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Parliament House, Canberra: transcript of doorstop: meningococcal; stem cell research; Main Committee.



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T R A N S C R I P T

Stephen Smith MP Member for Perth Shadow Minister for Health and Ageing

TRANSCRIPT OF DOORSTOP - PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA, TUESDAY 20 AUGUST 2002

E & OE

Subjects: Meningococcal; Stem Cell Research; Main Committee

SMITH: Well, firstly on meningococcal.

I welcome the Government’s decision to start a vaccination program. Some people may criticise the Government for starting too late, because we are some time behind New Zealand, but at least it’s a start. There is a worldwide shortage of the vaccine and as a consequence, presumably acting on expert advice, I believe the Government has correctly targetted the initial stage of the vaccination process. So, I welcome this start.

There is, of course, more that the Government can do. For those families who are worried about meningoccocal, it is the case that children who live in households that smoke are four times more likely to contract meningococcal than children who live in families where smoking does not occur.

The Government has up to $250 million worth of excise sitting with tobacco wholesalers that it could legislate to recover and use some of those funds to alert families to the fact that if their children live in households where smoking occurs, they are four times more likely to contract meningococcal. So I welcome the start, but there’s more that the Government can do.

On stem cells, I note that there’s some conversation about whether the Bill should be split.

Can I say firstly, that irrespective of the process, at some point in the cycle, the Parliament between now and the end of the year will make a substantive decision on whether stem cell research is allowed on spare or excess embryos procured for the purposes of IVF. Parliament will make that substantive decision.

It doesn’t seem to me to make much of a point as to whether that’s done by way of amendment to the current Bill or whether the Bill is split.

So far as a conscience vote is concerned, in the Labor Party there is a conscience on the narrow substantive point, can stem cell research occur on spare or excess embryos procured for the purposes of IVF. Of course, in my

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view, that conscience vote can go to the procedure or the process on that point, not just the substance.

But the difficulty at moment is, of course, that we haven’t seen any amendment or proposed amendment to make a judgement as to whether it falls within the conscience vote parameter.

But, I think there’s also a much more important process point which the Parliament should be aware of and the community should be aware of and the community should be aware of today.

You will all remember the Euthanasia Debate. That was the subject of a conscience vote, both in terms of substance and in terms of process. The Government on the Euthanasia Legislation sent that important legislation off to the Main Committee, a backwater of a chamber.

I am very concerned that the Government will propose to send the Stem Cell legislation off to the Main Committee. So, Members of Parliament run the risk that there will be two levels of conscience: a greater conscience for those Members who get the speak in the Main Chamber, but a lesser conscience for those people who speak in the Main Committee.

And so we should get an assurance from the Government today that it’s not proposing to send the stem cell research legislation to the Main Committee. This is a very important piece of legislation. It goes to views held very strongly by people in the community, it goes to a matter of conscience. That conscience should be respected and the best way to respect that conscience is to ensure that all the debate takes place on the floor of the Chamber, and is not sent up to the backwater which is the Main Committee.

JOURNALIST: Where do you stand on the stem cell legislation?

SMITH? I support it. I believe that it’s appropriate that stem cell research be allowed to be conducted on spare or excess embryos procured for the purposes of IVF.

Now, IVF is a matter of creating life. IVF occurs when people are desperate to have children and spare and excess embryos are procured in that purpose. When it comes to the disposal of those embryos you can do one of two things: you can dispose of them without more, or you can conduct research on them. I’m in favour of doing that research because that may lead to extending life of others, to improving life and to giving people quality of life.

We saw yesterday people suffering from a range of debilitating chronic illnesses or diseases and there is some chance that in the future that stem cell research will assist people suffering from those illnesses and diseases.

JOURNALIST: Is there a case to be made for splitting the Bill, do you think?

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SMITH: Well, not in my view. In so far as the Labor Party’s position is concerned, we’re happy to consider the Bill as it is. The question then goes to whether the splitting of the Bill also goes to the conscience issue.

