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Wednesday, 8 November 2000
Page: 19369


Senator TAMBLING (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Health and Aged Care.) (11:14 AM) —This gene technology legislation sets a new benchmark for regulatory controls over genetically modified organisms. When passed it will be the standard that other countries aspire to. Australia can be proud to see it enacted. As Senator Knowles mentioned last night, this legislation is the result of extensive consultation. There have been two rounds of public consultation, including public forums, during the bills' development, and I understand a similar process is currently under way in relation to the regulations to be made under the legislation. The legislation has clearly changed from the initial draft sent out for consultation—for example, through the inclusion of a community consultative group—and I believe that in its present form it certainly addresses the majority of concerns raised during the consultation process.

The legislation before us today is the result of long and successful collaboration between the states, the territories and the Commonwealth. It is agreed by all jurisdictions, including Tasmania, as the preferred system for regulating GMOs in Australia. The importance of state and territory support for the detail of the legislation cannot be underestimated. For this system to work as intended, each state and territory must pass complementary model legislation. It has been important to ensure that all jurisdictions believe this system represents the best way forward for individual states and for the country as a whole. In commenting on a number of points made by senators on this legislation, I am mindful of the position of the states and territories within this scheme. To deviate from an agreed system at this stage would put back any chance of national regulation by a number of years. Just such a delay happened when the Commonwealth-state partnership fell at the hurdles in the 1980s. It is, I believe, a situation that no-one wants to see repeated.

During the debate last night, Senator Crowley raised some useful questions about the intergovernmental agreement in relation to this legislation, as well as about the ministerial council. I am pleased to be able to provide Senator Crowley with answers to her questions. The intergovernmental agreement has been negotiated between the states, the territories and the Commonwealth in the same cooperative vein as the legislation itself. The intergovernmental agreement addresses key issues in terms of the role of states, territories and Commonwealth responsibilities. One of the key roles of the ministerial council will be reviewing the effective operation of the legislation on an ongoing basis. Indeed, some senators have been concerned that it is proposed that the legislation not be reviewed until five years after it takes effect. I am pleased to clarify that the five-year period is a maximum period. The intergovernmental agreement makes it clear that the ministerial council has the responsibility to keep track of the effectiveness of the national regulatory system on an ongoing, day-by-day basis and that the ministerial council can review the scheme or propose amendments to it at any time. A genuine system of continuous improvement is envisaged.

As I mentioned, Senator Crowley was also interested in the composition of the ministerial council. The IGA indicates that the ministerial council will comprise one minister from each jurisdiction. At the Commonwealth level the government has indicated that the minister will be the Minister for Health and Aged Care, Dr Wooldridge. All states and territories have agreed that the Commonwealth will be the chair of the ministerial council. Dr Wooldridge recognises the importance of bringing a whole of government perspective to the table and intends to continue to work closely with his colleagues the Minister for the Environment and Heritage, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry and the Minister for Industry, Science and Resources to ensure that this happens. At the state level, jurisdictions are in some cases still deciding which minister will represent them. This is a decision which must be left to each individual state and territory to make. The federal government would not dictate to the states or territories on this important issue. While we have clear and early indications from some jurisdictions about their likely decisions, senators will understand if I do not pre-empt announcements on this issue, which will be made in due course by each state and territory.

I know that Senator Crowley is also very interested in knowing more about how this regulatory system will protect the Australian environment and the Australian people from any risks associated with imported GMOs. This is again an important matter, and I thank Senator Crowley for her interest in it and am pleased to elaborate. The arrangements proposed under this legislation for live viable imported GMOs mirror the rigorous risk assessment process envisaged for GMOs which are domestically produced. The bottom line is that no live viable GMO will be able to be imported into Australia and released into our unique environment without first being subjected to extensive testing within this country. It simply will not be possible for a GMO to be brought into Australia and grown commercially in Australia without the regulator first ensuring that data on the effect of the GMO on the Australian environment is generated. This would, in the usual course of business, involve extensive field trials of the GMO over a number of years before the imported GMO could even be considered for commercial release.

A number of senators last night also raised the issue of the Tasmanians opting out of the national scheme. As many will have noted in the media over the past few days, I am very pleased that Tasmania have agreed to be part of the national scheme and have agreed that the scheme meets their needs. With this decision by the Tasmanian government, all states and territories have committed to this national regulatory system both in broad policy terms and in the detail included in the legislation. We are genuinely delighted with this outcome. Under this national system, the legislation ensures that all applications involving the international release of GMOs into the environment are notified to state and territory governments. The regulator must, under the legislation, seek the advice of the states and territories on risks posed by the GMO. This includes seeking advice on particular regional or geographical environmental issues which may be unique to the states. Having sought this advice, the regulator must take it into account. Finally, the state has the absolute assurance that the regulator cannot fail to take the advice given on the environmental risks into account because the state will be able to appeal such a decision to the Federal Court.

