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Minister discusses the stem cell research debate.

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VIVIAN SCHENKER: The contentious stem cell research debate is finally under way now.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: It is. This is arguably the most emotive debate to grip parliamentarians since the euthanasia debate six years back, and it’s going to go on for some time before it actually goes to a vote. At this stage it looks like the Prime Minister has the numbers in the lower house for the bill to go through, but only with the support of Labor MPs. Of course both major parties have a conscience vote on this matter, but certainly there’s plenty of lobbying on both sides and that’s going to continue. Last night the Industry Minister, Ian Macfarlane, who is a strong supporter of the bill going through, warned the science community to be more united in their campaign. Otherwise, he warns, they could ultimately lose.


From within the government ranks, leading the charge against the bill is the Workplace Relations Minister, Tony Abbott, and he joins me in the studio this morning. Thanks for coming in.


TONY ABBOTT: Morning, Cathy.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: The point that Ian Macfarlane makes is that different arguments and positions in the science community could be a weakness. Do you see that as being a potential for you to perhaps get enough support to put the bill down?


TONY ABBOTT: I certainly think that some of the scientists have gone right over the top. I certainly think that some of the scientists are peddling false hope to vulnerable people and I think that we have to be careful about allowing the professional pride and the commercial self-interest of scientists to establish these sorts of regulations for us. Scientists shouldn’t entirely self-regulate, just as business people and the rest of us shouldn’t entirely self-regulate.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: So what about Simon Crean’s idea, then, that he’s put forward about the establishment of a bioethics commission similar to what’s in place in the US to actually examine those ethical and policy questions?


TONY ABBOTT: In the end fundamental ethical questions should be determined by the representatives of the people, the parliament. I think that members of parliament have just as much standing to determine these things as the scientists. And I think it’s not a question of getting more information, it’s a question of clarifying our ethical and moral judgments.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: Picking up on that point then about the parliamentarians then putting the position forward on behalf of their constituents, the debate on the stem cell issue will be moved to Main Committee after today. The argument is that you’re now denying Australians the right to hear the parliamentary debate on such a crucial issue.


TONY ABBOTT: First of all, the government’s current intention is to allow the debate to continue in the main chamber for the rest of this week. As yet we haven’t made a firm decision about what might happen subsequently if the debate is still continuing. But the fact that it moves into the Main Committee, if it moves into the Main Committee, doesn’t mean that it’s not happening, doesn’t mean that it’s not important and doesn’t mean that it’s in some way secret.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: But it doesn’t get the public airing.


TONY ABBOTT: Cameras can go into the Main Committee, microphones can go into the Main Committee.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: It’s not the same, though.


TONY ABBOTT: Public can go into the Main Committee. The Main Committee is part of the parliament and any debate of this nature is the most important debate that is going on in the country at this time, regardless of whether it’s in the Main Committee or the main chamber.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: There’s also been talk now of the likelihood of the bill being split into legislation covering a ban on human cloning and research on embryos. How likely is the bill to be split and would it bolster the no case?


TONY ABBOTT: Certainly I believe that the bill should be split, myself, because it essentially deals with two rather separate issues. The first is the ban on human cloning and that’s fairly uncontroversial and it should be made. The second is the permitting of experimentation on human embryos, and that’s highly controversial and in my view shouldn’t be done. So yes, plainly, I believe the bill should be split. And even people who support embryo experimentation, if they want to see a fair debate and a fair vote, ought to support the splitting of the bill.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: Just looking then at how this debate will pan out. The Catholic Archbishop, George Pell, has stood aside from his position while an inquiry investigates allegations against him. He, of course, is one of the leading opponents to the bill. Will this overshadow the debate?


TONY ABBOTT: Obviously what’s happened to George Pell is a terrible tragedy for him and I think for the wider community. But I want to say this about George Pell: sure, these are serious allegations and they need to be fully investigated. He has done absolutely the right and the honourable thing to step aside, and I have to say that the allegation as so far reported strikes me as being absolutely out of character, because George Pell has given a lifetime of service to the church and to the general community.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: All right. Just very briefly, we’ve run out of time, but I wanted to pick up on the issue of the building industry task force. You’ve announced that the interim task force will be in place by the end of next month. Is the emphasis going to be just on trade unions or broader than that?


TONY ABBOTT: No. We are about law enforcement in the construction industry. We are about trying to ensure that the rule of law applies just as much behind the gates of a construction site as it does on the street outside. And, as the royal commission has made clear, for too long too many people, both company bosses and union officials have been breaking the law. It has to stop. Australia deserves a clean industry and they deserve it now.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: Tony Abbott, thank you.


TONY ABBOTT: Thanks, Cathy.


VIVIAN SCHENKER: Workplace Relations Minister, Tony Abbott, with Cathy Van Extel in Canberra.