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Wednesday, 12 August 2015
Page: 5057


Senator O'SULLIVAN (QueenslandNationals Whip in the Senate) (10:28): I have to open with a confession before I lead into my speech. I actually won a bet in the last five minutes. I have a fondness for beer, as you can tell from my side profile. I bet a six-pack that there would be a mass exodus from the chamber by our colleagues from the Greens after their stunt and that they would show no continued interest in what I think is one of the most important pieces of legislation to come into the parliament.

Senator Wright: Where are your colleagues?

Senator O'SULLIVAN: What this shows again is the continued innovative nature with respect to our government. This is a landmark initiative on behalf of the coalition government much in the same way as some of the other landmark initiatives that we have introduced during our term of the government. People are aware that we have stopped the boats, saving hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars in impacts on the costs to our nation. We have removed the carbon tax, removing hundreds of millions and possibly billions of dollars in costs to industry and households across the country. We have introduced great incentives through our recent budget in relation to being able to support small and medium businesses. This commitment is another progressive landmark commitment for our country. The first $10 million of this will be introduced, and $400 million is estimated for eventual distribution over the next four years. Importantly, this funding is in addition to the $3.4 billion over the next four years that has been committed by our government.

We have a situation where some of the great brains within our research community often find it necessary to go overseas—we are talking about medical research in this particular case—because the funding has not been available here for them to pursue their work. Australia is a world leader in so many areas—particularly in agriculture, a sector where we have put in place some of the most innovative progressions anywhere in the world. There is no reason why we cannot also be world leaders in the area of medical research. Medical researchers will tell you that some of these journeys they undertake to research a particular issue can take a very long period of time. Many research projects can, in fact, run for decades, so they need confidence and certainty with respect to starting their journey. This fund, along with the other commitments made by our coalition government in this space, will provide them with that. This investment will go right across the research spectrum, giving them confidence in laboratory research to be able to undertake clinical trials and, importantly, to take them to a point where we can commercialise new drugs or devices.

We recently released a report recommending that the government consider the adoption of medical cannabis; that is where we will take those positive cannabinoids. There are about 96 cannabinoids, I believe, in Cannabis sativa, one of which is tetrahydrocannabinol, which is the component of the drug that makes it an illegal substance. But we have taken a first step there through this parliament, and I pay tribute to the Greens, who introduced this bill, and Dr Di Natale. It was a forward-thinking bill and it has attracted support right across this chamber and cooperative support from all of the parties and independents who have been involved in the investigation.

Here is a perfect example from the evidence we had before our committee—one piece of evidence in particular that resonated with me. It had to do with a recently-retired colleague from the House of Representatives who, with his daughter, gave evidence about the circumstances of his granddaughter, who had been taking up to 30 fits each day. Apparently each episode of fitting was potentially life-threatening. They have been able to access one of the legitimate products with the cannabinoid involvement and, at the time that they gave their evidence, that delightful young 13-year-old girl had not had a fit for some eight weeks.

Do they know why cannabis in its raw form is having this impact on some of these patients and providing pain relief for people who are on long-term treatment for cancers and particularly for those who have epileptic episodes? No, they do not. We had senior researchers from the University of Sydney who indicated there had not been any funding commitment for them to be able to take the time to peer review the evidence available to them to establish what the positive causal link was and then to develop products. No work is being done anywhere in the world in this field. The adoption of a fund such as the one that is before the Senate will allow for certainty for those researchers to access funding so they can go on and make Australia one of the world leaders in the development of drugs, whether that happens to be in the medicinal cannabis field or indeed any of the other fields where we have a line of expertise.

In the last 12 months I had a case where a young lady was reflective of about 70 young Australians who were suffering from a very serious but rare condition where the required medication—and it was life-saving medication—was costly, and their conditions deteriorated and were measured in months. This was not a case where these young people could go without treatment for any period of time before they found themselves in life-threatening situations. The drug that was required cost about $24,000 a month for treatment, so you can do the mathematics yourself—this happens to be a rarer disorder. But imagine a world where billions of dollars can be invested by a nation into producing pharmaceutical products and aids to treat people with these conditions into the future: the more research that is done, the more drugs that are developed, the more drugs that make it on to the market, the lower the cost. We all know about the cost prohibitions in the presentation of these products. For example, Australia has been a leading researcher in this space. One of the good examples is that some 300,000 people around the world now have the ability to hear as a result of cochlear implants, which were developed right here in Australia—the Medical Research Future Fund fits in there perfectly. All sorts of criticisms are often made of the parliament. I have to say very proudly that my government will make decisions and put in place measures although they might not see the benefit in the term of their own government. In fact, there may be members in this place, and I certainly will be one of them, who may not even be here when the benefit in relation to legislation like this matures.

Having regard to the time it takes for the results of medical research to be translated into pharmaceuticals or other implements—having regard to what I said earlier—it could well be decades and many of us will not be here to see the fruit of our collective labours. Governments need to look over the horizon, to have foresight and to think about the next generation as we do when we make decisions on the economy and, as we did when we made decisions on the carbon tax and on the resources rent tax, we have made massive contributions in the short time this government has been in place. I think history will be very kind to us in relation to that foresight but the kindest reflection that history will have on us will be the passing of the Medical Research Future Fund Bill.

I commend the bills to the Senate.