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Wednesday, 25 February 1987
Page: 579


Senator VIGOR(11.10) —We have just had a very good argument from Senator Watson for supporting the amendment. Following up his statement, we have examples of diseases such as rust on grasses and weeds which requires that the spores of the rust and the rust be held on some type of suitable plant over the period between various spates of monoculture. If one has wheat crops, one can actually stop rust if one gets rid of all the volunteer grasses and other species in between crops in the particular area. Senator Watson gave an example of the three crops a season type rice or the three crops a season type wheat. Those particular wheats and the continuous cropping of a particular area mean that there is time for the predator, the rust, to grow on those varieties and if it wipes out the whole crop in Australia, the people who introduced that should be responsible and should pay for it. Senator Watson has given us a marvellous example of why we should be supporting this amendment.

I also believe that in Australia we have policies of wiping out certain species which carry disease. In the Northern Territory mimosa was introduced as a possible volunteer feed plant. It was carried by buffalo throughout quite a large region of the wetlands around Darwin and it is now a major pest. It was thought to be something quite good at the time it was introduced. A number of other plants have been introduced by the grazing industry into some of those areas which have totally wiped out some of the local grasses which were able to resist drought conditions, so we end up with vast growths of these particular plants and then, in times of drought, we end up with completely bare earth and erosion. The effects are very negative.

All of these things are reasons why, if people are going to put a variety on to the market, we should at least make them think about the consequences of that product. Senator Watson has introduced privatisation of profits. We have to have privatisation of liability as well. The issue in this amendment is that we want the person who takes full profits from the proposal of being on the register of plant varieties to take full and unlimited liability for any damage that these plants may cause. That is important because we have had examples throughout the years in Australia of skeleton weed, which was an introduced feed, which has completely devastated large areas of wheat crop. The cost of weed control of skeleton weed in South Australia is enormous. Prickly pear devastated the mid-west of New South Wales; yet it was quite a useful plant, the fruit being quite edible--


Senator Mason —It could have come in under PVR.


Senator VIGOR —It could have come in under PVR quite effectively. It is grown successfully in South Australia because the climate does not allow it to get out of hand. Australia has different problems from those in other countries. For instance, section 92 of the Constitution says that we cannot restrict the movement of plants across borders. Prickly-pear, if it were a commercial variety, could be carried across borders even though the carriers were advised by public organisations, such as the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, that it might get out of hand in New South Wales. We have real problems with the various thistles; for example, the Scotch thistle which was brought in for sentimental reasons by various people from another part of the world. It was a beautiful plant in gardens, but in Australia it has got completely out of hand. The sour sob-however beautiful the yellow fields may be in South Australia-is a pest to farmers. It is almost impossible to eradicate.

Currently, the legislation carries no provision for merit testing, simply because the Opposition and the Australian Labor Party, together, have conspired to make certain that there is no such provision. Because there is no such provision for testing, we must have some other hold on people. That hold has to be the fact that if their plant gets out of hand, if it does not perform, if it becomes a weed or if it becomes a carrier of disease, then we have, at law, the ability to pursue them and to get damages from them in the long run. If we are to have privatisation, we must have both the carrot and the stick together. Basically, that is what the amendment does. It is an amendment to turn what is a rotten piece of legislation into, at least, a reasonably fair one.

Currently, there is no way in which the legislation addresses the problem of suitability of varieties for our environment. There is no protection of the purchaser in terms of nutritional value. There is no guarantee that the product that comes in may not be subject through a symbiont-for instance, some bacteria growing on the plant-to becoming poisonous. Plants such as rye grass can become poisonous when various species grow on them. It is quite possible for those varieties to carry such diseases.

Today's genetic engineering and bioengineering make it possible to transfer bits of genetic material from one plant species to another quite unrelated one, and eventually even from an animal to a plant or a bacterium to a plant. That is all possible now; it is not in the realms of fantasy. During that bioengineering process one can transfer genes which carry side effects. If we do not have merit testing, as we do not under the legislation, we must have a comeback on those who introduce disease.


Senator Sheil —Has any of this happened in any of the countries that have the legislation?


Senator VIGOR —Things have happened in Australia. Admittedly, they have not been distributed. Various genetically changed plants have carried much more than the specific change which was introduced by biotechnology. Unless we have very extensive testing in that area, as is required under the administration of drugs, we cannot do anything about having any comeback with those people.


Senator Sheil —Has it caused any harm?


Senator VIGOR —Senator Sheil asks whether it has caused any harm. I believe that we should not, as the Opposition and the Labor Party want to do, wait until we do have such harm before we act. It seems to be the same process with road accidents: We wait until there are deaths before we modify a corner. In this case the Democrats are thinking ahead. It is the only party that is thinking ahead in this area. The resultant engineered varieties of plants can, quite unbeknown to their originator, carry genetic coding for potentially lethal or dangerous properties which may be specific to only a small part of the community. For instance, some people are allergic to certain colouring materials and some become hyperactive when they are in contact with such materials, dyes, and things of that nature.

Such things can be produced within plants. The toxic products may be toxic to only a small group in the community, but we must be conscious that that can happen. We do not have any merit testing. Nobody sets standards in that respect. It is up to us to set the standards. The Opposition is not prepared to set the standards. If the industry is to handle its own standards, we must have a stick and say: `Look, you have been bad boys and you must pay for the fact that you have not done a reasonable job in terms of self-regulation'. The Opposition believes in self-regulation. If there is self-regulation, there must be some way of getting back at the people who do not obey it effectively.

I believe that the owner of the rights of any plant must bear the responsibility, as well as the privilege, for spreading and releasing the plant on to the market-place. It is extremely important for this Parliament to take its responsibilities seriously. I implore honourable senators on both sides of the chamber to consider those responsibilities. If some people are killed as a result, Senator Sheil will be personally responsible.

Question put:

That the proposed new clause (Senator Powell's amendment) be inserted in the Bill.