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Prime Minister defends new stem cell report which was commissioned to analyse developments since parliament last debated the issue.

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Friday 1 September 2006

Prime Minister defends new stem cell report which was commissioned to analyse developments since parliament last debated the issue


MARK COLVIN: The Prime Minister's defended himself against critics on his own backbench who say he ordered a second report on stem cell research because he didn't like the results of the first one. 


The Government commissioned the report from a consultancy firm after it got the report of the Lockhart Review, a panel of distinguished scientists and jurors set especially up to look at the stem cell issue. The Lockhart panel recommended the ban on therapeutic cloning be relaxed. 


The second report suggested little had changed in the four years since Parliament last discussed the issue. 


Mr Howard has deflected criticisms such as that of Liberal Dr Mal Washer, who said it was a case of "cash for comment".  


The Prime Minister says that, on the contrary, getting another report is "normal", and he says he's released the second report because it was being pursued under freedom of information laws. 


From Canberra, Alexandra Kirk reports. 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: The review ordered by the department of Prime Minister and Cabinet questions the expert scientific findings of another Government commissioned report, the Lockhart committee, which finished its work just six months before. 


The second report concluded there hadn't been any significant change in the state of play since 2002 when Parliament ratified Australia's first human cloning and embryo research laws. 


It decided the Lockhart committee's considerations appeared to be based around the potential of somatic cell nuclear transfer, or therapeutic cloning, to treat illness and the committee's own resolution of the ethical issues, rather than an assessment of the state of the science as at a certain point in time. 


But advocates of therapeutic cloning say the Government went out and paid for an opinion it wanted. 


Labor's Health spokeswoman Julia Gillard says the more information MPs have the better, but maintains the report MPs need to respond to is the Lockhart review, the one led by experts which conducted extensive public consultations.  


JULIA GILLARD: This new document is something the Howard Government paid for, the Howard Government that initially was just going to turn a blind eye to the Lockhart Review until divisions in its own back bench forced it to act. 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: The Prime Minister says he released this second report in the interests of transparency. 


JOHN HOWARD: Releasing the report was not designed to influence the debate. I knew I had to release it because there was a Freedom of Information request in, and I thought the most sensible thing to do was to put it out on the table straight away.  


And if I'd have held it back, you would have said, 'why have you held it back, why have you covered it up? Shocking horror, another cover-up'.  


ALEXANDRA KIRK: So what does Mr Howard say to those, including some on his own side of politics, who argue he commissioned a second report because he didn't like the findings of the first one? 


JOHN HOWARD: No, no, no, you are missing the point. This was not another scientific report, this was a report to analyse whether there had been any significant, scientific developments between the time the Parliament last debated this issue and now. It wasn't a rival Lockhart report, I think people are missing that all together. 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: One of the Government's most ardent backers of therapeutic cloning, former GP, now backbencher Dr Mal Washer, said commissioning the consultancy report smacked of desperation when the Government wanted to get a second opinion to overturn a very good review, he says, by some of Australia's best scientific minds, for ideological reasons. 


JOHN HOWARD: Mal feels strongly about this issue, I respect that, but it's a conscience issue. 


REPORTER: So has the Government bought its own advice that it wants to hear? 


JOHN HOWARD: No, absolutely not. Governments take advice all the time, and we didn't know what the consultant was going to say when my department commissioned it. I can't understand what all the fuss is about, I thought people wanted documents released, I thought you absolutely lived for the release of documents. 


REPORTER : But the debate aside, his comments about you trying to buy another opinion, is that wrong? 


JOHN HOWARD: We did a perfectly normal thing. 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: And the Health Minister Tony Abbott rejects Dr Washer's accusation. 


TONY ABBOTT: I have a lot of respect for Mal, I think he is a fine man, he is entitled to be passionate and I respect him for it, but I also respectfully disagree with him. 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: Mr Abbott says the decision on therapeutic cloning comes down to ethical considerations, not scientific ones.  


TONY ABBOTT: Scientists certainly have tremendous insights into the science of whatever it is they are talking about, but they don't have any privileged position when it comes to ethics. In fact, members of Parliament at least have the moral standing, if you like, of having been elected by 90,000 of their fellow Australians. 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: He thinks it's perfectly reasonable to ask if there've been any dramatic scientific breakthroughs since 2002. 


TONY ABBOTT: My recollection of the report that was released last night is that it suggested that there hadn't been any significant scientific breakthroughs, and that the science of this was substantially unadvanced, since 2002. 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: But Lockhart committee member, neuroscience Professor Peter Schofield, says the two reviews are not comparable, with the focus of the second one much narrower. 


PETER SCHOFIELD: The PM consulting report has been very much looking for absolute evidence of cures, if you like. The terms of reference for the Lockhart Review were to investigate the potential therapeutic applications, the development in potential therapeutic applications.  


The review committee considered that there was substantial potential for stem cell research to lead to treatment and cures, not today, not tomorrow, but in the future. And on the bases of that potential is why we made the recommendations we did. 


MARK COLVIN: Professor Peter Schofield ending Alexandra Kirk's report.