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Tuesday, 7 November 2000
Page: 19296

Senator CROWLEY (8:37 PM) —I am pleased to speak on this important legislation, the Gene Technology Bill 2000 and associated bills. I am also very pleased to have had the honour of chairing the inquiry into this very important area. I suppose I would have to say that I thank the Senate for the opportunity to be provoked into learning about a terribly important area about which I had a general understanding—

Senator Kemp —We are pleased to have done it.

Senator CROWLEY —I am extremely pleased to have learnt about this, Senator Kemp. I think it is a great pity that more of us do not know about this. I was also very interested to know that so much genetic modification of organisms and processes was happening in this country with so few of us being aware of it or the extent of it. I do not think anybody has much trouble at all with genetically modified organisms that are being researched and developed within laboratories; I do not believe anybody has too much difficulty with GMOs when they come to the pharmaceutical area or the production of vaccines or inoculation material, and so on. Perhaps that is because there are fairly rigorous testing processes and experiments to ensure, as much as possible, that such products are safe for use in humans and that there is an appropriate appeal against them if they should not be. But what is very clear is that people are extremely concerned about genetically modified organisms outside of the laboratory, used either in field trials for crops or in genetically modified crops being provided for use as food, or in food products, or in the food chain. I do not believe having serious regard for community concern is the same thing as legislating or running a populist line. I think it is very important to make that distinction.

The first and loudest message that came through to our inquiry was the amount of community concern—a fairly informed community concern, I might say. I think the second important thing to note was that there were as many scientists of serious significance across this game who were opposed to work in this area outside of laboratories as there were scientists for it. Indeed some of the words to describe those people who have a caution about GMO organisms—like `noisy minorities' or `extremists'—I feel also contribute to why the community is uneasy about the people who are so hot to promote genetically modified crops or foods. They do not like being called noisy minorities or extremists when they are simply cautious, concerned and asking for information. They are certainly not asking for trouble. Indeed I think those people who wish to persuade us as to the virtue of GMO organisms need to understand the community concern and how to talk to the community. Patronising or abusing the community is never going to persuade them.

Senator Gibbs —Hear, hear!

Senator CROWLEY —A point well made by my colleague Senator Gibbs on many an occasion during the inquiry. I would like to say that what we saw during committee inquiry was a continuation of a fairly extensive community discussion that had gone on prior to the development of the draft legislation. Senator Knowles has told us on a number of occasions about the extent of that discussion, and it is important to recognise that. It was very comprehensive, but I do not believe that meant it had concluded. Indeed many of the people who contributed to the community discussions made submissions to our inquiry, and I believe we were part of a continuing debate and discussion about this matter. Indeed this will continue during the passage of this legislation and probably well beyond it.

I appreciate how much the government has been at pains to provide information and I understand that discussions between the government and the opposition have been continuing, to the point where we had the announcement yesterday, available to all the Senate, about the arrangements with the Tas-manian government. I recognise that, as far as I understand it, to be evidence of the continuing discussion and agreement between the federal government and the state governments with points of difference here. I think these are all to the good. There is no absolute right answer or a closed view on this. There is a clear recognition of how important this legislation is and why the recommendations we made were to ostensibly strengthen the bill, not to delay it. That was the clear message that came to us during our inquiry, and I believe most of our recommendations could be incorporated with minimal time delay or difficulty.

Some of the points that I wanted to raise included the importance of a three-person regulator. I believe that the setting up of this Office of Gene Technology Regulator and the establishment of the procedures for how approval for licences for gene technology organisms research and field trials are going to be developed are going to be extremely challenging tasks. Setting up the office, getting the staff and setting in place the processes are not going to be things that can happen immediately. They are going to require considerable thought and deliberation. There are many questions I would love to ask the regulator, should he or she be able to come before this Senate and answer those questions. Indeed that is why I will be pleased to see the possibility of review, where we might say to the regulator: how is it going; what are you doing; what have been the toughest things to find out; have you had trouble setting the processes in train; how many people have asked for a licence and how are you going to decide which one goes first in the process—if 10 requests arrive on Monday, how are you going to decide which one gets the call first? That is why we recommend that the regulator be not one person but three.

