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Monday, 2 December 2002
Page: 6913

Senator STOTT DESPOJA (11:07 PM) —It is particularly appropriate, Senator McLucas, that you are in the chair, given your advocacy of this issue through amendments to this and the other legislation, the fact that you were involved in a Senate committee and that you put this in our report, and that this is also a line of questioning that we both pursued during that committee process. As a consequence of that process, I—and I will not presume to speak on your behalf, Chair—was certainly convinced of the merits of investigating the applicability of a stem cell bank for Australia. I think that the idea of establishing a national stem cell bank in this country has merit. It deserves closer investigation, hence the recommendation by Senators McLucas, Webber and me in the Senate committee report. In the debate on the prohibition of human cloning, this chamber overwhelmingly supported an amendment, moved on behalf of Senator McLucas and me, to require that the independent review examine the applicability of a national stem cell bank. As I referred to earlier, the high point for me was the voting process, with 53 senators in favour of that amendment, and I hope that that level of support will continue.

Senator Nettle's amendment presupposes the establishment of a stem cell bank, either through the process that the Senate has already agreed to or through some yet to be debated mechanism. On that point I will say—through you, Chair—to Senator Brown: I want to pick up one point that you made about the review going to COAG. The legislation has been amended: the review gets tabled in parliament. So I say to those people who are not aware that that change has been made: that was an amendment that was successfully made to the legislation.

One thing we do have to bear in mind of course is that we are dealing with different regulatory environments and different intellectual property environments. We do not know about the suitability of a stem cell bank in relation to Australia. We do not know if the UK model is the most appropriate. My great concern is that there has not really been an examination of the IP environment relating to stem cell sciences. This is a point that has been touched upon not only in debate tonight, prompted by Senator Murphy, but also in many other debates on this and other legislation. I think it is premature to simply assume that a stem cell bank is the best option. I like this option and I want it investigated. But, having been involved in the debate on patents in relation to genes and on the issues of gene technology and having actually looked at legislation—or the lack of it—not just in Australia but in other parts of the world since I got into the Senate, I know that we cannot just cook up an answer overnight, especially when there has been minimal—if any; I would argue negligible—investigation of the current IP environment in relation to these issues in Australia. Hence the second reading amendment that I moved on behalf of the Australian Democrats requesting a new reference to the ALRC and to AHEC to examine patenting issues and IP issues in stem cell sciences.

It may well be that such an examination results in an IP regime that makes a key rationale for establishing a stem cell bank entirely redundant—that is, access for bona fide researchers to unencumbered stem cell lines. In addition, a consequence of this amendment is to delay the issuing of licences by at least 12 months and possibly two to three years, even if we assume of course that a stem cell bank will in fact be established. I think a number of people have concerns about that in relation to the issuing of licences; certainly some people would not mind.

But in relation to the general debate on patents, and specifically in relation to genes, I am very concerned that we are looking for a literally overnight solution to much more complex issues about intellectual property. It has been mentioned tonight that there needs to be an examination of/or—in Senator Murphy's terminology—possible amendments to the Patents Act. I do not know how much of that we can and should be doing in the context of this legislative debate. On the one hand, I am gratified to hear people talking about these issues but, on the other, I do remind honourable senators that every attempt by me over the last five years to establish a Senate select committee into these patenting issues has been opposed and lost. That is apart from Senator Harradine's support, which I acknowledge here again, two or three times in relation to not only the prohibition of cloning but the broader debate about genetic technology. At the time I was producing amendment bills and private member's bills, the government's argument to me, which I am probably throwing back at everyone now, was, `Look, you have got to examine these issues properly.' I was gratified to see that we got an ALRC inquiry into, for example, genetic privacy, and I ask in the Senate tonight: how many senators here have put in a submission to that inquiry? I do not doubt people's concern about this issue. Through you, Chair: Senator Evans, have you?

Opposition senators interjecting

Senator STOTT DESPOJA —Right, because I was about to stand corrected. Obviously, we are all busy and we have different portfolios and different responsibilities, but you only have to look at that first report that has been tabled by the ALRC to recognise that these are complex issues. I like the idea of a stem cell bank; otherwise, I would not have supported Senator McLucas not only in her comments but in an amendment that we have cosponsored. But I am not going to pretend that the establishment of a stem cell bank should happen overnight, and that should not be read by anyone in the community, given that we are apparently now broadcasting, or by anyone else in this chamber as a lack of interest in the broader issues in relation to patents and intellectual property rights. I challenge anyone in the chamber to show where there has not been extensive research by me on behalf of the Democrats on this issue, so let us investigate it.

If the issue is a delay in the licensing, through you, Chair, to Senator Brown and Senator Nettle: if you are talking about delay, whether that is an unintended consequence or an intended consequence let us perhaps talk about that. Should the licensing provisions be delayed? Certainly I have spoken to other senators who believe that. I am not suggesting that is my personal opinion. But let us do this right, because we may find another model. If people are going to refer to the UK legislation then let us refer to it, because it is quite different from the legislation we are debating. In fact, as you know, the stem cell bank proposal was not legislated for, as I understand it. Certainly, as Senator Brown said, it came out through the House of Lords inquiry; it was a recommendation. It was established on 9 September, a very good day I should acknowledge.

I think that we should be very wary of this one size fits all approach. We have not adopted legislation that is exactly the same as in other parts of the world, and there is good reason for that. I do not think we can take on exactly the same model that applies in the UK without comprehensive investigation. That was the intent of the amendment to the last bill; it is the intent of Senator McLucas and my belief of what should happen with this bill. As I say, please do not read that as a lack of support for the notion or the concept, but I do not believe that this amendment is correct. On behalf of the Democrats, I indicate that we will not be supporting this model and I appeal to those senators who supported us on the previous amendment to support the concept.