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Monday, 6 November 2000
Page: 19192

Senator FORSHAW (9:22 PM) —The Gene Technology Bill 2000, the Gene Technology (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2000 and the Gene Technology (Licence Charges) Bill 2000 are important, long awaited and, indeed, welcome legislation. In fact, one of the witnesses to the recent Senate inquiry, Professor Adrian Gibbs, a virologist with the CSIRO, suggested that this legislation is some of the most important legislation ever to be introduced into this parliament. I am sure that all ministers would like to make that claim about their legislation, but it is widely recognised across this parliament and throughout the community that these bills, the first of their kind to regulate gene technology, are extremely important. I note, however, that they have been introduced somewhat earlier than we had anticipated in that they were on the program for tomorrow night. They are, nevertheless, not before time. I will come back shortly to some issues of the progress of this legislation through the parliament.

The gene technology revolution brings with it not only responsibilities to protect human health and our unique environment but ethical and legal responsibilities that must both take into account the here and now and look forward to how our society may be affected in the generations to come. The Gene Technology Bill 2000 is the first piece of substantial legislation that has been developed specifically to deal with this new technology. It is for these reasons that we must get this legislation right from the outset, and it is for these reasons that Labor rejects some of the assertions made in the Senate, particularly by Senator Knowles, in the debate on the recent report of the Senate Community Affairs References Committee inquiry into this bill. I want to compliment Senator Crowley, who chaired that committee, and other members of the committee on an excellent report. I had the opportunity to participate in the inquiry and I found it fascinating to hear the evidence from the witnesses to the committee—both those who were strongly in support of gene technology and the claimed benefits in agriculture, health and food technology and those who either were strongly opposed or took a very cautious approach to this new and emerging technology.

During the discussion in the chamber when the report was tabled, Senator Knowles accused the Labor opposition of instigating that inquiry simply to delay the implementation of this legislation. That was certainly not our intention and I do not believe that any concerned member of the Australian public would see it that way. It was also raised that the Labor Party moved to have the legislation go to a references committee rather than a legislation committee. We did that for a number of important reasons. The most important was that, even after the public consultation on the draft bill issued by the government, there were many concerns about the provisions in the draft bill raised both by the community generally and by many of the major stakeholders. We believed that it was important that the community, industry, science organisations and environmental organisations be given an opportunity to speak to the parliamentary committee to air their concerns. So it was not appropriate for this legislation to be dealt with in the normal way in which much legislation is dealt with—before a legislation committee with a short, maybe one-day, hearing.

We believe that, in order for this technology to gain acceptance in Australia, public concern must be taken into account. It must be considered seriously and it must be responded to appropriately. It is also interesting to note that, even following the intensive public consultation undertaken by the Interim Office of the Gene Technology Regulator on this bill, there were still over 130 submissions to the Senate references committee. Having been through all those submissions, I can assure this chamber—as any senator will realise when they read the report or even just the executive summary and the list of recommendations—that there was not that much support for the bill from the community and the witnesses when it was considered by the committee.

Another of Senator Knowles's criticisms during the debate in the chamber last week was:

... Labor members of the committee have fallen into the trap of recommending changes to the legislation that clearly add no value whatsoever.

I would not attempt to interpret what may or may not be valuable to Senator Knowles—or, indeed, to the Howard government—but I would like to point out to the chamber some of the main recommendations that we make with respect to how this bill can be improved. We believe they reflect the concerns of the community as well as the interests of major stakeholders, and they are the issues that are of value to the Australian public. The report of the Senate committee on the Gene Technology Bill recommends establishing the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator as a statutory authority of three persons rather than as a statutory office holder of one person. I am pleased to say that the Labor Party will be moving an amendment in a later stage of the consideration of this legislation in order to accomplish this important recommendation.

