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Wednesday, 4 December 2002
Page: 7188

Senator JACINTA COLLINS (5:41 PM) —Perhaps I should take this moment, if the minister has managed to attract the attention of people watching this debate, to respond to a few of those issues, because I think that they deserve a response now. The minister says that she is not clear on what is meant by `unmodified', yet that was the evidence that we received in the committee as to how the European model works. So I am a bit confused about why she is not aware of what seems to be a clear history of dealing with `unmodified' versus `value adding' or developments in relation to the stem cell lines themselves.

Moving on to other issues, the other day we covered the issue of the distinction between adult stem cells versus embryonic stem cells. The difference—and why many of us believe that we need to be very careful about what commercial interests we involve in relation to embryonic stem cells—is the simple fact that to create them involves the destruction of human embryos. If you have the ethical position that you want to restrict how many of these embryos are destroyed to create stem cells, you seek to limit the commercial interests to create more. That is the issue. If you have, as COAG told us, a strict regulatory regime, you do not leave dealing with this issue for `ron' when you might hear the result of an ALRC review. You do not wait that long; you have something in place that will prevent the horse from bolting now.

Senator Patterson, I have not claimed that what you refer to as my `ad hoc process' is perfect. I have sought to draw on the experience that has occurred elsewhere in the world, and the principal areas that we can rely on are Europe and the UK. The proposal that we look at a stem cell bank has arisen from the UK experience. Senator Stott Despoja and others have raised many valid issues about why we should not necessarily go straight down that path now in the form that they have and that it would benefit us significantly to see how it has operated in the UK. With respect to the European experience, we have a reasonably straightforward way of at least introducing some constraint in this area.

While Senator Patterson says that it is ad hoc and that it should not be in this legislation, and a variety of other excuses, we already know that if the Prime Minister is serious about an issue he can give us a commitment that he will deal with it in another area. If that is really the only stumbling block then the Prime Minister will say, `We'll deal with it through customs regulations, for instance, in that case.' So the message that the Senate clearly gets from your contribution is that we are happy to leave the horse unbolted; we are happy to let the horse out.

You may say to us that establishing this review is significant and should impact on other senator's minds but, with respect, Senator, when will the result of that review happen? I do not think that you gave the Senate the benefit of the advice of how quickly that review will occur and when we might have the recommendations of it. But if it is not within the six-month period, then the horse will bolt. It is as simple and as straightforward as that.

One of your claims was that a licence holder could simply pass the stem cells on to somebody else who could seek a patent. That is why we have the word `associate' in the amendment. We are saying `a licence holder or an associate'. A licence holder is not going to pass these stem cell lines on to somebody else if they risk losing their licence. You did raise one valid issue in relation to what could happen once the research has been concluded and a licence is no longer necessary, but the point of the matter is that there is—as you referred to it, and I am glad that you reminded me—the sunset clause here. The sunset clause will mean that this restriction will not apply once an appropriate regime is established and in place.

Maybe I am being far too optimistic here. But I would hope, given the nature of research in this field, given how long it is going to take for the licensing arrangements to get up and into operation, given a myriad of other factors, that the government would get its act together on the alternative regime before research projects are being licensed, concluded and then traded. Seriously, Minister, if we are waiting that long then maybe we should have something far more significant here. Perhaps you are suggesting to all senators listening that they should really be favouring Senator Murphy's amendments rather than mine because you are just not serious.

If the government is serious about this review, it will accept that it is important to prevent the horse bolting now and at least establish an appropriate minimum line, which is that the stem cells themselves should not be patented. We have good evidence from Europe that says that there are commercial impacts of allowing that to occur anyway. If you pick up the argument that perhaps it is not going to be meaningless anyway because the patenting regulation would just deal with value itself on top of these stem cells, then your argument about the supposed large commercial impact of doing this is a bit circular. In fact, it is quite circular. On the one hand you cannot argue that there are going to be dire commercial implications of putting this restriction on commercialisation and on the other hand say that the commercial limits involved here are really so significant as to be meaningless. You cannot run both arguments. It is not logically coherent.

I am interested in how other senators respond to this issue but I can only reinforce the point that this is an interim step. Of course it is ad hoc, but the Prime Minister's sunset clause in this bill is ad hoc. There are many other ad hoc provisions in this bill. This amendment seeks to ensure that we are serious about this being a strict regulatory regime. For those senators who accept the ethical position that there is a middle way here but we are still concerned to ensure that human embryos will not be used willy-nilly, this is a way of trying to ensure that commercial interests will not prevail in utilising more embryos than might be necessary.