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Thursday, 19 February 1987
Page: 327


Senator KNOWLES(10.09) —It is rather pleasant at least on one occasion to be able to give wholehearted support to a piece of Government legislation. However, I ask why the Australian Labor Party Government has delayed so long in presenting such a necessary and sensible reform when it could have been proceeded with in legislation which was first moved, as my colleague Senator Hill just said, by the Fraser Liberal Government. For far too long the ALP has been prepared to pander to the irrational fears of pressure groups and to disregard the interests of Australia's horticultural industries. I am rather pleased to see that common sense has at last prevailed. Australian primary producers need access to improved strains of plants if our rural exports are to compete on the very much tougher world markets that we are seeing today. Plant variety rights legislation will both encourage this development locally and provide access to strains from overseas. Encouragement of private plant breeding in Australia can, of course, only be of benefit to the economy as a whole.

Plant variety rights is not a new issue in Australia. It first emerged in the 1960s. In 1976 the Industries Assistance Commission strongly recommended its introduction. The Fraser Government can hardly be accused of rushing the matter, since draft PVR legislation was circulated for two years before it was formally introduced in 1981. Of course, unfortunately, it was then laid on the table for 12 months. Yet in 1983 the Hawke Government allowed this Bill to lapse and only now is PVR likely to become law. This legislation has the support of the Australian Agricultural Council. I think that is a very important aspect that should not be overlooked. For years it has had the wholehearted support of the fruit and vegetable growers in Western Australia, my home State. If we are to enjoy a profitable export industry-and heaven only knows how much we need more exports today, particularly in products such as stone fruits from the south-west of my State, because that is an important export industry not only to Western Australia, but to Australia-growers must have access to the benefits of PVR to improve standards of production.

In an era in which the law has been changed to extend copyright protection into areas of intellectual property, in support of the principle that innovators deserve reward for effort and a right to some return for what they have created, a blanket exception cannot logically be made for plant material. We would all accept, I think, that impediments cannot be put in the way of effective and stable food production in Australia and the world. But nothing in this legislation would suggest that any adverse consequences will result, despite what the Australian Democrats might put forward in this debate. This Bill will apply only to new plant inventions. It simply cannot hamper existing food production. This simple fact seems to escape the opponents of PVR. As I say, it escaped the intellect of the Australian Democrats. Patents will last for 20 years. The scheme will be voluntary and open to overseas breeders. Infringements will be met by private prosecution in the Federal Court of Australia, which is the established practice for infringement of property rights. So there is real protection along the proper courses in which protection should lie.

The Bill provides for an advisory committee that will be able to iron out difficulties over the admission of species-bearing in mind that they must, of course, be actively bred and not simply discovered-and technical administration. The scheme, of course, will be reviewed after five years. It is extremely moderate and flexible legislation which should be supported. It should also be stressed that farmers and home gardeners who use a variety protected by PVR will be able to retain seed and propagating material for their own use. Material can be used for research purposes.

Objections to plant variety rights seem to arise from the fear that new strains of essential food crops subject to PVR will replace existing varieties, so that producers and consumers will be in the thrall of multinational companies which hold stocks of both seed and the chemicals that control them. I found it quite amazing to listen to the debate and the arguments put forward by the Australian Democrats today that the big threat was that the dreaded multinationals would take over in this area. That is simply not so. We might lay aside one salient fact: PVR will have its impact on minor breeding in horticultural industries rather than on our major economic crops that have traditionally relied on public breeders. Be that as it may, all of these scenarios presuppose an incredible degree of shortsightedness by producers, which I do not think is prevalent, or by Third World governments, and leaves us to doubt the wisdom of forgoing necessary legislation in order to guard against some remote possibility.

