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Thursday, 19 February 1987
Page: 312


Senator MASON(8.32) —I support the amendment which has been moved by Senator Macklin. It is far and away the most rational thing that has been put forward in this debate. This is the last opportunity members of the Opposition and the Government have to get a little sanity back into the whole question of plant variety rights. Passing the Plant Variety Rights Bill 1986 would be an act of total irresponsibility. As far as the Labor Government is concerned, I make the prediction now that if the Hawke Government is defeated at the next election, its decision to put forward this legislation and have it passed this session could well be the fine balancing point which defeated it. Some of those on the other side may have reason to remember my words. I say that not out of lack of knowledge but because I have moved around to a very great extent among the public interest groups in New South Wales, in my own electorate, who are opposed to plant variety rights. Those people are far more numerous than the Government appears to understand. The interesting thing about them is that very few of them are Australian Democrats voters. Up to now 95 per cent of them have been Australian Labor Party voters. I have talked to those people and said: `The Hawke Government may well sell you out on this matter'. I have had many such conversations. They have said: `We do not think they will in the end. We have good people talking in the Caucus. They will not sell us out'. Every one of them has said to me: `If the Hawke Government sells us out on this matter, we will vote against it'. The fact that they may feel that they have only an ultimate vote for this side will not save them. There is a difference between an established area, such as this side which we know will support a Bill of this kind, and an area such as the Government's where such a move could be widely and rightly seen as a disgraceful, unprincipled dishonest sell-out of every principle that honourable senators opposite ought to hold dear.

There is a very strong parallel in this situation with the Labor Government's introduction of foreign banks. It is well worth drawing and is very relevant to this debate. I can recall when a decision was made by the Treasurer, Mr Keating, to allow the introduction of foreign banks into this country. I have filed away a Press release from Mr Keating which is about 15 months old, and I put that Press release out in my name. Every one of the arguments in it was an argument that Mr Keating had put 15 months earlier. Subsequently, I put out another Press release stating that the words used were not my words; they were the words of the Treasurer. We predicted then that bad consequences would follow the introduction of those banks-I refer to higher interest rates-and, of course, they have. That move was to the detriment of the Australian community. The Government sold it out then and it is selling it out again. How long does the Government think it can do this and get away with it? How long does it think a smart and slick media, which might support it, will keep the knowledge of this sort of thing from the public? How long the Government thinks it will get away with that I do not know, but it is certainly trying its luck with this legislation.

I have listened to this debate very carefully. I have seldom found the Government more defensive on an issue, and reasonably so. I have listened to my Democrats colleagues, who have studied this matter carefully. They have put forth argument after argument as to why this Bill should not go through. Not one of those arguments has the Government tried to answer. There is not one of them which it can answer, because they are unanswerable. If the Senate persists in passing this Bill it will really bring the banana republic archetype to pass. The Government is taking on an issue which many years ago was introduced in other parts of the world. In poor old banana republic, Rip van Winkle, Australia, the forward looking Hawke Government, when everybody else in the world is having doubts about PVR, thinking that it will not be useful or good, that it is bad-and time and time again it has proved to be bad in countries where it has been introduced-says: `We will have plant variety rights legislation now. It is the time for it.' We wonder why some of the Government's senior Ministers talk about Australia becoming a banana republic when the Government behaves like that!

I must apologise to significant numbers of members of the Labor Party because it is very evident to me, both from discussions I have had with them privately and from the comments made by Senator Zakharov, that those members of the Labor party who have really done their homework on this legislation are opposed to it. It got through the Caucus, I suspect, because many of those opposite were just too plain lazy to study it and went along with the Government's top people, who can sell anything to them. That is obvious. Button, Hawke, Walsh and Keating can sell honourable senators opposite anything. They swallow it hook, line and sinker. Why? Is it because it is indifferent or because it is too lazy to study the issues for itself and come to its own conclusion? Something like that is going on. Senator Zakharov has done her homework and demonstrated it in her speech. What she said in opposing the Bill was as convincing as anything we have heard here tonight. She said that she would vote for the legislation because of her deep conviction that democracy, as she sees it, within the Labor Party compels her to vote against her principles and according to principles which have been imposed on her by a small junta in her own Party, as she knows full well.

