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Tuesday, 3 December 2002
Page: 7022

Senator STOTT DESPOJA (4:42 PM) —Like Senator Brown, I will reiterate my comments from last night, with a few additional comments inspired by Senator Brown's contribution. For the benefit of the chamber and the community, I have indicated that the preference of the Australian Democrats is for the stem cell bank amendment, standing in my name and that of Senator McLucas—the same amendment that was successfully passed when we debated the legislation in relation to the prohibition of human cloning.

There are a couple of issues that I want to put on the record in addition to those that were raised last night. There has been a suggestion—and I hope that Senator Brown does not mean this as a reflection—that moving this amendment is in some way a recipe for ensuring that it will not happen. When I move or support amendments in this place, I do so believing that they will happen, specifically in relation to science; I take that area particularly seriously. With regard to the amendments that I have moved in relation to law, including private member's bills over the last seven years as science spokesperson for the Democrats, I have moved them with the belief that they should happen. I am not quite sure why there is a sense among some senators in the chamber that an inquiry will not necessarily result in a recommendation and an outcome.

Certainly I would not be very happy, and I do not think many other senators who supported the amendment moved in my name and that of Senator McLucas would be very happy, if the inquiry amendment was not acted upon. It will depend on the recommendations of the inquiry as to whether it is a stem cell bank or another mechanism. That is the point that I have made before. The previous speaker is right in saying that this is complex. Scientific debates in this place and in the community generally are complex. The nature of legislation is, of course, often reactive. The nature of science is, by definition, innovative. It is very hard for us to keep up with some of the changes that take place, especially when it comes to research and invention.

I am not suggesting that there is no role for parliament—quite the opposite. I am a strong believer in regulation of these areas but I also want to make sure we get it right. I think it is really important to remember that the legislation that we are debating is different from that of the UK and other parts of the world. We have seen other examples from Singapore, Taiwan, Israel et cetera. We have a different legislative mechanism, a uniquely Australian one, which we are debating at the moment. It is much more conservative than the UK legislation and I think that is a really important point to remember too.

I have a question for Senator Nettle, who has moved this amendment in good faith—I recognise that and I recognise the idea behind that. I am just wondering about the funding of the stem cell bank proposal. Senator Nettle, I presume you recognise that the funding arrangement in the UK is 2.6 million, as I understand it. That is not `easy'.

Senator Patterson —That is difficult.

Senator STOTT DESPOJA —I am not suggesting that we should not find the money to come up with an appropriate regulatory mechanism—because we should do that and we have to do that—but is an institution comparable to the one in the UK what we want in Australia? We may want that, and that is why Senator McLucas and I have put forward an amendment to ensure an inquiry into just that issue.

I think senators have touched on broader issues here. I will not go into the debate concerning the intellectual property environment again, but there is clearly a need for broader investigation of the issue of intellectual property patents in relation to this current and emerging technology—hence the successful second reading amendment moved in my name on behalf of Democrats in relation to these broader matters. I am not suggesting we duck this issue; I am not suggesting that we postpone it. What I am suggesting is that we do it correctly, and I think there is majority support for that. I really do not want this to be misrepresented as an unwillingness to either debate or safeguard intellectual property. Of course we should be guarding against misuse by multinationals, greedy pharmaceutical companies or whatever the stereotypes may be. I actually think the issues are a little more diverse than that.

Before we just pick up something from the UK, we should remember that their legislation and their debates on these issues pre-empted ours by many years, in much the same way that other jurisdictions in the world were on top of some of these issues long before we were. But now we have a piece of legislation. I do not want supporters of the legislation to be described simply as unqualified supporters. I am a qualified supporter of this legislation. I think the COAG agreement and the Prime Minister, on behalf of the government, have got it just about right. If I could, I would tweak a few things here and I would radically change a few things there, but I recognise that that is not going to be within the scope of this debate.

I also recognise that changes in relation to science and science law happen slowly— sometimes too slowly. Last night I used the genetic privacy example as one where, yes, there had been an inquiry. I think that was appropriate, because it has highlighted the fact that maybe you do not simply amend the Privacy Act in relation to that issue. Maybe you look at disability discrimination law. Maybe you look at human rights and equal opportunity law. I think this is another example where we are going to be looking at patents, at this legislation and of course at the Prohibition of Human Cloning Bill 2002.

Once again, on behalf of my party, I reiterate our support for the notion of and the investigation into the applicability of a stem cell bank. As I say, I do not want this to be misconstrued as a lack of support for the protection of the rights of the community as well as the rights of scientists and researchers, who, as I think we all would recognise, in the majority of cases do work that is not just for a personal or `financial pecuniary interest', to utilise the terminology of last night. This is a common good debate. To ensure that the common good is protected, let us investigate these issues. Just because we have seen the example of a stem cell bank from one jurisdiction that has very different legislation from the bill that we are debating—

Senator Patterson —It's not a federation either.

Senator STOTT DESPOJA —It is not a federation. I recognise that state and territory jurisdictional issues have to be investigated. So I think that is why Senator McLucas has got it right, certainly in our committee report and in our amendment. Time lines are important, and ascribing time lines to the government is important. Indeed, as I said last night to Senator Brown, if this debate is about postponing the issuing of licences or if it is about the time line—because that would be a consequence of this issue, and I understand that it might have broad-ranging consequences not simply in relation to stem lines but also in relation to ART—then let us talk about the time line.

In terms of the UK model of the stem cell bank, I would like to see whether there is an Australian equivalent or an even better solution. I would like to see that take place in a broader debate about the intellectual property framework that guards scientific invention and in particular scientific research in what is a fascinating, interesting and undoubtedly controversial area, as we have seen during the debate on this legislation over the last couple of weeks. So our preference is not for a quick fix, ad hoc solution that we believe has not been investigated thoroughly. It certainly has not been investigated in the same way as in the House of Lords inquiry, which had comprehensive investigations and thus comprehensive recommendations into these issues.

It is certainly a very different scientific environment and economy here. In respect of the idea of 2.6 million, the other thing is the overseeing role, which in the UK is the responsibility of the MRC, the Medical Research Council. I do not think these issues have been fully explored. We touched on some of these ideas in the report of the Senate committee inquiry—certainly Senator McLucas and I did that in the committee inquiry. I suggest that the other people who were involved in that committee inquiry are aware of these issues as well, regardless of differing views. It is an idea that warrants investigation, but I do not think a couple of hours of debate in the Senate is sufficient to set up this overarching institution. I think there are other ways of going about this— thus the suggested inquiry into the applicability of a stem cell bank.