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Tuesday, 29 August 2000
Page: 19534

Mr BILLSON (4:40 PM) —The bills that I was talking on last night, the Gene Technology Bill 2000 and cognate bills, regulate dealings with genetically modified organisms, effectively covering the life cycles of genetically modified organisms from laboratory experiments, growth, development, production and manufacture, use of GMOs, manufacture of GM products, possession, transport and the disposal of waste. Given the complexity and breadth of the issues and possible effects throughout the community which the decisions of the Gene Technology Regulator may have, the bills also establish three advisory committees: the Gene Technology Technical Advisory Committee, to advise primarily on technical aspects of applications; the Gene Technology Community Consultative Committee, to advise on matters of general concern to the public; and the Gene Technology Ethics Committee, to advise on ethical and moral issues regarding the applications before the regulator. These three committees will provide advice on request to the Gene Technology Regulator and/or the ministerial council.

The major instrument of regulation of dealings with GMOs is through a licensing system. Under the licensing system there will be four options available to the GTR when considering applications in relation to genetically modified organisms. These licensing options take account of the varying levels of risk and understanding about what the particular dealing is and the associated actions to ensure containment of the technology and not an escape into the broader environment. There is the authorised genetically modified organisms which are licensed; the notifiable low-risk dealings which after examination are deemed to be low risk but the GTR needs to be notified of their use; exempt dealings, as determined by the Gene Technology Regulator, that need not be covered by these bills; and dealings included on the genetically modified organisms register which are low risk and previously authorised by the GMO licence process for a period of years where there is an obligation to demonstrate that it is safe. The bills also provide for penalties, including a clean-up direction, when offences against the acts are proved.

There can be no doubt that gene technology is in its early but exciting days. I do not think it is too outrageous to suggest that this is the biological equivalent of the Internet. Science is only beginning to realise the possibilities which gene technology offers. In the years to come it will affect almost every person on the planet, whether they are consuming GM foods or growing them, or being healed by GM medical solutions. The fact is that GM is here to stay. Some have been calling for a moratorium on the development of the technology, others have been looking to have a moratorium on dealings in GMOs and there are those who believe that GMOs should not be released. In my view, these arguments miss the point about the broadness of gene technology, the opportunities that exist there and the evolution of the science. The technology will not stop so that we can find a convenient point where we can have a comfortable, neat and relaxed setting in which we can proceed. What is needed is an integrated national system which can competently deal with the issues as they arise, as the technology evolves and as proposals come before the government.

We as a community cannot hide from the fact that genetically modified organisms are here and are here to stay. We cannot hide from the fact that along with the opportunity come great rewards and also some risks. We need to take this opportunity to develop the world's best regulatory framework and a policy position so that these risks can be accurately and openly assessed and the benefits fully and safely realised for our community. I support the government moving forward with the new regulatory framework mindful of the fact that the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator needs to be sufficiently funded to carry out its functions effectively. The bills before us today dictate that the Gene Technology Regulator will be self-funding, effectively recovering all costs from the users of the regulatory regime. The GTR will have to extract licence fees, and it is important in my view that smaller operators who have something to contribute in this area do not find this up-front financing a barrier to their participation. We also need to be mindful of limiting investment in the genetic field through the extraction of high licence fees and an overly burdensome regulatory framework, thus making the product produced economically unviable.

I have read the supporting information and have been assured that this regulatory framework will not stand in the way of some of the biotechnological advances that the member for Macquarie was talking about. We are interested in, enchanted with and excited about some of the work going on in the area of embryonic stem cell research. The opportunity is there to take an omnipotent cell, moments into its life, and encourage and guide its development into particular tissue types and organ types. This is a fascinating and exciting area of science which provides a pathway for new medical solutions, new therapeutic applications to support a healthier community.

My concern would be that the science framework, through the NHMRC, and some of the other frameworks being discussed in the United States and the United Kingdom—where that scientific pursuit has its own regulatory framework and ethics committee overseeing the activity and the conditions on receiving government funding for further inquiries—could be hijacked by the process we are discussing today. I have been told that the definition of a genetically modified organism within the bill will not extend to include embryonic stem cell research. I am pleased to hear that, but I am not entirely convinced. The definition that is in the bill talks about some intervention or manipulation that brings about a change in the way the genetic framework operates. To my mind, those that wish to see an end to embryonic stem cell research could see this legislation as an opportunity to impede that field of endeavour. That a stimulus can turn an omnipotent embryonic stem cell into muscle tissue, nervous tissue, bone or whatever the case may be sounds to me like a modification, which some will argue fits within the bill. The saving grace in the bill is that it says a GMO is whatever the government describes as a GMO. Maybe that is an insurance policy to guard against that sort of issue.

Another area that concerns me—which is not directly part of this bill but which is closely related—is the way in which we handle the strategic opportunities of biotechnology. In my brief contribution yesterday, I talked about our ecology providing some opportunities that we are only just beginning to understand, with species of marine life, flora and fauna that occur nowhere else in the world, with insights which the indigenous community has understood for years and which we are starting to get a handle on. There are great biotechnology opportunities for this country. If we do not support the investigation into those technologies and those parts of our environment to gain insights into how we can turn those organisms to the benefit of our community, we will lose an enormous opportunity. The member for Macquarie was briefly talking about the government's investment in biotechnology. My fear is that we may well become the miners of biotechnology in science, as we are in the mining industry and other areas where we do not value add. We have a framework here which supports our scientists gaining insights, making inquiries and identifying creations that are very commercially viable. The risk is that, once that is done, we sell the technology overseas, its commercialisation is done elsewhere and we do not gain the full benefits of it. Some of the interrelated issues there go to questions of intellectual property and the way that in the United States you can get a patent protection without ever really proving beyond any reasonable doubt the creation you are claiming to have made. That gives people with that type of discounted patent protection 12 months to develop research which we cannot get protection to develop here. We are inviting US pension funds into our country and giving them attractive capital gains tax treatment, and it makes you wonder whether the patents laws in the United States that put us at a strategic disadvantage will come with those pension funds and leave us out of the opportunities that biotechnology presents.

Finally, let me highlight the fact that the debate on the bill in this House has been very limited. I cannot think of anybody who has actually raised strong opposition to the proposals. The Labor Party have revisited genetically modified food and mad cow disease and are hopefully looking to a Senate inquiry to find a reason to criticise what is here. Others have expressed a wariness about these reforms, claiming that they are part of some kind of Machiavellian antitrade agenda. Ideology is important, I think trade is a sensational thing for our community, but you have to think beyond the ideology and get into the specifics of the bill. Then you will find that this is a very meaningful piece of legislation. (Time expired)