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Wednesday, 22 June 1994
Page: 1908


Senator COULTER (5.20 p.m.) —I believe the Plant Breeder's Rights Bill extends the immorality and unethical behaviour which has marked the passage of a number of bills through this parliament in relation to the ownership, the commercial exploitation and the exclusive use for commercial purposes of genetic material. I cannot put it more strongly than that. I think all legislation of this sort is totally immoral and should not pass through this parliament. We saw this occur with the plant variety rights legislation and with the patent bill.

  Senators will recall that over a considerable time I argued that the ownership of DNA, the ownership of genes and the ownership of life forms for commercial purposes and commercial exploitation is morally and totally indefensible. That is still the position that the Australian Democrats take.

  Some senators may have seen the Lateline program last night. It did not deal with the ethical questions but dealt instead with some of the problems that arise as a consequence of the patenting of life forms which, incidentally, would be covered by this legislation. This legislation extends the coverage from plants to viruses and this is something which we will seek to amend later. The program last night dealt with the patenting by an American company of the virus responsible for hepatitis C. According to the program, the patenting extended so widely that it covered not only the virus but also the preparation of various immune testing devices—the ability to test for hepatitis C, the ability to identify hepatitis C, the ability to prepare vaccines and so on. Evidently, an Australian company is now attempting to challenge that patent because it has developed a more effective way of identifying the presence of this virus in human blood.

  If senators saw the program they would know that two patent attorneys were arguing about the technicalities of this matter. Lying behind this discussion was the spectre of, for instance, the Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital being inhibited from researching in this very important area because those who might provide the finance for this research were concerned that if they produced a useful result that useful result would actually be owned by an American company. There is a direct impediment to research into a very important human disease because of the exclusive ownership of genetic information.

  The bill and the other acts to which I have referred fail to take account of one of the most fundamental discoveries of the last 41 years in relation to genetics and that is that the genetic code which describes the information by which every living creature determines its structure, its proteins, its biochemistry is exactly the same whether it is for a virus, a plant or a human being. Under those circumstances, and as we now know, it is not possible to identify a gene as a human gene, a viral gene or a bacterial gene. Those genes can be taken from any species and put into any other species. That is exactly what has been happening. Under this legislation it is quite possible that a human gene could be generated in a plant for various purposes and that that hybrid creature would be protected for commercial purposes.

  I do not want to argue that human genes should be uniquely protected. My argument is that all genetic material needs to be uniquely protected from this commercial ownership and exploitation. There is no difference between human genetic material and genetic material from any other source. That is precisely the basis of the charge that I make that legislation of this sort is unethical and immoral and, therefore, should not be proceeded with.

  There are a number of very practical consequences which flow from this legislation and I have mentioned just one of those. The secrecy which surrounds exclusive ownership for proprietorial reasons is directly inhibitory to research, much of which may be in the interests of human beings or in the broader interests of preserving biological diversity. I will get onto that in a moment.

  There is no basis to the argument that is often put that it is only by patenting, or by giving those who work with particular species exclusive rights, that research work will be advanced. If that were so then research work would have begun just in the last decade or so. It is only in the last decade or so that we have taken this rather peculiar attitude towards science that only that science which is paid for is the science which will be done. The fact remains that science has gone on for many hundreds of years. It has gone on in the public interest and scientific knowledge has been generally available to everybody. That is inhibited by this process of giving people exclusive commercial rights. That process which we have embarked upon is very likely to lead to the progressive strangulation of science itself.

  Very often the discoveries with respect to one species are applicable to another. The discoveries and knowledge of manipulating plant genes are applicable to the manipulation of human genes and applicable to how human genes operate. That inhibition of the progress of science in those areas is directly damaging not only to science itself but also to human progress and the understanding of our own make-up and our own diseases and how we deal with them and cure them.

  The claim that research work will be progressed only if there is a commercial interest in it denies the very basis which guides most scientists. I have worked at the laboratory bench for over 20 years and I know that I was not guided by profits at the end of what I did. I was guided by an interest in the work that I was doing.


Senator Brownhill —Who was paying your salary—the taxpayer?


Senator COULTER —That is a very good point. The taxpayer was paying my salary and the taxpayer had full access to all the knowledge which I discovered. It was published openly in all the scientific journals without let or hindrance.


Senator Panizza —Did you pay your way?


Senator COULTER —I hope I did, but that is left in the hands of the scientists to determine. I hope that Senator Panizza and Senator Brownhill know that when one writes a scientific paper it has to be assessed by one's peers. It does not get published if it is not of sufficient quality. If we look at the papers that people have published—more particularly, if we look at the science citation index, which lists the number of times other scientists refer to the work that one has published—we get a direct measure of the value of that work. That clearly is adding to the totality of human knowledge on which all the applications of that science are built.