What sort of democracy and integrity, is that? What sort of leadership is offered to this country, with all its problems and crises at the moment? What sort of example is it to this country that you sell out? People are not stupid. They know that a few years ago members of the Australian Labor Party were talking against plant variety rights. You were talking against foreign banks. All the things you are speaking about, you are coming back to.


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Colston) —Order! Senator Mason, you should address your remarks through the Chair.


Senator MASON —Through you, Mr Acting Deputy President, I say that those members of the Labor Party know that what I am saying is perfectly true. The Bill is totally irresponsible. The Government will get into trouble over it. I assure the Government that its voters will turn against it as a result of this legislation.

I was first approached concerning plant variety rights legislation in 1979, soon after I was elected to the Senate. At that time I did not know very much about it. But those people in the community interest groups explained to me what the evidence was and showed it to me. I found the concept of patenting a life form nebulous and rather frightening. It is perfectly proper and reasonable, I think, that something which is mechanical or material should be patented. If somebody designs something like that on a drawing board which does something different for and valuable to society, that is a creative act for which he or she has every reason to expect some reward from society. But somebody may look not only at life itself, but at respon- sibly improving life for the benefit of the human race. This may be done largely in the public area, by scientists who have no axe to grind and no financial interest in the matter. I am concerned that they may take that process, which has already been highly developed, modify it slightly, patent it, and then have the right to sell that process for whatever price they want to sell it, or to withhold it.

I propose to move an amendment to clause 38 of the Bill. I hope that, if the Bill is passed, the Senate will accept that amendment, because that amendment states that after the patent is granted, the material should be offered within two years or it reverts to the public domain. I hope that that amendment will be agreed to, so that there is no question of people being able to withhold varieties in the interests of selling something else which suits the grower or the patentee better, while the better product is patented and withheld. I think it is extraordinarily naive of the Government to leave this matter to ministerial discretion, which is the present provision of the Bill. Members of the Government probably trust the discretion of their Minister. But they are legislating for the future. Frankly, a future government which wants to be in the pocket of plant breeders and big multinationals will have it all its own way. The Bill is absolutely wide open to abuse. If that has not occurred to members of the Government, they should ask their draftsmen to have another look at it. Anyway, I will move my amendment, which has been circulated, and discuss it further, in the Committee stage.

As I say, this question of patenting life is a very uncomfortable one and should properly be so to any human being, because the precedent is too important. The possibility of its being used as a precedent, perhaps to extend it eventually to animal life, even to sub-human forms, is far too definite to ignore. This is not fanciful, nor is it unpredictable. Over the last few decades we have seen realised as fact a number of powers of science, to the terrible detriment of the human race. They would have been barely credible if they had been written in fiction before they had happened. Anybody here could think of examples of that kind.

It is our duty in this place, I imagine, to have vision, to see that we do not allow that precedent to be set unreasonably. Is it unreasonable? I think it is unreasonable. I listened to Senator Macklin and Senator Powell very carefully. They brought forward argument after argument which demonstrated quite plainly and clearly that there is no reason for this legislation. In all honesty that worries me deeply. It makes me worry so much about the motivation of the Hawke Government. Why is it bringing this legislation forward? If honourable senators argue it rationally, if they look at the arguments against it, and if they look at what is happening in the Common Market, they will be forced to the conclusion that there is only one possible reason why the Hawke Government is bringing it forward and that is because it has an axe to grind for somebody. That is a very serious thought. It is a serious accusation. I invite Government senators to answer the points rationally and reasonably that have been put forward by the Australian Democrats against the legislation. If they can answer those points one by one, rationally, reasonably and coherently, our view may change. But as it stands at the moment, it looks very much, as I say, like the foreign banks issue. Suddenly, the Government has changed its opinion by 180 degrees. It has given no reason for it. When governments do that, they are justly and reasonably criticised. The Opposition and I are here to remind the Government that if it puts forward that appearance, that is an appearance which is not an attractive public one, and not one which will allow the public to show any confidence in it.

