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Tuesday, 29 August 2000
Page: 19540

Mr SECKER (5:09 PM) —I rise with some pleasure to speak on the Gene Technology Bill 2000, because I have taken quite a bit of interest in it in the 22 months I have been a member of parliament. I did have the pleasure of serving on the same committee as the previous speaker, the member for Braddon. The chair of the committee was the member for McEwen, who will be following me on this side. During the committee hearings we certainly did have some very interesting information and submissions to the committee. I do not think there has been a bill introduced this year that has received more media attention or public interest or more polarised discussion. There has been many a scaremongering campaign run by poorly informed media, members of the opposition and other community members, resulting in much misinformation and clouded judgment.

There are those who believe that, if this bill is passed, it will lead the way to the growth of GMOs wherever a farmer or a multinational corporation may care to scratch the earth, that it will undermine the growing organic produce industry, that it will be the death of many species of our plants and animals and that genetically modified crops will be an ineradicable blight on the landscape. Of course, this is ill-informed, emotional and unscientific. Some farmers are afraid, not without good reason, that the multinational seed companies could sell them genetically modified products without identification to that effect. We must have the regulations contained in this bill to ensure that unregulated sales of GMOs do not occur. And that is exactly what this bill does. We must have open control over the use of gene technology and there must be clear parameters in which those involved in the research, use and distribution of GMOs may operate. We must learn from our past mistakes and we must secure the best for our future.

I know that today we will undoubtedly hear arguments opposing the bill and the recommendations from those sitting opposite. We will undoubtedly be subjected to comments made by those who have failed to read and understand the bill, the uses of gene technology and GMOs in Australia today. However, those who have participated in drafting this bill, those who have bothered to read the Bills Digest and those who have cared to hear the arguments and comments from all parties in order to make an informed decision will have every confidence, as I do, that the Gene Technology Bill 2000 could not be more thoroughly researched or better prepared.

It is in Australia's public interest, as it is in the interest of Australian industry, that the federal government immediately introduce a national regulatory framework for the use of gene technology and that this framework be the result of a carefully considered, holistic approach to a complex issue. It is high time we learned from our past mistakes, as the previous speaker mentioned. And while those lessons are still relatively fresh in our memories, now is the time to act. The mistakes I speak of are: the trial and disposal of GM canola plants at an open commercial tip in Mount Gambier; the mixing of GM cotton seeds with conventional seed in Queensland in July this year; the release of GM E. coli into a sewer; the planting of GM lupins without Institutional Biosafety Committee approval—and other incidences listed in the IOGTR submission to the GT Bill 2000. It is clear that, while GMAC has done some valuable work and Australia enjoys a good reputation worldwide for managing GMOs, GMAC is limited in its scope for regulating practices and uses. Even Aventis, one of those companies alleged to have made mistakes, claims that a lack of transparency has led to problems.

As a member of the Primary Industries and Regional Services Committee, which worked hard to prepare the interim report Work in progress: proceed with caution, and as a farmer I have a great interest in the implications of the Gene Technology Bill 2000. I have every faith that this bill is ready to be passed by both houses to form the national legislative framework Australia requires immediately to ensure the responsible and beneficial use of gene technology. I should like to remind those on the opposition benches that some of their colleagues also devoted considerable time and thought to the interim report Work in progress. Let it not be forgotten that the science of genetics has enormous benefits for humankind. With an increasing world population and decreasing arable land, it is imperative that best agricultural practice and science work together to ensure that enough food is produced to feed all of the world's people and animals. What about the quality of life enjoyed by the many diabetics and their families thanks to insulin produced as a result of genetic modification? Of course, just about every vaccination we use these days is a result of genetic modification.

