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Thursday, 5 December 2002
Page: 7247

Senator MARK BISHOP (10:52 AM) —I move amendment (6) on sheet 2689:

(6) Clause 31, page 23 (line 20), at the end of the definition of eligible person, add:

; or (f) a responsible person, as defined under section 8 of this Act; or

(g) any other person who is acting in the public interest.

Pursuant to clauses 31 and 32 of the Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002, rights are granted to seek review of decisions of the NHMRC Licensing Committee. Clause 31 lists those eligible persons who have standing to seek review. Clause 32 presently allows licence applicants and licence holders to seek review of the decisions listed in clause 32. This amendment seeks to make it clear that, as well as applicants for licences and licence holders, any other interested party should have standing to appeal decisions of the NHMRC Licensing Committee, including present or former owners of embryos, interest groups and members of the public at large acting in the public interest.

There are two basic arguments as to why you would have such an admittedly extensive review or list of persons who might be given appeal rights. Firstly, it is one of inclusion and equity and, secondly, it is an issue of transparency and accountability. In the discussion on this debate a range of allegations have been made as to the bona fides, the activities or the appropriateness of a range of commercial organisations, the role of the NHMRC itself, the role of the AHEC and the role of government agencies. There has been considerable questioning as to the bona fides of many of those organisations, let alone organisations involved in universities in the private sector who seek to make commercial gain from the research activities and opportunities that derive from that.

One of the best ways to put that whole debate in context—in balance—is to have full disclosure and full accountability, full transparency of activities, the reasons for licences being granted and the reasons for licences being rejected. Those who have a commercial interest, an ethical interest, a matter which is of interest to the public at large—or any other interest that has some substance perhaps worthy of articulation—should be allowed, when they feel aggrieved, to participate and to exercise rights in the appeal procedure through to the AAT. That process of discussion, of disclosure of information, of exercising rights, of putting arguments will, in the final analysis, be the catalyst that resolves competing interests and competing differences that have emerged in this debate.

Some would suggest, in response, that the amendment is framed too widely and that the process of appeal of review, as a consequence, would be too long or too time consuming. My response to that in anticipation is simply that a wide list of applicants who can seek reviews of the licensing committee decision will see, over time, full information being put on the public record—not allegations or aspersions or a range of conspiracy theories. Full information results in full disclosure, and full disclosure results in full and open debate, and eventual and final resolution of conflicting arguments. That is a proposition which I have long held to. It is better to have the debate open and out there; people can put their point of view, issues can be discussed and resolved, and the community and those who have interests can move on.

Secondly, the argument will be put that if the list of applicants seeking review rights is too wide or too long it will be too time consuming and hence costly to the public purse as a range of people manufacture arguments to put a case who really have no interest in or role to play outside that of licence holders, aggrieved applicants, embryo owners or a range of ethnical groups. My simple response to that is that the rules of the AAT, as indeed for nearly all administrative law agencies, contain provisions that applications that are vexatious, litigious or frivolous can be dismissed ab initio—they can be dismissed at any time of proceedings. If any individual or group sought to engage in recurring conduct contrary to the spirit implicit in appeal rights being given or granted to aggrieved parties to the AAT, eventually that tribunal would exercise the rule or the powers that it has been given to dismiss—and properly so—such applications. I commend the amendment before the chamber.