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Monday, 28 August 2000
Page: 19470

Mr ANDREW THOMSON (9:38 PM) —I have enjoyed the last 20 minutes. You would go a long way to hear speeches as carefully crafted as those delivered by the member for Lyons, and tonight's was no exception to that. It is noteworthy that the honourable gentleman comes from Tasmania—indeed, the shadow minister at the table, Mr Kerr, likewise—but has expressed sentiments somewhat at odds with what the state government of Tasmania is attempting to do with genetically modified foods. But that is perhaps a debate for another time. Tonight we have to discuss the provisions of a number of bills, chiefly the Gene Technology Bill 2000. This is a complex subject—one on which the government ought to hasten slowly, but then again it has to be said that this legislation has been a long time coming. Genetically modified foods really boil down to a simple proposition—that of precision. When you are able to manipulate the gene sequence of a foodstuff, you are really acting as a scalpel, as opposed to the sledgehammer that selective breeding has been up until now. The potential that this technology provides for any developing country is astonishing when you think about what it can do to raise incomes and to increase the output of agricultural foodstuffs. It is quite astonishing when you go into it.

But there is a lot of anxiety about this technology and its products. It has to do not simply with the ethical and even the religious aspects of the manipulation of embryos but more particularly with what is in our food and what the growing of certain foodstuffs may mean for agricultural producers and the agricultural economy generally. For anybody with a child, especially a very young one, deep down there is always some element of doubt. You take special care when you feed a small child; you always wonder what is in the food and what it might do. In a larger sense, the anxiety around GM foods was fuelled in a great way by the beef scandal in Britain involving the so-called mad cow disease or BSE. This came as a great shock to people in Britain and Europe. Of course it spread very quickly, and so there is a heightened sensitivity about the quality of the food we are offered.

Even more than that, there is generally a reaction abroad to a perceived corporatisation of our economies, generally speaking. There is a deep feeling of loss of control, of the destruction of all the old verities. This manifests itself in various ways—some of them quite malignant, like vicious protests against gatherings of people who are attempting to discuss things in a sensible fashion, like the World Trade Organisation in Seattle or the meeting in Melbourne in a couple of weeks time. To be blunt, these days large corporations are sluicegates of capital, both financial capital, raised through the equity or credit markets, and human capital. People want to work for large corporations where they see that there may be more security of employment than in smaller enterprises. Once you attach a brand name to the gate, that sense of control increases. Governments take more notice of large corporations that have a pervasive brand name and the ability to raise a lot of capital.

On the other side of the coin, you must also acknowledge that the aggregation of capital in the huge pension funds also tends to diminish the role of the individual in making decisions about where he or she might invest their savings. If more sovereignty is given to the individual—more choice, more individual control—there may be less anxiety. But these days, with supermarkets getting bigger and bigger and controlling more and more of the consumer franchise, there is a definite sense that control of the sources of food is gradually escaping the individual. So the cry goes out to government, `Do something to make sure we are safe,' and hence this bill.

It establishes a framework of regulation. It is not something that I would naturally support, but by examining the individual provisions one by one you get the sense at first glance of an enormous framework, perhaps even unnecessarily large. But the more you look behind the provisions into what is going on in the laboratories and the kinds of alternatives on offer, the more you see that this bill is a reasonable attempt to deal with the feeling among citizens that some form of control and regulation is necessary.

If you go to proposed section 3, the object of the act, where we really ought to start any debate on a bill, you read the following:

The object of this Act is to protect the health and safety of people, and to protect the environment, by identifying risks posed by or as a result of gene technology, and by managing those risks through regulating certain dealings with GMOs.

So the emphasis is on managing the risks. What the act proceeds to do in proposed section 26 is establish a gene technology regulator. It says:

There is to be a Gene Technology Regulator.

It is a bit like the early chapters of the Bible. It then goes on to detail the functions of the regulator, but the pith of it is that if you want to deal—and I use that verb as they use it in the act—with a genetically modified organism you must have a licence to do so, unless that GMO falls within three categories. Those categories are those of what you might call minimal risk. The first is notifiable low-risk dealings, to be specified in regulations, although I am assured that this will be in effect no change from the existing regime of voluntary regulation; secondly, if the GMO comes within the category of an exempt dealing; and, thirdly, if the dealing is already notified to the GMO register. In these cases it will not require a licence.

What is of particular importance is what happens if the proposed GMO, the new technology, does not fall within those three categories of minimal risk and hence requires a licence. In that case, you have to go to proposed section 49. This is really the core of this attempted regulation. The provision says that if the regulator is satisfied that at least one of the dealings proposed to be authorised by the licence may pose significant risks to the health and safety of people or to the environment then certain duties fall upon the regulator: to publish a notice in respect of the application and so on and so forth. To pause just there, you have something that may be a reasonable attempt, and I think it is, to deal with the public anxiety about this new technology or may in future, if misused, cause some particular difficulties for those people who feel attracted to the idea of investing capital in some of this new technology. The test there is whether or not the regulator is satisfied that a proposed dealing in a GMO may pose significant risks to the health and safety of people. Is this a subjective test or is it an objective test? It appears to be a subjective one. So the person who holds that statutory office must satisfy himself or herself that the proposed dealing `may pose' risk, so there is a question of likelihood. Is that test of likelihood to be on the balance of probabilities or the criminal standard of proof, beyond reasonable doubt? Informal advice is that it will be the civil standard of proof, on the balance of probabilities.