I feel it necessary to remind those opposite that there are regrettable consequences of lacking a national framework and not imposing strict regulations when given the opportunity—an opportunity which we have before us right now and which must not be wasted. If the opposition chooses to dally, it is inevitable that incidences such as the improper disposal of GM waste will occur again. While both the company in question and the interim Office of the Gene Technology Regulator have found that GM canola poses a very low risk to the environment, there are many people from Mt Gambier, in my electorate of Barker, who will be watching very closely for any impact over the next few years. This must not occur again, and especially not because of the government's inability to enforce more concise and more exacting regulations.

This government has acted swiftly and responsibly on behalf of all Australians, and in the interests of our future, to regulate genetically modified organisms. Thirty per cent of our cotton crop is genetically modified. Is it not better to regulate than to impose a moratorium which might force cotton farmers to rip up their crops and ruin their hard work? Would that mean that we would have to compensate them? Would it also not require the destruction of GM canola crops, which are becoming more widespread? Canola is an interesting case in point, because there is a triazine resistant canola variety already, and that variety was bred by normal means. One could suggest that super weeds might result if someone were not very well informed about how crops are grown. If that crop were genetically modified instead of traditionally grown, there would have been all sorts of outcries by some people. In actual fact, because it was bred by traditional means, there is no outcry about that triazine resistant canola.

With regard to the concern that we should follow the lead of certain European countries and impose a five-year moratorium, this bill will not prevent long-term studies of GMOs; in fact, the strict regulations will effectively ensure that companies conduct thorough investigations into the environmental and health impacts of introducing GMOs into the environment and for human consumption. It is a common myth that GMOs have been banned in Europe. In fact, there have been millions of hectares of GMO-type crops grown in Europe for the last few years.

This bill is a vast improvement on the current situation, and a moratorium would raise many a dilemma. This bill will not affect the labelling of GM products—that is not the intent of this bill. GM products and their labelling are, of course, covered by ANZFA, which is the regulatory body made up of all the states, New Zealand and the Commonwealth government, and that is the proper place to consider what should happen with the labelling of GM products. So please do not confuse that with this bill. There are bona fide concerns about the possibility of rogue genes escaping into the natural environment, to use the emotional phrase, and there has already been cause for concern. There have been scares, and this demonstrates the urgency of putting regulations in place to try to prevent future occurrences.

One of the more positive outcomes of preparing the legislation has been a significant rise in community awareness of the issue and an increase in community discussions. One can expect that a more informed community will encourage companies to exercise greater care. There have been plenty of suggestions put in this chamber, but the government should be out there doing more about informing the community. I also say that the companies involved have a very strong role to play in this, and it is in their own interests to be out there giving as much information about GMOs as they possibly can. I am old enough to recall the concerns that were brought up about the pasteurisation of milk. Of course, 30 years later, who gives a damn about pasteurised milk?

Should this bill soon be passed by both houses, as I hope it will, there will be scope for change. No piece of legislation is unchangeable. Should the CSIRO study recommend additions or changes to the legislation, they can be made, but it is far better that controls are put in place now than to have nothing and to have to start again three years down the track when many more scares may have occurred.

Under the regulations proposed by the bill, certain GMOs will be restricted to some areas, depending on the impact on the regional environment. This is a national framework that takes individual considerations into account. This bill has not been drafted without consideration of public opinion. Public forums were held throughout the country earlier this year, and in the electorate of Barker many public discussions have been held to further explore the issue. The interim report, Work in progress, included in its recommendations this quote from the Organic Federation of Australia:

Decision making must include representation from all stakeholders, whereby the needs of the consumer, government, science, environmental, health, social, ethical and industry interests are all equally met.

Therefore, if a council or shire has any concerns regarding the environmental or health aspects of a specific GM crop, both parties must present their respective arguments to the Gene Technology Regulator. The object of this bill is to `protect the health and safety of people, and to protect the environment.' I know from the situation at Mount Gambier that there was no risk to the health and safety of the people.

