Things have moved to the next stage with the stem cell issue, with the Senate agreeing today to set up a Committee Inquiry into the possibility of amending the laws governing research in this area.
The Inquiry is due to report back to the Senate on 27th October, and at this stage the Senate is likely to debate some legislation in the week sitting 6th November. This is a very tight time frame, with only about three weeks for public submissions and perhaps 3 or 4 public hearings. The government is very keen to have the issue resolved one way or the other before the end of the year so it doesn’t get in the way of the run up to the election next year.
The week of 6th November is a rare occasion where the Senate is sitting and the House of Reps isn’t, but it looks like the only debate all week may be on a stem cell Bill (apart from the usually meaningless sideshow vaudeville of Question Time), with the prospect of late night sittings and sitting on the Friday to ensure it is voted on that week.
If it passes the Senate, it will then go to the House of Representatives in late November.
Unlike the RU486 issue, where Senators worked together across all parties, this one is a bit messier, as Liberal Senator Kay Patterson decided to do her own legislation rather than join in with the work already being done by people from other parties. The purported reason is that a Bill sponsored by a government Senator is more likely to pass, than one that isn’t, but I can’t see why that couldn’t entail a government Senator sponsoring a Bill in conjunction with Senators from other parties, which obviously worked very successfully with RU486. However, I expect it will come together in a clearly outlined piece of legislation by the time the debate starts in the Senate.
Senator Paterson’s Bill isn’t ready yet, but the issue has been kept moving by the introduction of an exposure draft of legislation sponsored by Democrat Senator Stott Despoja and WA Labor Senator Ruth Webber. The Committee will examine this legislation in conjunction with the original Lockhart Review on which it is based. Senator Paterson’s Bill will be added to the mix whenever it appears.
The Stott Despoja Bill reportedly includes all the recommendations from the Lockhart Review so politicians and the public can have a look at how these recommendations appear in legislative form. It is not essential that every aspect of the Review be adopted, and it may be that the Parliament decides to only go with some of them.
A briefing was held in Parliament House yesterday with Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Jim Peacock, and the current Australian of the year Professor Ian Frazer. According to this report, Dr Peacock feels some MPs don’t have a very good grasp of the science involved, so it’s a good thing there is chance for some input on the legislation by the wider community.
“I think it was clear from the questions that there is very much still a need for better understanding of the basic biological things that are being talked about,” Dr Peacock said after the meeting. “And of course that relates to the ethical considerations, and especially to the regulatory considerations that need to surround these technologies.
“I don’t like to use the word ill-informed, (but) I think sometimes the questions indicated they did not have a basic understanding of the biology.” But Dr Peacock said the MPs’ lack of knowledge was not surprising, given the complexity of the subject.
While I’m not on the Committee, I’ll certainly be following the inquiry through submissions and transcripts of the public hearings, as well as the public debate in general. I’m supportive in principle, but still want to be convinced on the detail, and hear any reasonable arguments against going down this path at this time.
Submissions, details of the proposed legislation, public hearing dates and other material should be available soon on the website of the Senate’s Community Affairs Committee which is conducting the inquiry.
If you are in or near Brisbane, I will be hosting a public information evening on the stem cell issue on Monday September 25th from 6.30 pm to 9pm at the St Lucia campus of the University of Queensland. Professor Frazer will be one of the speakers along with 2 other highly qualified scientists. The aim is to enable people to ask questions and clarify and explore some of the issues, rather than just hear a lot of speeches.