The Minister in his second reading speech seems to imply that the opposition by some sectors of the community to the concept of private ownership of plant material should be overcome by the fact that the debate in Australia has occurred at a time when most other Western democracies have introduced legislation for the patenting of plant varieties. This brings us back to the point. I cannot see that that follows, anyway, but even if it did, many of those Western democracies are experiencing great problems with such legislation. They are finding that all the things that were said against it by the interest groups are true, that it does attract multi- nationals which make chemicals and fertilisers to buy whole areas of seed production and to concentrate on those seeds and plants which will only be of benefit when their product is used. That is a legitimate enough economic tactic in the world of big business, but not one I would have thought a Labor government would fall for quite so easily.

Is the Government so naive as to believe that it has happened elsewhere in the world, but it will not happen here? Does it think that the Bill provides sufficient safeguards to prevent it happening? I do not think so. In fact, I know that that is not the case. Senator Powell, Senator Vigor and I will put forward laborious amendments which we will argue strenuously and energetically. We will expect coherent, properly worked-out and thought-out replies from the Minister for Finance (Senator Walsh) as to why those amendments are not accepted. We will present our rationale for them and we will want answers. Let me warn the Senate that we will continue to ask until we receive them. If it takes us until the end of next week, we will get those answers.

The point is, of course, that other countries, as I said, are now bitterly regretting the fact that they have introduced this legislation. In Europe last year I talked with a number of people in the agriculture section of the European Economic Community. They had best remain nameless in this connection, as some of them were very senior. They were very unhappy about the concept of plant variety rights. When I said it was likely to be introduced here, do honour- able senators know what their reaction was? They laughed. The Government's action is seen in Europe as being laughable, because it is so naive and so silly.

Even without a plant variety patenting system in this country, Australian plant breeders still have access to necessary breeding material from overseas. This material is now available and it will continue to be so until this Bill is defeated. I want honourable senators to understand this point: Overseas plant breeders who have withheld any material from the Australian market have done so in anticipation of a PVR system being introduced in this country, under which they will be able to make more money. That is a perfectly reasonable commercial decision. But if those same overseas plant breeders are made aware that no such system will be introduced in this country in the near future, they would reasonably make the material available in this country so that they are able to make as much profit from it as possible without a PVR system. Surely, that is self-evident. It is not necessary for us to tie ourselves into this situation, any more than it is necessary for us to tie ourselves to the patents system for articles and objects in any other field.

Another major area of concern is an area which is perhaps more subjective than has been brought forward so far in the debate, but I still think it is important. I refer to the likely effects of the legislation: What will happen to Australians, and what they will get as a result of it. The word has been spread about that plant variety rights is great. We will get great new apples and peaches-wonderful things which have been evolved in the garden of the Hesperides and the other parts of the world and which must be marvellous as a result. We will have them here and that will be tremendous for all of us. Of course, that is not the case. The assumption has been made that if growers have the right to patent varieties, particularly of fruit and vegetables, a better product will be available to consumers. This is, of course, not-I repeat, not-the case. It has been proved not to be the case already in this country. The producer will evolve and market what is most profitable and easiest for him to grow and process, not what is most wholesome and palatable.

A classic example of this which has happened already, for other reasons, in this country is the appalling fate of the tomato, which nobody in this chamber, I feel, who is at all fond of eating tomatoes, especially raw tomatoes, could have overlooked. Once it was possible to buy good tomatoes in this country. They tasted like tomatoes, even though they came in odd shapes and sizes. Now we have perpetrated on us that perversion of a tomato almost universally sold, especially through the winter months, and coming, I gather, from Queensland. It has been admitted that this variety was evolved because its tough skin made it easy to handle-and most unpalatable to eat. It does not ripen naturally. Worst of all, it is almost flavourless. I have read articles in which it has been admitted that this was known to the breeders and that the motivation was not to provide a palatable, pleasant foodstuff-that was not the motivation at all-but to provide something which could be mass produced and handled quickly and easily by the growers. Hence, we all have to eat tough-skinned and unpleasant tasting tomatoes unless we go to special lengths to get the old varieties.

