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Tuesday, 12 November 2002
Page: 6119

Senator MURPHY (5:46 PM) —In starting my contribution to this debate on the Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002, I digress just momentarily to pick up a couple of comments that Senator Lightfoot made in respect of Tasmania, the Huon pine and the Tasmanian devil. Just for the record, I slightly correct Senator Lightfoot's statement. We partially protect the Huon pine and we do not really protect Tasmanian devils at all, except those that are in the zoo, which are exempt from the possibility of being fed a 1080 poison bait. I admire Senator Lightfoot's contribution and his concern for the Tasmanian devil, but he might like to remind the government of the problem we have with 1080 in Tasmania and maybe encourage his environment minister to take that issue to heart.

I come back to the bill. At this point in time I cannot support this bill. I do not necessarily do it on religious grounds and I do not do it on the basis of a singular ethical point of view, although there are a number of ethical matters that do concern me in respect of this legislation and the issues that surround it. My greater concerns go to the administrative aspects of what is proposed under the legislation and whether or not at the end of the day there is a true public benefit. Some of the areas with which I have concerns, as I said, go to administration. Indeed, I refer to the question that I today asked Senator Minchin—who is actually the former Minister for Industry, Science and Resources but is now representing the Minister for Industry, Tourism and Resources, who is in the other place—with regard to the administration of the National Stem Cell Centre, which was formerly the Australian Biotechnology Centre of Excellence. I asked the minister which department the National Stem Cell Centre and its administration would be directly responsible to, given that it is receiving in excess of, as I understand it, $46 million of public funds.

The fact that the minister could not answer that question directly is somewhat concerning in itself, because it is impossible to find any reference to whom this organisation would be responsible to. I understand it will have a board. It currently has four directors and a secretary. I do not know whether or not the board will be increased in size or how it would be increased in size. I do not know, in terms of the overall objective of this process—if we look at things such as the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and if we talk about developing new therapies or new medicines for life-saving purposes—where that leads us in respect of the problems that could be associated with patenting, and whether or not joint venture partners may join with the National Stem Cell Centre, which I understand will have a commercial arm, and how all that would operate. There is very little explanation on all these things, and yet we are being asked to pass legislation that in itself, I think, is very lacking.

The government has not provided any explanation with regard to all the other areas of legislation that the National Stem Cell Centre and the research work that it proposes to do could be affected by—things like the Patents Act, the Trade Practices Act and a number of other relevant pieces of legislation which they may find themselves in breach of. One of the reasons that I have a concern is that I have sought answers, mainly from Ms Kerri Hartland—and even when we have written to Minister Macfarlane's office they have referred the questions to her. It has been interesting to note that the responses have been somewhat vague or evasive. They have found it difficult to respond to some of the questions, and I will be re-asking a lot of those questions during the course of the committee stage of this bill.

From where I sit at the moment, the bill is unsupportable just from an administrative point of view. There are a significant number of questions that I will seek to raise with regard to the administration and the processes that will be used during the life of this particular organisation. I know there is going to be a review, but it would seem to me that a lot of work can be done even before this thing is proposed and gets off the ground— and before we need to pass this legislation. If I could refer to the Prime Minister's announcement, I think he announced $43.55 million and said that the passing of this legislation was not essential to the granting of the money, so we are not really holding anything up by giving greater consideration to this legislation—by actually seeing whether or not there are problems. I believe problems exist from an administrative point of view. We ought to sort those out from the outset before we pass the legislation, to ensure that the legislation covers off all of these administrative concerns.

Essentially, we are dealing with something that may well come down to an ethical and a religious view about human life, and I accept people's arguments from that point of view. I do not have the scientific knowledge to determine which argument is right or wrong with regard to whether or not there are significant advantages to being able to use embryonic stem cells in research; it seems to me that this is in the balance. We do know that the possible downstream therapies that might be available will not be available for some period of time. As I understand it, we also know that there is a sufficient bank of stem cells available for research, at least for the short-term future. That is why I believe that we need to take a longer period of time.

This legislation is very important. It is going to set the basis for future research in a very important area. We must get it right in administrative terms. If we are looking for very important therapies and cures to assist people who are suffering, I do not want to see those people not being able to access them because of the cost caused by the patenting of these therapies, cures or medicines—and patents are already being taken out on a whole range of these things. In many respects, we already confront this problem of cost under the current medical system; it is one of the major problems the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme confronts right now. Why would we want to use taxpayers' money to fund research which will put us in the same position at some point of time in the future, when we have not really dealt with any of the administrative problems that could arise?

I will not support the bill. I have looked at some of the amendments that have been proposed by some senators—there are some that I have yet to look at. Certainly, some of the proposed amendments I have seen do not solve the problems that I have concerns about. I will be raising these concerns in the Committee of the Whole, and I think we are going to be in for a long debate. As I said, I am not prepared to support the bill at this point of time.