This is a very onerous set of responsibilities, and we believe it would be far better for those responsibilities to be shared between three. Being such a person as a regulator would, I think, be a bit like being a judge. I had the experience of sitting on the appeals tribunal for mental health in South Australia. One of the things you discover is that it is not possible to talk about your decisions with many other people. It is, by definition, an isolating and lonely exercise. You cannot rush home and say, `You should have heard what we decided today—those drongos,' or those experts or whoever it was. You cannot take the work outside the office if you are doing it properly. There are a lot of constraints and a need for privacy, thoughtful deliberation and so on. These responsibilities would, I believe, be much better shared between three regulators rather than one. The estimated costs that Senator Knowles has provided do not seem to me to be so onerous that they could not be afforded, particularly as the task will, I think, be massively onerous. I strongly recommend that the regulator should be a statutory authority of three people.

We also made a recommendation that there should be an option for third-party appeals, not just an option for appeals from people who are applying for licences. One argument I have heard against this in recent days is: `Well, the AAT would not really be able to deal with third-party appeals because they would not necessarily have the scientific capacity or information and knowledge to deal with appeals from third parties.' One would wonder, then, how this same AAT would deal with legitimate complaints, as allowed under the legislation, from the applicants for licences, who presumably would be talking the same language about the same kinds of scientific questions. If that is an argument that is being used, it is not a sufficient argument. I think that there is a prospect of mischievous appeals, and there needs to be a mechanism that weeds them out. It should not be possible for litigation to be run at the whim of just anybody. But, if a properly designated organisation has a concern and this can be filtered through, I believe it is appropriate that the third party have an option for appeal. This option should not just be for those people who are successful or unsuccessful in applying for a licence. Presumably it would be more likely there would be appeals from the people who are unsuccessful in applying for a licence. I think the community—properly, too—is concerned. Since this report was tabled I have had a lot of conversations on the phone with people—particularly people from various local government areas—who are very concerned about the opportunities for their areas to become GM-free zones. I may not have accurately judged the extent to which local governments or shire councils around Australia want that option, but it is not just extremists or oddballs who are concerned about this; many people now are successfully marketing under the banner `clean and green', as Senator Stott Despoja said, or `organic products'. Some people say, `But GM has got nothing to do with organic.' One of the things that distinguishes `organic' is that it is pesticide free. So if you are putting into an area a crop that effectively has a built-in pesticide in its genetically manipulated substance—as is the case with roundup ready cotton—I think you would have to say that GM organisms are not all that remote from organic. If not, please explain.

Those farmers who grow organic crops gave us evidence that they want to know if any GM crops will be field tested within cooee—if not downwind or within a bee flight—of their own crops. That is why we have recommended that, notwithstanding commercial-in-confidence requirements, to make the community and farmers as comfortable as possible, and to protect their own investments, the publication of such field trials must happen. We appreciate that there is evidence in other countries of what is now being called ecoterrorism: people who have planted GM crops or are conducting GM field trials have had some of those plants ripped out. We believe that stern penalties against ecoterrorism should be sufficient discouragement in this country, rather than not explaining to people where such crops are. I am advised that under the legislation the regulator, in approving a licence for a field trial in area X, must notify the appropriate local government or shire council authority. That local government or shire authority then has the option of making a submission for or against that field trial or of making any other comment about it.

I note—Senator Sherry talked about this today—that the option for GM-free zones or a GM opt-out is something that has significantly changed since the discussions between the federal government and the Tasmanian government. According to page 7 of today's Age:

States have won the right to decide for themselves whether to grow genetically modified organisms, under changes to Australia's regulation of the controversial science.

