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Thursday, 22 June 2000
Page: 18104

Dr WOOLDRIDGE (Minister for Health and Aged Care) (4:12 PM) —I move:

That the bill be now read a second time.

The Gene Technology Bill 2000 is the Commonwealth's component of a national regulatory system for genetically modified organisms. With the passage of the gene technology bill and mirror legislation in all states, Australia will, for the first time, have a comprehensive independent and accountable regulator of GMOs—a regulator with the sole purpose of protecting the health and safety of the community and protecting the Australian environment by identifying and managing risks posed by or as result of genetically modified organisms. To secure such a regulatory system, we must be mindful of the fact that the states and territories must pass legislation that is consistent with this bill.

The bill in its current form represents the regulatory system preferred by all states and territories. It is not a coalition government bill, nor a Labor bill, but rather legislation supported on a bipartisan basis by all jurisdictions. I ask you to be conscious of the fact that major changes to the bill may not find favour with state and territory governments and this would have major ramifications for our chance to introduce uniform national regulatory measures. I take this opportunity to recognise the concerted effort that each state and territory has put into the development of the gene technology bill. It is an excellent example of Australian governments working collectively to the greater good of protecting the people of this country and its environment and promoting its research and development base as a burgeoning industry.

Throughout the past 12 months, the Commonwealth has made a concerted effort to find out the needs and expectations of the Australian community in relation to the regulation of GMOs. I am glad to have the opportunity to acknowledge a range of sectors and organisations that have contributed to the development of this world-class regulatory system, including the research and development sector, primary producers, environmental and consumer groups and the biotechnology industry. We have, for example, responded to the overwhelming view of interested parties that the regulator must be independent. The bill therefore establishes the regulator as a statutory office holder with powers and independence akin to the Auditor-General, the Ombudsman or the Commissioner of Taxation. The regulator will be able to report directly to parliament on matters of concern and will be the absolute decision maker on all applications that come to the office. Another matter on which there is complete agreement from the industry and environmental and consumer groups is that the need for the protection of the health of the community and the protection of the Australian environment are to come before all other considerations.

There is no doubt that biotechnology holds great potential for this country. In terms of health, agriculture, industry, primary production and environmental benefits we have seen only the prelude to the possibilities. Nevertheless, it is appropriate that this new regulatory system has the driving imperative of identifying and managing any risks associated with the technology before all other matters, only then can we be truly confident about reaping the broader benefits. The bill establishes the framework for the most comprehensive risk assessment and risk management system it has been possible to develop. All applications for GMOs to be released into the environment will be made available to anyone who wishes to see them. They will also be automatically forwarded to each state and territory government, existing regulators and the Commonwealth environment minister for advice. Once all comments from government and non-government parties have been considered by the regulator and a risk assessment prepared, each party will have the opportunity to consider and comment on the regulator's draft decision. This is a system Australia has every reason to have confidence in. It must be acknowledged that the Australian industry and our research and development sector have made every effort to comply with the voluntary administrative system of GMO controls that will be replaced by this legislation. I commend them for their efforts.

This is legislation with teeth. The financial penalties for criminal offences are significant. In addition, the regulator will be able to appoint inspectors, undertake routine monitoring and conduct spot checks. I mentioned earlier the support this bill has in states and territories. I have, however, heard calls from Tasmania for the bill to include an explicit opt-out provision. I reiterate the advice repeatedly given to Tasmania, which has been acknowledged by all other governments: it is not possible for such a provision to be included. All governments must have regard to the constitutional impediments and risks resulting from our international obligations. This bill demonstrates that it is possible to effectively regulate risks associated with technology. For Australia to lose the benefits of this technology when we are able to manage those risks would be an irresponsible and insupportable step for government to take. We have adopted a cautious approach to regulation. We recognise the great diversity of application of gene technology and have tailored the bill so that for each application the level of regulation is commensurate with the risk. We have been careful to ensure that our hand is not so heavy that it will stymie our research and development sector or limit the opportunities that the technology holds. But, without question, it is appropriately firm and cautious for higher risk activities and is conscious of the need to protect our community and preserve the diversity of our environment. I commend the bill to the House and I present an explanatory memorandum to the bill.

Debate (on motion by Mr Griffin) adjourned.