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Wednesday, 25 February 1987
Page: 571


Senator MASON(10.22) —This amendment is very important. The whole question of the availability of knowledge to the public about what is going on in plant variety rights and plant patenting is vital. I must stress, as we are in the Committee stage of this Bill, that the Australian Democrats are utterly opposed to the legislation in any shape or form whatsoever and that we voted as a complete party against it at the second reading stage. The reasons for that are known in the community but I am sure that they will come up again in the Committee stage. I am convinced that the public does not really understand what is going on now, that they have been taken for a ride and that there has been a sort of smokescreen of publicity which has said that this is a purely legitimate situation, that one is patenting something like a piece of machinery. If one is going to evolve or develop a piece of machinery, a new gimmick, a gadget or a useful piece of equipment, why not patent it? It is too easy by extension to extend this notion to plants which, after all, are living things. That is the basic problem behind this legislation and the basis of our objection.

Members of the public have not yet understood that when this legislation comes into effect the quality of their foodstuffs will begin to decline quite rapidly. The amount of material available to them, the number of varieties of fruits and vegetables, will be strictly limited. Growers will not be dictated by what the public wants. Far from it. They will be dictated by what is the cheapest, easiest and most convenient thing for them to purvey. The Minister for Finance, Senator Walsh, who is in charge of the Plant Variety Rights Bill, said the other day in the Senate in one of his few contributions to the Committee stage that the only consideration he was prepared to bring forward here was that the legislation should enable farmers to make money. That is the only consideration that is regarded as important in the selection of the varieties that will evolve as a result of this legislation.

Here we find the key to the Government's failure to accept our excellent amendments which would protect the public and involve the testing of these varieties so that they are good, amendments which have been brought forward by my colleague, Senator Powell. All of our amendments are excellent. Most of them originated, not with the Democrats, but with the Labor Party in opposition, as is the case with this amendment. This amendment was put forward quite strongly and reasonably by the Australian Labor Party when it was in opposition. The public might well ask why the Labor Party is now retreating from it. This amendment, as with other amendments of ours which the Government refused earlier in the Committee stage, would have allowed the public greater information on what was going on. The Government does not want that; it wants a wall of silence. It knows that there is something wrong with the patenting of plants and it does not want the public to know.

There is something of a conspiracy going on in this country to see that this happens. It is of great interest that, apart from an excellent article in the Australian this morning by one of our most respected agricultural journalists, Mr Julian Cribb, there has been virtually no media coverage of this Bill whatsoever while it has been passing through the Senate. The newspapers are ignoring this; they do not want to cover it. Are they in it too? I do not know. There are very strong and big commercial interests in this which want to push this legislation through without the public knowing about it. They want as little fuss as possible. The Government is in this conspiracy, which is why the Bill is coming up now. It wants this legislation out of the way as early as possible, before the election is too close, because it knows that there will be flak from it. It is right and proper that there should be flak from it, and it will be a continuing issue right up to the election even though the Bill, in spite of our objections, will be passed today without amendments which it ought to have, including this one.

Have those people listening ever noticed how bad our foodstuffs are becoming? For instance, winter tomatoes, with their tough skins and lack of flavour, are almost unable to be used as a food in its raw form. In fact, these tomatoes can be ripened only under gas; they do not ripen naturally. It is great for the growers because the tomatoes can be picked green and thrown into packing cases. That is good, but when people start patenting food varieties those are the criteria they will use. The more people who know about this and think about it, the better. It is a great pity that there has not been an enormous public outcry about this.

In the newspaper article I mentioned, Mr Cribb said that there was no doubt whatsoever that this legislation in Australia would lead to a narrowing of the sources of supply of genetic material for plants and a drop off of what is being done in the public area. That is important when one considers that Australia has done so much in the public area, through the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation and others. A general concentration of this in the hands of private industry will manipulate these essential basic foodstuffs to the benefit of industry and what the public wants will not be of any importance.

People opposite have said during the Committee stage that the public will not buy what is good for them if they do not like it. But they will have no alternative; they will have only these things offered to them and they will eat these or nothing. A generation or two will pass and we will have a society in which our grandchildren will not even know what a good apple, tomato or peach should taste like. They will have a sort of non-food, a nasty, unpleasant perversion of the natural product designed explicitly to bring the grower as much money as possible, to make it as easy as possible to handle, process and can the product and, incidentally, to provide the least possible nutritional content and flavour that can be arranged in those circumstances.