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Tuesday, 29 August 2000
Page: 19552

Mr KERR (6:09 PM) —It is delightful to be in the chamber when the predominance of members is from my own state of Tasmania.

Ms Kernot —Where is the predominance? I think you are wrong, much as I love Tasmania.

Mr KERR —Thank you for your love of Tasmania. This is important legislation, but I do not think these bills, the Gene Technology Bill 2000 and cognate bills, will be anything other than a way station along a path that is going to be the subject of continual public debate in this community. We are coming to this debate significantly later than many other countries. As a matter of my own personal reflection, one of my school friends with whom I played cricket when I was at high school later went to university and studied medicine and then moved on to research in gene technology. Dr Paul Cossum then found himself in a circumstance where there were no opportunities for employment in the field in this country and he went to work in San Francisco with a company called Genetech, which was then developing various medical products. He has now moved on in a very successful career and lives in Texas, where he continues to be one of the leading experts in the field of gene technology. I say that only to indicate by way of background that, whilst this parliament is now coming to a substantial debate on an area where Australia in a sense has had a very substantial advantage in education and raw research, we have yet to fully exploit the economic, medical and environmental gains that can come from an appropriate development and utilisation of these processes in this country.

On the other hand, it is important to realise that we do have proper concerns about the way in which these new technologies will change the way we live and will potentially damage our community. It is not so odd to be concerned about a Strangelovian future. There are very real concerns about people, even of goodwill, making significant mistakes. It is easy to look back in the past in Australia to realise that much of what we have lost in our environment flows from well-intentioned but terribly tragic decisions: for example, the introduction of the rabbit, the fox and blackberries. All of these exotic species now are pests and cause us significant economic and environmental costs. One might respond that those were introductions not by scientists but by well-intentioned amateurs who wished to recreate English game parks in Australia and there was no reflection about it. But it takes only a little bit of thought to realise that we have actually had well-intentioned scientists who have introduced species which have caused significant damage. The best example is the cane toad, brought in to deal with pests in cane fields. We discovered that it had a rather more extensive diet than pests in cane fields and now its population is exploding across Northern Australia, soon to go into Kakadu, with no apparent physical or human barriers that are capable of preventing its spread. We are also aware that there is a temptation within the sciences sometimes to ignore the long-term repercussions of acts in favour of enthusiastic advocacy. The nuclear industry is a pretty good example of that, where there are significant advocates of the benefits of nuclear technologies who seem immune to consideration of the downsides that are associated with those technologies.

So how do we deal with this matter? We are dealing with a set of proposals that will advance genetic engineering. We are proposing a series of bodies which will be able to examine new technologies and to advise in relation to them, and an independent regulator working to a ministerial council that will have significant powers. Again, I must say that I think these are significant developments, but I am not entirely impressed by the idea that, simply because you have an independent regulator, you resolve the problems. Independent regulators, like all persons, are capable of error, and the fact that such a person is not subject to any external audit, check or review does not particularly leave me with any great sense of comfort. It simply indicates that he or she would be a person no doubt of great eminence who would be doing their best in that role, but a mistake if made is still a mistake, and the consequences if it is significant could be extremely detrimental. So most of us have approached this debate not with enthusiasm but with the realisation that there are significant economic, social and environmental gains potentially to be had and that significant health benefits are also potentially to be had. But, at the same time, we realise that it is appropriate to address these matters with a degree of caution.

I am also particularly mindful of my own state's circumstances. It is rare that the island state of Tasmania has a particular advantage compared to the rest of Australia, but it does have a potential advantage in the sense that it is physically isolated from the rest of the community. It may well be appropriate for the Tasmanian community to consider a different set of approaches and a different set of responses in relation to the particular agricultural opportunities that exist in Tasmania and the fact that it could become a niche supplier of products which are not the subject of genetic modification. Whatever the advocates of the benefits of genetic engineering say, there is still a powerful reservoir of concern in the general community that would lead to, for example, the decision to label genetically modified foods so that consumers know what they are eating. This concern could also lead to the development of a premium price market for products which are not the subject of genetic engineering. Time will tell whether or not any of the concerns which those consumers have are legitimate. Suffice it to say for now that, legitimate or not, they are strongly held, and I think almost every survey of the Australian community highlights that fact. So we have a situation where opportunities could happily coincide to allow Tasmania to take a slightly different path to the rest of the Australian community.

This bill was developed after consultation between the states and the authorities concerned with the proposal for a regulatory framework, and limited public consultation was conducted in 1998 by the Commonwealth-State Consultative Group on Gene Technology. Within the first draft of the legislation, there was an opportunity for a state or territory to opt out of the regulatory framework to take into account their particular circumstances. That provision is not contained within the present legislation, and I understand that it is an issue which is being looked at in the hearings currently being conducted by the Senate Community Affairs Committee. I am also aware that the Tasmanian government has considerable concerns about its own integration in these processes. Commonwealth legislation is moving through the parliament now, but the state government announced today its own parliamentary review to look at the sorts of issues that I have briefly flagged tonight. Certainly, it would be an unfortunate outcome if this parliament were to proceed unmindful of the strongly held views of a state government that participated in the initial development of this legislation on the basis that there would be the opportunity to opt out of the regulatory framework, an opportunity available in similar legislation. It has been passionately argued by some that we need a national scheme which allows no exceptions and that there should be uniformity right across the board. But that is not the approach that has always hitherto been adopted in areas which impact on local production. For example, in the agricultural chemicals area there is an opportunity for a state assessment to be made, and different jurisdictions may on occasions choose not to make available certain products that are otherwise generally available within the Australian community. It does not seem to have caused any great difficulties, and I cannot see why it would cause any particular difficulties were an opt-out arrangement to be facilitated in respect of this legislation.

