The first, of course, is to implement the government's decision to allow an extension of the patent term to a total of 25 years for patents relating to pharmaceutical substances. The second is to provide for the introduction of a new regime for regulation of the patent attorney profession and to deregulate professional practice in trademarks and designs. The third is to make some minor changes to the patent regime of a technical nature, making it easier for applicants to transact business before the office.

I might say that we have absolutely no objections to any of these—nor, indeed, to the issue that has subsequently been raised by the government as an amendment to their own legislation, in respect of the regulations specifying qualifications necessary for the registration of patent attorneys. These will include provisions to ensure existing practitioners, both patent attorneys and lawyers, will have the right to seek registration as trademark attorneys. The wording, of course, was a little inexact and, as a consequence, those amendments have been moved.

On that issue, the concern I did have was that potentially, where an industry had been regulated somewhat and qualifications were expected for people to actually have a role as a patent attorney, that might have been in some way watered down. I think that has now been overcome here. The bill and the changes that have been moved by the government make it clear that these were issues that were of concern to the government, as well. We do not want to see watered down in any way in that profession—where a fair degree of technical expertise is required in determining whether a patent should be awarded to a product—the technical expertise that gives people the ability to dictate whether a patent should be awarded. I think the government is aware that that is the case.

I know from time to time that people ask, `When we are talking about pharmaceutical products in particular, what is the point of actually having the patents there—and the rights of people in terms of registration of those trademarks and so on—when government provides R&D concessions and government gives support, and the industry is large enough and profitable enough to be looking after its own ways?' I think that is not really appropriate in this circumstance and I am pleased that the government, as I said, has picked up the recommendations, largely in response to the Industry Commission report No. 51, on the pharmaceutical industry. In fact, this does reflect much of the work that Labor was doing in its later years in government.

I also want to say this, though. Whilst we are talking about pharmaceuticals and the way in which generic products subsequently are developed by pharmaceuticals producers, and whilst we are talking about the fact that on many occasions you do have a brand name substance that, in a generic form, is often manufactured by the same company or a similar company and then put on the market at a marginally cheaper price, there is still some confusion in the community about how this comes about. I know, Mr Deputy Speaker Nehl, that you probably would have recently received, as I have, quite a number of representations by the elderly in our respective communities that they were concerned that a number of products that were just to give them quality of life increased in price as a result of the government's decision on pharmaceutical benefits.

I am talking about the sorts of pharmaceutical drugs that are required for reflux, ulcers, keeping blood pressure under control and stemming perhaps the potential for heart attacks, and so on. All of these products have increased from a range of a dollar up to $4.10. I think it is rather mean spirited of the minister to simply dismiss this out of hand and say, `Well, in some cases, this only represents an increase of the price of a packet of cigarettes.' That actually dismisses out of hand concerns that many of the elderly, and particularly those on fixed incomes, for example, pensioners, have about their quality of life.

These drugs that we are talking about are not really there because people want to take them; they are there because they have to take them. They are there because people do have problems; they want to control their blood pressure. They are there because people want to take some of the stress out of their life. They are there because of lifestyle issues. As I have said, and as I have remarked to pensioner organisations in my own constituency, it is rather sad when governments—always with one eye fixed on the bottom line in a budget sense—turn to perhaps the least defensible to try and work out ways in which they can claw back some of those funds.

Whilst this Intellectual Property Laws Amendment Bill 1997 in itself is not controversial, and the opposition will not be delaying its passage in any substantial way, it is important to note, when we start to talk about the cash flows necessary to finance development of new drugs and when we start to talk about new patents that are generated in the industry for new drugs, that the benefits that subsequently flow from that are in fact passed on to people in the broader community.

I have remarked also to many of my constituents, when this issue has been raised, that what they should be doing is seeking the advice of their own medical practitioners as to which may be the best drugs to treat the conditions that they have. I simply repeat that again today. Many constituents will say to you, `Look, I am on Zantac because I need it for quality of life.' Others will say, `Well, there's another product that's there that probably is just as good,' and they save 50c. But, if they do not go to a doctor and they do not get a referral, or at least some recommendations about which of those generic products are better for them, they would never know that they in fact can save some money in respect of that. I just simply say to those people again: be careful and always check with medical practitioners about those.

The whole issue about R&D funding, and about whether or not it is important for the patenting arrangement to be in place for a longer period of time, does raise, I guess, some issues about the way in which newly developed products and generic products can come onto the market. With patents being in place for an extended period, as we are talking about here, it means that those pharmaceutical companies—I confess that they invest multimillions of dollars in developing those particular products—will have an additional lifeline extended to them, where they will be protected to some extent from some competition.

Notwithstanding that, of course, the fact that generic products are now coming onto the market and that they also must go through fairly rigorous testing by pharmaceutical companies—and, indeed, the national health organisations to give them the tick of approval—is an important element of this as well.

I am not going to delay the consideration of this legislation through the Main Committee this morning. It is, as I say, legislation which is welcome. The opposition has no difficulties with it at all. Once again, I would like to thank the officers from the minister's personal staff and those from the department, or the Australian Customs Service, who have provided background information to me and my staff to provide us with a full and frank understanding of the issues before us. Thank you.