Council Of Australian Governments Joint Press Conference on Stem Cell Research

The meeting of the Council of Australian Governments, held in Canberra on Friday, is being hailed by the participants as the best ever.

The major decision of COAG was an agreement on stem cell research. For the first time ever, all the State Premiers and Territory Chief Ministers are from the ALP, with Prime Minister John Howard representing the non-Labor Federal government.

The Premiers were no doubt keen to demonstrate that wall-to-wall Labor governments are good for the federal compact, but there seemed also to be a genuine belief that the COAG meeting had been productive. There was effusive praise from the Queensland Premier, Peter Beattie, for the Prime Minister.

Transcript of the COAG Chief Ministers press conference.

PRIME MINISTER: The Commonwealth and the states have reached an agreement on an approach to the very important issue of research on excess ART embryos. The agreement that we’ve reached is to the effect of the proposal outlined in my letter to the Premiers and Chief Minsters which I released yesterday, with two changes. There were two areas of concern raised with me by the Premiers and Chief Ministers, one related to the issue of donor consent and what we have effectively agreed to, using short hand, to avoid confusion and misunderstanding, we’ve agreed is that consent for research once given is good for all kinds of research subject only to the right of a donor in giving consent to limit the purposes for which that consent is given. But if you give a general consent for research than you won’t have to, the researchers won’t have to, go back and get consent for some other research of some other kind along the way. So we’ve agreed to that change.

The other change relates to the issue of the use of embryos created after the 5th of April. Now what’s been agreed is that there will be in the legislation a sunset provision, which will effectively provide that that prohibition expires in three years time. In addition, there will be an ethics group or committee established to advise within a period of 12 months COAG regarding a regime to ensure that there effectively can be mandated an arrangement so that embryos are not created for the purpose of research. Which, the concern about which, is the principle reason why the cut-off point, not the only reason but the principle reason why the cut off point was inserted by the government.

So what happens is that you have the ethics committee, it reports within a period of a year, and if there were agreement on that regime then you could make a change at that 12-month point. But if there’s not agreement in any event, it runs out within three years and if there were then agreement in that three year period about a substitute regime, well that would then be effected by regulation. If there’s not agreement, well each jurisdiction would purport to legislate according to what it thought appropriate including the Commonwealth. But I myself am of the view that there will over, particularly over that three year period perhaps earlier, will be some agreement reached but the point should be made that until there is agreement between all the parties the Commonwealth and the States, then the prohibition in relation to post 5 April embryos remains in force for a period of three years. Now they are the only changes.

Can I say that I think it’s an outcome that certainly meets the goals that the Commonwealth has had and it is one that I think will be widely applauded in the Australian community, it provides certainty, it provides opportunity, it provides hope, it balances the ethical considerations with the need for medical research. I thank my colleagues for the cooperative spirit that they’ve demonstrated through all of these discussions, the spirit of one nation, dare I say it, a united national approach.

PREMIER BEATTIE: That’s a better way Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER: Yes much better way, united national approach.

PREMIER BEATTIE: United nation.

PRIME MINISTER: United nation on this, done very well.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister…..

PRIME MINISTER: Hang on hang on, I haven’t finished my rhetorical flourish. And I think it is a very good outcome and one of which I’m very pleased. Maybe one or two of my colleagues would want to add something before we take questions. I wouldn’t want to prevent that.

PREMIER CARR: I appreciate the courtesy. Thank you. This is very good news for researchers who are working to cure diseases and to save lives. It means research can go ahead with a minimum of inhibitions. It will be welcomed by people, by families who live with Alzheimers or with a child with type one diabetes. The people I’ve spoken to in wheelchairs will welcome the fact that research, cutting edge research dealing with embryonic stem cells can go ahead offering them as it does a chance of a breakthrough. I thank the Prime Minister for listening to the arguments, not just the arguments we mounted but the arguments he exposed himself to from scientists, from ethicists over the last month or so. I think what we’ll see in the months ahead, I think what we’ll see in the years ahead are breakthroughs, breakthroughs in research that will strengthen the belief in the community that this is the way to go. So it’s good news for research, it’s good news for alleviati! ng human suffering. It means the research can power ahead with a minimum of inhibitions.

PREMIER BRACKS: Could I just add that I think it’s also a victory for commonsense. This is a sensible, workable arrangement that can allow research to be undertaken across Australia and significant breakthroughs to save lives and to cure diseases. We are amongst the best countries in the world with our scientific and medical research. This will enable that research to go on untrammelled, with certainty, with security and with the knowledge that the very ingredients that are required for those breakthroughs are there secured in the future and I am absolutely thrilled about Victoria. Victoria has a great record in bio-medicine, in bio-technology, in medical research. We have some important discoveries which have been made there in the past and I can go back to Victoria now comforted by the fact that we have a national position which we will now legislate for in Victoria which will allow that research to be undertaken in the future. So I’m actually thrilled by this. It’s something I can go back to Victoria in and say to the scientific community, to the research community, to those that rely on this breakthrough to cure diseases and save lives that we have had a win in Canberra and that’s a good outcome.

