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Sir Thomas Eichelbaum - GE Royal Commission Opens

Monday 7 August 2000

Delivered by Sir Thomas Eichelbaum


1. Tena Koutou, good morning, welcome to the opening of the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification.

2. As Chair, it is my pleasure to introduce the Commissioners: Dr Jacqueline Allan, Dr Jean Fleming, and Bishop Richard Randerson. Further information about us is available in printed form here today and on the Commission website, so I will say no more than that between us we bring to this task experience in medicine, ethics, science, law, geography and parenting.

The Commission’s brief

3. Our terms of reference are set out in the Warrant which you will also find in the Information Pack. Of necessity it is a lengthy legal document and we do not propose to take up time by reading it aloud. I will however record the two matters which we are required to look into and report upon:

3.1 The strategic options available to enable New Zealand to address, now and in the future, genetic modification, genetically modified organisms, and products;

3.2 Any changes considered desirable to the current legislative, regulatory, policy, or institutional arrangements for addressing, in New Zealand, genetic modification, genetically modified organisms, and products.

The Warrant defines the expressions genetic modification, genetically modified organisms, and product.

4. The terms of reference set out 14 headings under which we may make inquiries and receive representations. As you would expect they direct attention to the whole field of public interest in the subject matter; advantages and disadvantages, benefits and risks, cultural and ethical considerations, legal obligations, here and internationally, responsibilities arising under the Treaty of Waitangi, and economic considerations.

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5. There are many other aspects, but we will have said enough to indicate the scale and importance of the task, and the significance of the Inquiry. Significance to the community, significance on an international scale, because there is world-wide interest in the subject and the eyes of the world will be watching to see how New Zealand tackles the issues arising, as we are the first country, so far as we know, to set up an Inquiry of this kind.

6. The ultimate decisions of course will not be made by the Commission, it will be for Government to say what course New Zealand will follow; but this Inquiry is your opportunity, the public’s opportunity, to make your views known, and to debate the issues.

7. Whatever decisions are made ultimately, they may well be irreversible. It may be the only chance for New Zealand to tackle the issues in a comprehensive way, or at least the only one for a long time. So the opportunity must not be squandered. It would be sad indeed, if not disastrous, if time were taken up in petty squabbling, emotive disputes, or points scoring; or if the Inquiry was used as a platform for political purposes.

8. Let us make this clear: we are not the Government. We are not the Crown. We are not here to sell any product or point of view. We are the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification, not for Genetic Modification. We have been appointed as an independent body to look into and report on the issues, and we propose to preserve our independence. Except where a sufficient case for confidentiality is made, we will not receive evidence in private.

9. The Warrant requires that we consult with the people of New Zealand in a way that allows them to express their views clearly. Some already have strongly held opinions. We expect there will be firm, forthright submissions. Some people feel passionate about the issues. We hope to have a rational, civilised, focussed debate. We would like to think this can be achieved notwithstanding the existence of strong or passionate viewpoints. There will be no point in people shouting at one another, or at the Commission. Many have not yet committed themselves to any stance. They are entitled to the opportunity to do so.

Our work to date

10. Until recently the Commission has not been seen in public. But we have been busy. We have had to set up our office, engage staff and arrange our communications. To provide ourselves with a general background we commissioned a set of papers, which in appropriate cases have been peer reviewed, and will soon be available on our website. We have worked up the outline of a programme that will see our task through until 1 June 2001, when we are due to present what will necessarily be a long and detailed report.

Our hearing and consultation programme

11. A Commission of Inquiry is quite different from a Court of Law. Nobody is on trial. Subject to the basic requirements set out in the Commissions of Inquiry Act, and the directions given in the Warrant, we are entitled to fix our own procedure, and to gather our information and conduct our investigations in the way we think is most suitable. In carrying out our mandate to consult the public of New Zealand we wish to be as open as possible, and as inclusive as we can, giving everyone who wishes to present their views to us a fair and reasonable opportunity, although not necessarily by way of a personal appearance. Clearly there will be practical limitations; everything we would like to do, or people would wish us to carry out, will need to be accommodated within the limits of our resources, both of time and in physical terms.

12. Our general rule will be that our processes will be open. Our hearings will be in public. Written submissions will be available on our website. There may be particular cases where persons seek confidentiality, such as in relation to new inventions. If we consider such a ground has been properly established, those submissions will not be published on the website, and we may hear a person privately, or in a closed sitting, where the record is not made available publicly. Such instances, we stress, will be exceptional.

13. These Scoping Meetings will give an indication of how the Commission will proceed. With the help of the interested people and the general public we wish to address the subjects we have been set by the terms of reference. We have divided them into blocks, and with your help, will subdivide them further this week. We will proceed to divide our hearing time in a similar way, and devote a substantial period of time to each block of subjects. Following these Scoping Meetings, after any necessary refinement of the issues we will publish a timetable setting out the division of the subject matter and the dates when we will deal with each.

