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Wednesday, 13 November 2002
Page: 6278

Senator MARK BISHOP (6:23 PM) —I move amendment (1) on sheet 2690:

(1) Division 1, page 14 (line 4) to page 15 (line 3), omit the Division, substitute:

Division 1—Review of Act

25 Review of operation of Act

(1) As soon as practicable after the second anniversary of the day on which this Act received the Royal Assent, a joint committee of members of the Parliament, to be known as the Parliamentary Joint Committee into Research Involving Human Embryos, must be appointed to review the operation of this Act.

(2) The Parliamentary Joint Committee must consist of 12 members of whom:

(a) 6 must be senators appointed by the Senate; and

(b) 6 must be members of the House of Representatives appointed by that House.

(3) The appointment of members by a House must be in accordance with that House's practice relating to the appointment of members of that House to serve on joint select committees of both Houses.

(4) A person is not eligible for appointment as a member if he or she is:

(a) a Minister; or

(b) the President of the Senate; or

(c) the Speaker of the House of Representatives; or

(d) the Deputy President and Chairman of Committees of the Senate; or

(e) the Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Committees of the House of Representatives.

(5) A member ceases to hold office:

(a) when the House of Representatives expires or is dissolved; or

(b) if he or she becomes the holder of an office referred to in a paragraph of subsection (4); or

(c) if he or she ceases to be a member of the House by which he or she was appointed; or

(d) if he or she resigns his or her office as provided by subsection (6) or (7), as the case requires.

(6) A member appointed by the Senate may resign his or her office by writing signed and delivered to the President of the Senate.

(7) A member appointed by the House of Representatives may resign his or her office by writing signed and delivered to the Speaker of that House.

(8) A House may appoint one of its members to fill a vacancy among the members of the Parliamentary Joint Committee appointed by that House.

(9) The review must be completed within 3 years.

(10) The Parliamentary Joint Committee in undertaking the review must consider and report on the scope and operation of this Act and such matters as may be referred to it by either House of Parliament.

(11) The report must contain recommendations about amendments (if any) that should be made to this Act.

The bill provides, pursuant to clause 25, that the minister must cause an independent review of the operation of this act undertaken by persons chosen by the minister with the agreement of each state. By way of introduction, I observe that there are no requirements for the review to be public, to seek submissions, to engage in debate or to take account of evidence submitted to it. The bill requires that the review process consult only the Commonwealth and the states and persons with expertise in or experience of relevant disciplines. This, of course, does not cover the broad spectrum of interested parties who have participated in this debate to date.

The object of the legislation is `to address concerns including ethical concerns'. I would suggest that cannot be realised by a review which has no-one representing those perspectives and which has no requirement to consult regarding ethical concerns. Furthermore, clause 25(3) requires that the independent review is to report to COAG. Given that the report will consider and report on the operation of an act of the Commonwealth parliament, it is appropriate a review report to the Commonwealth parliament and not to COAG.

The effect of the amendment circulated in my name is that it will replace the independent review with a review of a joint committee of the parliament. I submit that it is appropriate that a parliamentary committee review the operation of its own act because there are serious ethical issues that this review needs to take into account. Not only are members of parliament appropriate representatives of community concerns but it is appropriate that legislators have a role in the review of contentious legislation such as this. Just developing that argument in somewhat more detail, as I said, the bill provides for an independent review and a written report to COAG. The review has to have regard only to a limited number of matters, a limited range of possible amendments and has to consult with a limited range of persons. So generally, I would suggest that that review, when acted upon, is not going to be open, accountable or responsible and it will be neither wide nor broad.

Specifically, I would make the point to the chamber that there are within this industry— for want of a better description—a limited number of experts with expertise in the field. Those experts are scientists, university professors, medical researchers but in total—as it became clear in the evidence to the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee inquiring into the bill, which is the subject of discussion today—there are a limited number of persons involved in this industry and a limited number of people with expertise. The indications are that there is a limited pool from which to draw upon.

We suggest that the review, occasioned by the provision of the bill, will have no regard to ethical considerations and no regard to the activities of licensed entities that might be granted a licence to engage in activity pursuant to this bill. It was quite apparent at the Senate committee that there are a range of participants from the community and a range of speakers who have quite significant interests in this bill and quite significant interests in further scientific research in this field of endeavour. That necessarily leads one to ask: are there vested interests and is there potential for conflict of interest? The sums of money that have been indicated will be granted by the Commonwealth to particular private corporations who might be engaged in research in this field—something in the order of a minimum of $45 million—are huge sums indeed.

