The Senate is the only House of Parliament sitting this week and the sole piece of legislation on the agenda is the Cloning/Stem Cell Bill. I gave my speech on the 2nd Reading stage of the Bill today, and will vote in favour of sending the Bill on for consideration in detail by the Senate. I have yet to decide how I will vote on the final vote on the legislation which should occur in the next couple of days. The areas I am concerned about relate mostly to some of the principles being used to justify the use of embryos created through cloning solely for the purposes of scientific/medical research. I am told that the final vote may be quite close, although I have no way of being sure if that’s true or not. (UPDATE: The Second Reading vote passed by 34 votes to 31. This obviously means that if only 2 people change their position at the final vote (Third Reading vote), based on amendments that are or aren’t made, the legislation will be defeated. I guess it also means I have some more thinking to do)
Whilst the Cloning/Stem Cell Bill is the only piece of legislation being discussed in the chamber, some Senate Committees have also been holding hearings while the Senate has been sitting to consider other pieces of legislation.
One of those hearings involved major changes to the main federal environment law – the Environment Protection & Biodiversity Conservation Act (usually called the EPBC Act). I was heavily involved in enabling major amendments being made when the EPBC Act was first passed back in 1999. Some environment groups and the Greens savagely attacked the legislation (and those who supported it), but it has clearly been shown to be a major improvement on the laws that existed previously.
Having copped a pasting for supporting the government in passing the (heavily amended) legislation, it is more irritating than usual (although still not particularly surprising) for the government to dump a 400 page amendment Bill on us which in some areas significantly weaken the EPBC Act, and then give the Senate and the community just a few weeks to consider it. The government’s intent is to push the Bill through the Parliament by the first week of December, although I have yet to see any reason given as to why such major changes are so urgent that we should forgo time for proper consideration.
There is also a hearing today into a Copyright Amendment Bill. I wrote a piece a week ago about what is not in the Bill – namely the removal of the cap on the fee that commercial radio has to pay to artists for using their recordings, despite a government promise earlier this year to make that change. However there is a large amount of important and complex things that are in it, and once again the Senate Committee (and the community and those affected) is being forced to consider in the space of a few weeks, with the intent of forcing the legislation through the Parliament within a month.
The reason being used for the rush on the Copyright law changes is that it contains changes relating to the USA-Australia Free Trade Agreement which have to be in place by 1st January, 2001. However, only 2 of the 12 Schedules in the legislation related directly to the FTA.
The legislation has presented me with a bit of a dilemma. It is very complex and many groups have an interest in various parts of it. I have a responsibility to try to get across the legislation and the concerns expressed about it, but I also know the chances of my views having an impact on getting changes made to the legislaiton are fairly minimal. Given I have the major environment law changes on my plate, not to mention trying to ensure I reach as informed a decision as possible on the embryo legislation, as well as plenty of other debates running such as climate change and the water crisis, it does raise the issue of whether the balancing of my priorities would include basically letting the Copyright Bill go through to the keeper. Perhaps I should, but I find copyright issues personally fascinating, so I am keen to grab the opportunity to get a better understanding of it, even if I am unlikely to be able to get changes made at this stage.
(for views of the Copyright Bill on other sites, try Weatherall’s Law, a comprehensive copyright law blog by Kim Weatherall (who gave evidence today at the Committee hearing). You could also look at this post on the blog of a chap called Bruce, who expresses strong concern at the rushed process).
The fact that these Committee inquiries into major legislation are being held while the Senate is sitting is a sign of how rushed the process is. There is a Standing Order against this occurring, as it obviously means Senators in the Committee hearing can’t follow what is happening in the chamber. These days Committees regularly seek exemption from it, but it is a less than ideal process, particularly when the Senate is considering legislation which is a conscience vote.