Legislative Council: Thursday, March 23, 2023


Gene Technology (Adoption of Commonwealth Amendments) Amendment Bill

Second Reading

Adjourned debate on second reading.

(Continued from 9 February 2023.)

The Hon. R.P. WORTLEY (15:30): I rise to speak in favour of the gene technology bill. This legislation aims to improve consistency between commonwealth and state legislation. The bill will allow for changes in commonwealth legislation to be adopted by regulation. We are currently undertaking a full legislative process each time a change is made at a commonwealth level.

The current process is quite lengthy and inefficient. It can take up to six or seven months to review commonwealth changes, develop a draft bill to amend the state Gene Technology Act and gain approval by two houses. Parliament will still retain the right to review and disallow regulations. Objectionable amendments can be disallowed and allow the parliament to have scrutiny.

Changes to the commonwealth legislation are only currently able to be made through the gene technology forum and following full public consultation. The minister, the Hon. Mr Picton from the other place, is South Australia's representative on this forum. The commonwealth Gene Technology Act and subordinate legislation are amended on a regular basis, which can lead to misalignment with state legislation and cause unnecessary confusion to operators across various jurisdictions. A similar bill was introduced by the former government and received support from the now government. We look forward to working constructively as this bill is being debated. The model adopted in this bill is the same as that approved by the previous Minister for Health and Wellbeing.

Public consultation on the draft gene technology bill was undertaken over a six-week period with a consultation paper and a survey on the YourSAy website under the former government. There were 22 responses received: 11 supportive and 10 not supportive, seven of which were not in favour of gene technology in general. One respondent did not indicate a preference.

The commonwealth government is likely to change the legislation in the very near future. Adopting this bill will help ensure that our legislation is not out of date and will make the process more efficient. The Hon. Mr Wade's bill was introduced late in the last parliamentary sitting; however, support was indicated by the then Labor opposition. Other jurisdictions—Tasmania, Northern Territory and Queensland—apply the commonwealth laws with the ability to modify through regulations. New South Wales applies the laws directly. Both Victoria and the ACT go through the usual parliamentary processes.

Gene technology is a process that makes changes to genes and allows for direct modifications to be made to the genetic construction of an organism. Genes are found in all living organisms and are inherited from one generation to the next. The discipline of genetics was founded by Gregor Mendel, a Catholic monk who established principles of genetic inheritance when experimenting with breeding pigs. This can be done by gene modification, removal of a gene or via the transfer of a gene from one organism to another.

A genetically modified organism is a plant, animal or other organism—for instance, bacteria—that has been modified by gene technology. Gene technology is used in South Australia for a broad range of applications, primarily by our university sector and other researchers. A few examples of work in South Australia include, in 2018, Adelaide University conducting medical research into mitochondrial disease, where pigs were genetically modified to have extra copies of mitochondrial DNA in their reproductive cells.

The South Australian Research and Development Institute (SARDI) manages the Australian Pastures Genebank, which provides a databank of genetic material for more than 70,000 plants. Ongoing research continues by the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI) and SA Pathology into blood cancers, including the genetic inheritance of these conditions. The Department of Primary Industries and Regions SA (PIRSA) supports a number of agtech developments, including the use of gene technology to enable more efficient primary production practices in South Australia.

Gene technology may be used in clinical trials and the development of medicines, including vaccines (for example, a number of potential COVID-19 vaccines used gene technology); agriculture and aquaculture and livestock (for example, development of crops that are genetically adapted to meet the environmental stresses caused by climate change); the study of diseases; and a control measure to alter the fertility of pests. As we know, it is very important technology. It is technology that will certainly assist our state in the future and I urge all members to support the legislation.

The Hon. J.M.A. LENSINK (15:35): This is actually a pretty straightforward situation with this legislation. Australia has a national regulatory scheme for genetically modified organisms, which is supported by the intergovernmental gene technology agreement between the commonwealth and each state and territory.

As the previous speaker has already outlined, this legislation was developed in consultation with all jurisdictions and this bill allows the South Australian Gene Technology Act to adopt future amendments to commonwealth gene technology legislation by regulation. This is intended to prevent any future periods where South Australian legislation is inconsistent with the National Gene Technology Scheme.

As has been noted, it is identical to a bill which passed the Legislative Council and had been introduced into the House of Assembly in 2021. With those words, I indicate that this is a sensible and straightforward way to manage this jurisdiction going forward.

The Hon. R.A. SIMMS (15:36): I rise to speak on behalf of the Greens in support of this bill. The purpose of the bill, as has been outlined by my colleagues the Hon. Ms Lensink and the Hon. Mr Wortley, is to bring South Australia into line with other states and to ensure there is no inconsistency with federal legislation and regulations.

The Greens are certainly not against the bill. We recognise it is a necessary step to ensure national consistency in adoption of gene technology. It is important to note, however, that there is a provision in this bill that ensures South Australia adopts commonwealth changes by regulation, providing the ability to disallow any related regulations made. Giving the South Australian parliament oversight over gene technology is a very important accountability measure.

Currently, gene technology is used in agriculture, animal health, food, human health and industrial chemicals. Gene technology can be used to produce targeted therapies for diseases such as cancer as well as to create vaccines, something I know is particularly important to us all during the time of COVID. People dependent on insulin for diabetes are beneficiaries of gene technology, as insulin is often produced using genetically modified cells. Some of these technologies are critical to community health and thus it is vitally important to ensure there are no inconsistencies between jurisdictions.

Many in this place will recall the Greens' long-term opposition to lifting the moratorium on genetically modified crops in South Australia. Indeed, my colleague the Hon. Mark Parnell repeatedly moved to disallow regulations lifting the moratorium. The Greens continue to believe that there are adverse environmental and health impacts associated with growing GM crops. We also know that there has been at least one high-profile case involving Monsanto, the world's biggest GM seed supplier, where seeds were resistant to herbicides that were manufactured.

Farmers were encouraged to use their herbicides to kill weeds without harming their crops—a herbicide that the World Health Organization has classified as containing 'a probable human carcinogen'. We must therefore watch carefully the actions of large corporations which are seeking to create monopolies over our food security and environmental health when it comes to gene technology.

Now that the moratorium has been lifted and the GM horse has bolted in South Australia, it will be difficult for us to go back. While we are disappointed in that result, we do acknowledge, of course, that there are gene technologies that can lead to positive outcomes, in particular in terms of community health and wellbeing.

Inconsistencies between the state and federal jurisdictions could lead to loopholes or gaps in this industry that need to be tightly controlled and regulated. The Greens therefore support the bill, with the assurance that regulation will still be required in South Australia and recognising that the parliament will still have some power to disallow. With that, I conclude my remarks.

The Hon. K.J. MAHER (Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Attorney-General, Minister for Industrial Relations and Public Sector) (15:40): I thank members for their contributions, most recently that of the Hon. Robert Simms; the Hon. Michelle Lensink's contribution, which got off to a shaky start but came very good; and of course the contribution from the esteemed the Hon. Russell Wortley, who is a well-known subject matter expert in mitochondrial DNA and made such a stunning contribution. With that, I look forward to the passage of this through the committee stage this afternoon.

Bill read a second time.

Committee Stage

Bill taken through committee without amendment.

Third Reading

The Hon. K.J. MAHER (Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Attorney-General, Minister for Industrial Relations and Public Sector) (15:42): I move:

That this bill be now read a third time.

Bill read a third time and passed.