In Sydney a few astute growers have reverted to the old varieties, and I have been out to Mona Vale on the weekend where there are long queues of cars and people queuing up to buy these old varieties of tomatoes because they are sick and tired of what they are being given by the mass market. That mass production market, of course, wants PVR, because it will have the opportunity to force even more people to have what they do not want. A few generations will pass and our grandchildren and great grandchildren will never know what a decent tomato, peach or plum tasted like. They will have vanished from the face of the earth. Any honourable senator who has been to the United States of America, Hawaii or anywhere like that will be aware of the beautiful looking, rosy, large peaches one can buy which taste like cottonwool. He will be aware of the huge strawberries which are sold in California which taste like mud. They look great from the outside. These are the productions of the ingenious people who will be using this Bill once the Government puts it through.


Senator Brownhill —You don't eat cottonwool, do you?


Senator MASON —Senator Brownhill, sometimes the dentist-you know, the molar mangler-puts it in one's mouth. One knows what it tastes like; it tastes just like American peaches.


Senator Brownhill —But you don't keep on eating it.


Senator MASON —No, one does not-far from it.


Senator Brownhill —They don't taste any good; therefore you will not keep on buying them.


Senator MASON —That is right, and that is what has happened to tomatoes now. A point I made a few minutes ago, Senator Brownhill, was that once we have got a couple of generations downstream people will not know any more; they will accept the taste as being what that food should be like. But there will be people in the country who will be watching that.


Senator Brownhill —I was going to say bull dust. That's tomato dust.


Senator MASON —Well, I hope that Senator Brownhill, like me, will continue growing grosse lisse tomatoes and a few other things like that in his back garden so at least such varieties are preserved. Indeed, quite a few fruit retailers I have discussed this matter with deplore what has happened. They say they cannot get anything else; they cannot get any other kind of tomatoes. That meets the point which Senator Powell, by interjection, made a minute or two ago. This is because growing the new varieties gives a slight economic edge, of course. This is the real point. As a result, all growers are compelled to grow them because of the market prices. But there are other ways.


Senator Brownhill —But people will not buy them if they don't like them.


Senator MASON —They do not; that is perfectly true. Many people do not. I do not buy tomatoes in winter any more; I just could not bear to.


Senator Powell —That is not good for the farmers, is it?


Senator MASON —It is not good for the farmers. It would be good for the farmers if they had what people wanted-diversity in variety and what is known to be good. For instance, a big breeder or grower, as I was saying, could make sure he held patents on the more palatable varieties and then withhold these from the market. Under the Bill as it stands that is perfectly feasible. The grower would have to give some sort of reasons to some sort of government. But who is the Government to guarantee that there will not be a government in the future that would not allow such people everything that they wanted. It is the Government that is letting this Bill through. It is highly deficient in that sort of area.

The argument has been put that overseas owners are afraid that if they release patented material here they will lose control over it and find it exported back to the country in which they are patented. This is arrant nonsense. The purpose of PVR legislation is to give the holder of the patent exclusive control over marketing of the patented variety in a country. If anyone tries to market overseas patented material in the country of origin that person would be successfully prosecuted in that country. So that is another argument which has been put forward that is absolute nonsense. This, again, is another reason why the legislation is not needed.

Plant material from overseas is a potential source of exotic pests and diseases. For that reason, most plant reproductive material must go through quarantine. In the main, only vegetable and forage crops are not on the restricted list of entry. They require only inspection and treatment after entry. Because of this the Division of Plant Quarantine of the Federal Department of Health imposes strict limitations on the importation of plant reproductive material. Only a limited number of Australian institutions are allowed to import varieties. Only a limited amount of reproductive material of any variety is imported. Varieties may remain in quarantine for long periods; and the number of new varieties that can be imported each year is limited.