PREMIER BEATTIE: Today in a sense was a test in my view as to whether Australia went down an enlightened road or not, well we chose the enlightened road today. The important thing about this is we are a country of 19.5 million people. We are small internationally but very talented. We needed a national response, we needed an Australian response today and the leaders at this table have demonstrated the maturity to get an Australian response. That was one of the clear objectives we all had and I thought today’s COAG meeting, and I’ve been coming here for almost four years, Bob’s the only Premier who’s been here longer than I have, this has been the most positive and constructive COAG meeting I’ve attended. And from Queensland’s point of view, the research point of view we’re delighted because like Bob and Steve we have an emerging biotech industry, we have an industry which will be delighted with the outcomes today and none of us should lose sight of ! the fact this is also about improving life and quality of life for Australians afflicted by serious disease and accidents. So today is frankly a great day for Australia.

JOURNALIST: Does this mean that it leaves the way open for therapeutic cloning as it’s called to be considered under the regulatory review over the next year?

PRIME MINISTER: No, no, the only change from what was put forward yesterday is in relation to what I’ve outlined.

JOURNALIST: Mr Carr, going by the advice that you’ve accepted from Dr Leon [inaudible], from Prince of Wales whose said that about 20 per cent of the current stock of embryos would be useful for research. The logic of that is that you have to five times the number of embryos you need before you can have adequate numbers for research. How can you limit the production of embryos when you need that sort of ratio?

PREMIER CARR: Well the advice around the table is that there are, there is, there will be no problem with supply of embryos for research. Several of my colleagues pointed to an absolute surplus beyond any of their research requirements in their states. Now the second point I make is, it is to reflect that sort of concern that I argued for the inclusion of the last dot point, that is a request to the NHMRC to report within 12 months on the adequacy of supply and distribution. We don’t anticipate a problem. If there happened to be a shortage in one of our states we’re assured that there is an absolute surplus to draw on in another state.

PRIME MINISTER: The advantage if I can say of having a nation wide understanding, of having a uniform consistent position throughout the whole country is that you can, if there’s a shortage in one area, easily accommodate that shortage from a surplus elsewhere because the conditions under which the research will be carried out and the embryos will be available will be exactly the same no matter where you are in Australia. That is why having a national understanding was so very important.

PREMIER BRACKS: And can I give an example of how that could occur. In Victoria’s case of course there is existing 1995 legislation which prohibits the use of embryos which are discarded from IVF from being used in Australia. We have some 16,000 embryos frozen and stored which can’t be used, haven’t been used under the existing legislation. A great portion of those embryos of course will now be available when the legislative change happens. So you might have been referring to a particular situation in New South Wales where there hasn’t been such legislation prohibiting it but the reality is if you look around Australia, and in our case there is 16,000 surplus from IVF which are currently frozen, and potentially a large amount of those available therefore for research.

JOURNALIST: If it’s found that the stock is not enough in some period down the track –

PRIME MINISTER: Who’s this question addressed to?

JOURNALIST: Well anyone who wants to, Prime Minister if you’d like to –

PRIME MINISTER: Yeah I’ll have a go.

JOURNALIST: If it’s found that stock is not enough to meet research demands, while you’ve put a sunset clause in for three years time, is that ethics committee the mechanism by which you may revisit that –

PRIME MINISTER: Well the arrangement is as it’s been outlined. I mean we’re going to, if all else fails, if I can put it that way, in three years time the prohibition on post April 5 runs out and then if there’s no agreement on a replacement regime then, then each jurdristriction, including the Commonwealth will legislate in whatever way it thinks appropriate on that issue. But three years is a long time and in any event we’re going to have a report from this ethical group within a year and if we were to reach agreement and that’s if we were to reach agreement then you could make a change earlier than three years. I mean that’s the understanding. Bearing in mind once again though that as far as the Commonwealth Parliament is concerned that change would have to be the subject of a parliamentary instrument because this regime will be put in place by a free vote and therefore any material or variation will have to likewise be authorised by a free vote. Bu! t I think what is good about today’s outcome is that you had Commonwealth saying nothing after the 5th of April, states expressing concern about that, we have an arrangement to sort of handle that difference in a way that I think is respectful of the concerns on both sides.

