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Friday, 20 February 1987
Page: 368


Senator POWELL(12.05) —by leave-I move:

(10) Pages 13 and 14, clause 23, leave out the clause, insert the following clause:

``Characteristics of plant varieties originated outside Australia.

``23. For the purposes of this Act, where a plant variety in respect of which an application has been accepted was originated outside Australia, the variety shall not be taken to have a particular commercial, environmental or nutritional characteristic unless a test growing of the variety carried out in Australia at the cost of the applicant and taking not less than 2 years has demonstrated that the variety has that characteristic.''.

(11) Page 14, after clause 23, insert the following new clause:

``Characteristics of plant varieties originated in Australia.

``23A. For the purposes of this Act, where a plant variety in respect of which an application has been accepted was originated in Australia, the variety shall not be taken to have a particular commercial, environmental or nutritional characteristic unless a test growing of the variety carried out in Australia at the cost of the applicant and taking not less than 2 years has demonstrated that the variety has that characteristic.''.

This particularly important part of the legislation relates to characteristics of plant varieties originated outside Australia. Given the history of this type of legislation internationally, and given the Government's stated intention that we should become a member of the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants, there is no doubt whatsoever that, through this legislation, Australia links itself irrevocably to the international system of plant patents. Of course, Australia is already strongly linked with this international scene of agricultural production, exports and imports. That is not the question in issue.

Given that it is highly likely-and it will not be a very palatable exercise-that we will have to come back into this chamber at some future time and point out that the Australian seed industry has been successfully taken over by international forces, as have other seed industries, this clause has enormous significance. We are extremely unhappy that the legislation before us requires very limited discretionary testing. Our amendment will make testing mandatory and it introduces that area of merit testing which the Minister addressed before, as Senator Mason said, he fled the scene of battle.

It seems to us that, given a takeover of the Australian seed industry following this legislation, it is most likely that more and more varieties will be coming from overseas. If those varieties do not have to be tested in Australia and any tests applied to them do not have to include the sort of merit testing which the phrase `commercial, environmental and nutritional characteristics' demands, our farmers and our horticulturalists, whom the Opposition has said it stands for and we do not care about, will be very badly at risk.

The Australian environment is a particular environment, as is the environment in any other country. But Australia is the driest continent on earth. It is one of the oldest continents on earth. Somebody from the Opposition accused the Australian Democrats of being people who had obviously never grown a seed or a plant in their lives. I was brought up on a wheat farm in western Victoria. I have grown plants and seen seeds grow, and I know about, and have a deep understanding of, the problems in the country. Other members of this Party have had similar sorts of experiences. Senator Vigor is currently still involved in primary industry interests and other Democrats have various interests in this area.

One of the things we know from personal experience is that our farmers are working in a particular environment in Australia. It is a harsh one and sometimes it is extremely unkind. We know that one thing is not possible: We cannot have an expectation that plants and seeds which are brought in from overseas will grow and produce in Australia in exactly the same way as they do overseas. Pure common sense tells us that. If I had never seen anything grown in my whole life pure common sense would have told me that. For instance, something might do very well in California and not do well in South Australia, although in general, global terms those two areas share relatively the same climatic conditions.

The whole Australian environment, with the very uncertain nature of the rainfall, the sorts of pests we have to deal with and the soil types in most areas, is extraordinarily unique. We might have exactly the same climatic combination-the same rainfall and the same temperature range-but be trying to grow seeds in a quite different soil. We might have the right sort of soil but the rain might occur in different months. All those things have to be taken in account and will affect the way a plant variety which might have been thoroughly tested overseas will grow and produce in Australia.

The points I made earlier about the ability of very large companies to market their products to growers and farmers comes into play here. A variety coming from a very large commercial concern can be highly promoted through television advertisements, through the supermarkets, through a whole range of advertising, which is highly persuasive in our society, and through commercial journals related to the industry. We have only to look at what happens in the medical industry with the very effective and well placed glossy advertisements in medical journals which persuade doctors that the very best thing to give to those manic housewives who keep coming to them saying they have aches and pains are some of the industry's wonderful wonder drugs, which the housewives subsequently get hooked on, resulting in a tremendous social problem.

Let us picture the same thing happening in the rural industry. The rural journals are full of glossy advertisements for new products and new varieties-the ones, we are told, that everybody is dying to get his hands on, even though my information is that a person who really wants a product that is working can get it anyhow. Farmers in Australia are swallowing all this cosmetic hype, as well they might. Unfortunately, it is the way in which our society operates all too often. The farmers are people who are struggling. They do not have a lot of time and money to get out and find things out for themselves. They trust people like us to make decisions which will protect them.

Senator Zakharov talked about safeguards in this legislation. Every one of the amendments that we are proposing today has the effect of providing a safeguard which is not in the legislation. We are doing it so that these people will not be hoodwinked, will not be sold a pup or, as the horticulturist who got in touch with me said, will not be fed a con. If something is going to come in from overseas it is very important that it be tested here for a range of characteristics-commercial, environmental and nutritional. There is no way that this Parliament should be passing a piece of legislation which states that farmers can be sold a product which does not have to be compulsorily tested or tested for those characteristics. The effect of the first of the two amendments that I have moved together is to safeguard against that.

The second amendment relates to varieties originating in Australia and reiterates the point made in the first amendment, which was rejected by the Minister and by the Government. It insists on the commercial, environmental and nutritional characteristics being tested, taking testing out of the discretionary area and puts it into the compulsory area. Under the original Bill it is discretionary. We believe that it should be compulsory and that it should be at the cost of the applicant applying for a right. We believe that the applicant for or the owner of a right should be paying the cost. Obviously that person will be in a position to pass it on to the farmers. That is a concern. That is one of the reasons why we are stressing our concern about the takeover of this industry by a very few people. We know, from experience in a number of other areas what happens, when we get a monopoly. We have two levels of consumers in this argument-the grower, the farmer and the horticulturist who will use the seed, and the consumer who uses the end product. These amendments have the effect of protecting the interests of both those categories of consumers. I commend the amendments to the Committee and remind the Committee that this type of merit testing was originally supported by the Government when in opposition.