The next noteworthy word in that formula is `significant'—`may pose significant risks to the health and safety of people or to the environment'. Again, this could be dealt with reasonably or it could be abused by a person who holds that office who has some ideological bent, perhaps. Is there a potential for some excessive zeal to perhaps frustrate the progress of science and to damage the investment potential of this kind of technology? Is this perhaps a charter for Luddites? It may be, but I am satisfied that for the time being it will not be used as such. When you go further into the bill and you examine some of the other aspects of the regulation, you see that sound science is introduced into the process and the precautionary principle, the stalking horse so often of those who are opposed to scientific progress, is kept happily distant from this.

The definition of the environment, which you find in proposed section 10, is very broad. If the wrong person were appointed to the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator, it may provide scope for a person to exercise what I would describe as excessive zeal. The definition reads:

`environment' includes:

(a) ecosystems and their constituent parts; and

(b) natural and physical resources;

There is nothing terribly worrying about those two. But thirdly:

(c) the qualities and characteristics of locations, places and areas.

What precisely that means—the qualities and characteristics of locations, places and areas—I think could do with some more definition. Whether by regulation or even over a considerably longer period of time by litigation and precedent, there may be some more precise definition of that which would be helpful.

After a person applies for a licence and the regulator satisfies himself or herself of that first test, the regulator has to publish a notice inviting public submissions. He or she must prepare a risk assessment and a risk management plan and must seek advice from the states, the minister for the environment and local councils. Puzzlingly, the regulator—and I point to proposed section 51—must take into account any such advice rendered from those sources.

It does not say that the regulator must make a decision within the parameters of any such advice, but apparently there is a duty conferred on that person to take that advice into account. I am not quite sure what that means. To me it smacks a bit of the right to negotiate, something that sounds rather good and sensible and perhaps not such a problem, but in effect it does not mean anything. If the regulator must take those things into account, the next question you would ask is: what are the time limits on that? A malevolent regulator may use the opportunity to delay approval of a new genetically modified organism, but thereafter proposed section 52 has it that the regulator will then publish the assessment and the plan and invite further public submissions. So this opportunity for public submissions, for which I think you can read `NGO-driven campaigns' and so forth, is given twice.

Finally, the regulator must—in proposed section 55—make a decision to grant or refuse the licence. So you have these peculiar statutory attempts to direct what a regulator must do in terms of process, but it does seem to me to lack a little meaning. If I were the regulator and someone said to me, `You have to take these things into account,' I could sit there until I was blue in the face taking them into account. I could take them into account from dawn to dusk. Then what is the outcome? Who would be able to judge whether or not I had taken them into account when there is no duty to make a decision according to the advice that you are given by these various sources. It seems to me to be put in there for the purpose of satisfying a rather strident lobby that something is being done, but as to what the outcome is that is a bit of a mystery. Provided there is enough sound science in the decision making process and that the precautionary principle is kept well away from this important technology, then I am satisfied with the bill and I shall vote for it.

Generally speaking, the question we have to ask ourselves is: is this excessive regulation? Given what is being said in the Senate Community Affairs References Committee, which is inquiring into the bill, you would have to say that it could be worse. There are suggestions coming out of the Senate committee that new gene technology be the subject of a veto by a two-thirds majority of a community consultation committee. I was under the impression that this chamber is a community consultation committee, a parliament, and where we deliberate on bills and vote them into law then they should stand as such. If you confer or devolve onto some vaguely constructed body, a community consultation committee, powers to veto new technology, that is not the sort of thing that either side of this House could sensibly agree to.

Genetic modification and the technology that underpins it goes to lowering the cost of food, which involves increased output of plants and, if done well, can reduce the role or the need for herbicides, water and nutrients—the very sorts of things that many sensible people of an environmental bent are calling for. If you look back to the turn of the century when there was a great fear that the forests of the United States would be sacrificed, that there would be a great famine of wood, as they described it at the time, it was that increase in the productive capacity of the crops that were gradually introduced into the great agricultural areas of the United States that meant that farmers could use less land to produce more food. Gene technology is really much of the same. Yet much of the opposition to it is couched in terms of, `It's not natural,' or, `It's Frankenstein food,' and gives rise to an unjustified suspicion of scientific endeavour.

The precautionary principle, so often attempted to be introduced into regulation of this sort, often sounds a sensible idea on its own of safety first and the notions you seek to imbue in a small child—`Don't run across the road. You'll get run over. Take it easy. Be careful.' A balanced risk assessment is what this ought to be all about. Not only does it mean accounting for the potential cost of allowing such technologies to run free with no regulation but also it ought to account for the cost of regulation itself because deterring investment in GMOs has a cost of its own. It will reduce agricultural incomes and therefore, if you extrapolate that, it leads to lower incomes and lower standards of health in the parts of Australia that could do with just the opposite. Overregulation can cause damage by misdirecting resources that might be better spent elsewhere. I hope that this sort of research will soon find answers for weeds, salinity and depletion of forests, and even help carbon sequestration, which is something we have to face up to soon. We ought not to give in to the kind of blackmail that some of the strident campaigns seem to put upon us. I commend the bill to the House. (Time expired)