  The fact also is that, irrespective of whether the research is paid for by private companies or by `government' out of taxation, it is money which comes from the community. It comes through private sources because the private companies are able to charge more than the value of the production of whatever it is they sell. That, in a sense, `private taxation' then is ploughed back into research. But the money comes from the community.

  Similarly, if the research is paid for by way of government funded research work in universities or in CSIRO—although there are decreasing amounts going to CSIRO, since the government is cutting its funding—the money still comes from the community, and the results should go back to the community. They should be in the public domain as public information, publicly paid for, publicly owned, publicly available and for the benefit of the public broadly. That is really what science should be about. The point I am making is that this legislation, along with several other pieces of legislation that we have passed through this place, is undermining in a very fundamental way the progress of science itself.

  We have already attempted to take up two other aspects of this legislation and have them referred to the Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs because, in my view, there is serious doubt as to whether this piece of legislation falls foul of various undertakings which this government has entered into by way of the native title legislation. I do not want to proceed with this debate very far.


Senator Brownhill —Come on! You don't believe in retrospective legislation, do you?


Senator COULTER —The point is simply that the native title legislation says that the only way a native title can be undone is within the terms of that legislation itself. In my view, a good case has been put—although the Senate clearly is not accepting this—that this legislation may well undermine, and therefore deny, native title. I am simply making the point that in my view and in the view of the Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills legal advice there was substance to that argument. I think there is danger in passing legislation which may be in conflict with legislation which has already been passed. Linked with that is the danger associated with the international convention on biodiversity, which is also a legal requirement that has been placed by this government on itself.

  Senator Tambling dealt with a couple of other aspects of this legislation, some of the more technical details of which I would like to pick up. One of them is to do with the rights of farmers to retain seed on their farm. When we get to the committee stage of this legislation we will be moving an amendment to remove from the legislation the serious potential impediments which we see to farmers retaining that right. We believe that farmers being able to retain seed from previous crops for the planting of the current crop is a time-honoured tradition and that that should not be tampered with in any way. To place the demands of those who claim these plant breeder's rights above the right of the farmer who is actually producing food and fibre for the nation seems to me to be going down an extremely dangerous road.

  Linked with that, another danger that one sees is the gradual narrowing of the genetic base of the crops which we grow. It seems to me that herein lies another very considerable danger of this legislation. Once the exclusive ownership of the plant base of our agricultural production extends to only a few companies—and I believe it will become a monopoly or an oligopoly situation very rapidly—we are very much in danger of that genetic base being manipulated in such a way that it becomes narrower and narrower. We are very much in danger then of losing the variability to modify our crops as we need to, as the environment itself changes over time, particularly with respect to plant diseases.

  Australia has been extremely well served—I hope Senator Brownhill will agree with me—over many decades by organisations such as the CSIRO and the Waite Institute in South Australia carrying out research on various crop varieties and producing the varieties of wheat, barley, maize, cotton and so on which Australian farmers need. This research was in the public domain: it was publicly paid for; the information was publicly available; and the seeds and products of that research were easily and without great expense made available to the farmers of Australia. I believe that is the way that this process should continue. I do not believe that the process of giving these rights exclusively to individuals, which in my view will rapidly become monopoly ownership and oligopoly ownership, is the way we will produce any better varieties, or any more varieties, or any cheaper varieties, than we have in the past.

  Linked with this is the fact that many of these monopolies and oligopolies will also be the large agribusiness companies that also produce agricultural chemicals. It is quite conceivable that, rather than develop a strain of wheat which is resistant to a particular disease, these companies may develop strains of wheat which can be made more tolerant of, say, higher doses of pesticides which are made by particular companies as a way of controlling weed infestation in those crops. That way, companies get a double bonus. Not only do they sell the seed for the crop, but they can also then sell the pesticide—the chemical which goes on to kill the competing weeds.


Senator Panizza —No! That's drawing a long bow.


Senator COULTER —For Senator Panizza to imply through his grumbling interjection that this sort of research will be directed in the best interests of the community and not in the best commercial interests—the profitable interests—of these large companies is naive in the extreme. I think we have enough information in relation to the behaviour of these large companies to know that they are very much motivated by maximising profit and that they will direct their research in ways which are not necessarily in the best interests of the public but in the best interests of maximising their profit. It is for those practical reasons that I think this legislation is totally unacceptable and should not pass through the Senate.

  I return to the point with which I began: if there is anything at all which members of parliament should regard as sacred—I use that word advisedly—it is the very building blocks of life itself. It seems to me the ultimate act of prostitution to take those building blocks of life and make them exclusively ownable, patentable and commercially exploitable by individuals against the interests of the whole community. I believe that any legislation of this sort, whether it deals with plants, viruses, bacteria or animals is ultimately tampering with human genomes; there is basically no difference. (Time expired)