The second reading speech of the Minister for Primary Industry (Mr Kerin) notes the fact that at the turn of the century India had 30,000 varieties of rice in common usage and it now has 30. Critics of PVR are very vocal about such a diminution of varieties. Nonetheless, we can ask what validity this criticism has when India is self-sufficient in rice, so that the 30 varieties represent the best value to growers and consumers. At the same time, all strains are preserved in a rice genetic resource centre, just in case the multinationals start plotting. That plot is the consistent cry of those who are opposed to this legislation. But there is provision to prevent any plotting in this legislation.

Equally, we should be sceptical of claims that strains developed through PVR will be chemical dependent in order to further the interests of multinationals. It would be logical, surely, for the market-place to be more responsive to disease-resistant varieties that may be developed and that will save expenditure on chemicals. Hopefully, the establishment of PVR in Australia will encourage the growth of private plant breeders who, even in the demonology of the far Left, cannot be described as the dreaded multinationals. So much of the opposition which is now fighting a rearguard action against this legislation, and which for far too long had too great an influence over this Australian Labor Party Government, stems from this attitude noted in the Minister's speech:

. . . some sectors of our community are philosophically opposed to the concept of private ownership of plant material.

Some collectivist thinkers dislike the free enterprise ethos so much that they automatically assume that the activity of private breeders is destructive and malign. It is interesting to note, I suppose, that the only letters that senators have received in opposition to this legislation are in connection with the multinationals having a say in the ultimate decisions of plant varieties. The breeders themselves are certainly not vocal in their opposition. Those who are worried about the influence of the multinationals are the most vocal. The plant diversity protection committee, which has been active in its opposition to this Bill, circulated last July a critique of the report of the Lazenby Inquiry into Australia's Plant Breeding Needs that gave support to PVR. In comparing private to public plant breeders, it is stated that public breeders turn out a product more suited to farmer needs, not those of the market-place. Surely, that is the point that we should be addressing today-not what is important to the market-place, but what is more important to farmer needs and requirements. Of course, this is the war cry of the collectivist who does not trust Australian farmers-or any Australians, for that matter. Australian farmers, we all know, are suffering dearly under this Government and under the tax imposts that have been placed on them over the last three years. We must make sure that we are making their lives easier instead of more difficult. This legislation will certainly bring that about.

If the same market-place shows a preference for the products of public breeders, so be it. In any case, for the foreseeable future it will be the role of the private breeders to supply those areas of demand which public breeders are unable to meet. The same dubious logic is applied when it is argued that there is no need for PVR to protect imported plant material against piracy, because there is no evidence that this has occurred in the past. Such a bland and meaningless assertion can hardly be expected to impress overseas commercial breeders, who are withholding material from a country in which the absence of PVR legislation means that their rights simply cannot be protected.

It is not good enough for Australian primary producers and our horticultural industries to be denied the stock that they need because it is not being produced locally or because it cannot be imported through tardiness in introducing PVR. It is an unacceptable further difficulty for wine producers. Wine producers have been hit hard over the years. In the last Budget, of course, they were hit even harder by increased taxes. I suppose they have not fared well at the hands of the Government, which has introduced a 20 per cent tax on their products. But the worst impact, of course, is not on bulk wines but on the specialist producers who have pioneered wine growing in the south-west of Western Australia. It is wrong to place any obstacles in the way of Western Australia's fruit industry, which in 1984-85 earned $10.5m in export income and can be expected to earn at least $12m presently. Markets in South East Asia, however, are subject to competition from overseas varieties. New strains are becoming very prominent. A growing export industry needs all the help that it can get. Again, I am sorry that PVR could not have been instituted earlier to assist these very same people.

The priority that is now finally being given to the needs of rural producers ahead of the fears and fancies of the collectivist lobby is most welcome, but of course it is rather sad that it is also very belated. I am glad the Liberal Party of Australia got its priorities right long before the Government in that it put the PVR legislation up in the first place. This legislation will safeguard both producers and consumers, which now, I am pleased to say, the Government is prepared to recognise. In closing, I certainly hope that the Senate will pass this piece of legislation with great urgency and minimum debate in terms of opposition from the Australian Democrats.