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Thursday, 29 May 2003
Page: 15512

Ms JANN McFARLANE (10:19 AM) —I rise today to discuss the Intellectual Property Laws Amendment Bill 2002. This bill effectively plugs leaks left by the mishap that was the Patents Amendment Bill 2001. As so often has been the case with the Howard government's innovation policy, this bill created several problems, and national research and development was further stifled because of it.

The Patents Amendment Bill was implemented in an attempt to better the amount of information on prior works available to patent examiners. The motivation for such a policy change, quite legitimately, came in response to recommendations from the Intellectual Property and Competitive Review Committee and the Advisory Council on Intellectual Property. To this extent, the matter was handled well and the groundwork laid for a credible bill in 2001. However, the Howard government felt the need to rush proceedings and to introduce a bill that was untested, and the relevant industry groups were left out in the cold. We on this side of the House were deeply concerned by the reckless passage of that particular bill. On 28 June 2001, Carmen Lawrence, then shadow minister for innovation, said:

Because of our concern about the current state of innovation in Australia and our concern, too, about this legislation potentially placing Australian inventors at a further disadvantage in the international market, we will, as I say, be attempting to have these matters further examined in the Senate.

Labor's concern over that bill, as time has shown, was justified. Because of the wording of the 2001 law, the patent community has been placed in situations of great uncertainty and was concerned about being susceptible to strategic and frivolous challenges to patent applications.

I would like to dwell for a moment on what the term `patent applicant' means. I suspect that when the Howard government hears this term it thinks of research departments and think tanks in big corporations. While this description is valid, I would like to take this opportunity to remind the government about the other meaning for this term. Many of our most important ideas have come from Australian universities, young postgraduates struggling to make ends meet but still nourishing a strong creativity and sense of innovation, and Australian people striving to put something new out into the world—the very sort of ingenuity that Australia was once renowned for. I am sorry to say that it is in large part this government's inconsistent approach to innovation policy which sees us firmly behind the eight ball when compared to OECD nations.

There are great numbers of brilliant Australians out there trying to create something new. I would like to draw the attention of the chamber to the web site . There you will see the work and developments of two great innovators: Dr Barry J. Marshall and Dr Robin Warren. These scientists pioneered research into gastric and duodenal ulcers and identified Helicobacter pylori as the cause. They came up with the first effective treatment of ulcers—rather than the treatment of the symptoms—in the world.

The small business these innovators developed in the Stirling electorate in Osborne Park—TRI-MED Distributors Pty Ltd—is managed and operated by medical professionals and scientists with over 20 years experience with Helicobacter pylori. From a starting point in Western Australia, TRI-MED now has offices in Melbourne and Thailand. TRI-MED is committed to discovering and commercially developing novel and innovative diagnostic products. It is not only producing its goods locally but also earning export dollars for Australia. Should the government continue to get innovation policy wrong, brilliant minds like Dr Marshall and Dr Warren will go to waste or will be lost overseas.

Australian innovators and thinkers are already disadvantaged by not being in the knowledge hotspots of the United States and Europe. We must make their passage as patentees as seamless as possible. The 2001 attempt at this by the Howard government clearly has not delivered. While the government has, hopefully, created an effective piece of legislation with this bill, the patent community still faces the other roadblocks put in front of them by the Howard government—but I suppose this is nothing new.

In the eight budgets that this government has handed down, we have seen a mentality of little faith and quick rewards. It would seem that, if something does not make a dollar in the first financial year of operation, this government does not consider it to be worth investing in. Innovation, be it through higher education, research grants, resource expansion or any other strategy, is a long-term investment. Unfortunately for those Australians involved with innovation, foresight is not something this government has had a lot of.

In 2000, the current Minister for Industry, Tourism and Resources, the Hon. Ian Macfarlane, MP, said he looked forward to Australia's tertiary institutions leading the world. I find this hard to believe. The Howard government has made a sport of making life tougher for our students and aspiring academics, and innovation has been caught firmly in the crossfire. In this light, I mention the latest higher education measures undertaken by the Treasurer. The latest budget will ensure that the quality of education Australians get is dependent upon how much they are prepared to spend or how much of their life they want to spend repaying their university loans. It is education for the wealthy, not for the talented. We on this side of the House believe that encouraging innovation means allowing our developers the freedom to take risks. Increasing the financial obligation these people have does not encourage innovation. What it does is increase this government's pool of money to spend on industrial development at the big end of town.

I have had several constituents come to my office wanting assistance with their patent applications. This is because the system is patchy and inconsistent and this government has, until now, decided it was too much effort to fix. I quote the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Industry, Tourism and Resources, the Hon. Warren Entsch. He said upon presenting the 2001 legislation:

The bill reflects the government's commitment to encouraging innovation and providing Australia with a strong intellectual property system that meets the needs of Australians.

The parliamentary secretary is nodding at those wonderful, wise words.

Mr Entsch —It is marvellous to have such support.

Ms JANN McFARLANE —That is right. In response to this, I ask the honourable member: how many Australians outside his own staff did he actually discuss the bill with? The results since the enacting of the act suggests the total to be somewhere near zero. I hope that the Howard government takes two messages away from this experience. The first is that patent issues are of fundamental importance to Australia, and they deserve to be treated accordingly. It seems clear to me that the 2001 bill was treated with an indifference of grand proportions. As a result, we are back in this place plugging leaks and devoting time and money to something that should have already been resolved. Let us get serious about policy in this area. The innovators of this country deserve a supportive and clear-cut policy behind them.

My second message for the Howard government can be applied to the innovation portfolio and in far more general terms. Take a long, hard look at how you make your policy and take the time to consult the people most knowledgeable and affected. I guess the shorthand version of this is to listen to the people of this industry and of this country. Labor considers intellectual property and innovation policy in general to be of the highest priority. In Stirling—the electorate that I represent—a great many academics and students are putting every effort into furthering collective knowledge and forging something new. I hope that when I return to Stirling in the near future I will be able to tell these people in the academic and business communities that Australia has a patent framework for intellectual property that is worth while and, above all, working. It is in this spirit that Labor would like to see the passage of the 2002 bill. I genuinely hope that the government has taken something out of the mistakes evident in the 2001 process. Let us get this right for the innovators of Australia. They deserve no less, but time and time again this government has given them just that. I commend this bill to the House.