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Legislative Assembly for the ACT: 2003 Week 13 Hansard (26 November) . . Page.. 4632 ..

MS TUCKER (continuing):

While the government, for example, may refer to the Rio declaration on environment and development as an example of a cost-effective notion of the precautionary principle, as is incorporated in the Gene Technology Bill, we can see that a legal and scientific understanding of how the principle should be applied is not universally agreed on.

Indeed, Professor Jan McDonald from Griffith University, who spoke at the conference in Canberra, has questioned the usual construction of the principle, arguing that it would be better to articulate a principle that is positive and so is about accepting responsibility for the environment and any impact upon it, rather than simply ruling out the postponement of measures to prevent environmental harm.

Professor McDonald identifies as a real problem putting the decision making into the hands of science and expressly excluding consideration of economic and social costs, as this bill does. We ought not to locate true knowledge in science alone and exclude cultural concerns as illegitimate, given that we do not know what the implications will be of such far-reaching decisions as will be made by the Gene Technology Regulator. As members would be well aware, very strong arguments are being put within the scientific community that even science is not being brought into this decision making process in the way that it should and that much of the science is actually controlled by the industry that will profit from it.

In this context it is interesting to look at the Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle. It was drafted by an international group of scientists, government officials, lawyers and grassroots activists at Wingspread, Wisconsin, USA, in 1998 and was later endorsed by the United Nations Environment Program's governing council and has been adopted into many international environmental laws.

The group started from a position critical of risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis that gave the benefit of the doubt to new products and technologies which may later prove harmful and instead recommended preventative action when there is "reasonable concern"that human activity will harm the environment and threaten people and wildlife; in other words, shifting the burden of proof, insisting that those responsible for an activity must vouch for its harmlessness and be held responsible if damage occurs.

The Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle reads:

The release and use of toxic substances, resource exploitation, and physical alterations of the environment have had substantial unintended consequences on human health and the environment. Some of these concerns are high rates of learning deficiencies, asthma, cancer, birth defects and species extinctions; along with global climate change, stratospheric ozone depletion; and worldwide contamination with toxic substances and nuclear materials.

We believe existing environmental regulations and other decisions, particularly those based on risk assessment, have failed to adequately protect human health and the environment, as well as the larger system of which humans are but a part.

We believe there is compelling evidence that damage to humans and the worldwide environment is of such magnitude and seriousness that new principles for conducting human activities are necessary.

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