I have already spoken about the importance of this legislation not only to the current generation of Australians but also to future generations. The serious nature of the decisions that the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator will have to make—decisions that in some cases will have major health, safety and environmental ramifications—places a huge responsibility on this office. We believe it is appropriate, therefore, for the office to be structured in the way that we have proposed—with three persons rather than a single statutory office holder. In coming to any final decisions, the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator will in many cases have to consider conflicting reports and evidence based on scientific conclusions that are changing rapidly. Such decisions must be independent not only from government and political interests but from industry and consumer group pressures. Is the independence of the OGTR of value? We say that it is of extreme and important value. The independence of that office is probably the most important factor in establishing a regulatory system that will inspire confidence amongst the Australian public. Public confidence in the regulation of gene technology is the single most important factor in the acceptance and use of this technology.

According to Senator Knowles, the crucial recommendation which was put forward by the committee and which we support could not be implemented because it will cost, on her calculations, an extra $500,000 per year. I cannot argue with the figure, but I have to challenge the assertion that, for the cost of a mere half a million dollars, such a proposition should be simply ruled out. Is half a million dollars a year too much to pay for independence, confidence and certainty in the gene technology industry? As I said, it is an industry that we all recognise will have a huge impact forever. If the OGTR were given half the amount of money that the government spent on the one-off GST advertising campaign, we could run a three-person board for over 100 years. To us that sounds like extremely good value in terms of public confidence and good public policy.

In addition to the independence of the office, one of the major concerns raised in the inquiry's public hearings was the need for reassurance that the object of the legislation—namely, the protection of human health and safety and the environment—will be met. We wholeheartedly support the object of the legislation before us, as outlined in the bill. But what Labor and many organisations and members of the Australian public want to see is some key direction given to the regulator about how to apply a precaution when considering licence applications. We believe that such direction can be given to the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator by adding the following words to the regulatory framework in order to achieve the object set out in the act. The words that we propose to add are:

... provide that where there are threats of serious or irreversible harm to human health or environmental damage, a lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent harm to human health or environmental degradation.

These words are similar to the directions that are already included in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, an act recently passed by this parliament and endorsed by the Howard government. I put the question to the government: if these words and these directions are seen to be of value in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, why are they not also of value in the Gene Technology Bill? As my colleague in the other place Mr Griffin has said, our proposed amendments to this bill are designed to strengthen the powers of the regulator to make it more independent and to add a greater community focus.

I want to quickly turn to and discuss four issues that deal with community focus in particular. Firstly, the bill as it stands allows for applicants only to appeal on merit decisions of the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. We support the findings of the Senate inquiry, but not allowing third parties the right of appeal to the AAT on merit is both discriminatory and against the principles of natural justice. It is also our position that the right of third parties to appeal to the AAT should not unnecessarily extend the regulation process and should not be used as a means of stalling the approval of GMO dealings by using the right of appeal vexatiously. We will therefore be moving, firstly, an amendment that gives standing to relevant organisations or interest groups which have been operational for two years or more to appeal the OGTR's decisions to the AAT and, secondly, an amendment that allows the AAT to award costs against such groups or organisations if their appeal is considered to be vexatious.

Labor believe that, at the very least, this amendment will mean that both applicants and the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator will make every effort to ensure that the information provided and the assessment of this information meet standards that are beyond reproach. Secondly, since the establishment of the interim Office of the Gene Technology Regulator, the government has insisted that the processes relating to the regulation of dealings with GMOs must be transparent. This sentiment certainly has our support. It is vital to maintaining community confidence in the regulator and the technology.

It is unfortunate, however, as the Senate inquiry has found, that this sentiment was ignored by the interim office in its handling of two particular incidents involving breaches of the conditions applied to two GMO field trials. The details of those issues are well known to many members of the Senate and are of course covered in the Senate report and were covered in the media. As a result of this, we believe that the requirement for full transparency in relation to field trial locations must be explicitly stated in the bill. Currently, it is up to the regulator to decide whether information that may be considered by applicants to be commercial-in-confidence should be made public. If that information includes field trial locations, we believe it must be made public for very good reasons. We will therefore be moving to amend the legislation to enable the full disclosure of information relating to the location of trials.

