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Friday, 7 September 1984
Page: 644


Senator MASON(10.41) — The Patents Amendment Bill 1984 concerns the patenting of micro-organisms. Initially the Australian Democrats were concerned with the sort of thoughts that Senator Hill dealt with in the closing part of his speech-that the Bill may introduce the possibility of patenting micro-organisms in such a way that would raise delicate questions concerning the patenting of life in any form, possibly extending to genetic engineering. This is an area of concern for this Parliament and for the community which we have not looked at nearly closely enough. It is a fact that the Bill is concerned only with the rules governing the patenting of micro- organisms as set out in the Budapest Treaty on the International Recognition of the Deposit of Micro-organisms for the Purposes of Patent Procedure. There are safeguards for instance against withholding new inventions. A point which concerned us initially was that it might have been possible to take something of enormous value not only to the community but also perhaps to the world, patent it and withhold it-as has been done with inventions in the past. However, we understand that that is not an initial danger with this Bill. Accordingly, it has our support. Withholding from the market is no problem under the Patents Act .

In itself this legislation appears to be a good thing. It helps make research into the use of micro-organisms simpler and more efficient and it streamlines the patents procedure. However, it raises the question of care needed in framing laws to patent life forms. This is the area of new technology which is intensely sensitive and I suggest that the Government do more work. It is a fact that biochemistry is the science of the future. It has replaced physics in that role. It will bring forward many new and startling innovations which will take a great deal of community adaptation to deal with and, probably, some government intervention to control. Therefore, I suggest that any future work done in this area should be done with those thoughts very much in mind. The most bizarre possibilities are available to the biochemist. It is possible, for example, to create micro-organisms which can create foods. That raises the point raised by Senator Hill-on which I do not agree with him-concerning the similarity between plant variety rights and micro-organism development.

The point about the plant varietal rights legislation is the opportunity it gives patentees to manipulate food sources. While human beings can do without new technology, they cannot do without food. That is the basis of that argument. As time elapses that may even be the case with micro-organisms. It is beyond doubt that in time micro-organisms will be devised commercially which will create new food materials. Biotechnology, which Senator Hill has mentioned, is working in the area of developing the most suitable yeast strains to create proteins and fuel alcohols. Again, that kind of research may well lead to a situation in which government supervision of private ownership of the products of biotechnology becomes essential.

Speaking of PVR, the Australian Democrats were interested to find out that a patent has been granted to Adelaide Orchids Pty Ltd for the invention of cymbidium orchid cultivar, an ornamental orchid. Of course, we do not object to the application of PVR to ornamental species, but that is interesting in relation to the Democrats' reason for initially questioning the Bill we are now debating, the Patents Amendment Bill, because we were concerned that this Bill might somehow introduce a new power to patent micro-organisms and that might be a back door method of introducing the PVR legislation which the Government is considering introducing and which still has widespread opposition in the community for the very best of reasons, some of which I have outlined. I raise that matter as a point of interest and to let the Senate know that we will be waiting with interest for a reply from the Minister for Science and Technology ( Mr Barry Jones) to a question which Senator Macklin has on notice on this matter . I suggest that is something we ought to have soon.

The debate on this Bill is not the place for an exhaustive discussion of the ramifications of the patenting of life and genetic engineering. I will only say again that this whole matter is gradually gaining official acceptance without any real public debate on the issue and there ought to be a public debate on all the possibilities. In fact, on the whole, members of the public seem to be unaware of how far advances in this field can go and have gone already, and indeed what the possibilities are.

We support this Bill with the stricture that we are concerned still that it deals peripherally with a subject which is not understood and which requires far more public debate and far more government attention. That has to be informed and enlightened government attention and specialist attention. In this regard I would like to comment-I think it is relevant to this Bill-on the Government's irresponsible and stupid decision to reduce Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation funding by an effective 8 per cent in the Budget and to downgrade science and technology generally. If this is a measure of the intellectual responsibility and foresight of the Government as a whole, before long the Australian nation will be in very bad trouble because, as I have said, biotechnology is the science of the future. These new developments are essential to any society which thinks it is going to maintain its position in the world of the future.

