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Wednesday, 22 June 1994
Page: 1917


Senator BROWNHILL (Deputy Leader of the National Party of Australia) (6.22 p.m.) —I find it quite hard to follow Senator Woodley's philosophical argument, although I take nothing away from the way he put it. It is his bent to put it in the manner he put it. But I do believe that a starting point for this Plant Breeder's Rights Bill is the Plant Variety Rights Act 1987. That is where this debate starts, and it is a little more in the present than some of the things Senator Woodley was talking about. Whether we cast our seeds onto barren or fertile land, we definitely have to have plant breeders' rights to make sure that we get all those better varieties and the things that will come with this legislation.

  I declare my interest as a wheat grower and also as a cooperator with the University of Sydney in the north-west Wheat Research Institute. At this stage I pay tribute to all those wonderful breeders of wheat, sorghum, sunflowers, fava beans and all the other crops that we grow on our properties when, God willing, we get the rain and the seasons to bring forth the harvest.

  I listened to Senator Coulter's speech. I could not really understand what he was trying to say about trying to stall this bill, which I think basically is what it is all about. This bill is about protecting the breeder of a variety so that breeders have a chance to recoup some of the money expended on the production of a variety. I think it is very important, because to produce a variety costs a lot of money and a lot of effort. Earlier I thought Senator Coulter was talking about pure science because all he was going to do was produce papers. This is about more than producing papers; this is about producing better varieties of crops and better varieties of plants for future use.

  In addition, this Plant Breeder's Rights Bill, it should be noted here, is consistent with Australia's obligations under UPOV, the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants. It is also in harmony with United Nations Agenda 21—I know the Australian Democrats are very happy to talk about United Nations agendas and that sort of thing—the international Convention on Biological Diversity, the FAO undertaking on plant genetic resources, and also with GATT. That has a lot to do with why this bill is here today.

  It is not my desire to delay the Senate for very long. I will be reasonably quick with my remarks. Essentially this bill is a name change for the previous act, the Plant Variety Rights Act 1987, which enabled Australian breeders to apply for and receive patent rights for new varieties of plants that they developed. It will also provide greater incentives for investment in plant breeding which is to the benefit of Australian agriculture.

  The original legislation had a long and hotly argued history, and I think we should turn to that. PVR was a controversial issue at the time, and was a source of many parliamentary and departmental reports during the 1980s. In 1984 the Senate Standing Committee on Natural Resources brought down its findings on the issue after a two-year study. The committee received over 200 submissions and held a number of public meetings at which over 70 witnesses gave evidence. Senators Boswell, Crichton-Browne and Zakharov are the only senators left who were on the original committee, but I am sure they can attest to the passion—I am sure Senator Boswell will later in the debate—with which many witnesses argued their points.

  As a member of the committee charged with examining the bill this time around, I can attest to that passion. I think some of it was a little inflamed by some of my colleagues on my left here, the Democrats. The issues that the 1984 committee looked at ranged from the impact of PVR on public breeding programs to effects on Third World countries. Many suggested that PVR would be a means of justifying a reduction in government expenditure on public breeding, which I think Senator Coulter has alluded to; a shift from practical plant breeding into pure research; a consequent separation of basic research and teaching from plant breeding; and a diminution in cooperation between public and private breeders. Basically, I think that is the argument Senator Coulter was trying to put.

  The 1984 committee concluded that PVR was a desirable development for Australia, although there was a dissenting report from Senator Georges and Senator Zakharov. In addition to the Senate committee report, the then minister for primary industry commissioned Professor Alec Lazenby to undertake a study into Australia's plant breeding needs. He concluded that the benefits of PVR, as it was then, far outweighed any perceived disadvantages.

  From my own experience in the intervening years, the benefits that Lazenby alluded to have indeed come to fruition. Since the introduction of plant breeders' rights, or plant variety rights as it was previously called, Australian farmers have been able to access new varieties across a range of crops, for which we are very thankful. For Australian gardeners the explosion in ornamentals has been no less dramatic, and we can see it all around us. That is why the legislation before us today—as was the case with the previous legislation—has the support of all the major players in rural industry: the National Farmers Federation; the Grains Council of Australia; the Seed Industry Association; and the Nursery Industry Association of Australia, among others. All these groups have advised their support for the legislation, with the only suggestion being a toughening of the penalties applicable to any company which deliberately infringes a breeder's right.

  Notwithstanding that, as we know, the Senate sent the bill to the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs for inquiry. Fortunately, we have been a little speedier than the 1984 committee; we got on with the job. I believe the conclusions are approximately the same as those of the previous committee. The rural and regional affairs committee took evidence from a wide range of sources, from the Grains Council to individuals such as Professor Godden from the Sydney University department of agricultural economics. We heard very similar arguments to those raised in the 1980s, and we have dismissed most of those arguments.

  In passing, I note that in a formal response to the committee, the Department of Primary Industries and Energy suggested that the `groundswell of opposition' referred to by various witnesses boiled down to arguments lodged originally by one or two people and fanned around by various limited vision interest groups, among them Aboriginal groups which suggested that the legislation contravened land rights. The evidence we had and the advice we got from the government and from other legal sources was that this was not the case.

  While the committee has recommended minor amendments to two areas of the bill—17(2) and 22(3)—to provide transparency to the minister's powers, the majority of the committee is of the view that the legislation is beneficial to Australia and should get the support of the Senate. But this is not just the committee's view. The Grains Council of Australia, representing grain growers in Australia—and as such has particular expertise in and understanding of the needs of the industry—also supports it. I gave my pecuniary interest earlier.

  It is good to see a representative from the Grains Council, James Price, in the gallery here tonight watching this legislation being debated. The Council is of the view that the legislation is sound and that PBR is vital to the grain industry. It has advised me that the amendments that the rural and regional affairs committee has proposed would serve to give written confirmation to something verbally presumed and would generally be of great benefit.

  I acknowledge that history obviously repeats itself because we had a dissenting report from Senator Woodley and the Democrats. The Democrats are well-known for trying to stall this legislation by sending it off to another Senate committee to provide yet another forum for their supporters to air their limited views. That came through tonight. Obviously they are trying to stall the legislation. This chamber should not let that happen in any shape or form.

  I say as an aside that if the Democrats wish to have any credibility in the bush they need to stop listening to the fringe dwellers they attract and start listening to people in the real world. That is what they are doing; they are listening to the fringe dwellers and not getting on with the job of doing something that is of benefit, not only to our country but also to trade, making sure that we are in unison with the rest of the world. Australia is a part of the modern world. We are not an isolated little place where the fairies live down the bottom of the garden. We are a part of the real world. The Democrats have to start believing that, if they are going to believe in this legislation.

  This legislation ensures that Australia is and will continue to remain competitive, that we remain responsive to industry needs and receptive to changes in technology. There is much more I would like to say in reference to evidence taken by the committee but time prevents me from doing so tonight because my urge is that we get on with this debate and make sure that the legislation is operative on 1 July.

  I support the legislation. The rural industry supports it. The legislation is good. I am pleased that this matter is now to be resolved and off the Senate agenda. I hope that we do it in a quick and forthright manner so that we can get on with making sure that Australia remains at the forefront of producing new varieties, and is able to use new varieties from around the world and perfect the variety that is produced by the breeder, wherever he is.