Therefore, I would suggest that the activities of those corporations that are engaging in research are properly the subject of investigation and ongoing review by the Commonwealth and by a committee of the Commonwealth parliament, simply because the Commonwealth parliament is allocating tens of millions of dollars to those corporations. If the Commonwealth were not allocating funds and were simply giving a licence to entities to engage in research, there may well be an argument that they are private corporations, or public corporations, and it is their money, their capital—and how they expend their funds is their business. But when the Commonwealth allocates tens of millions of dollars, I would submit that it is appropriate for the Commonwealth to have an ongoing interest, and an appropriate vehicle for that interest to be demonstrated is via a committee of this parliament.

My next specific point is that the independent review to be established by this legislation does not have to have any regard to the views of the public. It is clear from what has been going on in this chamber over the past two or three days, from the range of interest groups and individuals who took the trouble to write to the Senate committee or to give evidence, that there is a range of perspectives in this debate and a range of opinions being expressed. A simple reading of the speeches in the second reading debate from all sides of the parliament will show that speakers go right from the beginning of the continuum to the end in their views.

Sitting suspended from 6.30 p.m. to 7.30 p.m.

Senator MARK BISHOP —Prior to the break I was providing some reasons for seeking to change the review provision as contained in the Prohibition of Human Cloning Bill and I addressed some general considerations and then was attempting to make some more specific comments. Continuing in that vein, I now want to make the point that in the terms of reference of the independent committee of review there is no instruction or admonishment to have regard to views of the public. Those individuals who are to be consulted are a relatively narrow group of persons, state governments and the like. But there is no requirement to have any contact or consultation with the public.

It is clear from the contributions to the Senate legislation committee and it is clear from the contributions by various persons in this chamber that there is a wide range of divergent viewpoints on a lot of the issues associated with both cloning and the use of embryos. It is fair to comment that the views expressed by various senators across the board have reflected those divergent views or have picked up the arguments and accepted them and then repeated them here.

My concern is that when the review process is undergone there is no mandatory requirement to seek the views of others outside that narrow group of persons mentioned in clause 25. There is no regard for the interests of church or community groups. There are clearly divided ethical and scientific attitudes. There is no regard for the views of individual members of the public or for them to have the opportunity to make comment. There is no requirement to have regard for public submissions. There is no requirement to seek public submissions. There is no requirement to inquire what the public thinks, and there is no requirement to seek to disclose or publish the views of members of the public or community groups.

Any submissions made are not open to query or testing or challenge, and it strikes me that it is almost an obscene process to enter into because it is only through questioning, challenging, testing, engaging in discussion and debate that what truth there is in this discussion can be arrived at. It is one thing for a group of reputable scientists on either side of the debate to put a particular view to a closed inquiry—albeit it an inquiry characterised as independent—but if their views cannot be examined, if they cannot be called into the dock and asked questions, if they cannot be tested by another group of experts, where is the worth in that? What satisfaction can be demonstrated that the process has been open and proper? So that is the criticism: there is no respect and no requirement to consult with members of the community, members of the public.

My next criticism goes to the role of the NHMRC. It has been created under statute. It is an agency of the Commonwealth. It has great powers. More importantly, it has in this debate the ability to allow the creation of great wealth. Those companies that might be granted licences to engage in research and then engage in trade and commercial development of findings they might make have the potential to create great wealth. We are told that, if the commercial development of findings in the areas of rare and debilitating diseases or body parts transfer or growth of new organs should come to pass, those corporations who hold that interest are going to have great earning capacity and great wealth will go to them. So the NHMRC, in granting a licence, has the power to allocate work and the power to allocate the potential creation of great wealth. It strikes me as odd that, if the NHMRC is the licensing body that grants that authority to particular corporations or companies, it should be in any way involved in, or responsible for, or in charge of, the activities of that review committee.

I know that in this cloning bill the NHMRC is not particularly identified or singled out as having charge of that. In the embryo bill, for discussion later this evening, the NHMRC is singled out as being in charge of that. I do not say that the NHMRC is in any way wrong in its activities, motivated badly, or malevolent in its deliberations. But, like any other organisation, it is capable of industry capture. It articulates and reflects the views of those persons who participate within its deliberations.

I would submit that the way to overcome a range of the problems I have identified is to have a parliamentary committee engaging in the review of the act. Clearly, it would be open and accountable. Those who chose to give evidence after being requested to do so would be open to challenge. They would be able to put forward their arguments. More importantly, it is an avenue for the resolution of conflict. It is a vehicle whereby ideas can be tested, challenged and resolved. It would in that way bring together the various interest groups—whether they are scientific, university, private corporations, church groups or individuals—and allow them to come and put their case, present their argument and be tested through the court of public opinion of a parliamentary committee, which is much more aware of and relates to what community values or views might be.

In the final analysis, such a process or such a committee aids the development of science and research because it offers a protection that the arguments or the ethics that guide scientists are being used properly. I will not go through the arguments again. I suggest that the review provision contained in the bill is deficient for the reasons outlined and the purposes to be achieved by that review committee can better be achieved by the establishment of a standing committee of this parliament to engage in that activity.