Of course, a vote of conscience can go to a procedural point, but I haven’t seen the amendment. It’s not something you can deal with in the abstract. As soon as I see such an amendment, a judgement can be made as to whether it goes to conscience or not. I frankly don’t see the purpose or the point of splitting the Bill, because in the end the Parliament will make a decision on the substantive issue and the substantive issue is, will the Parliament authorise or won’t the Parliament authorise stem cell research on spare or excess embryos procured for the purposes of IVF.

JOURNALIST: Some of your colleagues opposed to the Bill say that the Labor National Executive decision makes it quite clear that splitting the Bill should be a conscience vote. Why don’t you think that’s what the National Executive position was?

SMITH: The National Executive position is quite clear. The National Executive position says that a conscience vote is provided to Members of the Labor Party on the question of whether stem cell research can be conducted on spare or excess embryos procured for the purpose of IVF. Now, if a procedural point is raised on that issue, my view is that the procedural issue is also the subject of a conscience vote.

The point I’m making about splitting the Bill and the point Simon Crean has made about splitting the Bill is that neither of us have seen that proposed amendment, so we can’t make that judgement.

But, in theory, in principle, does a conscience vote go to a point of procedure? Answer - yes of course it can. That applied on the Euthanasia legislation, it can equally apply on this legislation, provided in the Labor Party’s eyes, the point - the procedural point or the substantive point - goes to the conscience vote issue, which is stem cell research on spare or excess embryos procured for the purposes of IVF.

But, let me make this point. The community won’t care about the procedural niceties. Parliamentarians will. I think a much more important procedural point is the Government contemplating slipping this Bill off to the Main Committee. But, the substantive point, is in the end, some time between now and the end of the year, the Parliament will make a substantive decision on the question as to whether stem cell research can be authorised.

In the end, the procedural niceties won’t much matter. I think the much more important procedural point is the Government contemplating sending this important piece of legislation off to the backwater Chamber which is the Main Committee, so that Members of the House of Representatives will have graduated levels of conscience: a more important conscience if you get to debate the Bill, as the Prime Minister did, on the floor of the House and a lesser level of conscience if you are sent off to the Main Committee.

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JOURNALIST: On meningococcal, I don’t want to give 60 Minutes too much political weight, but, is it a bit ironic that the day after getting a bit of a grilling on television Senator Patterson and her colleagues announce quite a miraculous deal?

SMITH: Well, firstly I didn’t see the 60 Minutes Program, I was travelling at the time.

I think to be fair to Senator Patterson, a couple of weeks ago she indicated she was proposing to take to Cabinet a submission generally along these lines.

The Government has been criticised by some for being a bit slow out of the blocks and comparisons have been made with New Zealand, where efforts have been much more advanced. Putting that to one side, I welcome the decision. I think it’s correctly targetted, but I think the Government can do more. Parents need to understand that children who live in households where smoking occurs are four times more likely to contract meningococcal.

There is up to a quarter of a billion dollars worth of funds sitting there with tobacco wholesalers, as a result of a High Court decision, which the Government could legislate to get its hands on. It could use that to make that point well known in the Australian community. There’s more that the Government can do in this area.

JOURNALIST: Could you use that quarter of a billion dollars you talked about there to make this vaccine more widely available?

SMITH: The problem at the moment is one of supply. At the moment, there is not just a shortage of the vaccine in Australia, there is a worldwide shortage. When the shortage of vaccination worldwide passes, then we can start asking questions about ensuring that the Government is spending enough money to make the vaccine more widely available. At the moment, the problem is a supply problem.

JOURNALIST: The medical company says they can get enough supplies by the end of the year for the whole Australia.

SMITH: Well, as I say, let’s just see how the supply issue pans out.

Ends

Contact : Andrew Dempster - 0407 435 157 or 02 6277 4108