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Thursday, 18 November 2004
Page: 42

Senator STOTT DESPOJA (12:41 PM) —I rise today to address a number of matters contained in the Governor-General's address. One of the comments he made in his speech was that the government is committed to fostering a spirit of enterprise in Australia. One area of scientific research that has the potential to not only deliver new enterprises for this country but also offer treatment for myriad diseases and conditions is stem cell research. While I acknowledge that the government has made significant investment into the stem cell research process in Australia through the Biotechnology Centre of Excellence, its commitment to this research is now under a cloud and certainly needs to be questioned as a result of recent developments.

During the recent United Nations debate on whether all forms of cloning or just reproductive cloning should be banned it seems that Australia cosponsored a draft proposal from Costa Rica that forbids the experimental use of embryonic stem cells. This appears to be at odds with previous representations by Australia to the United Nations on this specific issue. In October 2003 the Australian mission to the UN stated:

Australia will therefore support proposals for a convention which would ban human reproductive cloning as soon as possible, but which leaves some flexibility concerning other forms of human cloning.

Madam Acting Deputy President Kirk, as you know, therapeutic cloning is currently illegal in Australia, but the impending review of the legislation—the Research Involving Human Embryos Act and the Prohibition of Human Cloning Act—will re-examine this issue, among many others I am sure, next year. Therefore, it is interesting that the government has supported the Costa Rican draft proposal, which allows no flexibility—a strange decision at this time. I am hoping that I can get some clarification from the government on this specific matter.

The second reading amendment that I moved to the Research Involving Embryos Bill, which established the recent ALRC investigation into gene patenting and human health, also called for the reviewers to consider and to comment on the ALRC report. The report recommended that the reviewers also examine the issues of the exploitation of intellectual property rights over stem cells when they consider the establishment of a national stem cell bank. Again, an amendment that I successfully moved during that debate related to whether or not Australia should consider—and it certainly should examine—having a national stem cell bank.

I understand that the terms of reference are still being finalised, but the intent of the Senate was very clear on this particular matter and I want to reinforce the importance of it. My amendment was agreed to by a conscience vote of the Senate, as noted by Senator Evans in his discussion of the amendment, and the minister should give greater weight to that second reading amendment, as the will of the Senate was very clear—arguably, more so than would perhaps normally be the case with a partisan second reading amendment. I look forward to the commencement of this review and to the announcement of its final terms of reference. The current legislation, while prohibiting therapeutic cloning, has allowed stem cell research to progress in this country, and we have seen the granting of several licences. The most recent licence was granted on 5 November to IVF Australia, who are working in consultation with the diabetes transplant unit at the Prince of Wales Hospital. I acknowledge that I have some involvement on that board. That will be the first public institution to derive new stem cell lines in its important research into the treatment of diabetes.

While the temptation is ever thus to talk about genetic privacy in the context of this issue, I will move on to another issue relating to privacy and one that also was in part of the Governor-General's address to the opening of parliament the other day. In relation to the matter of national security, the Governor-General mentioned that the government intended to bring forward legislation to facilitate access to private SMS, email and voicemail communications without an interception warrant and establish a comprehensive surveillance regime. These measures, of course, represent just a small component of what I consider is an unprecedented, new assault on the privacy rights of Australians, an assault which incorporates widespread surveillance, intrusive identification measures, proposals for new data matching of personal information and the unregulated use of extensive databases by none other than political parties. I take this opportunity, therefore, to record my ongoing frustration at the way that both the Labor Party and the coalition continue to violate the privacy of Australians for their own political gain. While many voters were outraged at the receipt of a recorded voicemail message from the Prime Minister during the election campaign—

Senator Ian Macdonald —Don't be so silly.

Senator STOTT DESPOJA —I am sure some appreciated it, but certainly it has raised incredibly dire issues of privacy rights and the use of electoral databases. But this is only one example—it is just mere example—of how political parties utilise the privacy of voters or are able to manipulate it in the context of an election campaign or any other campaign. Whether or not the people in this place want to deny it, there is now widespread evidence that political parties do rely on voter databases, and those databases contain very specific political views in relation to the voting habits of individual voters. I do not think anyone would dare deny it in this place. These databases provide a strong disincentive for some voters to participate in the democratic process, because every time they write a letter, make a phone call, send a fax, send an email or even ring up talkback radio they know that their views can be added to this personal file.

