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Thursday, 5 December 2002
Page: 7252


Senator MINCHIN (Minister for Finance and Administration) (11:22 AM) —I rise to strongly support Senator Barnett's amendment. I have deliberately stayed out of this debate given the very capable articulation of the amendments and in deference to my cabinet colleague, but I am very concerned about what I regard as one of the worst and most offensive clauses of the Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002. I am particularly concerned because I had believed, in the lead-up to the COAG meeting in April, that there was no way that any federal legislation would purport to override the existing properly legislated bans on destructive research on embryos in three states of our six states—South Australia, Western Australia and Victoria. We have heard from Senator Barnett about those bans, which were put in place properly by those parliaments as recently as 1995 in Victoria and confirmed in 1995 in South Australia and in Western Australia in 1991. They are the current law.

Frankly, I was horrified when the COAG communique came out making it clear that what was going to be proposed in this federal legislation was a purported override of those bans in those states. It is one thing for this parliament to pass a law which sets an outer limit of what the states can do and sets a national framework of what is possible in this area of embryonic research, but to use that power to render unlawful the prohibition passed by those sovereign state parliaments on such research is an abuse of the Constitution, an abuse of this parliament and utterly wrong.

Whether or not you are a supporter of embryonic stem cell research, the proposition should be that it is up to those states to decide by a conscience vote of their parliaments and their duly elected representatives whether or not to maintain their prohibition. That is a matter for them and, as an opponent of embryonic stem cell research, I will respect those three parliaments if, ultimately, they remove their bans by a conscience vote of their parliaments. That is the proper process. But it is entirely improper and a contradiction of everything that this Senate is about and the very reason this Senate exists for this parliament and this chamber, of all chambers, to pass a law which purports to override that very ban. It is utterly wrong, and this chamber and every senator in it ought to think seriously about why we are here, about our role as representatives of our states and about the fact that this chamber only exists because we are the ultimate expression in a federal sense of the federation and of the sovereign rights of these parliaments.

To override the properly enacted prohibition on this life-destroying research by this act of parliament is very wrong. Indeed, it is clear from the advice to the government and the committees that there is a constitutional doubt about the capacity of the federal parliament to do so. The Australian Government Solicitor and the Attorney-General have both signalled, as Senator Barnett said, that there is not confidence in the capacity of the federal Constitution to be used to do this. There is no head of power on medical and scientific research. There is a manufactured use of the corporations power and a few other powers to cobble together this attempt to override a properly legislated prohibition in those three states. I suspect that this could well be challenged in any event. It is clear that it is not comprehensive and that this clause cannot work effectively anyway without state legislation. The matter should be left to those state parliaments to decide whether or not they want to lift the prohibitions that they put in place. It should not be done by this Senate.