I am very strongly of the view that the legitimate concerns of the community are not going to be decisively dealt with in a single piece of legislation. They do not go away by our wishing them to go away. Whether or not those who believe we are on the threshold of great advances in these areas are right, we need to carry our communities with us. Communities are not even themselves uniform, and there are particular circumstances and particular issues which require attention at that micro level. I was very pleased during the national conference of the Australian Labor Party to join with the Premier of Tasmania, Jim Bacon, in gaining assent from the conference to a policy proposal that says the specific circumstances of particular regions should be taken into account in relation to quarantine related matters. I tend to have the same response in relation to this legislation—that is, I see that there are potential benefits but I also see that my own state of Tasmania may have different interests. It is possible—and I put it no higher than that—that the circumstances of Tasmania, not being in the main a mass producer of primary products but being, on the other hand, a strong producer of products which could be marketed at a premium because of their fresh and natural quality, may be properly accommodated in this legislation. I think the way to do that is to return to the opportunity for some specific arrangements which allow an opt-out provision in this legislation. I do not think we can satisfy the broad social objectives of Australia as a nation by turning our backs on those kinds of opportunities.

If I can put this in some slightly larger context too, it is very important for us to see the need to integrate our thinking—about a legislative framework for the regulation of gene technology—with the news today that support for research and development is so low. That is not unique to the manufacturing sector; it is also quite true of technological development and primary production. We used to really be the world leaders in research in primary production. The CSIRO is still an organisation of which all Australians should be immensely proud, but over time I think we falsely congratulate ourselves if we think that organisation can sustain the weight of the future if we do not have mechanisms in place to encourage greater private sector research and development, to integrate the role of publicly funded research and to support it in the way that was so strongly advocated and advanced through the latter years of the Hawke and Keating governments. That was when we moved to establish key centres for research to ensure that there was a strong and supportive base for research and development.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I might briefly leave the topic of this legislation and, with the courtesy of the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs at the table, mention one other matter. I do it as a mea culpa. Some little while ago I took the opportunity of speaking in this House and I mentioned that there were considerable conflicts within the Liberal Party of Tasmania which had resulted in the resignation of its president, allegations of branch stacking and the like. All of those matters are substantially true, but I named as the villain behind the piece Senator Paul Calvert. After I had done that, Senator Calvert took me aside and said, `Yes, the substance of the matters are accurate. However, you have named the wrong person.'

Mr Ruddock —Is this related to the bills?

Mr KERR —No.

Mr Ruddock —What is the relevance?

Mr KERR —I have asked for your indulgence and you may withdraw it. I am simply doing what I undertook with Senator Calvert, as he put to me that he was not responsible for it. He asked me to inquire of others of his party for confirmation of that. They have done that. They have advised me that in fact it was not he but, rather, Senator Abetz who was the main protagonist in these matters. In order for me to withdraw the slur I made against Senator Calvert, I thought it would be appropriate for me to at least mention that and to indicate that any awkwardness that I caused him I certainly withdraw. The substance of the matter is a matter of public notice and I do not wish to take that any further.

Returning quickly to this legislation, we Tasmanians do not always share common views on all these matters. I know the member for Lyons, who is in the chair, is keen to see the economic opportunities that we can exploit through better agricultural production and some of the benefits that flow potentially to the environment—fewer allergens and the like—being made available. We would all like to see those things occur. On the other hand, I think that most of us are very strongly aware that we cannot race ahead of our communities, that few of us are experts—I certainly claim no expertise—and that, when presented with a scenario in which we are being warned by a number of people who superficially seem credible that there are significant potential risks that have yet to be comprehensively evaluated, the most appropriate course is to approach these matters with considerable caution.

On top of that, I think that there may be some particular economic advantages that could flow to my home state of Tasmania because of its unique geography, because of the fact that in a sense it is capable of being physically isolated from the rest of the Australian community, for us to approach the matter in a significantly different way. I commend the work that is being undertaken by David Llewellyn, the Minister for Primary Industries, Water and Environment in Tasmania, who has been most responsible for developing Tasmania's present view on a moratorium and an inquiry. I commend that approach. I hope that the federal parliament will be able to accommodate the legitimate interests of those within the Federation who think that it is appropriate to apply a slightly different approach to particular physical regions. Of course, in Tasmania's case there is the happy happenstance, which rarely works to our advantage but on this occasion may well do so, that Tasmania is an island and a region and a state—one and the same, together. So with those few remarks I indicate that I will be anxiously involved in future debate after the Senate committee reports. I understand the opposition has indicated in relation to possible amendments that it will be reserving its position until such time as it has had the opportunity of examining that report.

Sitting suspended from 6.28 p.m. to 8.00 p.m.