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Speech notes for AusBiotech 2002 dinner.



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Speech The Hon Ian Macfarlane MP Minister for Industry, Tourism and Resources

20/08/2002 SPEECH NOTES FOR AUSBIOTECH DINNER 2002

Speech Notes for

Ian Macfarlane

Minister for Industry, Tourism and Resources

AusBiotech 2002 Dinner

20th August 02

• Thank you (Tony is MC)

• Acknowledge: Dr Peter Riddles (AusBiotech President)

Dr John Ballard (Vice-president)

Dr Bob Moses (National Stem Cell Centre)

Peter, Deborah, Merilyn, Graham & other research company executives

• I’d also like to acknowledge a number of your peers in the room tonight who should be reaching for the champagne soon.

• They’re among the 39 successful applicants for the third round of funding under the Government’s Biotechnology Innovation Fund.

• BIF continues to be a quiet success story and this time we are able to offer about $9 million to 39 projects.

• The breadth of work under this program always amazes me.

• There’s a company using cartilage from deers to repair human joints.

• Another is doing trials into baits for insects that attack potato crops; and here in Melbourne a group is developing a vaccine for type 1 diabetes in young children.

• Congratulations to the 39 companies which have each received up to a quarter of a million dollars from BIF.

• AusIndustry has put a profile of each of the projects into a pack that will be distributed later - take the opportunity to see what your peers are doing in all corners of the industry.

• And while I’m playing barrel girl - I also have a list of winners in AusBiotech's Student Excellence Awards to announce.

• They asked if I could mention that these awards are sponsored by the University of Queensland.

• That causes me absolutely no pain as I spent most of an engineering degree at that University - playing too much football.

• The winners are all here - so perhaps you can stand as I call your names - starting with...

• Angus Johnston from the University of Queensland

• Penny Jeffrey from Queensland University of Technology

• Ann-Maree Catanzariti from the Australian National University

• Tamsyn Crowley from RMIT in Victoria

• Ashley Newland from Flinders University, South Australia

• Joyce Chiu from the University of NSW and

• Felicity Lose from the University of Western Australia.

• Ladies and Gentlemen - these faces are the future of biotechnology in Australia - congratulations.

• Now I’ve warmed you up with some good news but, as I warned Alan Trounson earlier today, my message tonight is not so reassuring.

The debate ahead

• This country, its politicians and its people now have an opportunity to engage in possibly the most significant science debate since IVF - and the most controversial since euthanasia.

• There’s no secret about my position on the use of embryonic stem cells for research.

• Like the Prime Minister and the Treasurer I believe it would be far better to use surplus embryos in a constructive way than to allow them to simply perish on a laboratory benchtop.

• I have a genuine respect for the tremendous progress made by your profession in recent times.

• But I think, as an industry, we are dangerously close to throwing the game on the current legislation.

• As the theme for this year’s AusBiotech conference suggests - the right partnerships will lead to excellence.

• But I’m here as a friend and supporter in Canberra to warn you that right now the most important partnerships for this industry appear to be under a real threat.

• The threat comes from within - disunity amongst the very scientists who support research using embryonic cells - there appear to be conflicting goals.

• It’s a political cliché but - disunity is death.

• The immediate future of biotechnology in Australia depends on 2 central relationships.

• There’s your partnership with the general community and your partnership with individuals in the Federal Parliament.

• Both these relationships appear to be cracking at the seams at a critical time in the legislative debate.

Political Partnership

• For the last 3 to 4 months I’ve listened to you as the experts on stem cell research - it’s time to reverse the roles.

• Politics is the art of the possible. And the politically possible is based on the art of compromise.

• The Bill before Parliament now is a fair compromise - for science and the community.

• It’s fair because - in the own language of those most fiercely opposed to this Bill - it does not "kill" any embryos that weren’t destined to perish by a deliberate act.

• The Bill advocates controlled and constructive use of a resource which has the potential to deliver future cures.

• It does not throw the flood gates open to cloning or unlimited research.

• This Bill specifically controls research in a way that is actually more restrictive than that proposed by some leading scientists and State Premiers.

• The legislation - in its current form - is a clear rule book for this particular match.

• Without this Bill the states will introduce their own legislation and divide the industry - geographically and technically.

• This legislation is about managing research in a nationally consistent way.

