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Monday, 28 August 2000
Page: 19476

Mr BILLSON (10:18 PM) —I rise tonight to speak in support of the package of bills that set in place a regulatory framework for gene technology. The purpose of these bills, which comprise the Gene Technology Bill 2000, the Gene Technology (Licence Charges) Bill 2000 and the Gene Technology (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2000 is to establish the federal component of what is designed as a nationally consistent scheme for regulating dealings with genetically modified organisms. This national approach was first recommended in 1992 by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology in its report Genetic manipulation: the threat or the glory? and represents a unique approach to the issues raised by genetically modified organisms. The object of the bill is stated in section 3:

... 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 Genetically Modified Organisms.

The bills' aims are to fulfil these objectives through a regulatory framework best described as embracing a containment ethos—where the responsibilities and the measures required to seek approval or consent for the release of a genetically modified organism escalate as the risks that they present escalate. The system of regulation envisaged by the government would see gene technology covered by uniform laws with compulsory compliance arrangements, the establishment of the Gene Technology Office to administer the national system and ensure that comprehensive analysis and risk assessments are undertaken before genetically modified organisms are released and also to provide for interim measures to consider current issues until uniform complementary legislation is passed by state and territory parliaments. The regulatory framework will be supported by the gene technology agreement to be signed by the Commonwealth, state and territory governments.

A particularly important aspect of these bills is the establishment of the Office of Gene Technology Regulator as an independent statutory office holder. The regulator's functions will include determining applications for genetically modified organisms; developing draft policy principles and guidelines; developing codes of practice and technical and procedural guidelines in relation to genetically modified organisms; providing information and advice to other regulatory agencies and to the public, recognising the interrelationship between GM issues and other areas of government responsibility; undertaking or commissioning research in relation to risk assessment and biosafety of genetically modified organisms; and, promoting the harmonisation of risk assessment processes relating to genetically modified organisms and GM products by regulatory agencies. As you can imagine, that office will be very busy, given that brief overview.

The bills will see the establishment of a ministerial council, by way of the gene technology agreement, which will consist of one or more ministers from the Commonwealth and each participating state and territory. This ministerial council will oversee the operation of the GTR and the issues, policies, principles and policy guidelines that guide the regulator. Currently the regulation of GMOs in Australia is covered by numerous Commonwealth and state acts and regulations, including the Australia New Zealand Food Authority Act 1991, the Therapeutic Goods Act 1989, the National Health and Medical Research Council and some of their guidelines and processes, the Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals Code Act 1994, the Industrial Chemicals (Notification and Assessment) Act 1989, the Imported Food Control Act 1992, the Export Control Act 1982, and the Customs Act 1901.

From that description, it is easy to see how confusing and disjointed the regulatory framework is at present for the introduction and release of genetically modified organisms. This underlines why this package of bills is an important step in dealing with this evolving area of biotechnology. As recommended as far back as 1992, there is a vital need for a more uniform national approach to coordinating the diverse treatment we have at the moment. The bills we are discussing tonight—and, by the looks of things, tomorrow as well—provide for that approach.

Let me now turn to gene technology itself. `What is it?' people often ask. What we are talking about here are the tools and the technology which allow genetic material—DNA as some describe it—in the cells of plants and animals to be altered in very specific ways. This is far more than mere crossbreeding between closely related species, which has been practised for thousands of years and will continue to be done in the future. As explained in the Bills Digest, `through gene technology, scientists can now choose from the entire gene pool—including taking specific genes from unrelated species—in order to add, subtract or alter genetic material in the target organism.' These genetic changes may be designed to serve varying purposes, such as pharmaceutical production, herbicide resistance, flavour enhancement, growth stimulation, flavour addition, promoting infertility in pests which are affecting the rate at which fruit rots, et cetera. The possibilities are pretty much endless.