What makes these databases even more disturbing is the fact that voters do not have the right of access when it comes to being able to look at that information. They cannot actually look at the information that is contained about them in the databases or have the right of correcting it. These are fundamental privacy principles. They are what are enshrined theoretically in the Privacy Act that we have in this country, albeit the so-called soft, or light touch, regulation that we have in Australia. So voters are unable to access information, unable to check that it is right and unable to correct it, and that is a travesty in the context of privacy principles. It is almost impossible for voters to know what information is held about them and whether they are able to ascertain whether or not it is remotely accurate.

We have had attempts in this place to amend the Privacy Act in order to ensure that political parties, among others, are not exempt from those provisions, and those amendments moved by me on behalf of the Democrats have not been successful. But I think it is time for us to revisit that issue in the context of an inquiry or a debate in this place, and I think that, if people are so confident of those provisions, they should be willing to justify that more fulsomely than has taken place with regard to the Australian public.

I turn now to the issue of foreign affairs and Australia's international relations. The Governor-General emphasised the importance of sustaining our strong alliance with the United States, which he said reflected the historical relationship between our two countries and our shared values. There is no doubt that Australia's relationship with the US is important and that Australians and Americans share many values, but it is also important to point out that in recent years the United States has pursued some policies that have been inconsistent with Australia's international obligations and that have been objectionable to many Australians. Many within the Australian community have had problems with some of the foreign policy agenda aspects of this government. For example, Australia proudly played a leading role in the establishment of the International Criminal Court, the ICC, but now it is negotiating an agreement, at the request of the USA, to grant US citizens immunity from prosecution before that court. As the alleged shooting of an unarmed Iraqi just this week, together with earlier evidence of Iraqi prisoner abuse, demonstrate, US citizens are just as capable of committing crimes against humanity as the citizens of any other country. Why are they, or we or anyone else exempt from that?

Meanwhile, Australians David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib—something that you, Madam Acting Deputy President Kirk, would know full well, as you have done a lot of work on this issue—continue to languish in US detention at Guantanamo Bay and will eventually be tried before a US military commission in a manner which, I think we can quite suitably argue, violates the most basic principles of not only our law but international law as well. It is difficult to understand why our government is willing to grant immunity to US citizens who commit heinous crimes while the US continues to violate the rights of two of our citizens. We have to acknowledge that. Here are two people who have yet to be found guilty—and may not be—of any offence, but these two people are our citizens and, whether the government likes it or not, it has an obligation to them. We are expected to trust America to bring to justice not only its own citizens but ours too.

I think Australia is paying a very high price—or at least it appears to be paying a very high price—to safeguard its relationship with the US at the moment. But do the benefits justify this cost? Perhaps it is time we took a very honest and frank look at exactly how Australia's interests are being served by this relationship. I know that the government has attempted to polarise this debate—you are either for the US or you are against it—but it is not so simple. But it is not anti-American, or anti anyone else for that matter, to carry out a candid assessment of the extent to which the alliance is extending or benefiting Australia's interests. In fact, it is among the foreign policy responsibilities of any government to undertake such an assessment. Of course our relationship with the US is important, but the way in which it is being nurtured by this government may actually be detrimental to Australia's interests and security. A healthy relationship is one that is characterised by honesty, robust exchange and a bit of give-and-take, if you like, and we need to be vigilant to combat this government's tendency to treat Australia's relationship with the US as potentially a master-servant relationship rather than a firm and frank friendship.

One of the other issues to which I wish to refer today is the issue of women. That was a subtitle in the Governor-General's address to us here on Tuesday. He said:

The government is committed to providing opportunity and choice for Australian women and will continue to build on its strong record in promoting women's employment and participation in the work force.

These are all commendable aims—do not get me wrong. I think they are not only laudable objectives but ones that we should all sign up to. However, we have to look at the facts as well. In Australia today we still have a number of outstanding issues that affect women, including unequal pay rates. We have a significant wage gap in this country between men and women and that is despite their doing equal work.