• And as an old rugby player I’m allowed to run with this football analogy.. even AFL supporters should get the idea.

• As far as stem cell research goes, the biotech community hasn’t even pulled its boots on but already you’re attempting to move the goalposts by floating ideas like therapeutic cloning.

• Tangents like that create further un-necessary division within the industry and it confuses the public which is struggling to understand the original issue.

• And these diversions jeopardise the entire gameplan.

• At this stage, the referee won’t even get to blow his starting whistle.

• And the game is in danger of being called off because you’re playing rugby and your opponents are an AFL team.

• The science community is endangering its own case because there appears to be a definite lack of industry cohesion.

• In political terms… ill-considered strategies and inflammatory comments aimed at moving the goalposts will do enormous harm to the industry cause.

• Remember: disunity is death.

• The scientific argument provides a strong foundation and - in my view - the moral argument is also with you but don’t lose control of the political debate.

• It’s time to put aside competing research goals and company rivalry to re-focus on the entire industry’s original goal.

• Do not think that because debate is now under way the legislation is comfortably tucked into the national agenda and on its way to a satisfactory conclusion.

• From my experience - at the electorate level - I can guarantee there are people who will use all manner of manipulations to see the bill watered down and finally dismissed.

• To date they have not been coy about exaggerating or generalising the facts.

• Earlier this month - I watched an audience swallow the argument of a prominent doctor, and "No Harm" campaigner, that cloning would proceed under this bill and that it would also allow unrestricted experimentation.

• That’s simply incorrect.

• The public perception is so important and your sensible, scientifically based messages are not reaching the mark - because there is no united front.

Public Partnership

• Biotechnology will advance or retreat according to what the wider community thinks of your science and its development - perceived or real.

• Unfortunately public opinion often has little connection with actual knowledge and it is usually swayed - by emotion.

• You are dealing in life and death and that’s always going to provoke public reaction that is soaked in emotion - not information.

• Furthermore, emotion has a habit of suppressing any desire to pursue further knowledge.

• The industry appears to have divided goals and an adhoc approach to the stem cell issue - that’s allowing the entire debate to be diverted.

• It’s being turned from hard science - where you have won the argument - to a softer science - that of the heart - where your opponents have a competitive advantage.

• The opposed minority will always put more effort into a debate - and right now they’re walking all over the biotech community.

• Now is not the time to sit back - convinced that the silent majority is on your side.

• But once again I warn that action doesn’t bring with it - disunity. You need a single industry voice selling a single message.

• In a recent survey for Biotechnology Australia only 28% said they found research using embryonic stem cells morally unacceptable..

• But that didn’t translate to a significant majority of support - as only 53% rated it as being morally acceptable.

• It’s a line-ball game and the message from industry and science is just not filtering through.

• One-quarter of the people in this survey didn’t even know what embryonic stem cells were - while 38% were unaware of adult stem cells.

• The Federal Government is serious about maximising the scientific opportunity in this industry through a proper, co-ordinated approach.

• It was a significant expression of confidence in Australia’s biotech future for the Government to allocate more than $46 million to the Biotechnology Centre of Excellence.

• None of us want to see that Centre stumble because a lack of nationally uniform legislation forces this entire industry to disintegrate into an inter-state bun fight.

• And make no mistake - the State premiers have made it clear that’s what will happen if the Federal legislation fails to pass and the states retain individual legislative control.

Conclusion

• In conclusion - I came here as a friend of the industry to make sure you were aware that there are difficult times ahead.

• Don’t underestimate those who oppose your work as we enter the final stages of this emotive debate.

• I’ve been more than happy to listen and work with the Biotech industry to achieve nationally consistent goals.

• We can’t afford to drop the ball just because the rules are being re-written in Canberra.. politics is a running game.. industry must keep up.

• To finish with the football analogy - this debate is about teamwork and a single gameplan.

• Lose sight of that and the team will not only be left short of players but dropped to Reserve grade - leaving us with an even bigger legislative challenge in the future.

• Because whether Australia moves with the international biotech industry or not - embryonic research will be carried out around the world.

• Better we have a national framework that allows controlled development of this research under a fair and moral regime than under the "anything goes" attitude adopted by other countries.

• I hope after tonight you’ll take my view on board - trust me I’m a politician.