While the potential for good is also enormous—and that was discussed by some of the speakers earlier—it is not yet fully understood how to manage this evolving area of biotechnology, so there are concerns as well. These are genuine concerns about safety, of our communities and of our ecology, stemming from the use of genetically modified organisms, and this package of bills is an appropriate response to those genuine concerns. This is why we need these gene technology bills, which provide for a national integrated system with the horsepower to oversee all aspects of the development of genetically modified organisms. Clearly, what happens in one state in the field of genetically modified organisms will not be contained by state borders, and one of the strengths of these bills is that the gene technology regulation that they prescribe is a national approach to what is a national and, as has been described earlier, an international issue. The current regime, with various portfolios and jurisdictions responsible for different aspects of gene technology, does not contain the safeguards and the integrated approach required in this enormous, important policy area.

The safety issues associated with genetically modified organisms are not the only concern, although they are probably the issues foremost in the minds of most Australians who have given any thought to the matter. There are others, and I will briefly discuss some of those later in my contribution. Notably, though, there are some broad issues of ethics and faith concerning the manipulation of DNA. Some would say that it is not desirable to play God by manipulating the fundamental structures of life, and these are particularly emotive issues when dealing with human DNA, but it is a concern for some people even when dealing with plant material. Thankfully, the processes envisaged by these bills provide for public input while emphasising scientific evidence as the primary guide to deliberations. As a nation, our natural environment is particularly important to all of us, and, as chair of the government's environment and heritage policy committee, it is particularly important to me. It is also important in terms of the opportunities we can secure from biotechnology.

Mr Deputy Speaker, you would be aware that about 80 per cent of all the marine life in our cool, temperate waters is unique to this part of the world, and we do not know what mysteries they hold. We do not know what opportunities there are for biotechnology advancement and what assistance those sorts of organisms and marine life can provide for us. We do not know that yet, so it is important that, while we explore and understand that area of marine life, we do not expose it to ecological threats which could very much eat into our economic future as we eat into our ecological biodiversity in those southern temperate waters.

I say to you—and I will come back to this point in my contribution tomorrow—that there is a very close integration between what is in our environmental best interests and what is in our economic best interests, particularly as we pursue some of the opportunities presented by biotechnology. We must ensure that we protect our natural environment, our commercial crops and our animals from unintended and unwanted genetic changes. Our biodiversity is crucial and it is an important strategic advantage to our nation that we cannot afford to play with and treat shabbily.

We have already seen examples of why the highest possible standards are required in dealing with GMOs. There have been occasions in the past which could serve as reminders of what could happen if due care is not taken. While not a genetically modified organism, an example we can look to is the rabbit calicivirus from Wardang Island in South Australia, which is being tested by the CSIRO. We all know that the calicivirus escaped from the containment site and caused some impact right around the country—some would say not enough; others would say that the big concern was that it got away. It got out of our control and out of the containment framework that our leading science and investigative institution had set up. If that is an example of what is possible, we can understand why this package of bills is important at a broader level. The impact may not be on nuisance rabbits; it may be on issues more fundamental to our economic and ecological wellbeing in the longer term.

The dumping of a GM canola crop on a commercial rubbish tip in South Australia is another example of a breakdown in the process of dealing with GM crops. The bills before us tonight put in place an enforcement regime with considerable penalties for failure to adhere to licence conditions. It is not unreasonable to require people who have those licences to be responsible in the way they administer them. And the regime of penalties that is provided in these bills is, in my view, just a first step as we try to envisage the consequences of failing to uphold some of these licence conditions. People who, like me, have a long-held interest in marine aquaculture, know what the Pacific oyster has done to many of the marine environments around the country. To the credit of that industry, you have got spat from oysters that is not able to produce further generations of oysters as a containment mechanism. So, in some respects, the ideas we are talking about tonight, of marrying the economic advantages of aquaculture while containing the potential spread of species so that our ecology is not damaged, are not unfamiliar to us. I look forward to talking more about it tomorrow.

Debate interrupted.