In ensuring that state concerns on environmental issues are comprehensively covered, the government is mindful of the broader concerns of states, such as marketability issues. The legislation also addresses these issues. It creates the capacity for GMO-free zones based on marketing grounds and made through policy principles issued by the ministerial council. I am conscious of the comments made by other senators of the need to ensure that the states' needs are met. This legislation, including the provisions I have outlined, is supported by states and territories on the basis that they are satisfied that it does indeed meet their needs.

One change proposed by the ALP that is of particular interest to me is related to the governance arrangements proposed for the gene technology regulator. Under the legislation as drafted, the regulator would be a highly visible regulator, accountable to the Australian people for his actions. This is what ordinary people consulted on this legislation indicated that they wanted. They want somebody responsible for gene technology—someone whom they can identify and someone they can look to for accountable, sensible and considered decisions. What they do not want is another bureaucratic nightmare of boards and committees, and anonymous backroom regulation.

The Australian community wants someone who can make decisions; who is highly independent; who can report directly to parliament, free from political influence; who controls his or her own resources; and in whom, at the end of the day, the Australian community can have faith. This is what the Gene Technology Bill 2000 delivers. This is the model supported by all states and territories and this is the model that the government will continue to push for. We will not be supporting amendments to the government's arrangements for the GTR.

I note that the ALP supports the inclusion of an explicit reference to the precautionary principle in the Gene Technology Bill. States, territories and the Commonwealth strongly oppose this inclusion. The precautionary principle is inappropriate for application to research, which will make up more than 85 per cent of the GTR's work. Its application would stymie research and development. Further, uncertainty is created regarding how the precautionary principle should be applied, and Australia strongly opposes the use of the precautionary principle in relation to human health in international forums. Rather, the government, states and territories believe it is more appropriate that the regulation itself reflect—as it does—a cautious approach to the regulation of gene technology. No further value is added through the inclusion of these additional words that, in themselves, will create confusion and uncertainty and have the potential to affect adversely our R&D base in Australia.

Australia already has a proud record of regulating public health and safety and environmental risks. Our systems for therapeutic goods, environmental protection, agricultural chemicals and control of Australia's borders are all recognised throughout the world for using science based evidence to ensure rigorous regulation. Like those existing systems, this regulatory system for GMOs will be science based. This regulatory system ensures the scientific assessment of risks to the Australian environment and the Australian community posed by, or as a result of, GMOs. We will draw on world-class scientists to provide the molecular biology, ecology, biosafety engineering, public health and other expertise, which will ensure that decisions of the regulator are rational, accountable and well founded. We will guard against any erosion of science based decision making reflected in this legislation and will not support consideration of individual applications by any advisory committee other than the scientific committee.

The ALP and the Australian Democrats have made some strong comments in relation to the proposition that the costs created by this new regulatory system be borne by the user of the system. The government obviously take the issue of cost recovery seriously. We have commissioned an independent study into the costs of the national regulatory system and are in the process of examining the report by KPMG. However, I note that, while bemoaning the effects of cost recovery on our R&D base on the one hand, the ALP is quick to add further to the overall costs of the regulatory system by complicating it without adding value. I note with particular interest Senator Forshaw's glib comment on Monday night that the ALP amendments to the government's structure would cost `a mere half a million dollars'. Most people I know do not use the term `mere' to describe that amount of money—and never in the context of amendments that complicate rather than enhance what is a very strong, open regulatory system.

To summarise, what more do we need for a regulatory system for GMOs? What is on offer is extremely comprehensive. Ever since the government came to power, we have been dedicated to giving the Australian community the protection it deserves from potential risks associated with GMOs. We have invested significant funds in the current voluntary system of control over GMOs, increasing funding by 500 per cent. We established the Interim Office of the Gene Technology Regulator to administer the current system and develop legislation to regulate GMOs. We also significantly overhauled and improved the system for overseeing general commercial release applications, made the system more transparent, and implemented new and improved investigation, auditing and monitoring arrangements. This dedication has culminated in the introduction of this gene technology legislation into the parliament. I believe the legislation represents best practice regulation of GMOs and is comparable to the strongest systems in the world. I commend these bills to the Senate.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Bills read a second time.

Ordered that consideration of the bills in committee of the whole be made an order of the day for the next day of sitting.