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Monday, 6 November 2000
Page: 19196


Senator SHERRY (9:42 PM) —The application of gene technology, whether it be to the animal, human or plant kingdoms—of course they are all related—will have the most profound impact of almost any change or challenge that the human race will face on this planet. The economic and social consequences and the ethical considerations are massive. As politicians and legislators, I believe we will consider major legislative issues relating to genetic technology for a long time to come. Gene technology issues have such massive implications that I believe it is important to exercise what is known as the `precautionary principle' when considering them. The pre-cautionary principle is of course based on the concept of taking anticipatory action to prevent possible harm in circumstances where there is a level of scientific un-certainty—and that certainly exists in this area.

The object of the Gene Technology Bill 2000 and cognate bills is to protect people's health and safety and the environment by identifying the risks posed by, or as a result of, gene technology and by managing those risks through regulating certain dealings with genetically modified organisms, which are commonly known as GMOs. We will hear a great deal more about GMOs over the next 10 or 20 years. The Gene Technology Bill has been extensively canvassed by the Senate Community Affairs References Committee inquiry. I urge all senators, and certainly all members of parliament and the public, to read its very comprehensive report—which I think is an example of the Senate committee system operating at its best.

Labor's objective has been to ensure that the new regulatory regime, as set out in the bill we are considering, gives a prime focus to public health and safety and environmental protection. A key requirement is that new arrangements command public confidence and can be strongly scientifically based. There is a range of emerging applications of genetically modified organisms, and it is important that Australia is actively engaged in both the basic science and the application of the technology. However, around the world there is considerable justified consumer concern about the long-term implications of GMOs, particularly when applied to food products or in situations that could lead to cross-fertilisation, with unforeseen environmental consequences flowing through to animals and, obviously, human beings.

Labor has supported the need to establish an effective regulatory regime as a matter of priority because there has been: firstly, serious concern over the current regulation of GMOs—or lack of regulation in many state jurisdictions—and that has been shown by proven breaches such as the widely reported Mount Gambier incident; and, secondly, broad support for the potential benefits to Australia of gene technology as part of our commitment to a knowledge nation. Labor has been advocating a strengthening of the proposed regulatory framework, which should include: a more independent regulator; a more transparent, open and accountable process for approvals; greater community consultation, education, understanding and involvement; a more rigorous system, ensuring greater health and environmental safeguards; the capacity for increased original research in Australia by not setting additional financial barriers; greater certainty for industry; and a more affordable system.

This is not the debate in which to make a considerable contribution in terms of ethical issues relating to GMOs, but I do have to say very strongly that my personal position is that this is an area that I would prefer the world not to go into. However, there are certain realities that we face and certain responsibilities we have to act on.

Labor's consideration of the issues and public debate and its contribution have been led by our parliamentary secretary, Mr Griffin, in the other place—and I might say that he has made a very effective contribution in the debate to date. He has publicly highlighted problems with the current system and pointed out some of the failures of the government with the Interim Office of the Gene Technology Regulator and of the multinational companies, such as Monsanto and Aventis. Extensive consultation has occurred with major stakeholders including the states, farmers, researchers, industry, environmental and consumer groups, who all had concerns with the draft bill.

It is important to clarify what will not be dealt with under this new regulatory system. Exemptions include dealing with GMOs that are already exempt under the genetic manipulation guidelines for small-scale genetic manipulation work. These include the use of gene technology to create what are known as `knockout mice'—mice which have been bred without certain genes to enable them to develop particular genetic diseases. These are used in the research of genetic disease and various systems for introducing genes into various organisms. These exemptions apply to a very limited range of dealings and are based on the experience of assessing applications in Australia over the past 25 years. Mr Acting Deputy President, I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.