This means states will have the power to ban individual GM crops on marketing grounds, and it opens up the prospect of GM-free regions or even an entire GM-free state.

The shift, agreed in principle at a meeting of state and federal officials, will be written into the policy of a Ministerial Council on Gene Technology, according to a spokeswoman for federal Health Minister Michael Wooldridge.

An amendment to the new Gene Technology Bill will also enshrine a state's right to appeal on environmental grounds against a federal decision to allow a GMO's release.

This development, after consultation between the state government and the federal government, deserves commendation. It is part of ongoing discussion about, and development of, this legislation. As I say, we cannot presume that we have got it right. What we can presume is that we have got it as best we can at this time, though one of the reasons the majority report contains a recommendation for a review after three years and not five is that we believe this is a very significant area and that it needs to be looked at sooner rather than later to see that what is in place is sufficient to the task or whether indeed it needs even further amendment. I commend those people involved in the discussions who have brought this outcome. It is evidence of the continuing serious commitment by people involved in the GM regulator area to see an optimal outcome.

There are a couple of points that I think deserve comment and I would like to ensure, as we go through the legislation, that they are covered. One is the evidence arriving on my desk, from many places each day, about how the regulator will satisfy himself or herself that the evidence provided in support of an application for a licence is sufficient. The evidence about Aventis that was featured in the Sunday Age last week and that exposed—or, as Senator Stott Despoja said, at least elaborated on the fact—that, for example, Aventis provides evidence about why Aventis is okay to get a licence is the sort of thing that needs to be tested by the regulator. There may need to be ways in which the regulator can be assured that the evidence provided by the company is properly and rigorously tested.

I would like to ask the regulator: what have you done to ensure that the evidence they have given you does satisfy you? The evidence shows that modified canola fed to rats actually produced rats with a 16 per cent increase in the size of their livers, but this was not seen as necessary for further investigation. That is just the sort of thing that I would be inclined to say does need further investigation. Tell me why there is an enlarged liver. If you say that it is just because of other parts of the canola plant, please produce evidence of that for me. If I were the regulator, I would certainly want to ask that. How is the regulator going to satisfy themselves that the scientific evidence produced on behalf of an application for a licence is sufficiently rigorous and independent? What kind of criteria will there be for independent analysis of that research to test it fairly comprehensively? I am also interested in the fact that we were provided with the regulations in the course of our committee inquiry, and that was of great assistance. Quite often in this place, we are told that regulations will be written. In this case, we were able to say that regulations had been written and we were able to have a look at them, and that is a big advance from only being promised those.

I would also like to indicate a concern about the ministerial council. I am not sure that I know how that ministerial council will be constituted—who the ministers from the states will be. Will they be health ministers or environment ministers or some of each? If, for example, the proposal for states to have the capacity to make decisions on their own behalf is going to depend on a decision by the ministerial council or a principle proposed by the ministerial council, I need to know how soon that is going to happen and who the ministers on the ministerial council will be. Equally, I would like to know a bit more about the intergovernmental agreement. Some of those things still seem to be in the pipeline or not clearly defined. It may be that I have missed the final definitions of those things, and if I have, please accept my apologies. But I do believe that some of this is still to be finally decided or acted on, and that is of concern in such an important area.

Finally, I would like to again thank the people involved in the committee, from the independent office, the department and the minister's office to the secretariat, whose names I have already put on the record, and my colleagues. It has been a very important and very interesting committee inquiry into a piece of legislation that has been long awaited. One of the things that is clear is that everybody wants the regulator and wants the regulations. Everybody wants the police or the supervisors to have the power to ensure that licence conditions are being maintained and to have the power of significant penalties if people breach those guidelines. Lines from Aventis like `we would have behaved differently' if there had been a regulator worry me a whole lot. I would like to think that companies would have behaved in a most ethical way with or without regulators. (Time expired)

Debate (on motion by Senator Kemp) adjourned.