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Friday, 20 February 1987
Page: 357


Senator WALSH (Minister for Finance)(10.38) —The Australian Democrats have circulated a large number of amendments. I will speak to this one. However, I do not propose to speak to any of the others. This amendment is of some consequence and some substance. The Special Minister of State, Senator Tate, or somebody else will be relieving me shortly. This amendment covers what is usually described as merit testing. It presumes that farmers are fools. Some of them are. Some of them vote for the Democrats. Most of them probably vote for the National Party. But on matters such as which crops and which varieties of particular cultivars they should grow most farmers are not fools. As I said in the second reading debate, most farmers will grow the varieties that they believe will yield the highest income.

Merit testing, in the abstract, is desirable. Of course, it is something that is already done, principally by State departments of agriculture which test a large number of cultivars for yield potential, disease resistance, and so on. Therefore merit testing is not innately undesirable and will continue. This amendment proposes to make it compulsory for any new variety, before it can be registered, to be merit tested. Yield is something that can be measured in a particular environment with precision. Let us look at the other things that have been thrown into the amendment, such as the word `quantitative'. How, for example, would one get a quantitative assessment of the environment characteristics of a variety? Frankly, I do not know what that means. I suppose that somebody will say: `This particular variety will not grow unless the seed is treated with a poisonous chemical; therefore, it is environmentally undesirable and it should be banned'. How would one make a commercial assessment of a new variety other than by measuring yield, which is something that one would expect to happen anyway? It is not sensible to suggest seriously that any government agency can measure all those things in any objective way. The mechanism by which most of those varieties are assessed in this society is, of course, the market place operating both at farm level and, ultimately, at the consumer level.

I know that some people believe that government should get more heavily involved in giving people what is good for them instead of what they want. All governments do that to some extent. In Australia, for example, it is illegal for people to use heroin. Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing is debatable and it is a matter for which I do not think there is any decisive proof. To use heroin even for purely medical or pain killing purposes is illegal in Australia. But I think anybody would agree that there is a limit to the degree to which governments ought to be involved in giving people what governments believe is good for them instead of what they want. It is a matter of judgment where that line should be drawn.

The other matter, which is more directly related to my responsibility in government, is that very heavy public costs could be involved in compulsorily testing anything that was submitted for registration unless cost recovery was obtained, probably by State departments of agriculture which would actually do the testing, from those who were applying for a patent. In any case, if new cultivars are produced I expect that the producers will voluntarily approach State departments of agriculture seeking as objective an assessment as can be made of the characteristics of that variety. The Government will not accept this amendment, nor will it accept any of the other amendments. I do not propose to speak to any of the other amendments.