It was of great interest to me in a recent visit to Japan to talk with members of the Japanese Government and find out that they have established 19 new centres which will be used as areas for new technology. New industries, a new centre of learning and a new housing centre will be built up as virtually a new situation which the Japanese call technopolises. The 19 technopolises, one of which, interestingly enough, will be near Hiroshima, will be up and running by 1990. The idea is to take Japan completely out of the heavy industry field. It is now so crowded and polluted that the Japanese feel that they cannot extend any further in that area and they want to move to the next step and make themselves excellent in virtually every form of new high technology industry they can find. As far as I could gather from my discussions, this extends from the most exotic and innovative computer controlled fish farming in the ocean to the development of ceramic engines. That is what is being done by one of our principal trading partners.

I have had occasion many times to cross swords with the Government, as most recently as yesterday, over its absolute inability to understand that it must be with the times and ahead of the times on the growth of new technology. The amorphous silicon photovoltaic cells I mentioned yesterday are a piece of technology which the Government ought to take note of. That is not something one can say is not economic at the moment and we should look at it when it is. That just leaves us very much at the bottom of the heap. The only point I make there is that when we are considering those forms of electricity, it is not good enough for the Government to come up with the intellectual dishonesty of quoting figures of electricity supply at the source of production when it knows perfectly well that at the end of the long transmission lines in Australia often the cost to the consumer or the user is two or three times that amount because of the line loss. One has to count on average the cost of electricity to the consumer. That is the only realistic figure to use.

Basically I do not think we are going to get much development in biotechnology. This whole Bill will be a pious effort which does not achieve much. It is more or less common knowledge that the Minister for Science and Technology, Mr Barry Jones, was rolled by his more plebian and less intelligent colleagues in the Australian Labor Party on this matter. I can only comment that it is quite bizarre in this context that the Government has raised the budget of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission, a discredited and useless form of technology in this country, by an effective 8 per cent, the same amount as it has reduced the other way.

Senator Missen quoted Animal Farm about a week ago. I recall from that book a point of relevance to this discussion-the inability of the Government to make effective moves in any form of new technology. After the pigs had been in power for a while they had a dinner, as honourable senators who have read the book will recall, and other animals crept up to look in at the windows and they could not tell which were the pigs and which were the men. On this matter, as in so many other matters, the Labor Party is changing its spots, but it is even surpassing itself. It now has an even worse science policy than the Fraser Government, and that is saying something.

We will now lose most of our most innovative and forward looking programs, with CSIRO being forced to introduce two to three per cent cuts in the funding of all non-priority research programs, according to my information. It is a fact, of course, that if there is going to be a cut in something like this it is always the most innovative and forward looking programs-the new technology and high technology, the very things the Patents Bill is concerning itself with and hoping will provide products. They will go to the wall first. I suggest that that will be an inevitable result of the consequences of this Budget. It will mean not only damage this year. One cannot damage, cut back and destroy programs of that sort and expect them to be started again at the press of a switch. We will lose overseas the scientists who are working on them and we will probably go back eight to 10 years in our research effort. The damage that is done is not damage that can be repaired easily or quickly. I suggest that is an absolute disaster as we approach the end of the century and the need to compete with our competitors more in these areas.

Unfortunately, CSIRO is not the only research body to have had its funding severely restricted. The Australian research grants scheme has had its funds raised from $22.4m to $26m, barely enough to cope with inflation. It would need $65m to meet the demand from grant applications for 1985. This covers the area of young research scientists and is of enormous importance. This is where work can be done which is innovative and forward looking and which is not going to produce results or money for a time. Therefore, it does need subsidy and assistance from the Government. It is a proper and reasonable role of the Government to do what other people and nations have done. As I said, the Japanese Government is contributing very materially to the new technopolis concept in Japan and is giving a degree of assistance.

These types of cuts have led already to lowered morale within the research community on top of the enforced financial inability to carry out the sort of research we must encourage if Australia is to have any credibility in this field of science and technology. Australia is being pushed further and further down towards the bottom of the heap in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries in terms of new technology and the view of our economic future is appalling if this kind of government policy is allowed to persist.

Finally, although the Australian Democrats support this Bill, which is unexceptionable, I think it is highly hypocritical of the Government to bring forward this legislation and presumably say that because it has provided a mechanism for the patenting of micro-organisms it is doing something to encourage that sort of thing happening in Australia because with one hand it is providing a piece of machinery and with the other hand it is destroying, as rapidly and permanently as it possibly can, the very foundations on which an effective Australian research situation are based.