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Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee

BARROW, Dr Stuart, Senior Policy Analyst, Australian Academy of Science

HIGGINS, Dr Thomas Joseph, Fellow, Australian Academy of Science


CHAIR: Welcome. Thank you for taking the time to give evidence to the committee today. Information about parliamentary privilege has been provided to you and is available on the website. The committee has received the academy's submission as submission No. 75. Do you wish to make any corrections to your submission before you begin? It's not a trick question—we're not suggesting there are!

Dr Higgins : No.

CHAIR: Thank you. Would you like to make a brief opening statement before we go to questions?

Dr Higgins : Thank you, Chair. We'd like to make a few comments. Thank you very much to you and the committee for inviting us to provide evidence here today. The academy is a strong advocate for protections for scientists and for science, and obviously we're not in favour of criminal trespass or property offences on scientific facilities, and we take a dim view of people advocating such.

We were invited to provide comment on whether the draft legislation provides sufficient protection to agricultural research facilities. We would have to say that, as drafted, it doesn't include such facilities, unless a facility happens to be present on a primary production facility. The legislation is focused on commercial facilities. It could be seen to include some CSIRO and rural research and development corporation research staff who are working with farmers to improve crops, farming practices, animals and aquaculture, which of course can often be part of agriculture research. It wouldn't necessarily include things like research greenhouses or trial sites for animals or crops. They are separate facilities. For example, the first thing that comes to mind when we are talking about the protection of scientific facilities from trespass and vandalism is the attack on a CSIRO trial wheat crop by activists in 2011. Apart from the fact that the action in question was obviously illegal—and the perpetrators were in fact charged—it is hard to see how that incident would fall under the present bill. It took place on Crown land and, while there has been a lot of aggressive rhetoric about GMOs in the past, I don't know that there was any specific incitement incident associated with this.

In our submission we said that, if the parliament's intention is to protect agricultural research facilities, the bill doesn't actually meet this need. There would need to be specific provisions covering research facilities if this is necessary. We haven't expressed an opinion on whether such protections are necessary. The present Criminal Code appears to protect scientific facilities from vandalism and trespass in a general sense, and that also includes incitement. Thank you for the opportunity to appear here today.

Senator KIM CARR: Thank you very much for appearing today. I am extremely disappointed that the CSIRO has failed to attend today given the circumstances surrounding the CSIRO facilities that have been referred to. There is a range of agricultural research that is undertaken which is not solely the domain of the CSIRO. Is it the case that agricultural research is undertaken by the research development corporations, by the CRCs, by universities and even by private industry?

Dr Higgins : That is correct. I did mention the rural R&D corporations but it is also true, as you say, that other organisations such as the universities and departments of agriculture would frequently do some of their research on properties that would come under this legislation as part of the research activities.

Senator KIM CARR: Yes, that's right. Would agriculture be done on private land?

Dr Higgins : It would, yes. That's what I really mean: it will be done on farmers' properties as part of the research activities; it's in the field.

Senator KIM CARR: Do you have any sense of how many R&D scientists would be involved in agricultural R&D?

Dr Higgins : I would have to take that question on notice. It's a large number but I don't know it specifically.

Senator KIM CARR: Thank you. You were part of the national committee that produced a decadal plan for Australian agricultural sciences in 2017?

Dr Higgins : I was, yes.

Senator KIM CARR: Did the plan identify any particular need to be established in this area?

Dr Higgins : No, it did not.

Senator KIM CARR: Was it because this matter did not come up?

Dr Higgins : This matter did not come up.

Senator KIM CARR: It wasn't a pertinent issue as such?

Dr Higgins : No.

Senator KIM CARR: Having said that, though, now that this matter is before it is there any reason why research should not be included in any provisions to protect facilities?

Dr Higgins : If it wasn't covered by the Criminal Code as it is now, yes. But it's my feeling that the Criminal Code does in fact self-protect facilities from vandalism.

Senator KIM CARR: Yes, but that would go to the whole bill, surely—that all of these matters are covered by the Criminal Code in terms of state jurisdiction? Is that correct—all of these matters of trespass?

Dr Barrow : I have to say that was my feeling on reading the bill. I'm not a legal expert or anything, but that was my understanding.

Senator KIM CARR: Yes, state and territory criminal law covers issues in regard to offences involving trespass and even questions of inciting people to trespass. That's all covered by existing legislation and enforcement at the state and territory level.

Dr Barrow : Yes.

Senator KIM CARR: When the CSIRO facilities were subject to invasion, that was prosecuted under Commonwealth law, was it? Do you recall?

Dr Higgins : I don't know the answer to that. We can find out.

Senator KIM CARR: My recollection is that it was, as a criminal matter. There was, in fact, provision under the Criminal Code at the time for damage to Commonwealth property. That doesn't seem to be covered at the moment, but it was actually under the Criminal Code at that time.

