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Wednesday, 9 May 2007
Page: 43


Senator MASON (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Health and Ageing) (12:32 PM) —I thank Senator McLucas, Senator Hurley and Senator Siewert for their contributions. The Gene Technology Amendment Bill 2007 strengthens the Australian government’s component of the gene technology regulatory scheme. This scheme protects the health and safety of people and the environment from any risks that may be posed by genetically modified organisms.

These amendments are the response to the statutory review of the Gene Technology Act 2000 and the Gene Technology Agreement 2001 which was conducted in 2005-06. These amendments will refine the legislation and ensure that regulatory burden is commensurate to risk, introduce provisions to deal with unexpected situations and ensure the smooth operation of the scheme.

I note, and I think all senators agree with this, that we must always be judicious in our release of any genetically modified organisms into the community. I agree with all senators on that. Perhaps like Senator Hurley, however, I remain optimistic—perhaps more optimistic than Senator Siewert—as to the utility of GMOs. But only time will tell. Perhaps in the committee stage we will have more opportunity to flesh out that debate and look at future opportunities.

Senator Siewert spoke passionately about the emergency dealing determinations that are an integral part of the bill and that reflect, of course, the review that was completed in 2005-06. We will discuss this in greater detail in the committee stage, but can I just say—through you, Mr Acting Deputy President—that these are not unilateral powers that can be used by a minister. They are highly circumscribed. I will not go through all the provisions now, but the minister must receive advice from various officers, including the Gene Technology Regulator. He or she must be satisfied that there is an actual or imminent threat, and so forth. This is not a case of a unilateral decision by a minister; it is highly circumscribed.

I should also add that all these conditions and provisions were agreed to by states and territories. We will obviously get to that in the committee stage, but I just wanted to try to argue the case anyway, Senator Siewert, that we are not talking here about the unilateral decision of a minister. It is highly circumscribed. Also, you spoke about the definitions. Again, we can get into that in the committee stage, but the strong scientific assessment framework of the act will be maintained. That is why, in relation to the issue you raised about economic harm, that is not what the bill says and that is not what is contemplated. But, again, we will get to that later.

These amendments mean that the regulator’s resources may be more efficiently utilised in the evaluation of an application for the intentional release of genetically modified organisms and that the regulatory regime will be more able to respond swiftly to emergency scenarios where the use of a genetically modified organisms may be particularly advantageous. Furthermore, these refinements represent the collective input from all the states and the territories and will ensure that Australia has a world-class regulatory system that protects the health and safety of people and the environment as well as promoting research in this growing industry.

The amendments to the act serve to strengthen this link in the armour of protection afforded to the health of the Australian people and the environment by the Australian government. The Office of the Gene Technology Regulator, along with other Australian government regulatory schemes, provides a shield that protects the health of the Australian people and their environment.

Senator Siewert quite justifiably mentioned the guidelines for emergency response under the Gene Technology Act 2000 and the Gene Technology Agreement. She quite correctly referred to those. They were agreed to by the ministerial council last Friday and I table them. I commend the bill to the Senate.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.