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Friday, 20 February 1987
Page: 352

Senator GEORGES(9.58) —I enter the debate briefly to indicate my opposition to the Plant Variety Rights Bill. I will not speak at length because those who wish to know my position can read the minority report of the Standing Committee on National Resources, which investigated the matter.

Senator Walsh —How many Committee meetings did you go to, George?

Senator GEORGES —Quite a number.

Senator Walsh —That is not what I am told.

Senator GEORGES —The Minister for Finance may have been told a number of things. In order to discredit my position, I suppose he will take it that, because I did not attend the same number of committee meetings as others did, I was not familiar with the subject and that I did not read the substantial material that was sent to me both for and against the legislation. If the Minister wants to discredit me on the basis of my lack of attendance at the meetings of that particular Committee, I advise him that my work on committees has been considerable. Sometimes I have served the Australian Labor Party by filling a position on a committee which was short of members. If that is the basis of the Minister's argument against me, he can persist with it.

I wish to mention only one or two matters. I have an objection to patents. I have as strong objection to the length of patents that are given to discoveries by people, groups of people, or institutions. My view is that patents limit the spread of knowledge. Patents are over-protective and merely seek to isolate knowledge and to give an undue level of profit to those who make discoveries.

I also have a problem with patents in that they restrict the spread of innovation. They do not facilitate it; rather, they limit it. There are classical examples available where people who have made new discoveries have patented them, those patents have been purchased and that knowledge has been restricted and limited. What has happened is that the person, persons or corporations which have a great vested interest in the processes over which they have control seek to limit any competition. Therefore, rather than spread competition, patents limit it and the spread of knowledge. There are classical examples of this going back over generations. Just recently there has been the development of a particular style of engine in Western Australia for which patents have been taken up overseas, which will not accelerate the production of the item but will limit it. I have a strong objection to patenting of a human discovery. Possibly that, Senator Walsh, is at the basis of my position. For that reason I object to the length of a patent in the Bill. The period was 20 years, it is now 15 years, and I would like to see that period, if there is to be patenting, limited to five years.

The problem I face is that it does not really lead to improvement. Certainly in the plant variety area it will not lead to improvement. It has been said in debates here that there will be improvements in varieties, but from the consumer point of view there is no improvement. The tomato was mentioned. The tomato which is produced by the variety of genetic changes and by plant breeding has been unpalatable and unsatisfactory to the consumer, but it suits the distributors. It suits those who produce machines. It perhaps even suits the farmer, but it does not suit the consumer. The great firms that distribute these products need a product that is hard, indestructible, easily handled and suffers very little waste, because that is their need. Therefore, an article is produced that is quite unacceptable, but the problem is that no other variety is easily available.

The process that we are endorsing by this Bill will lead not to an improvement from the consumers' point of view but to a deterioration. It will also lead to a situation where better strains are excluded. Other considerations are taken into account-not the main consideration, which should be the needs of the consumer. I shall vote against the Bill. There are too many considerations that lead to doubt about the suitability of plant variety rights. It does not help small breeders. It will eventually exclude the small breeders and put them at a disadvantage against major breeders and at a disadvantage in protecting their rights, even though they have patent rights. They will find it very difficult to protect themselves against the mighty corporations which seek to exclude people from competition and whose purpose is not to improve but to maximise profits.

Our problem-and if Senator Walsh were honest on this matter I am sure he would agree-is that we have to follow what happens overseas. We seem to have been caught in a situation where, if we do not follow a trend or development overseas, we face exclusion. It takes a lot of courage to resist some of those trends from overseas; it might lead to some economic disadvantage to do so.

Senator Walsh —It helps to have a feeble and closed mind.

Senator GEORGES —Well, Senator Walsh has a pretty open mind. I have noticed it at work in this place. I have noted the way he applies it. It is not a bad mind, but the way he applies it is often to his discredit. He should just put his case and his reason and leave the abuse to one side. If he wishes to engage in that sort of thing with me, he is welcome to try and I will respond as often as I can. But he should just put his case and not talk about other people's closed minds, because if one does that it indicates that one's own mind is starting to close up. Some of us might not be as bright on our feet or as smart at invective. Nevertheless, we endeavour to put a point of view, and I will insist on putting mine as often as I can.

I will oppose this Bill. I will support the amendment, which seeks to have the investigations in Europe taken into account. I think that is wise. I believe, as I said before, that it would be far better to allow the development of new strains to take place more in the public area than in the private area. I do not think this is an area in which profit should be the main consideration. I believe that the public interest is much more important than the profits which individuals or groups of individuals can gain by patenting and limiting the availability of certain new advantages.