I believe it is time to deliver this protection. This bill offers a much more efficient system than we have at present. It will see the regulation of GMOs throughout their life cycle—from lab experiments all the way through to disposal. It provides a single responsible entity: the Gene Technology Regulator. This position will not be taken lightly. It carries huge responsibility. With that in mind, the Gene Technology Regulator will act very carefully. The ministerial council proposed in the draft legislation will ensure that the GTR acts with the advice and guidance of state and territory governments and community representatives, such as local government. It will also have the guidance of scientists and the ethics committee.

The proposed legislation will not undermine parallel laws of any state or territory government and cannot enforce a state or territory to alter state or territory law. While this may mean there is not complete nationwide compliance, there are still a national framework and national guidelines. The advantage for the state or territory is that, if they wish to have greater controls, they can. If Tasmania wishes to pursue the image of an organic producer and the income from organic produce is perceived to be lost or damaged due to the introduction of GMOs, Tasmania could conceivably protect itself. This is no disadvantage to Tasmania nor, really, to the nation as a whole. It might be difficult to introduce legislation which would override state and territory laws, and an agreement would never be reached. This is a federation—some compromise and cooperation are necessary.

It will be by no means easy to obtain a licence for the use or handling of GMOs and breaches will be punishable. Punitive measures are critical to discouraging improper conduct by individuals and corporations. This, along with better informed communities, will encourage good conduct. If a company or individual is found to be withholding any new information with regard to licences, GMOs or product, their licence can be revoked, cancelled or suspended. If they are found to be incapable of dealing adequately with risks, they will have their licence revoked. Noncompliance will be a punishable offence, with fines of up to $220,000 for an individual—enough to ruin most farmers—and over $1 million for a corporation. That, coupled with a tarnished reputation, will result in a loss of business and will be an effective enough warning for the future.

This bill allows for the inspection of premises with or without a warrant. Again, if searches are performed frequently and at random, this will act to ensure best practice and compliance. Where the GTR has any cause for concern, he or she can add conditions to the licence to allow for the monitoring or auditing of the premises. Licences and accreditation are reviewable. They are not carved in stone. They do not grant immunity or safety from the GTR. In addition to fines, common law of trespass, negligence and public or private nuisance will also apply. As time goes by, there is scope for the introduction in the legislation of compensatory measures. Time is needed to ascertain what measures must be taken for each GMO and the type of impact its release has had. The release of GMOs is still a relatively new and uncommon occurrence, so it is not yet appropriate to decide on such measures. The bill has also considered the needs of companies and individuals dealing with GMOs. There will be recourse to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal if someone is dissatisfied or aggrieved by the GTR regulation or stipulation concerning a particular GMO. Individuals and companies will be assured of a fair hearing, just as the wider community is assured of safety.

With regard to criticisms concerning the withholding of confidential commercial information, this merely protects a company from having any trade secrets or, if you like, secret recipes released. It merely assures a company the normal life expectancy of a market edge with regard to any innovative practice as approved by the GTR. The definition of confidential commercial information also encompasses financial information or any other information which could unreasonably affect that person or organisation. It does not mean that the public will be kept in the dark about the GM content of a certain product or plant. With regard to any arguments about cost recovery by the GTR, a study is being conducted by KPMG—a well renowned and respected accounting firm. That study will be into the feasibility of funding GTR scientific research through annual licence fees, and any changes that are recommended by the study can be made. Again I argue that it is far more important to have enforceable guidelines in place than to continue as we are—as if trying to find our way in the dark.

The need for uniform Commonwealth regulation of gene technology was first recognised in 1981—nearly 20 years ago. Twenty years should be plenty of time to have learnt something. I believe that, for most of us, that lesson is the need to have greater control. Again, in 1992, it was recommended that all aspects of gene technology be regulated. I hope that the stance of all governments—federal, state, territory and local—is more mature eight years on and that this bill has addressed any cause for concern held back then. With the committee work and submissions made by companies and members of the public, we should have covered enough bases by now to make a difference. Let us make history this week. Let us not go down in history or in Hansard as another bunch of indecisive, irresponsible parliamentarians. Let us fix up the future. I commend these bills to the chamber and I give them my full support.