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Tuesday, 29 August 2000
Page: 19555

Ms ROXON (8:00 PM) —I would like to cover some particular concerns I have about the Gene Technology Bill 2000 in its current drafting. Mr Deputy Speaker Andrews, it is interesting that you are in the chair, because the aspects that I want to deal with today have been under some discussion by the committee that both you and I are part of and which has been investigating aspects of human cloning and the processes that deal with other developments in this biotech area. In listening to the speakers on this bill today, it is clear that the government's intention in pursuing this particular piece of legislation is to deal in the main with plant and animal gene technology, but there are some aspects of the legislation that also deal with gene manipulation as it applies to humans. It is on this aspect that I will focus my discussion today.

Our committee had a private briefing on aspects of the Gene Technology Bill. I do not intend to go into any detail, which would be inappropriate in these circumstances, but I am concerned about the way the bill is currently drafted. It does not set out explicitly which sections of the bill can and cannot apply to any research that would impact on human beings rather than on other sorts of organisms—be they plant, animal or types of bacteria.

Obviously this is a concern—I do not seek to scaremonger, as can happen when dealing with this type of legislation. There are some legitimate concerns in the community about genetically modified organisms, and there is also a lot of unjustified fear. I do not seek to contribute to that in the discussion today; more importantly, I seek to highlight some of the areas that are not covered by the bill.

Labor support the passage of the bill in the House, but we reserve our position on amendments that might be sought in the Senate following the conclusion of the Senate committee's inquiry. No doubt these issues, amongst many others, will be raised and can be remedied at that time. So, in the spirit of seeking some further clarification of this bill and the ultimate form that it will take, it might be worth our looking in a little more detail at the definitions that are found in section 10 of the bill, in particular the definitions that deal with gene technology and genetically modified organisms.

Gene technology, as defined in section 10 of this bill, means:

... any technique for the modification of genes or other genetic material, but does not include:

(a) sexual reproduction—

There are two other exclusions, including techniques that can be excluded by some form of regulation. This definition makes it clear that there is nothing that stops gene technology from being applied to humans as it does to animals, plants and any form of bacteria. The definition of a genetically modified organism makes it clear that a `genetically modified organism cannot be a whole human being if the human being is covered by that paragraph only because human beings have undergone somatic cell gene therapy'. I think this does raise the question that other human tissue and treatment of human genes can be covered by this piece of legislation.

It is of concern to me that the legitimate focus of the bill is on other areas, and that we may be introducing some regulation to an area which was not intended. When one looks at the explanatory memorandum and speeches prior to mine in the House, there is nothing to contradict my concern that this bill may cover a much broader range than is intended. I am not necessarily saying that it would be inappropriate for a gene technology regulator to deal ultimately with human genes and their treatment or modification but, if we are to do that, we must be very explicit and ensure the system is appropriate not just for the handling and containment of genetically modified organisms in the plant and animal world, but also in the human area.

Mr Deputy Speaker, you know as well as I do that there are a lot of complex ethical issues involved, not just in gene manipulation but in a whole lot of other types of technology that can be applied to humans. Cloning is an area that you and I have been looking at in the inquiry that is currently under way. It concerns me that some of these other processes may inadvertently be covered by the provisions of this act. In particular, I would also like to look at the regulatory scheme that is being set up, because it may be that a regulatory scheme which plans to have a national overview—with the gene technology regulator having national responsibilities—together with complementary state legislation would be a useful model in this area where it is quite difficult to be confident that the Commonwealth has strong heads of power. Most of those who have already spoken in this place have indicated that it would be helpful for us to have some nationally consistent scheme so that you do not seek to regulate the handling of genetically modified organisms in one way in one state and have completely the opposite happening in another state. Obviously if the focus of this legislation is about containment and proper handling and notification of where GMOs exist, et cetera, we should know about it on a national basis and not just on a state by state basis. It might be a useful model for handling a whole range of other issues that arise when talking about the treatment and handling of human tissue.

Since the announcement of the conclusion, if you like, of the Human Genome Project, I think there is growing concern in the community about what this really means for us. The opportunity to know more about human DNA and the way it can be manipulated and used, hopefully to provide improvements to our health and wellbeing and perhaps to be able to provide some information to us about how illness is caused, has great potential. But the way we manage it is vitally important; I would venture to say that it is as important as our concerns about the plant and animal area. There may well be lots of competing interests to make sure that our Australian industries and scientists can be well supported, but I think that being very cautious about how we deal with this is obviously a useful thing for us to be.

In terms of regulation and the desirability, if you like, for the community to be involved in the way the regulation works, I am interested in the model used for expert and lay committees and their capacity to be able to review the research and the commitment to there being some transparency and accountability. Again, I think this could be a good structure for us to use in a number of other areas.

But, if we are dealing with human genes and other experimentation on human tissue and cells, there would of course be a different layer of consideration, which may well be the ethical considerations. I know there are some ethical concerns—they may be described by some people as ethical concerns—in respect of this bill in terms of the way that plant and animal matter are treated. These are summed up mostly as being concerns about whether we are `playing God', if you like, in allowing some manipulation of these genes. But I would think they would pale into insignificance when we try to consider the ethical questions that might apply when we are talking about the reproduction of human cells or the manipulation of human cells.

Certainly on my reading of this bill, there is only the potential for human tissue to be covered if there is some manipulation of the genetic make-up of the cell and this legislation, on any interpretation, would not include things such as reproductive technology and cloning, if it were to be of particular cells and without any modification of their genetic make-up.

While that part is clear, I think the line is blurred when we look at the sort of experimentation that may be possible within our gene structure. Given that there is no doubt that, in the not too distant future, we will have to grapple with how we legislate or regulate the cloning issue, we will need to deal with how we regulate the treatment of human cells in other areas.

I really just want to put my concerns on the record and say that, in introducing this bill, I think it would be very helpful if we make it 100 per cent clear how it interacts with any sort of genetic manipulation of human cells and how it affects the biotechnology in these other areas, so that we make sure we are very clear about what this bill intends to cover.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Andrews)—Before I call the next speaker, I would just indicate that the practice of the parliament has been that if a minister or parliamentary secretary is not at the table when the chamber is sitting, that is regarded as something unconventional. Whilst I understand there may have been reasons for that not occurring tonight, I just place on record that that has been the practice of the parliament throughout its history and I bring it to the attention of all present.