14. We will request people to address the subject matter, subdivided in the manner we have just indicated. In a trial in Court, one party presents a case and another presents an opposing case. We will not be proceeding in that way. This, we repeat, is not a Court. Of course there will be a range of conflicting viewpoints, and where that is so we expect to hear from all sides.


15. We will also announce the process for filing submissions, and the date by which they will be required.

16. Under Section 4A(1) of the Commissions of Inquiry Act, any person, which term of course includes organisations, who satisfies the Commission that such person “has an interest in the Inquiry apart from any interest in common with the public” shall be entitled to appear and be heard at the Inquiry. As stated in our Public Notice, we will hear applications under this provision on Thursday, 10 August in the Wellington District Court, starting at 9.30 a.m.

17. Those not granted “interested person” status under Section 4A(1) will still be entitled to file submissions with the Commission in written form (preferably in electronic format, but typed or handwritten ones will be accepted). Any further participation by such persons is a matter for the discretion of the Commission. We will let them know whether we would like a personal appearance as well, having regard in particular to the help the Commission believes it could receive by hearing that person or body. Such an appearance may involve cross-examination. The Commission has the power to summons witnesses.

18. Since there has been comment about this, we stress that the distinction between so called “interested persons” and the general public is not one the Commission has established. The same law applies to all Commissions of Inquiry and we are bound by it. We assure the public that their voice will be heard. “Interested person” may give the wrong impression, we know all of
you are really interested, but those happen to be the words of the Act of

19. All oral evidence given at our formal hearings in Wellington, Auckland and Christchurch will be recorded word for word, and the transcript will be placed on our website. Oral evidence will be given on oath or affirmation.

20. Where the Commission considers it appropriate there will be cross-examination of oral evidence. However, the Commission will reserve the right to control the scope and extent of cross-examination, and to avoid repetition.

21. No doubt many people will wish to place written submissions before the Commission. We should like to say now that we will be looking for quality in the submissions, rather than quantity. Repeat submissions, based on a common template, will be identifiable readily enough. The work of the Commission will not be helped by any who try to flood our website in that way. Should that occur, we will not hesitate to make it known publicly.

22. The procedure we are proposing to follow, of dividing the subject matter, means that some persons or organisations will wish to appear and make several separate submissions. In the case of those from outside Wellington, it may not suit them to come before us more than once. In appropriate cases, for example where our procedure leads to difficulty or hardship, we will try to accommodate those persons.

23. We will have some hearings in Auckland and Christchurch. We will also arrange less formal public meetings and consultations in a number of other places.

Consultation with Maori

24. The Warrant directs that the Commission is to consult and engage with Maori in a manner that specifically provides for their needs. Our first public meeting was a hui at Rotorua hosted by Te Arawa, especially to obtain views on the best process to achieve those ends.

25. For that purpose the Commission will meet with Maori at two national hui, one early in our programme, the other towards the end. In between, we will encourage Maori to have a series of regional hui throughout the country, to which Commission members may be invited. We understand the importance which Maori place on the issues arising, and wish to have every reasonable opportunity to hear those views in an appropriate setting. We will be mindful of the Crown’s responsibilities as a Treaty partner.

26. Of course Maori are entitled to participate in the public hearing programme in the same way as other members of the public.

27. Subject to any grants of confidentiality, written submissions presented in Te Reo Maori will be translated and placed on the website in both languages.

Final submissions

28. Once all the evidence has been received, it is the Commission’s tentative view that those who obtain “interested person” status should be given the opportunity of presenting a succinct closing submission. This would be by way of final summation at the end of the public hearing process, and would not include any further evidence. Public hearings (including any final summations) will conclude, at the latest, on 23 March 2001.

29. As noted, the Commission’s Report has to be presented no later than 1 June 2001. Our programme has been designed to achieve that target. We can see good reasons why the Commission should be directed to work to an early reporting date. Until the Commission has reported, and Government has made decisions, the future direction this country is to take regarding genetic modification issues is uncertain. Many important decisions are on hold. Some personal careers will be at a standstill. In the meantime, developments will continue to unfold rapidly around us, especially internationally. Information gathered by us may become irrelevant or obsolete if left too long. Some issues will go by default, if New Zealand does not reach timely decisions.

30. To achieve completion by due date, we will have to limit the time that can be allocated to any one topic, or to any person or organisation. Although there must always be room for flexibility, we will need to adhere to a tight timetable. With the co-operation of all involved, counsel, organisations and individuals, we believe we can achieve the task we have been set. We look forward to a co-operative and productive relationship with you all.

For more information:


Dalmuir House, 114 The Terrace, PO Box 3554, WELLINGTON
Phone: (04) 495 9151 Fax: (04) 495 9153

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