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Thursday, 30 June 1994
Page: 2426

Senator BURNS (1.04 p.m.) —From my position as Chairman of the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs, I would like to indicate a number of matters in support of this bill. The Senate will be aware that a plant variety rights scheme was introduced in Australia in 1987. Under the Plant Variety Rights Act of 1987, breeders of new plant varieties could claim exclusive rights to sell, or license others to sell, plants or seeds of varieties that they developed. The act required that plants and reproductive material should be available in sufficient quantities to meet demand, at reasonable prices, and that the holder of the right take all reasonable steps to ensure that requirements of the public were satisfied. New varieties of plants were eligible for PVR, if their genus or species were listed in the regulations.

  The Plant Breeder's Rights Bill 1994 was read a second time in the Senate on 24 March 1994. On 9 May, the bill was referred to the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs for inquiry and report. The bill proposes to replace the Plant Variety Rights Act of 1987 to enable plant breeders to apply for and receive proprietary rights for new varieties of plants that they develop.

  The committee was advised that the aim of rewriting and renaming the legislation is principally to conform to the 1991 revision of the Convention of the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants or UPOV, as it is known. The committee was advised that the bill is consistent with Australia's obligations under the UPOV convention, and in harmony with United Nations Agenda 21, the International Convention for the Conservation of Biological Diversity, the FAO undertaking on plant genetic resources, and GATT. Officials from the department reassured the committee that all of the public interest features of the Plant Variety Rights Act 1987 have been retained and even extended in the PBR Bill. The department concluded that the essential balance between public interest and extended breeders' rights had been maintained.

  The committee's report identifies several features of the bill including an increase in the duration of PBR, an extension of PBR to include the import and export of propagative material, an extension of PBR to include harvested material in certain circumstances, an extension of PBR to include essentially derived and certain dependent varieties, and increased penalties for breaches of PBR. The committee's report, tabled on 31 May, addresses many issues raised by the 17 witnesses who appeared at the public hearing and the views contained in the 41 submissions received during the inquiry. I think it is important for the Senate to note that the NFF, the Grains Council of Australia, the Seed Industry Association of Australia and the Nursery Industry Association of Australia support this legislation. Other organisations such as the Australian Conservation Foundation expressed strong concerns about the bill, as did several individuals. Greenpeace registered its opposition to the bill based on philosophical grounds.

  The committee listened very closely to the arguments presented in evidence on the bill, and specific reference should be made to two clauses within the bill that received considerable comment. Firstly, clause 17 contains an exemption to the PBR, namely the farmers' privilege or farm-saved seed exemption. This permits a farmer to save seed from a crop to plant a future crop on the farmer's own land without infringing PBR. However, under subclause 17(2), the regulations may declare a particular taxon to be a taxon to which the principle of farm-saved seed does not apply. Secondly, clause 22 of the bill deals with the duration of PBR. Under this clause, the proprietary right lasts for 25 years in the case of trees and vines, and for 20 years for any other variety. Subclause 22(3) provides that PBR in a plant variety included within a specified taxon may be granted for a longer period by regulation.

  It should be noted that both clauses refer not to a variety of seed, but to a taxon. `Taxon' means an official group from the species level or higher: that is, species, genus, family et cetera. In a commodity sense, `taxon' means wheat or barley or rice—the whole commodity. It was emphasised to the committee that a variety is not a taxon.

  Several witnesses raised concerns about these clauses, and their views are reviewed in some detail in the committee's report. In response to these concerns the committee formed the view that the processes associated with exemptions under clause 17(2) and extensions under clause 22(3) could be improved, in order to ensure openness and transparency within the system. The committee recommended to the Senate that the bill should be amended so that public notice must be given when the minister is considering an exemption under clause 17(2) or an extension under clause 22(3)—again, a question of transparency and of communication with the general public. The committee considered that its recommendations on these matters would allay concerns expressed during the inquiry about safeguards and guarantees in relation to farm-saved seed and indefinite extensions to plant breeders' rights.

  In relation to the bill as a whole, the committee is of the view that it is not a major departure from the Plant Variety Rights Act 1987, the main differences being the scope and strength of the proprietary right it provides. The committee also endorses the policy framework underpinning the bill that will allow Australia to ratify the UPOV convention as revised in March 1991. Accordingly, the committee did not agree with the view expressed in evidence that the passage of the legislation should be delayed.

  Finally, I think it would be appropriate for the following two matters to be placed on the record during this debate. Firstly, it should be noted that the statement of Dr David Godden, as quoted in paragraph 3.28 of the committee's report, refers to consultations with Dr Godden himself and not to the consultation process as a whole. Secondly, in a letter to the committee dated 30 May 1994, Dr Godden claimed that evidence from the Department of Primary Industries and Energy contained adverse reflections on his professionalism, academic standing and personal integrity. The committee met to consider this matter and, in accordance with Senate privilege resolution 1(13), agreed to provide Dr Godden with the opportunity to respond to this evidence. The committee also resolved that a supplementary report on this matter incorporating Dr Godden's written submission should be tabled in the Senate. That report was tabled on 2 June 1994 and has been circulated with the committee's principal report. I support this bill.