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Wednesday, 9 May 2007
Page: 35

Senator McLUCAS (11:55 AM) —The purpose of the Gene Technology Amendment Bill 2007, which we are dealing with today, is to amend the Gene Technology Act 2000 for a range of purposes. These include the introduction of emergency powers to give the minister the ability to expedite the approval of a dealing with a genetically modified organism in an emergency. It also includes the creation of the Gene Technology Ethics and Community Consultation Committee and amendments to the process for assessing applications for GMO licences.

Labor will be supporting the passage of the bill through the parliament. We understand there are strong views in the community both for and against gene technology; however, the debate on this bill is not a debate on the merits or otherwise of gene technology. Rather, the amendments to the act which are proposed in this bill are by and large designed to improve the operation of the act and will not change its underlying policy intent or the overall legislative framework. Further, the amendments proposed by the bill also represent the culmination of a long public consultation process and an independent statutory review process. They are also supported by the intergovernmental Gene Technology Ministerial Council. For all of these reasons, Labor will be supporting the bill.

The Gene Technology Act is the Commonwealth legislation which regulates genetically modified organisms in Australia. The object of the act is to protect the health and safety of people and the environment by identifying risks posed by, or as a result of, gene technology, and by managing those risks through regulating certain dealings with genetically modified organisms.  Under the Gene Technology Agreement 2001, all states and territories have committed to maintaining corresponding legislation. In 2005-06, an independent review of the act and the Gene Technology Agreement was undertaken, headed by Susan Timbs. The review concluded that the act and the national regulatory scheme had worked well in the five years following their introduction. The review recommended a number of changes aimed at improving the operation of the regulatory scheme. This bill implements the recommendations from the review that require changes to Commonwealth legislation. The amendments contained in this bill reflect the ministerial council’s response to the statutory review and have been agreed by the states and territories.

I now want to turn to the specific amendments proposed by the bill. The proposed new emergency powers are the most contentious aspect of the bill. These new powers will give the minister power to expedite an approval of a dealing with a genetically modified organism in an emergency, in recognition of the fact that situations may arise in which approval of a dealing with a GMO may be required in a limited time. The issue of emergency powers was considered at length in the Senate committee’s inquiry and report on the bill. Some witnesses before the inquiry—including Gene Ethics and Greenpeace—expressed concern about the proposed new powers and whether they are necessary. While Labor is somewhat cautious about the proposed emergency powers, on balance we agree with the view of the majority of the Senate committee that there will be sufficient checks and balances in place to ensure the emergency powers are not used injudiciously.

The safeguards on the emergency powers that will be in place include: the minister will be required to have a recommendation from the Chief Medical Officer and/or the Chief Veterinarian before invoking the powers, and the minister will be required to consult with the states and territories before invoking the powers. We also note that guidelines for the administration of the emergency dealing provisions have been developed though a process of consultation with the states and territories. On the strength of these provisions, Labor is satisfied that the minister will not be able to act unilaterally and that the powers will be used with sufficient circumspection. However, Labor’s strong view is that the powers should only be used as an absolute last resort.

The bill will also establish a Gene Technology Ethics and Community Consultative Committee. This new committee will combine the existing Gene Technology Ethics Committee and the Gene Technology Community Consultative Committee into one body. The new committee will provide advice to the Gene Technology Regulator and the Gene Technology Ministerial Council on ethics and community consultations. The combined committee will also provide advice on risk communication and community consultation around intentional release licence applications. During the Senate inquiry, most stakeholders commented favourably on the proposed amalgamation of the ethics committee and the consultative committee into the one body.

The bill also proposes amendments to the process for assessing applications for licences for GMOs. There are two sets of amendments in this section of the bill. The first set of amendments will alter the order of events during the initial licence consultation process so that the regulator would no longer be required to consider whether an application poses a significant risk to the health and safety of people or the environment before developing a risk assessment and a risk management plan. These amendments are designed to improve the process by which licences are initially considered and give the regulator more time to consider whether dealings pose a significant risk. The second set of amendments would introduce a new category of licence for GMOs to distinguish between licences for a limited and controlled release and licences for intentional release. The object of these amendments is to increase the efficiency of the regulatory system by streamlining the application process for licences involving a limited and controlled release of a GMO. The issue of the new limited and controlled release licences was the topic of some discussion at the Senate committee’s hearing into the bill. Some stakeholders expressed concerns about the proposed new assessment process as it relates to limited and controlled release. However, the Senate committee supported the passing of the relevant provisions without amendment.

Other amendments to the act proposed by the bill will make various changes to the gene technology regulatory scheme. These changes include streamlining the process for the initial consideration of licences and the reduction of the regulatory burden for low-risk dealings, clarification of the circumstances in which licence variations can be made, clarification of the circumstances under which the regulator can direct a person to comply with the act, the provision of power to the regulator to issue a licence to protect persons inadvertently dealing with a GMO so as to enable appropriate disposal of such organisms and the making of technical amendments as proposed by the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator.

In conclusion, as I said at the outset, Labor will be supporting the bill. While the proposed emergency powers are somewhat contentious, we are satisfied that there will be sufficiently robust safeguards in place to ensure that these powers will not be used unwisely. The remaining provisions in the bill are relatively uncontroversial and Labor is happy to support their passage through the parliament.