Because of these limitations the process of obtaining, importing and making available to growers new varieties from overseas is carefully controlled by a process of liaison between growers and State departments of agriculture. This system works extremely well. For instance, in the fruit industry a system of importation, quarantine, virus testing, evaluation, supply and storage is undertaken by the State departments of agriculture under the co-ordination of the Fruit Variety Foundation Committee. This system already ensures that farmers have the highest quality plant varieties in their orchards. They know what they are getting and they do not need to invest time and money carrying out their own assessment of the large number of varieties potentially available. This scheme also ensures that material is available without restriction to all those who wish to use it or who want to multiply it and sell it.

When one goes around the world-whether to Israel, London or Amsterdam-one finds Australian fruit on sale, competing well with what is available from PVR areas. In fact, my relatives in Utrecht buy Australian fruit. They are not Australians, as it happens, but they buy Australian fruit because it is better than what they are getting from Europe. It is better than what we are getting from Europe partly because we do not have a PVR system. We have tried established varieties which are known to be good, which are known to be useful and which have proved themselves over and over again. When one buys the stuff produced in Europe one finds it is in all cases inferior.

PVR, then, will not promote the introduction of new varieties of wonderful fruit into Australia. All this pie in the sky stuff is nonsense. The limit on the number of varieties that can be imported and the rate they can be released is set by the resources of quarantine. The money raised by PVR will not go to expanding these resources, as I understand it. The evaluation, distribution and storage functions of the Fruit Variety Foundation Committee are all done at public expense and will not be funded by PVR. This work will amount to a public subsidy of private companies which can take advantage of the system and then use the excuse of ownership rights, granted under PVR, to control the price and distribution of their varieties to their own advantage-not according to the needs of Australian agriculture.

It is an echo of the point I raised in debate the other day with Senator Gareth Evans, the Minister for Resources and Energy. When I went to Lucas Heights some years ago I found that the Commission was handing out isotopes at below the cost price to private business to make lots and lots of money. The same thing is happening here. Again, I ask why. Why is this sort of concession being made? Patented varieties could, of course, be taken directly from quarantine to the nurseries licensed to sell them, in which case farmers would find themselves faced with varieties for which they have no independent evaluation to determine their suitability for Australian conditions or their worth as opposed to other varieties on sale other than the information made available by the variety's owner. That is the kind of world we will introduce, not one of careful study and scrutiny by our own scientists who have responsibilities in their public offices, but a let the buyer beware situation where in fact people will, if they feel like it, in a normal business sense get away with what they can. Honourable senators will see that this will happen if this Bill goes through. That, obviously, is one plain, bottom line area in which PVR will have a very detrimental effect upon this country. Over the years of debate over PVR there have been claims that Australian agriculture suffers because we rely too heavily on public breeding of plants. This is not true. Our public breeding programs are effective and responsive, and what we sell overseas is regarded as among the best fruit and vegetables in the world.

Why then is the Government bringing in this PVR legislation? Why can it not look at something that is good, useful and an export market instead of trying to destroy it, because that is what the Government is doing? Why does it not improve and extend the systems that already exist? They are suited to this country and have been established here for nearly 200 years. They have been established by responsible scientists, some of whom are household and indeed world names. Some of the products of this country, like the granny smith apple, are names that are known the world over.

I can only repeat, in conclusion, that this is one of the nastiest, worst, most unpleasant, most untimely and unjustified pieces of legislation I have ever seen come forward in nine years in this Parliament, and that is saying a lot. I listened to Labor senators' views on this matter when they were in opposition. Many Labor members and senators speaking at public interest groups put forward arguments against PVR. To me the present situation is extraordinary. It is like being in cloud-cuckoo-land to think that a Labor government is bringing forward PVR legislation and perpetrating it on this country at this time. If the Government passes this legislation, I believe it will be to its electoral cost. We shall not let the Government forget it in the community, nor will the interest groups. I know now why the Government brought on this legislation. It thought that it would get the Bill on as early in the session as it could and get it out of the way before an election so that the public would forget it. But the people I am talking about are not that short-sighted. They will not forget it, and we shall certainly not let the Government forget it.