You do have what the Commonwealth is proposing for the three year period, unless there is agreement, including the Commonwealth, for a shorter period of time. And it’s always been our view and I know there are some variations around the table, that there are in any event ample embryos now available and I think when you take all the things into account we’ve once again sensibly struck a good balance and it will only be people who are looking for a problem, and I know that wouldn’t be anybody around here would be in that category, who would be able to find fault with this magnificent and enlightened outcome.

JOURNALIST: (inaudible) are you all going to give your respective followers a free vote?

PREMIER RANN: Oh absolutely, we’ve already announced in South Australia there’ll be a conscience vote and that conscience vote will actually apply to ministers as well as to backbenchers. So it will be a free vote for anyone to vote any which way they can. I guess the point about this is there was however total agreement that no one wants to see the artificial manufacture of embryos specifically for research, we’re talking about surplus embryos that would otherwise have been destroyed. And indeed we’re talking about the toughest provisions and actions against any attempt to subvert that process and that’s why it’s important for the ethics committee to come back to COAG in a years time. But I want to particularly congratulate the Prime Minister because I think today with the good will around the table we saw COAG act as the guardian of the national interest rather than seeing a whole bunch of states doing different things in conflict and also potentially legal conflict with the Commonwealth.

JOURNALIST: [inaudible].

PREMIER GALLOP: Certainly, in Western Australia we will be having a conscience vote for all of our members of the state parliamentary Labor Party. And just to make a general comment we’re delighted with the result because Western Australia has had law in this area since the 1980’s. We’ve been reviewing our assisted reproductive technology laws in recent years. There was a very important parliamentary committee in Western Australia a couple of years ago that recommended forward movement in respect of these issues because currently there is a ban on embryonic stem cell research. So we’re delighted that as a result of the work that we’ve been doing within our jurdisiction, within the parliamentary system, in terms of community debate that we can now go back, I can now go back as Premier and say that we can be part of a national solution that takes us forward in respect of embryonic stem cell research. That being said all of the members of our parliament will h! ave the ability to vote according to their conscience on this issue.

PREMIER BRACKS: That’s the case in Victoria, Michelle, a conscience vote.

JOURNALIST: [inaudible] dynamics of the consent mechanism.

PRIME MINISTER: Who are you talking to?

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister.


JOURNALIST: Could you just explain the donor consent mechanism and whether existing donors who have already given their consent to –

PRIME MINISTER: The effect of the, the effect of the change will be, or the variation from what was in the document you were given yesterday, is that a consent for research given by the people and through the processes outlined for research in one area is good for research in any area. Unless there’s an express reservation.

JOURNALIST: [inaudible]

PREMIER BEATTIE: They give their consent for research generally. The issue was simply to avoid it being given for a specific research project, like for example Alzheimers disease. Once you give your consent for research, then it applies generally for research, unless you specifically indicate you only want it to go to a particular area of research. You can understand the difficulty if you said that it had to be for a particular purpose. That creates difficulties in getting access.

JOURNALIST: [inaudible] on that point –

PREMIER RANN: The analogy – the analogy that I used this morning was that when you give – donate your body to medical science, you don’t stipulate generally that you only want them – the right knee looked at, not the left, or the left kidney, and not the right. So it just means it would be unworkable if we had a specific consent, rather than a general consent allowing a body to be used for medical research, or indeed an embryo.

PREMIER GALLOP: Can I just make the point on that, that of course as is the case with medical research generally, there are very strict ethical guidelines already in place in terms of the ability of a researcher to go ahead, so ethics committees are already in place dealing with those important questions. So the consent, plus the ethics committee’s deliberations, are required before the research goes ahead.

PRIME MINISTER: We’ll call it stumps after this.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister [inaudible] – concerns about the petrol indexation issue, and did you discuss – did you discuss [inaudible] it was on their wish list last night.

PRIME MINISTER: I think we’ll adjourn for tea.

JOURNALIST: But was it discussed – it was on the –

PRIME MINISTER: The matter was alluded to. Suffice it to say the States had a view, and I have a view – and never the views shall meet, and we’ll leave it at that. But I don’t think – I think it can be said we didn’t come to blows on the subject, and neither batsman stayed at the crease for very long either. Come on, I must go.

JOURNALIST: Have the states all agreed to legislate within the same timeframe, by June, and to pass their mirror legislation, and what would be the consequence if it didn’t pass one of the State Parliaments?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I can’t imagine that would happen. I have every expectation that the lady and gentlemen who joined me around the table today, committed themselves to this magnificent national outcome, will use all the authority of their great offices to ensure that the legislation is passed in accordance with the agreement. I don’t even contemplate the possibility of an alternative.

JOURNALIST: [inaudible] Mr Howard?

PRIME MINISTER: Beg your pardon?

JOURNALIST: Who will be on the committee?

PRIME MINISTER: Don’t know. Intelligent, able, noble citizens, approved by us.

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