We still have one of the lowest work force participation rates for women among the OECD countries. We know that discrimination on the basis of pregnancy in the workplace has increased. We remain one of only two OECD countries without a scheme of national or paid maternity leave. Women continue to be underrepresented in senior positions, be that in business, industry or indeed in our decision-making bodies such as the parliament. While I acknowledge there are a record number of women in the cabinet, I am not going to get too excited. Three is a big number, but it ain't big enough and it is certainly not equal representation. We know that women as single parents and mature age women face higher levels of poverty. We know violence against women is still prevalent.

All of us are sobered by the most recent domestic killing only yesterday in my home state of South Australia. It was a shocking attack in the Myer centre and just another of the reminders we get every week in this country that violence against women is still prevalent. A recent report commissioned by the federal government says services for victims of domestic violence are in a `tragic state and getting worse'. So there is lots and lots to be done. While I appreciate the Governor-General's comments, we have to ensure that these goals are met and that the rhetoric is matched with government action and, of course, resources.

I wish to put on record my concerns, and I am happy for the government and certainly Senator Patterson in her capacity to perhaps outline some of the plans that the government has, in relation to the Office of the Status of Women. As many in this place would know, the Prime Minister has announced that the Office of the Status of Women is to be removed from its central role of monitoring and coordinating policy in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and is being relocated to the Department of Family and Community Services. A lot of people—not just women—have some questions surrounding that unexpected decision, which was not indicated during the election campaign. In fact, that decision is contrary to a quote from 1995, when then Leader of the Opposition, Mr Howard, in an address to the Coalition Women's Forum in June 1995, confirmed:

... that the Office of the Status of Women will be retained in a future Coalition Government, as part of the Prime Minister's Department, and that responsibility will be directly a part of the existing departmental arrangements.

So what has changed? Is there a policy agenda behind this? Is it that it is more appropriately located in the context of Family and Community Services? Are we losing the vital monitoring, coordinating and other policy roles that the OSW performed in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet previously? Will there be a change in resourcing? Some of these issues have yet to be answered and addressed by the government, and I look forward to getting more specific responses to these issues. As you can imagine, a number of people are very concerned.

The statement that the government will continue to build on its strong record in promoting women's employment and participation in the work force is also questionable. We know that in Australia only 55.8 per cent of women are in work, compared to 71 per cent of men. We know that we have got one of the lowest female participation rates in the OECD. We know that the OECD found recently that full-time participation rates of women between the ages of 25 and 54 in Australia were 20 per cent below the OECD average. The participation rate of mothers with children in preschool is 45 per cent, compared to 55 per cent in the UK, 61 per cent in the US and 66 per cent in Denmark. So where are the specific policies that will encourage women's participation in the work force? The Governor-General certainly mentioned initiatives to help the unemployed, those on welfare and mature age workers, but there were no specific measures to assist women. I ask the government to address that particular issue.

The issue of work and family remains an outstanding concern for a number of Australians. I was glad to see that both the major parties had some commitments to this particular issue in their election platforms. But I once again put on record the fact that the OECD research and other research and surveys demonstrate clearly that Australia has some of the least family friendly policies for working mothers in the developed world. Once again, I reiterate the fact that we are one of only two OECD countries—the other of course being the United States—without a system of paid maternity leave. That means two-thirds of Australia's working women do not have access to some form of paid leave on the birth of a child. That has to be something that this government seeks to address—I hope in the short term.

Evidence from countries in the OECD demonstrates that those countries that do provide support for working women actually have higher fertility rates than those which do not. Please do not get me wrong on this: I am not suggesting that family friendly policies necessarily lead to a fertility explosion or that it is one way of addressing the lower fertility rates that we have in Australia today, but I do think that is a basic issue of workers' rights—the rights of women who are workers. It is not a benefit. It should be a workplace entitlement, not a welfare entitlement.

So, despite this data and the research, the government continues to not adequately address the needs and concerns of Australia's working women in particular and women in general. I think moving the OSW into a different department is worrying because it risks defining the needs of women and issues of work force participation, skill shortages et cetera only within the context of the family and the community and not within any other context. There was an Australian Democrat amendment moved by Senator Bartlett to the address-in-reply motion earlier in the debate. I now seek leave to amend it in the new terms as circulated in the chamber.

Leave granted.

Senator STOTT DESPOJA —I move:

That the following words be added to the address-in-reply:

“, but the Senate is of the opinion that:

The Government's failure to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, to take strong action to reduce Australia's greenhouse emissions and to urge the United States of America to do likewise, is putting at risk international efforts on climate change”.