We will also call for the introduction of stiff penalties for people who choose to use this information for unlawful purposes—particularly if it involves the intentional damage of field trial sites. We are of the firm view that access to information—a public right in these circumstances—also carries with it a serious responsibility for those persons to use such information lawfully. In order to ensure that the GMO regulation process involves and includes community views and concerns in a practical rather than purely consultative manner, we will also move to amend the bill to allow for greater lay representation on the Gene Technology Technical Advisory Committee and to give the Gene Technology Community Consultative Committee the power to review and comment on individual licence applications. Neither proposal will add any extra time to the process, but both will ensure that, in addition to the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator making decisions based on the technical committee report, it will have to take into consideration the wider views of the community as reflected by the community consultative committee.

As Senator Crowley pointed out, the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator has a responsibility to ensure that the general public is provided with balanced information upon which to base informed decisions and choices about this technology. Submission after submission to the Senate inquiry complained about the lack of useful and unbiased information being available to the public, and it is this lack of information that at times drives the inaccurate and misinformed views seen in the media and on the Internet. In addition to the major amendments that I have referred to already, Labor will be putting forward a package of amendments that deals with issues such as liability and insurance, minimum standards for policing licensed dealings, how often the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator will be required to report to parliament, and the proposed date for review of the operation of the legislation.

In conclusion, I would like to address two other issues. The first is in relation to states' rights to accept or reject certain GMO dealings licensed by the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator on a marketing and environmental basis and to set GM-free zones where a zone could be a state. This issue has caused much consternation in Tasmania but I am pleased to see that, following negotiations between that government and the Commonwealth, the situation has been addressed to the satisfaction of both parties. It has always been the view of the ALP that the concerns raised by the Tasmanian government could be resolved by minor amendment to the current legislation. For this reason, federal Labor took an active and ultimately successful role—indeed, we took the initiative—in bringing both parties to the negotiating table. Subject to analysing the detail of the Tasmanian-Commonwealth agreement, we support the principles behind this decision and look forward to supporting the required amendments.

Finally, I will address another of Senator Knowles's criticisms of the ALP and the Senate inquiry process. The senator stated:

... the ALP is fully aware of the brain drain crisis facing this country, and yet blithely recommends changes to this legislation which can only exacerbate the problem.

It may interest Senator Knowles to learn—I am sure that other senators gathered in the chamber know this already—that the biggest barrier that industry, research institutions and scientists see to gene technology's flourishing in this country is not the amendments that we are proposing but the government's policy of 100 per cent cost recovery. It has been made clear time and time again that 100 per cent cost recovery will result in the multinationals taking their business elsewhere, particularly in the initial set-up period.

I understand that discussions are continuing between the opposition and the government about our amendments, and we look forward to reaching agreement on those proposals. I seek leave to incorporate the remainder of my speech in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows

Of even greater concern is the damage this type of ideologically driven cost recovery will have on our scientists, our PhD researchers who work in the discovery research field and whose work provides the basis for many of the major breakthroughs that have put Australia in the forefront of biotechnology.

Labor opposes 100% cost recovery, not only because of the perception that this policy erodes the independence of a regulator but because it puts up a major barrier to Australian innovation.

Labor will move an amendment to defer any cost recovery until such time as the Productivity Commission Report into cost recovery arrangements of Government regulatory, administrative and information agencies makes its findings public in August 2001.

Once that report is available, we will consider its findings carefully and will only support a cost structure that does not put the integrity of the Regulator or Australia's biotechnology industry at risk.

And, if the Howard Government is serious about Australia's future as a leader in biotechnology it will support our amendments.

Why? Because they will provide Australians with the confidence in the OGTR that they require to accept and use this technology and they provide the certainty and support that our researchers and multinational investors expect of a country that wants to be a world leader in new technology.

There is no doubt, in addressing comprehensively many of the concerns raised by all stakeholders during the Senate Inquiry and the consultation process preceding this Inquiry, Labor's amendments to the Gene Technology Bill provide very good value.

I understand that the Government, that is the Minister's office, is aware of our proposed amendments but we are yet to hear a response. 1 hope that they will consider them constructively and that we can arrive at an agreed position on improvements to this legislation

Indeed we look forward to working constructively with all parties in this Senate to amend and then implement this legislation as soon as possible.