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Monday, 21 October 2002
Page: 5555

Senator TROETH (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) (9:34 PM) — The fundamental policy intent of the Plant Breeder's Rights Act 1994 is to promote investment in plant innovation, and as such it has bipartisan support. The debate on the Plant Breeder's Rights Amendment Bill 2002 has canvassed a number of matters that are not related, or are only distantly related, to plant breeders rights.

The International Treaty on Plant and Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture is an important issue for Australia. The process of consultation in relation to whether Australia becomes a party to the treaty is in progress, and the matter will be debated in the parliament in due course. Similarly, the approach of this government to gene technology issues is to implement coordinated regulatory and policy responses that address the broad range of issues and interests affected by gene technology; for example, to provide progressive and timely information to farmers to facilitate choice against the background of the time frame that applies to the consideration by the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator of applications for the commercial release of GM canola and the seasonal and cropping cycles followed by farmers.

The amendments proposed by the Democrats are not the subject matter of the bill. In addition, they are not particularly well considered. They fail to recognise that the Plant Breeder's Rights Act represents world's best practice through its basic principles, that the scope of the act is limited, that it coexists with other legislation and that the exercise of PBR rights is regulated by such legislation. In a similar vein, issues of economic loss relating to contamination of non-GM crops are not PBR matters and are appropriately handled within the established principles of common law and the courts.

Appointment to the Plant Breeders Rights Advisory Committee is non-discriminatory and is based on merit. Appropriately qualified and experienced persons from any category are currently eligible to apply for appointment. The government is not willing, at this time, to accept proposals to amend the bill to ensure that membership provides specifically for conservation and Indigenous representation, as this is unnecessary.

To return to the focus of our considerations, continued plant innovation is the key to Australia's international competitiveness in agricultural industries and to higher standards of living. The legislation provides the right environment for promoting technology transfer critical to Australia's access to new plant varieties. Increasing registrations of plant intellectual property confirm that the PBR scheme is performing well and doing the job it was intended to do. The government's amendments do not change the underlying intent of the act and they maintain the balance between public interest considerations and the exclusive rights granted to breeders. They are also consistent with Australia's obligations under the multilateral treaty on which the PBR Act is based—that is, the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants, UPOV 1991.

Overwhelmingly, the amendments are routine administrative improvements promoting access to, and efficient operation of, the PBR scheme. Plant breeders rights is essentially a registration system of the ownership of intellectual property in plant varieties and coexists with other laws of the land; to that extent, it is subject to those laws. For example, if coexisting legislation prevents the export of a particular plant variety, noxious or otherwise, or prohibits the release or use of a GMO plant variety, the PBR grantee is subject to that legislation. The amendments do not change these fundamentals.

The government has explained the uncertainty that exists in relation to the current section 18 of the legislation. Importantly, there is broad support for eliminating the potential for disagreement about the operation of the current section 18. By deleting section 18 of the act, we remove uncertainty, promote investment in plant innovation and better align the act with UPOV 1991. Public interest concerns related to preventing limitations on how propagating material may be used are picked up under section 49, which empowers the minister to set conditions related to existing and proposed PBR grants. There is also general support for a new section 18 clarifying that, in limited public interest circumstances, an innovator's exclusive rights may be restricted, subject to the payment of equitable remuneration. The amendment provides that when other laws of the land restrict the normal exercise of plant breeders rights, and when such legislation authorises a person to do an act that would normally be subject to the plant breeders rights owner's right of disallowance, equitable remuneration must be paid. For example, the amendment will ensure that statutory marketing authorities are able to exercise their legally enforceable rights regarding exports and that plant breeders rights owners will receive remuneration if their rights are restricted as a consequence. This restriction is entirely consistent with public interest considerations and with international best practice, as exemplified in UPOV 1991.

Explanatory material and statements made upon the introduction of bills into parliament relate to the government's policy regarding the future operation of legislation and are intended to promote understanding regarding the policy intent of proposed new legislation and the rationale for proposals. In explaining its policy to resolve any uncertainty in respect of the act's operation, the government's concern is to ensure that the future operation of the act accords with the policy that underpins it. Needless to say, the government does not expect to effect the course of any litigation pending or in progress.

The proposed amendments have been through a long gestation period, reflecting the extensive consultation that has taken place. I am pleased to confirm that there is very broad support for the amendments. That support underpins the intent of the legislation, which I repeat is to promote investment in plant innovation. All Australians will share in the benefits of such innovation. I commend this bill to the Senate.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.