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Wednesday, 31 March 1999
Page: 4918


Dr NELSON (7:14 PM) —I, firstly, would like to say that I did not take the opportunity to procure a viewing of the film Lolita . I had read in the press that it could be hostile to my personal development, so I chose not to see it.

Early this decade, I recall being taken aback when John Bendall, who was then the headmaster of the Hutchins School in Hobart, told the parents who were assembled for the annual prize giving night that their lives and those of their children were about to change. `Change,' he said, `would be as significant as it would be irrevocable. The Internet would be a practical application of Star Wars technology and it would enable young people to access information instantly from all around the world. Much of it would be of enormous benefit to them, but some of it—pornography, gambling and drugs—would be of great concern to parents anxious to screen the material to which their children might be exposed.'

He went on to say that their children would be communicating with one another via the Internet and would rarely, if ever, actually have to go out of their rooms to do so and their parents would have little or no control over what they would be doing. Whatever the problems that we might envisage with the Internet, he warned, the reality was that we were on the verge of great change. We now stand on the threshold of another revolution, the impact of which has the potential to unlock our understanding of life itself.

Genomics represents the third global technological revolution. The first was the Industrial Revolution in the latter part of the 19th century. The second is the revolution in information technology, which has come about in the last third of this century, yet still remains beyond the understanding and reach of the poor and functionally illiterate. When scientists late last year completed their genetic mapping of the nematode, a tiny worm, they also heralded what is likely to ultimately form the basis for a complete knowledge of human genetics and cell biology. Debate about genetically modified food is but a precursor for what actually lies ahead.

Again, science is outstripping the capacity of society to debate serious ethical issues. The genetic genie is now out of the bottle and will never be put back. In fact, understanding this biological jigsaw improves our understanding of the basis of humanity itself. It may finally mean a cure, if not prevention, of diseases and disorders such as cystic fibrosis, diabetes, dementia, autism, spina bifida and any one of a number of diseases which affect human beings.

But do we have a right to interfere with the genetic code of other species let alone our own? Should one company and its shareholders exclusively own breakthrough research having the potential to alleviate human misery? As ethical, philosophical and religious leaders grapple with these and other issues, I think the Australian parliament needs also to seriously be asking itself to what extent this country really wants to be a contributor to this revolution or, alternatively, a net user of biological software. The trade-off that is currently being debated and has been initiated by the Ralph review between a 30 per cent company tax rate and accelerated depreciation schedules for capital is not just about corporate reward for effort, it is much more about whether we are prepared to let the rest of the world pass us by as knowledge based industries drive the economic future.

Peter Farrell, the chief executive of a company called Resmed that started in Australia but had to capitalise in the US and is now in the top 100 growing companies in the US, wrote an article for the Australian Stock Exchange Review, August edition, last year, and he identified three problems. The first is we have a lack of technically trained people on the boards of our major companies. The second is we have a linear attitude to research. We seem to think that, if we provide enough money to researchers, they will eventually produce something that is of value. The third is that our taxation treatment of small high-tech, knowledge based industries in Australia is actually preventing them from developing. So in the debate about taxation reform could I please ask that everybody not only look at GST, food and things like that but actually look at tax and the disadvantages that we are applying to industries that will very much drive this country into the next century.