Dr Barrow : Sorry, when you say it's not covered at the moment, do you mean under the present bill?

Senator KIM CARR: Obviously not in this bill but under other provisions that do cover such matters. It goes to the general point as to whether or not it's necessary, but, if it is deemed to be the case that it's necessary to protect agricultural facilities, my point is: why wouldn't you include the scientific facilities as well? That's my first point. My second point would be about facilities on public land: should they be included, or just facilities on private land?

Dr Barrow : I can't really express an opinion.

Senator KIM CARR: This bill specifically identifies those facilities—farms, abattoirs and the like—on private land, not public land.

Dr Barrow : That's my understanding.

Senator KIM CARR: Yes. Agricultural facilities like ANSTO's facility are on public land. It does controversial research. It's not covered by this in any respect. It does work that is of importance to agricultural communities—agricultural research. It's not covered by this in any way. Would you agree?

Dr Higgins : I think I would agree, yes.

Senator KIM CARR: So I'm interested to know whether or not there have been examples where any other agricultural facilities have been damaged in any way that you're aware of.

Dr Higgins : Not in Australia. There have been many examples in the United States and in Europe, again, related to GMOs.

Senator KIM CARR: Can you outline what sorts of facilities those were.

Dr Higgins : They were research facilities—animal houses and plant glasshouses. They were all research organisations, and some of those were very serious.

Senator KIM CARR: Can you outline examples of those, even on notice, if it's possible.

Dr Higgins : I'd like to give it on notice if possible.

Senator KIM CARR: Yes.

Dr Higgins : But it did involve people losing their lives.

Senator KIM CARR: Research scientists?

Dr Higgins : Yes.

Senator KIM CARR: Can you recall any of the circumstances involving that?

Dr Higgins : I'd like to provide that information—

Senator KIM CARR: You can take that on notice as well. Thank you. This bill talks about the incitement issue. My recollection in regard to the CSIRO side is that there was incitement in that, and I was the minister at the time, so I take a particular interest in this matter. But there was a view taken by those who did this action that this was an appropriate thing to do because the CSIRO had undertaken this research for some time and it was unethical. Can you foresee a circumstance where incitement might be involved where people argue a case that scientific research should not be undertaken in certain agricultural fields?

Dr Barrow : I think you can argue the case. My position would be that the actual vandalism is the crime, I guess, in this case. We're in favour of free and open debate. A lot of these things are open for public discussion. I think the step from this research shouldn't be carried out to actively sabotaging it. That is the matter at issue. We're not in favour of that, but I don't know—

Senator KIM CARR: That's an important distinction—the right of people to argue a case, including the right to argue that the research should not be done, and distinguishing that from actually knocking about scientific facilities. Is that the position that the academy would take?

Dr Barrow : Yes, I think so.

Senator KIM CARR: And is there, in your view, a question about freedom of expression raised then by this bill which seeks to penalise the argument around so-called incitement?

Dr Barrow : I don't think we have a formal position on this bill. I think, in general, we're in favour of free and open expression. Freedom of speech is absolutely essential to those scientific enterprises, and we would likely come down in favour of free expression.

Senator KIM CARR: And you're prepared to argue the case out on nanotechnology, GM products, radiopharmaceuticals or any of the other branches of research? Soil science, genetics—these are matters that are commonplace within the scientific community, all subject to considerable public debate.

Dr Barrow : Yes, absolutely, and I don't see a problem with that.

Senator KIM CARR: That's the point I'm trying to make. Is there a legitimate role for public debate on these matters; and should people be stopped from arguing the case about those matters?

Dr Higgins : I would say no. We should have an open debate about these things. We have had in the case of the GMOs for about 30 years, and, mostly, it hasn't resulted in any major problems, with the one exception that we've talked about.

Senator KIM CARR: You've not put in a written submission. Would it be possible for the academy to actually look at the bill and see what needs to be done in your judgement—take this on notice—to improve the bill with regard to scientific research facilities on both public and private land?

Dr Barrow : Sorry, could you repeat that?

Senator KIM CARR: Yes. What in your view—the academy's view—needs to be done to improve the position with regard to research facilities on public and private land in relation to this bill? That's assuming that you support the bill's passage at all upon closer examination.

Dr Barrow : I can take that on notice; I'd have to discuss that.

Senator KIM CARR: Thank you very much.

Dr Barrow : Senator, I would say that this is somehow out of our area of expertise.

Senator KIM CARR: You have a few fellows there, I think, that know something about it.

Dr Barrow : Yes, we can come up with an answer.

Senator KIM CARR: I'm sure you can—that's why you're taking it on notice.

Dr Barrow : Yes.

CHAIR: Thank you very much, and we thank you for making the time to come and submit to us today.

Dr Higgins : Thank you for giving us the opportunity.

CHAIR: The committee will now suspend while we organise the next round of witnesses. Thank you.

Committee suspended 13:52 to 14:10