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Tuesday, 23 November 1993
Page: 3478

Senator COULTER (9.50 p.m.) —It will not surprise honourable senators in the chamber to realise that we will oppose the CSL Sale Bill 1993. What we got from the government in its second reading speech and what we have just heard from Senator Gibson is the blind ideological view that private is good and public is bad. That simply does not hold. Indeed, there is abundant evidence in the second reading speech of the Minister for Defence Science and Personnel (Senator Faulkner) which bears this out.

  I will mention a few of the facts contained in that speech. It mentions that CSL was established in 1916. It waxes lyrical about the benefits which Australia has derived from CSL over the years as a government enterprise. We were one of the very first nations in the world to have uniform immunisation of children against diphtheria. I think it was 10 or 15 years before Britain did the same thing. CSL is a very good organisation and served the interests of the Australian public extremely well. In view of Senator Gibson's statement about consumer focus, I do not think anything could be said against the consumer focus which CSL has exhibited over many years. It has been a very broad focus but I will come back to that point in a minute.

  The second reading speech mentions that the company's assets are valued at $238 million and last year sales exceeded $160 million. It would seem to me, by any reasonable comparison, that a company—government or otherwise—is doing very well to turn over $160 million worth of sales with assets of $238 million in a single year.

  The second reading speech also mentions that last year CSL invested $18 million in research and development. That is 11 per cent of sales. Later I want the Minister for the Arts and Administrative Services (Senator McMullan), who will be replying to the debate, to tell me which other private company in Australia, if any, has spent as much as 11 per cent of its total sales in a year on research and development. Governments—indeed, I think, most parties—in Australia have been complaining that a disproportionate amount of our research and development is carried out by governments. Over many decades we have had great difficulty in getting private companies to invest heavily in R&D. This government has invoked many proposals and put many policies in place to try to encourage private companies to invest in R&D. The minister's second reading speech says that last year 11 per cent of total turnover went back into R&D. I would like the minister to tell me what other private companies would meet that sort of objective.

  The second reading speech also contains quite unbelievable statements. It talks about the aggregate limit of shareholding in the privatised CSL being 15 to 20 per cent foreign ownership. Given the events of the last couple of days, the rather perfunctory consideration given to increasing foreign ownership and decisions being made virtually on the run by the Prime Minister (Mr Keating), one finds it very difficult to accept that any statement like that has any worth whatsoever.

  The second reading speech also talks very euphemistically about increasing the return to the taxpayers, yet the sale is to be exempted from state and territory taxes and fees. One wonders exactly how that can be when CSL, which is currently totally owned by all the taxpayers of Australia—a point that we have made in relation to privatising the banks and just about everything else that is saleable in this country—suddenly becomes owned by only a small fraction of all the taxpayers and those who own it are exempted from state and territory taxes and fees. So much for what is contained in the second reading speech.

  One of the primary concerns that the Democrats have is that CSL has made a range of products over a very long time. Some of those products, which have been absolutely critical in terms of the lifesaving properties of the agents developed, are not at all profitable. In any one year in this country there are not large numbers of people bitten by particular snakes or by hopper ants or stung by bees, and not many people have anaphylactic reactions. The sale of products to treat those particular people will not make much profit at all. CSL has carried those on at a loss. They are very important to the people who happen to be bitten by those snakes or who are allergic to bee stings, hopper ant stings, sea wasps, box jellyfish, cone shells and a whole range of other things that CSL has worked on.

  One cannot believe for a moment that a private company that is now driven by profit rather than by the public interest will continue to have any interest in the manufacture of those things at all. Only a few moments ago Senator Gibson identified one of the principal advantages of privatising CSL, saying that it would increase profits. If it will increase profits, it seems to me that it will do it at the expense, as just about every other pharmaceutical company does, of not making those products which might be absolutely vital lifesaving products for a very small number of people in any one year, but of concentrating rather on the manufacture of those products which are used in large amounts by the largest number of people but which may be quite trivial in terms of health or even lifesaving. It is far more profitable to make and strongly promote a slightly more soluble form of aspirin than it is to make an antivenene for a rare snake bite in Australia. A company that is driven by profits is likely to go down the former road.

  I am reminded of some of the developments which were carried on in the Department of Microbiology in my former university, the University of Adelaide. At the end of the development of some of these vaccines the department was unable to carry on with the work; it wanted to sell the research work to private interests. Because the products could be produced so cheaply and were of principal concern in Third World countries, the private companies were simply not interested in taking them up. The sort of statement that was made was, `Yes, we can sell that product for 15c a shot in Third World countries but we are not interested; we would rather sell it for $15 in first world countries'. There is where the profit lies. That is the basic concern that the Democrats have about the privatisation of this organisation. There are a number of products which CSL either makes or is researching which are very likely to fall in this category. One of the principal researchers in this area pointed out in a paper from the Medical Journal of Australia in 1992 that few doubt that the sale to private investors will lead to the demise of these products.

  One of the other functions which CSL has played—it has been a private company—is that its experts have been available for advice around Australia for medical consultation purposes. Most general practitioners would very rarely deal with such things as snake and spider bites and require assistance in diagnosing the cause of the illness and the proper course of treatment. CSL has provided such a service over many years. Even supposing that this work continues, a profit driven organisation is unlikely to provide those sorts of services without considerable fees, and therefore those services are not likely to be available.

  CSL is the only antivenom manufacturer in the world that has consistently followed the performance of antivenoms and locked this information into procedures for better patient care. So it has not only been a pharmaceutical manufacturer of antivenenes; it has also followed out into the field the effectiveness of these antivenenes and has fed that back into better procedures in relation to patient care and continually improved its products. There are quite a number of products which fall into that general category which CSL has worked on and which, under a scheme of privatisation, I think would be very likely to fall by the wayside.

  Until now people in Australia have not been paid to donate blood—they have given blood quite willingly and without payment, unlike in America and many other countries—and the blood which has gone beyond its expiry time has been passed on to CSL for preparation of various human blood fractions. Under the new arrangements the Red Cross will actually be paid a fee for blood which in fact has been donated to the Red Cross free of charge. Again, one wonders whether we are not starting on the slippery road, on which the large number of people who are unemployed may then be led down the path, as many in America and other than places are led, to donate blood and so on as a way of simply keeping themselves alive. I do not think we should be mixing up the issue of profitability with essential medical services in that way.

  We will be opposing the legislation. As with the last bill, I will have questions in the committee stage that I will want to ask the minister.